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Frequently Asked Questions

When did you develop your love for music?

From an early age, I can remember hearing music at home.  My mom, Margaret Goldston, who is also a composer, taught piano out of the home.  When I was young, I would go into the living room after school while my mom taught piano.  I would do my homework, nap, or just listen.  Sometimes I think I learned how to play via osmosis – I was always around during the lessons, so I just absorbed all of the information I could.

Also at home, we rarely had the television playing.  Instead we were always listening to music, mostly classical, from the radio and records. 

When did you begin your piano studies?

I had a few false starts with piano and did not really settle down to study until I was seven. It took discipline for me to stick with it.  It also was frustrating for me trying to practice because it seemed like each practice session became a lesson.  Now I realize that I was lucky to have the “teacher” always there at home.  I did eventually start taking lessons from a local college professor, just because I seemed to listen more to someone other than my parents.  Even though I was a pretty good kid, I guess I had a little rebelliousness in me like most kids do!

What music inspired you at an early age?

I was fortunate to have heard a lot of piano literature when I was young, so I always picked the best pieces:  the recital stoppers and contest winners, that I had heard all of the other students play.  Many students don’t have the opportunity to hear so much good music (and I admit, lots of bad music too!) unless they perform regularly or are in group classes.

Did your music studies expand beyond piano?

Yes, when I was in junior high and high school I played saxophone.  Then I was recruited to  play percussion in high school (I was an obvious choice, since with my piano background, I would be a “natural” on xylophone and bells).  Along with piano, I studied percussion in college and was in drum corps for a couple of summers.  Drum corps was an awesome experience, getting to be with so many talented musicians to put together an impressive show.  I still have very good friends from drum corps and we still go to watch contests each summer.

How did you discover your talent to compose music?

My mother always told me I should try composing because she said I would give her ideas and I should try to develop some of my ideas myself.  There was a composition contest in memory of Lynn Freeman Olson and, since he had been a friend of my mother’s, she wanted me to write a piece for it.  Finally I sat down and wrote my first piece, Night Train, and it won the contest for that level.  I was surprised at my success, and the piece was also published as part of the prize.  It was not until after a few years of writing and having a few pieces published that I came to FJH!

Where do you find inspiration for your pieces?

I listen to lots of music – mainly 19th and 20th century classical, and also popular, jazz, new age….just a lot of different kinds.  If I hear something that I like, I try to figure out why I like the piece and then recreate those sounds in my own music.  I also play through lots of piano music, the good and the bad, to get ideas.

Do you have any advice on composition for teachers and students?

Absolutely!  I have been very involved in student composition and regret that I did not do more until when I was younger! I have helped organize composition contests in Chicago, have judged many student compositions and have chaired the MTNA Composition Contest on both the state and regional division levels.  I have my students compose all the time, to reinforce theory concepts and to make learning more fun.

It’s good for a student to start with a source of inspiration:  a type of sound, a starting measure, a story or picture … anything!  Then come up with a theme so that the piece has some form and does not sound like a lot of disjunct ideas strung together.  Mimic sounds and forms of pieces you have heard or played, but also don’t be afraid to experiment as well.  The most important thing is to remember the piece and be able to play the same way twice in a row so you don’t forget it.  After you get the sounds you want, then record it and/or write it down.

What do you hope to provide though your compositions?

I try to compose pieces that are fun and motivating, with sounds that are new, refreshing and pleasant.  Practicing can be lonely and boring, so I try to write pieces that students will love to make learning more fun.  That’s why I think the first Fantastic Fingers books have been so successful – not only are they pieces fun to listen to, they are also fun to play!

What advice can you give young musicians?

Be sure to practice every day, even if it is just for a few minutes.  It is most important to practice after the lesson (when you would be most inclined to take a break!) so that you remember all of the points your teacher made in the lesson.  Also, pick a piece that you love and that you feel comfortable playing and memorize it so that you can always sit down and play something if someone wants to hear you play.  It does not have to be the hardest piece, just the piece that you enjoy the most and play well.  Lastly, you might want to learn a few pieces by ear and harmonize them with chords (especially Happy Birthday!) that are standards.  This will be one of the most valuable things you can learn that you will use throughout life.  Think about it:  in mid-life, will someone more likely ask you to diagram a sentence or to play Happy Birthday for a friend’s party???

Reprinted from PIANO NOTES, the FJH New Release Club Newsletter for Piano Teachers, Issue 164 (2003)