backyard garden

Before and after

Recently I found a 2020 photo of our backyard prior to our garden revamp. Crappy lawn, no plants, no wildlife.

Today, it’s a veritable jungle with birds flitting about and bees bumbling flower to flower. A complete transformation…thanks to untold hours spent working our butts off.

Testing out planter bed height in April 2020.
A few (hundred?) hours of work later…

That got me thinking about before/afters from other projects. All required time, energy, and commitment. Some also required sweat and swearing at inanimate objects.

Eyeing the rearview mirror, they all feel worth it.

A few of them:

  1. Building out our empty Sprinter van into a mobile adventure rig.
  2. Starting a blog in 2013 at the start of our van trip, now up to 200 posts (plus another 100 newsletters to boot).
  3. Physical adventures like bike tours with Chelsea, mile by mile. In total, almost a year of fond (and hard!) memories of bicycle journeying together.
  4. Toiling away on a business that allows us lots of freedom.
  5. My studious phase the past two years: Learning to speak Italian. Hundreds of hours of piano practice. Notebooks full of drawings…

So many times where I was tired or unmotivated, but did it anyway. My current self thanks that tired-but-doing-it past self!

Blank van slate in 2013…gulp.
Enroute to Idaho in August with all the gear.

I see three common threads for all these before/afters:

1.   They involved creating something via perseverance and effort (memories included) vs. one-off enjoyment.

2.  All of them are experiences or facilitate future experiences (e.g. van trips, hanging in our garden, playing music).

3.  All involved building a skill.

Also, in no way were they fun all the time. Sifting rocks from free top soil during our garden project comes to mind…sigh.

All these goals took on a life of their own. I didn’t intend to befriend blog readers or fall in love with piano and bikepacking… It’s all blossomed from having enough fun (and being stubborn) long enough to create a habit.

A reminder that we often become passionate about something after we’ve invested energy in it.

Similar to asking, “what are the decisions that most positively affected my life,” I think looking at the traits of our most satisfying before and afters is a useful lens for guiding our lives.

Pretending there isn’t another giant climb right around the bend in Spain, 2019.

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Tom Jobim portrait

January Portrait Challenge, Week 2

Alexis Ffrench

My January portrait challenge continues! I know it was tough to wait an entire week to see who I’d draw next, but your wait ends now! Portrait party time. (Check out the first round here.)

I still haven’t made the time to actually study how to draw portraits. I’m just diving in. However, I’m finding that my eye for proportion is developing from just 30 minutes a night.

My focus this week was shading and blending. If I say so myself, there’s some improvement happening.

Still so many things I notice I’m messing up, but 1) I don’t want to spend hours a day on this and 2) I want as many repetitions as possible, not perfection.

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In order, these portrait subjects are:

  1. Ernesto Nazareth – Brazilian composer from 19th century and a fine handlebar mustache wearer.
  2. Alexis Ffrench – contemporary British composer and pianist.
  3. Tom Jobim – Brazilian bossa nova composer (can you tell I have a Brazilian piano teacher?)
  4. Florian Christl – contemporary German composer and pianist. Love his song Vivaldi Variation!
  5. Clara Schumann – brilliant 19th century pianist and composer.
  6. Víkingur Ólafsson – contemporary Icelandic pianist with SKILLZ. His interpretations of songs are fabulous (check Bach’s Prelude in G Major out.)
  7. Claude Debussy – Impressionist French composer with a strong mustache game, but weird shaped head.


Yann Tiersen portrait

January Portrait Challenge, Days 1-11

I suck at portrait drawing for two main reasons: 1) it’s par with rocket science difficulty-wise and 2) I’ve put exactly three hours of practice into it in my entire life.

Enough! January is my month to go from “is that a person?” to “hey, only the ears and chin are weird!” (Here’s week 2.)

How? I’m taking 30 minutes a day to draw a portrait. To make it easy to think of subjects, I’m drawing composers whose piano songs I’m learning, as well as performers I admire. (Like Otis Spann, a Chicago blues pianist.)

My goal is to improve my shading skills and generally work on perspective. I’m looking past my absolutely mediocre skills with optimism thanks to a Skillshare video I watched that said, “you don’t discover your talent to draw. You develop it.”

Chelsea, always helpful, pointed out that drawing a bunch of dead white guys from past centuries is straight-up odd. Nice to have feedback to keep me from getting too strange, I suppose.

DISREGARDED. I shall soldier on in all my weirdness!

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BTW, I know my first one isn’t a portrait…I decided to go full formal drawing after the 1st. This isn’t an art school dissertation, alright?! Sheesh.

This first round of portraits includes:

  1. Louis Armstrong – I’m learning What a Wonderful World
  2. Ludovico Einaudi – the esteemed/maligned modernist Italian composer. (Learned a bunch of his songs.)
  3. Otis Spann – badass Chicago blues pianist
  4. Franz Liszt – the brilliant 20th century virtuoso and composer (I’m working on his Consolations.)
  5. Martha Argerich – incredibly talented Argentinian pianist.
  6. Lang Lang – the flamboyant Chinese pianist.
  7. John Legend – American singer and songwriter.
  8. Chris Martin – lead singer for Coldplay.
  9. Erik Satie – the very quirky Impressionist/modern French composer.
  10. Yann Tiersen – French composer of the Amelie soundtrack, which has a few songs I’m learning.
  11. Chopin (no first name needed!) – I’m learning a bunch of his preludes and other pieces.

January Artist Portraits, Day 1-11

Here’s to the amateurs

Beethoven bad portrait
Early drawing efforts in an old notebook my mom gave me.

In today’s full-tilt culture, amateur often carries a negative meaning. If a hobby doesn’t morph into a monetized side hustle, what’s the point?

Take drawing, for example. I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw something beyond stick figures. To test the waters, I’ve sketched almost every night this year. Then I text a photo of my creation to my college roommate, Eric, who is doing the same.

I’m a total noobie. Eric, a long-time artist, is amazing. The contrast between our drawings is, errrr, obvious…

But you know what? It doesn’t matter! We crack each other up, share moments from our daily lives, and flex our drawing muscles in the the process. I’m improving, slowly but steadily.

It’s like getting a cardio workout while playing basketball: if you’re having fun, it doesn’t feel like a w.o.r.k.o.u.t. Try feeling that way during solo wind sprints.

Amateurs have it better

The word amateur has Latin roots in “love.” In both French (amateur) and Italian (amatore) it’s not about skill, but love and passion.

Compare that to the stress of professionals. I’ve read about pianists whose nerves are so bad they throw up before performances! I may get some nerves while playing for friends, but I tend to keep my dinner down.

Historically, the amateur was considered to be the ideal balance between pure intent, open mind, and the interest or passion for a subject. The gentleman scientists (think Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin) were amateurs in the best sense of the word, following their curiosity whichever way it went.

Those guys set the bar high, but they didn’t start out discovering gravity or evolution. Initially they looked at falling apples and studied mollusks.

Me? I study dinosaur mobility.
(Every T. Rex hates the sit and reach test.)

Why is art different?

What I find fascinating is that people spend their time on so many activities where they’re distinctly amateur without feeling a pressure to make money. Chess tournaments, local 5k running races, strumming the guitar. Few people get paid for those hobbies.

But creating physical ART?! No way, dude: that’s a waste of time. Maybe it’ll be worth it if I open an Etsy store or sell an NFT?

PFFFFT. I enjoy drawing (and writing this blog, playing piano and so on) because they’re satisfying and fun creative outlets, not a source of income. I don’t have to think about marketing, customer acquisition cost, or…

Sorry, I drifted off with all that boring business crap. NONE of which I have to do as an amateur!

The next time you’re going deep on a hobby and someone asks when you’re turning it into a business, be proud of your amateurishness. Remember, nothing wrecks an enjoyable hobby like turning it into work.

Whoa, what happened to Amelie’s eyes? DOESN’T MATTER, I’m an amateur. BOOM.
Amelie, take 2. Ignore the (amateurish) watercolor seep through… Still having fun!

Creating a Solid Piano Practice Routine

Practice with a view during a van trip. Does traveling with a piano mean I’m obsessed?

In June 2020, Chelsea surprised me with a thoughtful birthday gift: a digital keyboard. Starting from scratch, I’ve managed to progress from “where the hell is middle C?” to “hey, this is going somewhere!”

When a reader (hi Kim) recently asked about my piano practice routine, I adapted my notes into this blog post. If you want to learn how to play or feel aimless/bored with your current piano practice, read on.

To develop my routine, I spent hours reading online, watching YouTube videos, and testing paid courses. I also received feedback from a piano instructor to help fine-tune things (and have since added live lessons – link skips to my piano teacher’s info) after 10 months of self-guided study. Skip to those resources if that’s what you are looking for.

Before we jump into it, let me start by bragging establishing credibility, as well as showing what is possible. Thanks to consistent daily practice, in ~7 months, I’m now capable of doing the following:

  • Read sheet music (albeit slowly), including chords. Update July ’21: I can now sight read in all 12 keys.
  • Play ~20 songs up to ABRSM grade 6 – pop, classical, jazz, some Christmas tunes…
  • Play minor and major triads (chords) in all 12 keys, plus their inversions.
  • Play common chord progressions in all keys (and recognize key signatures) – this makes learning new pop songs FAR easier.
  • Play all 12 major scales as well as their relative minor scale. 
  • Play the harmonic and melodic minor scales in all keys, plus the modes (such as Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian, etc).
  • Perform harmonic analysis (i.e. diagram the key and chord progressions, which makes learning songs far quicker)
  • Recognize that I have SO much more to learn…and also feel excited about my progress.

While I might specialize more someday, my current goal is the general ability to play classical, pop, or jazz piano songs, plus improvisation skills. Here is my approach to get there.

Even Adults Can Learn to Play the Piano

I talked about learning how to play for years. *insert excuses* Learning to play a new instrument in my late 30s sounded haaard.

All I can say is just start playing. Get a cheap digital keyboard (and headphones like these to save your marriage). Practice consistently. Reap the rewards.

Ten minutes of practice per day is 60 hours per year. Thirty minutes is 180 hours! I’d wager that you can find 10-30 minutes each day to learn a new skill. Trade some social media or Netflix time for piano. Your future self will thank you.

My Daily Piano Practice Routine

I aim for 30 minutes minimum per day of practice. My ideal is a one-hour session, which provides time for fundamentals plus practicing repertoire. (<–Music lingo. I sound so professional.)

Here’s what I do.

Warm-up (all played with a metronome at a comfortable, no-mistakes pace). A few minutes of each of the below:

  1. A few minutes of aural interval identification using the free website Teoria.
  2. Hanon exercises – seemingly everyone recommends these for developing dexterity and finger strength. They felt alien (/impossible) at first, but helped me a lot and are a great warmup. (Note: I don’t do these as frequently now that I’m spending more time on scales.)
  3. Scale practice – Each day I pick one key (e.g. C) and play a bunch of scale variations: major, minor, harmonic and melodic minor, blues, and all seven modes (Ionian, Doran, Phyrgian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian). Here’s a chart for correct fingering position across multiple octaves. (Stoked on scales? Jump to how to supercharge your scale practice.)
  4. Arpeggio practice – Arpeggios appear in SO many songs. The one in Fur Elise inspired me to practice them every day and I went from fumbling around incoherently to playing them smoothly and (relatively) quickly.

    Don’t repeat my mistake: get the fingering position right – white key position (e.g. D major) is different from the black keys (e.g. A flat). Here’s a correct breakdown.
  5. Octaves practice. Always with a metronome!
  6. Chords practice – Practicing chords and inversions makes learning songs far easier – muscle memory for the win. I dig these two methods:
    • Practice chord shapes and playing them simultaneously per this Pianotes YouTube video. (Her channel is fantastic.) If you know nothing about chords, watch the entire video series.
    • Pick a key signature and play a progression (e.g. in D major,  I-vi-V-IV, or D, bm, A, G). Play a broken chord with your left-hand and the full chord or inversion with your right.

      Start slooow, like 50 bpm slow. It felt impossible at first, but after two months, I could play this literally with my eyes closed. Watch this Pianotes Youtube video to see what I mean.
  7. Sight-reading practice – who doesn’t want to walk up to a piano, flip through a random book of music, and start playing away? #pianogoals This felt IMPOSSIBLE at first, but after a few months, I could sight read easy pieces in all 12 keys!
    • The key to sight-reading proficiency is the consistent practice of easy (to you) songs with lots of volume. Rather than finding endless new music, I use Sight Reading Factory, which generates infinite options for sight-reading. More details below! For chord sight reading practice, I love Update July ’21: A year in, I can now sight read chords without looking at my hands. Keep practicing, progress happens.

Warmup done. Time to play songs! Here’s my approach:

  1. Avoid wasting time on difficult pieces that stretch you TOO far. According to Liberty Park Music, aim for learning 1-2 pieces per week given 15-30 min per practice session (on repertoire). That’s ~1 hour of deliberate practice to learn a beginner song. 
  2. Learn songs one hand at a time, then combine left/right hands.
  3. Play slowly and with a metronome. A speed allowing for zero (or very few) mistakes is ideal.
  4. Learn one musical “phrase” at a time (say 2-4 bars). Smaller chunks of info stick better in our brains.
  5. When mistakes start happening, it’s time to a) slow down or b) take a break/quit for the day.
  6. Dream a little! I have a goal list of harder pieces, but avoid beating my head against them.

Infinite techniques exist beyond this. However, we don’t need to get fancy. Build a bulletproof foundation and launch from there. Even professionals practice using the above methods (modified for their needs, of course).

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If I Did It Again

If I started again, I’d modify two key aspects of my approach:

  1. Learn basic music theory out of the gate to allow quickly understanding a song’s structure rather than simply memorizing each note/chord. This makes learning songs SO much faster.
  2. Play easier songs. I wanted to play “hard” songs because they sound more beautiful. (Ok, I still do.) This resulted in less-efficient practice on relatively difficult songs that were above my pay grade. More on this below.

Piano Tools and Resources

What specific tools do I use? Read on!

  1. Sight-reading proficiency
    • For basic note recognition: the Notes Teacher app
    • Sight-reading practice:
      • Sight Reading Factory – SO helpful. Only $35/year and my preference for simultaneous treble/bass line practice.
      • Sight Reading Trainer (free and excellent for chord practice with live feedback if you plug a digital piano into a computer)
  2. Music theory
    1. The Really Useful Piano Poster – lists common scales and chords for all 12 keys. I put it on the wall behind my piano.
    2. For ear training and basics, I enjoyed a (free) Berklee School of Music class on Coursera called Developing Your Musicianship.
    3. For all the music theory goods, Jason Allen’s zero-to-hero music theory course on Skillshare is an accessible, complete course adapted from his college courses. Highly recommended.
  3. Programs and additional services
    1. Musescore – access to a huge database of sheet music for a few bucks a month.
    2. Liberty Park Music – a progressive series of classes, all taught by classically-trained pianists. Also, a great way to survey the work of different composers.
    3. Piano With Jonny – a fantastic way to learn blues and jazz piano. Fully comprehensive if you’re just starting out. His energy is contagious!
    4. Playground Sessions – a comprehensive course complete with software for learning the piano. I used this a lot, especially initially.
    5. Live Online Lessons (update 4/16/2021): After 10 months of solo effort, I added live online lessons to the mix. My teacher is a Brazilian named Antônio Boabaid, a performing classical pianist who is fantastic. I can’t BELIEVE how helpful his advice on technique and practice methods is.
      Drop him a line! (No benefit to me.) His Whatsapp is +55 48 9181 9164 and you can see his piano skills here on YouTube. Beyond the actual instruction, he’s affordable, friendly, and fun to work with.

Time to Get Started

All I can say is this: if you’ve ever thought about playing piano, start now. Learning to play is one of the most satisfying projects I’ve tackled in a long time and I look forward to many more years of honing my skills and creating beautiful music.

Here’s to taking the leap and getting started. Our future selves will thank us for the time we put in now!

Bonus Info

For more detailed info on sight-reading, turbocharging scale practice, and repertoire practice techniques, read on!

Learning to Read Music

When I started seven months ago, I couldn’t read sheet music or play anyyything. I read music like a kid learning to read Dr. Seuss: “T…he THE caaaa…t CAT.” It felt impossible…until it wasn’t.

Now I can recognize chords (which I’d equate to words vs. individual letters). That’s evolving to musical phrases (sentences) and SOMEday I’ll be able to play relatively complex songs off the cuff.

Related to that, plus other info, here is paraphrased advice from an instructor at Liberty Park Music:


  • The key with sight-reading is continuity and volume. Read a lot and practice keeping the momentum up even if you start missing notes.
  • Gather a lot of music that’s significantly easier than the music you’re capable of playing (even as easy as children’s learning pieces). Spend 5-10 minutes at the beginning of each practice session sight-reading through it.
  •  Set a metronome to a relatively slow tempo, and try to stick with the metronome count, even if you start flubbing notes. You can go back and re-read one or two times, but after that, you’re starting to learn the music, so it’s time to move on.

Playing Scales

If you want to supercharge your scale speeds, the “3-Speed Scale Exercise” is fantastic:

  • For this exercise, choose a slow metronome speed, say between 60-70bpm. You’ll first play a two-octave scale in 8th notes against that beat. 
  • Then, decrease your note value to triplets, playing a three-octave scale. 
  • Finally, drop your note value one more time to 16th notes (so, 4 notes per beat), and increase your octave count to 4. 
  • Start low on the keyboard so that by the time you get to playing four octaves of 16th notes, you’re not flying off the top of the keyboard. You can play any scale like this, and as you get better simply increase the metronome count.
  • Another nice thing about this exercise is that not only does it give you a stepwise method of increasing your speed, it also teaches you rhythmic control at slower speeds, which is often underrated. We have such an inclination to play fast all the time at the piano, but part of what separates the great from the less great when it comes to piano playing is control and precision at slower speeds as well as higher ones.  

Repertoire Practice

  • Finding the right level of difficulty to keep you improving your skills while not overwhelming your capabilities can be challenging, especially if you’re essentially doing things on your own. In general, you should aim for a blend of repertoire difficulty, but you should never let yourself get stuck on something that’s too challenging.
  • Collegiate piano students learn 1-2 movements per week of (relative to their skills) medium difficulty repertoire. Until you’re a little more comfortable with judging the potential difficulty of a piece, you’ll want to give preference to a more manageable difficulty level.
  • To help you know if you’re on track at a good difficulty level, you should be able to learn at a rate of about 1-2 pieces per week with an average of 4 days of practice at 15-30 min per practice session (on repertoire). I’d recommend aiming for a difficulty level that allows you to achieve this rate, instead of concentrating for a longer period on something harder. 
  • DO have a list of “goal” pieces. These are pieces that you really want to be able to play that are probably too difficult for you to learn efficiently at this time. This will give you a long-term set of goal trajectories, which can help you focus on what you work on now.

And that…is truly the end. Best of luck in your piano endeavors!