Q&A with Lisa Witt (Pianote Podcast #18)

Lisa Witt  /  Articles / Nov 15

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Hello and welcome to the Pianote podcast!

We’ve got a special show for you today because this is our very first Q&A episode. We sent out a questionnaire to all our members. Today, I’ll be reading through some of these questions and answering them.

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the Q&A.

Q: You were forced into piano lessons as a kid and, at your admission, hated them. What helped you fall in love with music again?

A: Initially, I wanted piano lessons. And I had asked for them because I loved music. So, the love for music was always there. It was the learning and work that I hated! 

Sam stands next to flipboard with words "Teacher Stuff", arms wide and frustrated. Lisa sits on desk with orange and notes and stationery, bored.
Sam teaches me weird theory rules (original lesson).

It was also partly, I think, not being understood in my learning style and my needs as a learner. I did not enjoy piano lessons — I would say probably 75% of the time, I REALLY didn’t enjoy them. But I loved music.

There was always something I could do in my piano lessons to make them my own, whether that was memorizing music and not reading the notes, or improvising, or figuring out how to play chords and my own songs. So, I learned how to make it work for myself.

Then later, once I developed that foundation and no longer had to take piano lessons, the craziest thing happened: I decided that I would stay in piano lessons and pay for them myself. My parents said, “You’re done, you got your Grade 8, it’s over,” and I said, “I’d like to continue.” And so I paid for my own lessons; it was crazy! 

So, I think a part of it is maturity too. As you get older, you realize that, yeah, work actually yields a result. It’s worth the time and effort. 

Q: How are you always so upbeat and positive? How do you do it?!

Haha! I would say the alternative of being upbeat and positive — for me, anyway, and I think I work in extremes—is being very miserable. 

Lisa in clean white room sitting on ledge with crystals.
Mental health is very important to me (original lesson).

It’s a conscious choice, I think, to bring that positivity. And I’m always sensitive to energy; when I walk into a room, I can generally get a feel for how everybody’s doing. And I feel responsible, in part, for keeping myself upbeat and influencing the positivity of a space. Because once you lift the mood and everybody’s happier, you feel better. And I really believe that positivity is a choice.  

So, things can be really difficult and you can still choose to embrace that there’s always something to be thankful for. That’s part of it — I work really hard at cultivating gratitude. I still get mad and I swear, I’m often totally rotten!

Q: As a mother and a music teacher, do you force your children to play the piano or any other musical instrument? Why or why not?

This is a fun question because I don’t! I have two sons. I tried with one of them and he was like NOPE, nuh-uh, not happening! 

The other one asks me sometimes, “Mommy, can I please have a piano lesson?” So I’ve been sitting down with him a little bit. And he recently told me he needs to quit school (he’s in Grade 1) so he can have enough time to practice! So, I’m not really sure what to do with him…

As a parent and as a music teacher, I know the importance of music and how good it is for children, their brains, and their development. But I also think that kids will have their own natural bents and tendencies. I loved music — I danced, I sang, I played on the piano. Not necessarily in a lesson, just at home. And if I saw those things in my kids, I would be, like, yup we’re doing this and we’ll find a way to make it work.

Lisa pouring wine on a counter. Kid climbs up on counter.
Kids can make scheduling piano practice…interesting (original lesson).

I don’t believe in forcing kids to learn something, but I also know the value of making non-negotiables. For me, my mom was like, okay, you love this, I see the potential and you’re asking for lessons. And when I started them, she would not let me quit. So the lesson was, you don’t quit. So, yes, you can say I was forced. And if I had a child who started, and I saw the potential, and they wanted to quit, I would probably be like no, you’re not quitting

And to be perfectly transparent, if my mom had let me quit, I would not be here today. Because it’s completely natural and normal for human beings to get tired, busy, and overwhelmed. There’s a lot going on. Practicing and learning something, no matter how we frame it, is still work. And no one really likes to work!

Lisa playing piano, hair angled towards camera. Unicorn stuffy in shelf in background.

So, it’s about learning the skills to stick with something. And I think that’s really, really valuable.

It’s tricky. It’s a really, really tricky decision to make.

Q: Do you try to play every day? And what do you do when on holiday or away from home to maintain piano focus?

A: I wish the answer was that I play every day or even that I try to play every day! But in recent years, I’ve kind of dropped that expectation on myself. If I had a specific goal, then I create a plan and make sure that I build consistency into it. But right now, I’m just enjoying the piano. So for me, it’s asking the question of, hey, if I sit down at the piano for 10 minutes, will I feel better? And that’s what brings me back to the piano more often than not.

When I go away on holiday, I just go on holiday! I just let my brain check out. It’s amazing. I haven’t taken a deep dive into the research but there is something to be said about working hard to learn something and then taking a step back. If you’re learning a new skill on the piano, and you go to sleep because you can’t do it, the next day you might wake up, sit down, and have it work! Your brain does things when you’re sleeping and when you take breaks. 

Lisa in checkered shirt sitting next to piano smiling. Sign behind says "YOU CAN PLAY PIANO."

And you need to understand that there’s a time and space for that. You won’t slide backwards because you took two weeks off. You’ll only slide backwards if you take two weeks off every two weeks for a long time! Even then, I’ve taken a year or two off and I’ve come back thinking I’ve forgotten how to do this; but slowly, surely, and steadily, my skills came back! So it can happen. You can lose some of your skills, but the muscle memory kicks in, and you’ll take those skills back. 

I guess the moral is: just take a break — it’s okay!

Q: When a song (or practice session) won’t come together, how do you stay enthusiastic?

A: You know, part of this is just understanding that there will be good days and difficult days. Not every day that you show up at the piano is going to be the same. And there’s really no way to control that. You can have the best attitude possible, but sometimes your brain and your hands won’t cooperate. 

So, I focus on just showing up. That’s the biggest challenge — showing up! And if I practice and it’s not working, and I’m frustrated, I have this list of things to do in my practice time. I’ll do them (tick, tick, tick!), even if I don’t feel like I’m successful. 

When a song isn’t coming together, you have to think about it differently. I might go listen to the song, because usually my ears help me more than I give them credit for. If it’s a coordination issue, I take it apart and I go back to practicing hands separately. 

Lisa sitting on piano holding sign that says MORE PRACTICE.

If I’m just stuck and it’s just too hard, I’ll go pick another measure. I think one of the biggest mistakes we make is believing that we must learn songs “in order.” But you can learn the first four bars, then go to the end of the song to do some of those bars. You don’t have to do it all lined up! 

And when you bring curiosity into your practice, you’ll find moments in songs where the combination of notes, how they sound, and how they feel under your fingers — it’s just great! I love this! So go find that. Spend some time in the parts of a song that feel good to you. That will often respark the enthusiasm.

And then, like I said, sleeping! Take a break. Go sleep. It’ll still be there for you tomorrow.

Q: What piece do you aspire to master on the piano?

A: Oh, that’s a great question! You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve been, like, I want to master this song on the piano because I usually just sit down and play for enjoyment. But I recently started back on some pieces by Chopin. There is definitely a nocturne and a waltz that I want to NAIL DOWN so I can just sit down and play them. 

Lisa in long black dress playing piano with sheet music. Violin and bass and scattered sheet music in background.

And the reason I want to do this is because I actually love those songs. Not because Chopin is this lofty goal — it’s quite an accomplishment to play a piece by him — but because I genuinely love the song. I love how it sounds, how it feels under my fingers. I love the nuance and the complexity of the piece. So when I think about that, it’s not like okay, I’m going to MASTER this song. It’s more: okay, this song might take me four years based on how often I’m practicing to master. But every time I sit down and work on it, I feel really good about it. 

So yeah, I’ll definitely say there are a couple of pieces by Chopin where I’m like, yes! I’m gonna get this! Which leads us to the next question…

Q: What are your go-to piano pieces that you play at home for your own enjoyment?

There are two things that I do when I sit down to play piano. One of them is that I’ll pull up a chord chart from Ultimate Guitar and then sit down, play, and sing. I love playing songs that I can be creative with, so maybe I’ll pick something upbeat and make it sad. Chill it out a bit. Or maybe I’ll do the reverse. That’s my sing-and-play time and I love it.

Then, I have all these Royal Conservatory books from when I had to take classical lessons, and I love opening those up for a few reasons. So for Royal Conservatory, I used to learn three or four songs, representing different eras, and those were your songs for the year. (It wasn’t like you got to learn a new song every week.) So I played those songs so many times and now, more years than I care to admit later, when I look at them, I go, “Oh, I think I may have played this before!” And the weirdest thing happens. It’s like my fingers start to remember. And it feels so good to have that muscle memory kick in.

Lisa playing keyboard in living room decorated with plants in front of a fireplace.

The other thing is I LOVE playing Bach. It’s crazy, but my brain is always go, go, go thinking about a million things. But when I play Bach, there are usually a few melodies happening in different directions at the same time. You can’t be thinking about your problems when you’re playing Bach, so it’s VERY therapeutic to sit down and work through one of his pieces. I always refer to it as a brain massage. So that’s what I work on when I’m at home.

Q: How do you keep a balance in your life? (Ie. boundaries between professional and personal.) Especially since music is such a personal experience but it’s also your profession.

A: It’s very challenging. And I think there’s an element of vulnerability and transparency that I’ve just had to accept because I’m sharing music, my journey with music, how I learn music, the things I’m good at, and being honest about the things that I’m not good at. So, it’s less about boundaries when it comes to this.

The boundaries come into play when I have so many things I want to do (so much “work” to do), that it’s difficult to turn that off at the end of the day and focus on family and myself. And that’s a matter of making a choice: you need to have discipline to learn music the way you need to have discipline in having boundaries and balance in your life. 

Lisa playing keyboard on picnic blanket on mountaintop with landscape behind her. Cameraman facing Lisa.
I love finding new places and beautiful spots! (original lesson)

When it comes to being a musician and sharing that part of myself, I remember that it’s not about perfection, it’s about why I do it. Why do I play piano, write songs, and sing? And it’s because it’s where I belong: in those moments. So, I feel like my mission is to create safety for people to share what they love.

Again, it’s not about putting something perfect into the world. It’s about sharing that you’re working on something, that you’re enjoying music because it feeds your soul. That’s what I try to bring to it. There doesn’t really need to be a boundary — it’s just who I am and it’s how I show up in the world. It then becomes easy to share those personal experiences.

Q: What are your hobbies outside of music and work? 

A: Outside of music, I love to ride horses. And I’m usually at the barn three or four times a week! 

I traded my TV time for horse time. I used to, at the end of the day, make dinner, take care of the kids, and then be like, I’m just gonna watch a show for an hour or two. Then I thought, well, why don’t I spend that hour doing something that fills me up instead of something that just offers nothing? I realized that I loved horses and it’s been a while since I’ve spent time there. So that’s what I do. 

I also love being in the mountains. I have a Jeep and I like to drive mountain roads, go off-road, and find new places and beautiful spots to just spend time. I’d say those are my main two hobbies outside of music and work. 

Oh and the gym! I hate the gym but I go there. I’d say it’s a hobby but it’s a lifestyle choice. I found that it feels good to be strong. And it’s a great place to send energy that is not serving me during the day. All my frustration I take to the gym and leave it there. It’s been really good for me.

Q: Can I learn to play well without sight reading?

A: YES. I learned to play quite well without sight reading. (And as I shared earlier, I’m only figuring sight-reading out now.) I was able to get through music — I played with bands, wrote my own music for the piano, and I taught piano lessons for years. 

You can learn how reading notes work. Like, it’s logical and it’s basic. But to take that information into practice when you’re trying to play is really challenging. So if it’s not your strong suit, that’s okay. 

Lisa standing up covering up sheet music. Charmaine (short black hair) playing piano in suit trying to read sheet music.
Teaching a classical pianist how to play without sheet music (original lesson)!

That’s the thing to pay attention to because there are different learning styles. I’ve noticed with piano players that there are those that just love their notes. Like, you give them sheet music and they’re like YES! This is where I’m meant to be. And then there are those that are like me, that are like: No way, this is not helping me! Can I hear that song one more time? And then they go play it. 

There’s nothing wrong with either side of that equation. So whatever your natural tendency is, nurture that and spend time with it! If you’re really good at playing by ear, why wouldn’t you celebrate that instead of beating yourself up over not being able to sight-read?

Q: Looking back at your musical journey, would you change any decision today if you could? Such as not taking childhood lessons, not making it a profession, becoming a stage artist instead of teaching etc. And why?

Ooh, that’s a good question. Honestly, I would have practiced more. That applies to both singing and piano.

The weird thing is, I was naturally musical enough to get away with doing very little. Which is unfortunate because I didn’t ever push myself and apply myself with the energy and intensity that I would have as an adult. Now, I know how to work. Now, I know how to put all my energy into something. I look back and think, Lisa you had nothing to do all day, why didn’t you get more out of your practice time? Where could you have taken this? But I don’t know if I necessarily have regrets in any other area.

I had a really interesting shift one day when I was trying to write songs, and I kept feeling like I wasn’t good enough, that I was never good enough. My piano playing wasn’t good enough, and my singing wasn’t good enough, and my writing wasn’t good enough…and I just wanted to perform. I just wanted to sing, to play, to be on a stage. I just wanted to share. 

Lisa and Sam on the piano. Sam is playing with a twisted up face. Lisa has hands and mouth open like "hey."
Learning how to solo! (original lesson)

And alright, you’re either going to lose your mind or settle down and accept the fact that you do this because you love it. You’re not doing this to write the next hit song. You’re not doing this to become a famous pop star. You’re doing this because it feeds you. So when I made that shift, it didn’t matter anymore if I didn’t pursue a career on the stage or as a touring musician or any of those things. I let go of control and just settled into the process. 

And the crazy thing is that the journey led me right here with Pianote! And it’s really special to be able to share and help other people who might feel stuck or frustrated like they are not good enough. To go, Hey! Yes, you can do it. Here’s a way to approach it, here’s a different way to think about this. 

Lisa at piano holding up hands against background set of clouds and unicorn and fairylights.

So, I’ve lost nothing. I’m able to help other people accomplish their goals and I’m still able to create my own music and express myself and I’m confident that the feeling that the joy that I get sitting in my living room completely alone singing and playing is the same level that I would get on a stage doing it in front of ten thousand people MINUS the  stage fright. So that’s how I landed there.

Q: What would you consider your epiphany moment in your musical career and why?

I would say what I just talked about. That was definitely my epiphany moment. You’ve never arrived, nobody’s ever perfect, just enjoy it. Focus on what part of this feeds you and then keep doing that.

Q: Have you written any of your own songs and if not, why not?

Yeah I’ve written lots of songs! If you search hard enough, you can find them out there on the internet…

And I’m still writing! I’m working on a project and I’m going to share that music soon. I can’t help but write. I love words, and I love melody, and I love music. So putting those things all together is so cool! 

Circling back to the balance and boundaries of musicianship and personal life: if anything’s gonna blur those lines, I feel like songwriting is. But that’s okay! I would encourage absolutely everybody to write music even if you feel like you’re not good at it. No, if you can put some chords and words together and create a melody, it’s so therapeutic. It doesn’t matter, you don’t have to share it with anybody if you don’t want to. Just do it for yourself and see what happens!

Lisa in dark room standing at white keyboard sticking out her tongue.

Q: How do you keep yourself motivated?

A: Honestly, it’s been really up and down. I don’t always feel motivated. It comes back to those lessons I learned as a kid. I won’t always want to practice. I won’t always want to work on my art. I can choose not to, or I can choose to. And then I pay attention to how I feel after I spend that time doing it. 

Lisa smiling behind the piano.

Lately, it’s “10 minutes.” At the end of the day when I’m sitting down, and tired, and before I spend time with the horses, I ask myself: Hey Lisa, if you sit down at the piano for 10 minutes, how would that feel? And I’d probably feel good. So I sit down and play for 10 minutes and sure enough, I notice that I’m more relaxed, that I’m feeling a general sense of happiness. 

Those good feelings I experience after a practice I connect to because that’s what I will think about the next time I don’t feel motivated. I’d say nobody ever regrets practicing. Like, you’re not going to sit down and practice and think gee I really wish I never did that! There’s gonna be SOME kind of benefit whether it feels small or big, but practice is always a good idea.

Well, those were really good questions! Thank you to everyone who took the time to submit questions.

Now, I would love to hear your stories! So, if I talked about something that resonated with you, I want to hear about it. Comment on our YouTube video. Let’s start a conversation because I think we have so much to learn from each other.

Thank you again for hanging out with me today and I’ll see you next time!

Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for 19 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others.

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