An adult beginning piano student helps to shape his musical journey

When a newbie knocks on my door, not knowing how to read music, but is starving for a connection to the great “Classical” piano masterworks, I have to figure out a way to engage his interest in the earliest phase of learning without losing him along the way.

One approach is to go the “method” book route which can be stultifying for teacher and pupil alike. Another is to hybridize the journey, and not commit the fledgling to ONE-track learning that often ends up in a despairing ditch!

Using “Peter” as a “classic” example, I started him in the basic FABER Primer Piano Adventures, just because I liked the introductory black key duets which were within his easy reach. These afforded a landscape to explore “singing tone” production (supple wrist/relaxed arms) and dynamic variance, while imbuing a fundamental “singing pulse.”

Following notes floating in space, (not yet on the staff) taught step and skip relationships, with finger numbers assisting, but not yet associated with MIDDLE C, the death knell of most method-driven materials.

The duet form, wholly expressed on black notes and framed in lovely harmony through the teacher “Secondo,” (part) kept Peter engaged, until we proceeded onward.

Naturally, the Faber path eventually led to fixed five-finger positions springing from MIDDLE C, so while we sampled a few of these beginner pieces, TRANSPOSITION became a mandatory ADD-ON–making the parallel minor a defining option.

As an aside I hand-picked “Midnight Ride,” in duet form from Faber’s Older Beginner Accelerated Piano Adventures not adhering, again to any fixed method-oriented material. This particular piece was quite engaging so I extracted it, as well as a Minuet or two from the same source.

(I sent the student secondo parts that I recorded to you tube, first in slow tempo followed by a faster rendering) In this one, I recorded 3 tempos using a metronome.

Back to Five-Finger positions and transposing

Parallel minors introduce a mood change, so lowering the third of a five-finger position stimulates the student’s vivid imagination. (while introducing a flat into the musical universe)

Though letter-naming is synchronized with a stream of five-finger based pieces, teaching solfeggio side-by-side with a knowledge of the musical alphabet is pertinent.

It proved especially useful when Peter was asked to “transpose” his pieces to more adventurous locations. (i.e. D E F# G A or A B C# D E, or F A Bb C D) By then he was not deprived of learning to alter notes in sharp or flat directions, while he easily memorized do, re, mi, fa, sol….before adding la, ti, do. (He would move the DO to different locations as he played his short five-finger pieces in various “keys.”)

The problem with most method books is that they fixate on white notes for too long, keeping a student in a narrow geographic universe, thereby increasing anxiety about stepping out into an integrated world of blacks and whites. (See my post: )

A Better Route

For Peter, having to learn an adjustable “center of gravity” with each new tonality propelled him toward his next “integrated” adventure:

Dozen a Day gymnastics. (Edna Mae Burnham)

“Walking and Running” in Book 1, afforded more opportunities to transpose through the Circle of Fifths, though pentascales (five-note positions) would not reveal all accidentals (sharps in particular) in a full-fledged 8-note scale.

Dozen a Day Walking running and hopping

Of greater significance was his practicing a singing tone LEGATO and then snipping it into staccato (short detached notes) within proportioned rhythm changes from quarters to 8ths to 16ths.

Given his unique physical talents, he easily slipped into 32nds.

Peter has the gift of fine motor skills and coordination so I refused to impede him from advancing his own journey according to his abilities. A fixed “method” book, or one-size-fits-all instruction would not have worked for him.

In the repertory realm, I found five-finger pieces in Faber’s Developing Artist Series, Elementary, that offered short one-page Classical selections that could be played in parallel keys (Major and minor) keeping Peter in touch with sharps and flats.

“Melody” by Beyer, is especially beautiful, attaching a lovely teacher “arpeggiated” Secondo in broken chords. The student simultaneously plays a broken chord pattern in the bass that lends itself to “blocking” in the early practicing phase. The duet scoring is particularly full, harmonically rich and satisfying.

melody by Beyer p. 1

(Here, Peter and I collaborate in the MAJOR key of G, though we easily transposed the piece to G minor by lowering the third, B, to Bb)

I strongly believe that five-finger positions have pedagogical relevance in early study because of their springboard value in teaching the legato singing tone, and providing transposition opportunities.

In the solo universe, Peter worked on a Minuet in G by Reinagle that contained an F# in the bass. He easily transposed it to G minor.

Minuet by Reinagle

At the 6th-month juncture of his studies, Peter routinely warms up with Dozen a Day in various transpositions, adding the HOPPING exercise in parallel thirds (staccato) advancing from quarters through 8ths to 16ths. (in Forte–BIG, and piano, soft) Scales have been added as I note farther down in this posting.

For Sight-reading and transposing I use Snell and Ashleigh
Fundamentals of Piano Theory

This was a first integrated sight-reading and transposition experience for Peter adding this material. Besides Parallel Major and minor transpositions, the concept of the Relative minor was woven in.


For more note reading practice, (and teaching use of ROTATION) I selected the following two studies by Leo Barenboim (No. 8) and (No. 6) by Y. Chernavskaya

Study 8, integrates descending five finger positions in various keys, so these “shifts” advance coordination skills by nursing “rolling” motions through groups of notes. In the Theory realm Peter applies his knowledge of Major and minor pentascales to organize his learning process.

Study No. 8 by Birnbaum

Study 6, provides another opportunity for rotational practice through every group of three notes, while offering a parallel minor playing.

Study no. 6 by Chernyavskaya

Peter reached beyond five-finger positions at the 3rd-4th month juncture of study at first playing one octave scales in C, G, and D, but quickly he progressed to 2 octaves and more.

Here he is practicing a one-octave scale in parallel and contrary and motion (4th months)

With his advancement to playing two or more octaves, he routinely organizes his scales by practicing separate hands slowly, then marking out common fingering points, and bridge over the octave crossings. Such spot practicing has nudged him along to fluency in moderate tempo in legato and staccato. (Exposure to connecting and detaching notes in five-finger positions greatly assisted his progress to full scale playing)

I use the FJH Classic Scale book that also includes arpeggios, and chord inversions.

Peter regularly practices 4-octave scales and arpeggios in progressive rhythms as part of his warm-ups. We devote about 20 minutes of his lesson to these romps.

Where we go from here will be determined by the student and teacher in a working alliance.

I have an intuitive hunch to next give him this beautiful Elizabethan style piece: (pp. 1 and 2)

Go No More A'Rushing

Go no More A' Rushing p. 2

And “Sadness” by Turk

Turk Sadness

While this particular journey has unfolded well for Peter, it might not be the right one for another newbie.

Shaping a music-learning pathway has a lot to do with a student’s needs, abilities and desires, so it’s best to be flexible and open to new ideas often suggested by the student.

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An adult piano student floats a Chopin Nocturne

Chopin Nocturne in e p. 1

The E minor Nocturne Op. 72, No. 1 has a redundant flowing broken chord bass that becomes intensified through melodic climaxes. Still, the binary division of each measure, with some relief on the second half of each, preserves a relentless rocking motion throughout the composition.

In this lesson-in-progress, an adult student who returned to the piano after a long hiatus, reveals his conscientious approach to refining phrases, floating them, and experimenting with tempo rubato all within a slow practice frame.

He and other adult students are to be admired for their tenacity, patience and commitment to learning while combining complex work schedules 5 days a week.


Nocturne played In tempo

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Staccato scales: Staying on the PLANE without a bumpy ride

Most students become very disconnected when traveling through a staccato scale so their journey from lift-off to landing is often bumpy.

In the E minor Natural form, for example, a redundant E, F# occurring in every octave will fool a player into thinking he’s got to brace for ELEVATION that makes his hand jerk forward on the seemingly higher black note.

e minor staccato

Psychologically and physically, the student will have lost his “center” of gravity in this lunge, deterring a smooth, even, horizontal passage from octave to octave.

On this particular journey of crisp, detached articulations, an adult pupil worked on braving obstacles that impeded him from enjoying a turbulence-free roll-in to final resolution by applying specific practice routines that included clustering or “chunking.”

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Two side-by-side approaches to Schubert and ONE wins a prize


Over in Fairbanks, Alaska the awards ceremony that capped a prolonged Internet channeled e-competition was dragged out mercilessly. Every sponsor under the sun had to be acknowledged, including Yamaha International that put its Disklavier center stage, UP-staging the old-fashioned way of delivering music to audiences.

Would you believe, laudatory performances were memorialized on a big screen, while a LIVE Disklavier cranked them out like a player piano would, but through a MIDI process. It was both bizarre and intriguing to see the instrument without a performer at the bench.

When all was said and done, the results came in with mixed reviews among pianists, amateur and professional, who were watching and prognosticating around the globe.

Just for purposes of identification, I’ve extracted two side-by-side performances of Schubert Sonatas that have glaringly different approaches– one which landed the entrant from Denmark/Sweden the Schubert PRIZE, and eventually, the big CHEESE first place, $30,000, plus a bunch of prestigious concert engagements.

And as happens in the course of many COMPETITIONS (where music is uncomfortably placed in the SPORTS arena), disappointments abound among the players and fans. (The fervor of World Cup Soccer and other athletic events have set unhappy precedents where emotions rise to fever pitch, sometimes spilling into physical confrontations)

Within the more sedate Fairbanks concert hall, by contrast to an open mega sports stadium, disenchantment with the final POINTS tally was nonetheless manifest in posted comments on a rolling Internet board.

Heated exchanges surrounding the choice of winner resulted in one particular posting being removed for no apparent reason. (Perhaps because it de-commercialized the event and begged for a showcase, and not a round of gladiators vying for victory)

But what makes money are competitions and products that are promoted in the process.

Onto the Schubert AWARD

My personal pick for this particular prize was Mariana Prjevalskaya (Spain) playing the A Major Sonata, D.959 (Fast forward to 9:50 for the performance start)

In my opinion, she spun gorgeous singable lines, and had just the right timbre and tone that blended with the Romantic era and the composer’s alliance with lieder. (Songs permeated his body of works) There was no pounding or Brahmsian climaxes. She stayed true to the era, and was not trying to impress with bravura splurges or dramatic pauses. The pure liquidity of her playing was a hallmark characteristic of all her offerings, and perhaps its intimacy, for the most part did not carry her to the winner’s circle as the competition progressed to the big Concerto round.

To the contrary, the WINNER, Peter Friis Johansson, viewed Schubert in bigger proportion, inserting pauses (fermati over rests) that were so long that an audience member could go out for a cafe latte and return in time for the next phrase.

And his fortes rose to fortissimo levels, notching up the drama quotient to questionable levels for this music.

(Fast forward track to 6:08 for official start of Schubert’s Bb Sonata, D. 960)

In the last analysis, rating a performance is a matter of personal preference and aesthetics, so the judges did what they thought best in awarding a PRIZE for a reading they were comfortable with.

But did that mean all the right notes were played, and minor memory lapses were verboten?

Because music-making is not a sport, the whole presentation was marred by the very ethos that doesn’t fit well within the arts environment. (i.e. scoring phrases and musical expression–trying to level the playing field among star players by slipping into accuracy tallies) It might have been pertinent to icy Alaska where dog races have a clear, decisive victor but not on the universal concert stage, LIVE-STREAMED or just plain LIVE!

As a former piano competition adjudicator poetically expressed:

“Music should promote communication, not competition.
“Music should encourage connection, not comparison.
“Music should be about confirmation, not criticism.
“Music should celebrate creativity, not confusion.
“Music should engender congratulations, not consolation.”

He added a quote from the Schola Cantorum:

“One does not make music against someone else.”

Let the E-Competion contingent of producers, directors, trustees, and sponsors be awakened to the sensibility and sensitivity of these words and proceed accordingly.

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Pianist, Beth Levin weighs in on Competitions


Beth Levin is more than a pianist. She not only concertizes, records, presents symposia and teaches, but devotes quality time to arts commentary. At La, she critiqued Schumann’s Kreisleriana in tribute to an era she embraces in her spread of LIVE performances and recordings.


(Imported photos and video produced by Randolph Pitts)

And not surprisingly, even her FACEBOOK entries rise above run-of-the-mill social networking updates. They’re engaging snippets of poet laureates, distinguished authors, great composers, golden age piano pedagogues and memorable musical performances.

With her inquisitive mind in high gear, I thought to tap into her thoughts about piano competitions since she’d once been an entrant at a celebrated European venue.

1) What are your feelings about piano competitions? Of what use are they in today’s cultural universe?

I think the desire to be heard is very strong in almost any talented young person and a competition can be an excellent goal and outlet for those artistic ambitions. But a teacher should be careful in judging the personality of his or her student- if she might be scarred by losing and not able to take it in stride I would say not to enter that pupil. I remember being so perfectly prepared by my teacher for a Philadelphia Orchestra Young Person’s audition. I won and it fueled many years of study, performing and the love of playing.

As an aside I went to the Leeds Competition on my honeymoon! Not something I would recommend.

2) Did you have to enter a competition along your journey as a performing

I don’t think competitions are necessary to a career. I remember at Music from Marlboro a very promising cellist deciding not to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition simply because losing was too great a risk. Today he has a flourishing career and achieved it without a competition. Each case is different. If one has a burning desire to enter then it is the right thing to do- otherwise I think one can find alternate paths to a career.

3) What is the best way to expose your art to the public? Are LIVE piano recitals a thing of the past? (Being so costly to present, etc.)

Personally I like to both perform LIVE and record. Recital series seem to be shrinking but New York City has a few intimate (and economical) halls and there are excellent piano festivals around the country. Chamber music is a large part of my musical life and performing it LIVE is always a thrill. Nothing can replace a LIVE performance.

4) How do you feel about Mp3s and Mp4s as vehicles for your music?

Mp3′s and Mp4′s can be very useful in certain cases and provide another way to be heard. But I think it is still worthwhile to make a good CD.

5) Would you prefer to play LIVE than make recordings?

Playing LIVE and recording are two sides of the same coin. Presenting a recital program in several venues and honing it; then recording it down the road makes sense.

(Beth revealed a lighter side, by inserting a colorful quote of Sergiu Celibidache, distinguished former conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. He said, “Recording was like going to bed with a picture of Brigitte Bardot ;->”)

Our conversation steered quickly back to the serious side of music-making and its career challenges.

6) How can a gifted musician survive economically given the competitive cosmos of pianists who win competition after competition and still find themselves spinning wheels looking for more contests to enter?

I think that having a full musical life is more important in the end than making a huge living from it. Luck may play the largest role in that particular sphere. But if one can keep learning, studying, teaching, playing and loving their art- the benefits will come. Competitions should never become the reason for making music.

7) What is your current creative undertaking?

I’m preparing a recital program to play and record in Munich and Vienna in the Fall of 2014. The repertoire is Kreisleriana of Schumann, the C minor sonata of Schubert D.958 and an unpublished work, Versione, by the Swedish composer, Anders Eliasson.

8) Can you provide background on why you have chosen particular repertoire
to perform/record?

I think my main influences, Rudolf Serkin and Leonard Shure contributed greatly to my love of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, etc. The recording I made of the Goldberg Variations was a complete anomaly. I’ve always been a kind of big, romantic player.

9) What do you see in your future as far as playing, teaching, and

I hope to keep recording, performing live and perhaps even to a greater extent in the future. I hope I will teach more and more in older age.

Many thanks for the chance to think about these important topics.


Beth Levin’s Website
Her album, A Single Breath: Beethoven’s Last Three Piano Sonatas is listed among others.
Beth Levin, pic, A Single Breath

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Piano Technique: Spot checking for relaxed arms, wrists, and hands (Video)

I think of a whole arm/wrist/hand continuum when playing the piano, and I urge students to alleviate tension anywhere in the spectrum by lifting arms off the keys with a feeling of buoyancy. In this gesture a pupil can monitor the sensation of hanging, dead weight arms in space, and then gently practice lift-offs and drop-downs on the keys. (without a crash landing)

In this sample video, an adult pupil works on refining her C# minor staccato scales through various tension-relieving steps. Thinking “horizontally,” as well, she focuses on not pulling downward on the thumbs, causing unwanted accents. Visualizing a horizontal “plane” of staccato rendering, though vertically “bouncing” from note to note, promotes definition and evenness.

In segment two, the student creates a very well-shaped set of contrary motion scales in Triplet 8ths Legato, internalizing a rolling feeling that reflects in her supple wrist approach.

For staccato playing in the C# minor Arpeggio, she has learned to “snip” a well-shaped legato.

All these romps through C# minor can benefit from Spot Checking for arm/wrist/hand relaxation. In addition, preserving a physical/musical image of what advanced fluid playing will assist present and future practicing.

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Going into the Finals at the Alaska International Piano-E-Competition, and thoughts about COMPETING

Neither memory lapses nor occasional note slip-ups impeded any of the five selected Piano Finalists from forging ahead to the Chamber Music and Concerto Rounds of the Alaska-based E-Competition.

My two particular favorites, Marianna Prjevalskaya and Alexey Chernov honored Schubert with gorgeous performances of the composer’s A Major (D.959) and C minor Sonatas (D. 958), respectively. Each savored the singing tone in their renderings, cradling an awareness of Schubert’s huge body of Songs (Lieder) that thread through his works.

Without pounding or over-exaggerating in forte sections, the pair, of Russian origin, projected rich, resonating sonorities, while swelling and tapering through limpidly spun phrases.

As communicators, they were formidable.



A diverse variety of listeners absorbing these same performances might have differing opinions but their responses can provide opportunities for lively exchange.

Nonetheless, shrouding any competition, are doubts about catapulting solo musicians into the sports arena as contenders vying for a prize when the art form may not fit comfortably within this setting.

In this vein, Seymour Bernstein eloquently summarized his reservations as they applied to the Van Cliburn International Competition in 2013, but his words resonate perfectly into the present.


“….This is my conclusion: The word “competition” must be eliminated. Any number of high profile competitions are rich enough to expose phenomenal young artists to the world for one reason only: they ought to be heard as models of human achievement on the highest level, and they ought not to have to compete with one another.

“The worst aspect of competitions is the assumption that jury members are qualified to judge who is the best among the competitors. This is impossible given each person’s varied tastes. I, myself have adjudicated at major competitions where a pupil of mine was among the competitors. While I was not allowed to vote for that pupil, my colleagues knew that I taught that contestant simply by reading the bios of the competitors. As a result, some jury members will want to support me and my pupil, while others, compelled to uphold fairness at all cost, may vote against my pupil.

“In addition, I have known jury members to support a competitor who studies with a close colleague. Finally, jury members are not beyond the possibility of falling prey to sexual attraction. Considering the human factor, visual attractiveness may override objective listening.

“Considering these factors, let’s vote for abolishing all competitions. Let’s have these performers share their artistry with us for no other purpose than to inspire us with their accomplishments, thereby spreading the essence of the divine art of music to a world sorely in need of it. Let’s all write to the competition board and suggest this for future Webcasts.”



My opinion:

Shirley Kirsten 2
I think music competitions exist to propel careers forward.

If there is no other way to advance soloists to the world stage given the lack of priority of music in the schools and in our daily lives, then these very musically talented individuals have to rotate through competition after competition, racking up wins that accord so many sponsored engagements. They cannot otherwise afford to subsidize their own performances.

It’s not 1972, when Murray Perahia, for example, had only to win the Leeds Competition to spawn a successful long-term career. Now pianists are jumping through hoops trying to rack up top tier awards before moving to the next adjudicating venue.

I don’t think this feverish pursuit of contest after contest promotes a healthy environment for musical growth and development, and unfortunately, many of my teaching colleagues are promoting the competition loop with students as young as 4 or 5.

It’s nearly impossible to convince a child that performing before judges is for pleasure when there will always be a “loser” at the end of the day. Children watch TV, sit in front of computers, and know that the World Series, Superbowl, and World Cup Soccer Tournaments have “winners.” And these winners are rewarded handsomely with money, fame, prestige and more. (Add “power” to the mix)

By the same token, we can’t extract children from a universal, commercially hyped environment and isolate a piano competition as if it’s been pureed like soup for healthy consumption.

So this is why I’m opposed to music competitions, sharing the essence of what Seymour Bernstein well-articulated.

Finally, when our culture embraces learning for its own sake, and values music study in the same way it embraces record-breaking Olympic conquests, then we will have reserved a space for richly talented musicians to humanize and enrich our lives without their having to vye for “first place.”


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