Shaping a J.S. Bach Two-Part Invention

Many students play J.S. Bach’s music with a typed out, articulated approach, forgetting to shape and contour phrases.

In Bach’s F Major Invention, BWV 779, the tendency is to overemphasize every element of broken chord F, A, C, F, in a perfunctory detachment, when musically the line tells us otherwise. Because the very first note of the SUBJECT “F” falls on an OFF beat, (since there’s an opening 8th rest), it defers to the third of the triad, A, and as the arpeggio unwinds, the fleshed out notes become A, C, F (with common tones F below played with a subdued thumb) Certainly a spring forward wrist helps contour a triadic ascent to destination high F without thumps, and it cushions the fall upon arrival on HIGH F.

J.S. Bach Invention 8 in F Major, p. 1

The descending scale-like figure which represents the second part of the SUBJECT, likewise can fall down with a flattened profile.

As remedy, GROUPING the 16th notes in fours with a flexible wrist can lend shape to them, allowing a singable progression to resolution.

The second idea in measure 4, that contains descending SEQUENCES, requires a ROTATIONAL approach to contour notes through measures 4, 5 and 6. These wrist-driven groupings, with a side-to-side motion, prevent pokey, vertical playing.

In a video sample of a lesson in progress, an adult student makes nice adjustments in his physical/musical approach to J.S. Bach’s Invention 8, BWV 779, that afford a more appealing aesthetic result.

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Ornaments, Romantic Style: Don’t be enslaved, but master them

There’s nothing more inhibiting to piano playing than being boxed in by ornaments–tied down by their inertia and lack of smooth resolution.

For certain, if you’re threatened by them, or anticipate the worst possible outcome, ENTRAPMENT, then it guarantees a hasty entry and debilitating departure.

Sadly, breath-LESS and anxiety-prone pianists often impede their journey, leaving embellishments crippled measure-by-measure to final cadence.

So how does a player avoid the vicious cycle of ornament-driven dysfunction and enslavement?

By learning flexibility and rotation, a pianist can MASTER these subjugated appendages while assuring their relaxed release.

In a lesson-in-progress with an adult, Chopin ornaments from the composer’s Waltz in A minor No. 19, Op. Posthumous were FREED in the space of 34 minutes edited down to 15 conforming with You Tube imposed time limits.

Chopin A minor Waltz p. 1

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Pianist, Seymour Bernstein is the subject of an Ethan Hawke produced documentary

Seymour in his living room

It’s about time a pianist, teacher, composer and author made it to the big screen.

Seymour Bernstein is the star of a 80-minute documentary that’s drawing critical acclaim in early Festival showings.

On the East Coast, Seymour: An Introduction is slated for two important fall screenings at the prestigious New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center:

Saturday, September 27 at 12:00pm
Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th Street

Monday, September 29 at 9:00pm
Francesca Beale Theater
144 West 65th Street

To whet the appetite of moviegoers, a sterling review by Thomas Powers portends a hit in the making or perhaps a future Oscar nomination:

“Ethan Hawke directs this intimate documentary portrait of classical pianist, composer, author, teacher and sage Seymour Bernstein.

“Seymour Bernstein isn’t well known, but he’s deeply cherished by those who do know him. Living in a small Manhattan apartment at age eighty-five, he appears fully content with his choice to forgo a promising career as a concert pianist in order to teach music. Now Ethan Hawke, one of his greatest admirers, takes us into Bernstein’s world with this delicately crafted film, offering a wise and charismatic reflection on art and life.

In Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke mostly stays off camera and lets Bernstein do the talking — and the man is a sweet-natured font of thought-provoking stories as he reminisces about his experiences growing up, playing piano for soldiers in the Korean War, and struggling with performance anxiety. As Hawke recalls, he first met Bernstein at a dinner party while grappling with the question “why make art?,” and that theme winds its way through the film as the teacher carries on conversations with accomplished friends such as art critic Michael Kimmelman and religious scholar Andrew Harvey. He also reflects on the careers of pianists Glenn Gould and Clifford Curzon, seen in archival footage, and his deep love of piano music proves infectious.

“Hawke (also at this year’s Festival starring in Good Kill) shows himself to be a sensitive documentary portraitist, adding to his accomplishments as an actor, fiction director, and novelist. Calling to mind My Dinner with André, his film is full of urbane conversation and infused with the sophisticated rhythms of New York City. Whether aficionados or newcomers to the world of classical music, viewers will find much to gain from this introduction to Seymour.”


For Ticket and other information:

In Toronto as part of its Film Festival (TFF), showings are as follows:

7:00 pm Wednesday, September 10 in the Light Box on King St.

Individual tickets go on sale September 2.

LINKS to Blogs about Seymour

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Performance Anxiety and Pressure Relievers

The symposia at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute brought three top flight performers together to share thoughts about performance-related issues.

Leon Fleisher, Yo Yo Ma, and Pamela Frank, all fine musicians in their own instrumental cosmos, agreed that the Ego can be an impediment to anxiety-free music-making.

Zeroing in on “performance pressure,” Maestra Frank, a soulful violinist with a rapturous tone–daughter of pianists Claude Frank and the late Lillian Kallir, emphasized “connectivity and love for music” as her primary defenses against invading jitters and worries about critics’ reviews.


Without a doubt, total involvement in the act of playing bound in LOVE, should support a singular, unimpeded music-expressive focus, yet too many amateurs and professionals alike, are plagued by shadow parents who count wrong notes and hesitations. Childhood-originated messages are memorialized in the psyche and chip away at meticulous practice and preparation.

So what can we do about a perpetual cycle of performances marred by Superego trapped self-punishments?

I assert that we can re-set, pre-programmed messages to become positive reinforcements of our efforts.

1) Visualization is a start: I watch performances of pianists I revere. In the realm of the effortless, outpouring of music with a calm, meditative dimension, I select Irina Morozova’s rendering of the Chopin Impromptu. (you can choose your own preferred soloist—Perahia, and Rubinstein are particularly relaxed players)

In this spirit of maximized, RELAXED concentration, Olympic athletes, IMAGINE graceful motion and successful outcomes. From the diving board into the vast air space, they land with a centered arrival in the water without impact.

Likewise, we can launch our playing, with a full breathing space, then swim with liquid beauty from phrase to phrase until final cadence, having inspired role models to emulate.

2) In preparation for a performance, I recommend super-slow motion practicing, with a “FEEL” for the ebb and flow of phrases while monitoring long, natural breaths. This blocks anticipation or thinking ahead to what’s coming next. Such concern for the future can easily get the performer into a jam. THINKING SLOWLY in the PRESENT, even while playing through fast passages–a paradox of opposites–can work wonders. (Note that Muscle Memory is a big component in an ongoing biofeedback that’s part of all practicing–Keep a Journal by the piano, and take NOTES when awakenings occur)

Part and parcel of performance prep is the sense of being in the moment– having all the time in the world to communicate music and imagining a setting for warm, listener and soloist-affirmed interaction. Such mind-driven run-throughs should take place in the practice module leading to a performance.

3) Making videotapes of one’s own playing and revisiting them as objectively as possible can also fine tune areas needing improvement, absent a harsh overlay of judgment. These video rehearsals put a player in the audience, but as a sympathetic, understanding and reassuring listener. It’s a reminder that the experience of SHARING between player and audience is at the center of performing.

4) Self-hypnosis, another valuable tool in the arsenal of anti-anxiety fighters, should be part of practicing, preparation and performance. All playing, immersed in beauty with a resonating singing tone, can be framed positively through a set of affirmations recorded on audiotape. Feelings, environments and associations that calm the mind should be identified and utilized as needed.

(In the 1980’s I consulted a hypno-therapist who worked with me to devise my pre-performance recorded script that I replayed many times before my upcoming recitals, and naturally these were embedded in my practicing phase as the basis for MEDITATIONS)

Finally, don’t believe that having multifarious opportunities to perform will eradicate performance anxiety, especially if a cycle of unhappy experiences has been the norm.

The negative outcome cycle has to be broken by self-generated changes that should include a disciplined re-programming of the psyche.

As teachers, we know first-hand how the mind plays such a powerful role in making music. Auto-suggestions, prompts, pivotal verbal cues, can work like magic when a student is restricted by muscle tension, and thoughts of failure.

We’ve seen it time and again, so why not make tools available to our pupils that are performance anxiety relievers. While they’re dealing with it, we grow in increments, right beside them.


A book I highly recommend, Just Being at the Piano, by Mildred Portney Chase is referenced and modeled (by You Tube video) below the first link.


How do I deal with my Performance Anxiety?

Performance Anxiety and the Pianist

How Anticipation can Trip you up, and what you can do about it

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What happened during the Earthquake!

From Berkeley, California

At 3:19 a.m. I had just revisited my recently posted video of Bach’s Sarabande (French Suite in G)–a foreboding?

… when suddenly the wall I was leaning against, ( while seated at the piano), started swaying from side-to-side. (somewhat like swells to crescendo < with releases >)

Next, I felt a tremolo under my right pedal-ready foot, with a few erratic accents. Mother Nature wasn’t LISTENING..or did she HEAR it BEFORE it played out. A NO NO to begin with. Pianist/mentor Leon Fleisher would have agreed, in his riveting reiterations at Masterclasses:

“Don’t play until you know ahead of time what’s going to roll out.”

This temblor definitely ROLLED in waves once it got going–which seemed forever. You could attach a fermata to it:


The Ceiling lights were trilling, or perhaps flickering, a more fine-tuned description.

It was an overall shaky effect— a form of arrhythmia, best treated by a beating metronome.

Mine happened to tip over the edge during the ruckus, pulsating out of synch with Nature’s forces.


NATUR-ally, I stayed put on the piano bench, nervously praying that the treble staff metal sculpture above my head, would stay reinforced to the wall by its two, weakly affixed nails.

(You could surmise that I was living on borrowed time…in rubato style–a moment-to-moment existence, without measure-to-measure planning)

Frankly, when all was said and DONE, it was the longest interval of rumbling I’d experienced since an earthquake centered in Coalinga (land of crickets) shook up my former Central Valley piano room, sending old, tainted Urtext editions, in mudslide fashion off the shelves.

But it was no match for an event beamed in from Brazil by Skype: (Broken chords abounded in a frenzy to CLIMAX!) And then, helplessly, I stood by and imagined the carnage.


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The shrinking world of music

To put it lightly, degrees of separation in our musical cosmos are melting rapidly. By example, a Facebook post to my profile page from my 1960s era Orchestra teacher, led to a long lost neighbor who was the youngest member of the New York Philharmonic.

To backtrack a bit, Herbert Gardner, a time-honored music director at J.H.S. 143 (John Peter Tetard) in the Bronx,  glided easily over the 80-year benchmark, rejuvenating his conducting career, post-retirement in Florida. At the same time, he circulated his teaching materials and compositions through an international free music database. (

Gardner, my former music mentor, had kept in touch through social networking channels as he reeled off names of ex-students (from my era and beyond) who’d earned a lingering musical spotlight. (Nardo Poy, violist with the Met Orchestra was among his star-studded graduates)

“Mr. Gardner,” a task master in the good sense, would throw board erasers in the direction of brass and woodwind players when they missed their cues, blubbered notes, or chatted among themselves. (At ground zero, in my role as concert master, seated at the foot of the podium, I watched missiles fly by, reaching their target with A-1 accuracy.) Relentlessly, the energy-packed band and orchestra director whipped his troops into line, teaching task-centered practicing and lifelong discipline. He made sure our music-making was as important as mastering the 3Rs.

Gardener at JHS 143

Fast forward to 2014: Gardner’s FACEBOOK entry on my profile page, was a reflection of his devoted life’s work:  (His comment on Leon Fleisher’s quote: “Hear it, Before you Play it,” resonated loud and clear: “Exactly,” Gardner added, “it’s called Ear Training for us teachers.”)

Herbert Gardner by the lake

He didn’t skip a beat, linking me directly to his educational materials:

“Check out my ed stuff under “composers,” “Gardner, Herbert Straus.”

As my Junior High Years flew by, memories were blurred by my overlapping membership in the Manhattan Borough-wide Orchestra where repertoire was often duplicated.

Nonetheless, I was nearly certain that Marche Slave and the Von Suppe Overture had been on the Top Ten at the JHS 44, W. 77th Street rehearsal venue for the Borough-Wide, and simultaneously on the rack at JHS 143 in the north Bronx.

Still, one link deserved another…

Gardner’s dad, Samuel, became my violin teacher in the early 60s. A member of the Kneisel Quartet based in Blue Hill Maine, his pedagogical materials and compositions (“From the Canebrake,” a well known encore piece) had been archived at the University of South Florida. (The Kneisel connection will soon surface in the course of this narrative)

Samuel Gardner young image


Samuel Gardner bestowed my first violin of value. It was a Hornsteiner 1799 that he personally selected for me at a Paris auction.

side view my violin 1799 Hornsteiner  Mittenwald Germany
Before drawing the bow over this beauty, I had been enslaved to a “cigar box” that barely pumped out the “Exodus” theme at a Junior High School music festival held in Brooklyn. But to its credit, the fiddle led to my acquiring a Stradivarius copy, that was leased to me by the School District. (Gardner had promptly delivered sobering news that violin facsimiles such as mine were a dime a dozen and worth less than $200.)

As time passed my interest in the violin waned and being an alumna of Tetard’s Orchestra took second tier to forging ahead with piano studies.

Herbert Gardner, Sam’s son, nevertheless, invited me to perform as a pianist, at a JHS 143 event, which was a tribute to his respect for musical choices and diverse journeys.

Meanwhile, Nardo Poy, regaled by our well-celebrated Junior High music mentor, traveled from the Tetard orchestra to the Met, which by association led to Jerry Grossman, cellist. (Poy, it turned out conducted a New York-based chamber ensemble where Grossman was a member, and both were affiliated with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra)

So how did Jerry, a principle Chair, fit into my cosmos?

Jerry Grossman thumbnailIn the early 1970s, while a single girl residing on 74th and Amsterdam, I bumped into new neighbor, “Jerry,” who’d just become the youngest member of the New York Philharmonic. Naturally, I was infatuated from the start wanting to set up a musical collaboration. Another neighbor on our floor, Flautist, David, had rehearsed a Mozart concerto with me, alongside a Pergolesi composition, so why not add a cellist to the mix.

Grossman, a wiry fellow, with his cello case contoured perfectly to his body, didn’t seem interested. Perhaps it was because he was unhappy at the Phil, his having briefly shared these misgivings with me.

I’d gleaned from our conversations that forming a quartet was one of his keen desires, but after I left the Big Apple in the late 1970’s, I lost contact with Jerry and many other musical acquaintances.

How ironic, then, to have a reunion, decades later, by You Tube!

One URL connected to another, and before I knew it, I was watching a substantial interview with Jerry (circa 2012), before I flipped to another with interspersed footage of Grossman playing in an All Star Ochestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz, my former classmate at the New York City High School of Performing Arts.

More melting degrees of separation.

I soon learned that Jerry had spent his summers in Blue Hill, Maine at a Kneisel Chamber Music convergence. (Samuel Gardner and the Kneisel Quartet were ironically, synonymous)

And yet another link in the chain surfaced. Murray Perahia (Performing Arts High classmate) had often frequented Blue Hill as a chamber player, while he participated at the Marlboro Festival under by Rudolf Serkin’s direction. Jerry Grossman, had made the same double journey.

Finally, to cap this whole narrative with its web-woven links, Beth Levin, pianist who’s a Facebook Friend of Jerry’s, connected to Fresno where I lived for a time. In the 1980’s she gave a local Keyboard Concert recital before turning up 30 plus years later in my social network loop.

At first I couldn’t quite place the name and event, but soon enough I tracked down the concert where Beth had stunningly rendered Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata and definitively, we had our cyber-reunion.

Beth Levin, pic, A Single Breath

The musical world is shrinking by the minute, and the Internet brings us even closer to a family of musicians who would be otherwise lost in the crush of time. For this, we should be grateful.

Shrinking Degrees of Separation in the Music World

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Spot Practicing at the Piano: It’s Quality, not Quantity

Some call it “spot cleaning,” I prefer spot “refining” to describe THOUGHTFUL, isolated step-wise measure practicing. Needless to say, a troublesome measure is surrounded by others that lead in and exit out of the problematic center, so it’s not enough to have only a focal spotlight on a particular glitch, though it’s a good start.

As piano teachers, we want the student to have a sense of continuity–building a solid early learning foundation as the segue way to a developmental sequence. But for some pupils, feeling “BOGGED down” by a nit-picky process of analysis, attentive listening, and acquiring muscle memory seems to be a holding-back journey and not a forward-moving adventure sparked by big leaps of fate. (I underscore FATE, because as fate would have it, most SPONTANEOUS learners who take big gulps without a necessary breakdown of fingering choices, phrasing, shaping, etc. will ultimately spend inordinate time on the composition without getting to their desired destination.)

In the following videos, two adult students who are both studying the Chopin Waltz in A minor (Op. Posthumous) have an abundance of patience as they explore phrasing in detail.(infusing the vocal model)

The insights that abound are the result of a mutual pupil/teacher exchange that puts both partners on an equal footing as each experiments, revises, and refines. Most of all, NO deadlines are attached to a slow and steady, parceled learning approach that makes QUALITY practicing its ideal.

A sample of focused spot practicing:

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