J.S. Bach Invention No. 13 in A minor: Early learning phase Deep Key Connection

Many piano students tiptoe through a parceled voice reading of a new composition instead of choosing a relaxed, behind tempo approach that allows a deep, dead weight COMMITTED connection into the keys.

Thinking that the notes are strange and unfamiliar they distance themselves from phrase shaping, and tend to breeze quickly through a score in a hit or miss, skimming-the-keys fashion.

In my own first stage learning process that I share with a crop of enthusiastic adult pupils, I establish a gravity-centered relationship to notes, and think of them in groups rather than as pinpointed focal arrivals. (One must look for key relationships, symmetries, sequences among what might first look like a dizzying display of double beamed notes, for example.)

In Bach’s two-part Invention in A minor, the very character of its broken chord Subject, introduces the concept of unraveled harmony with a rolling contour. So why not absorb the musical nature of the figure from the outset instead of delaying its absorption in a subsequent learning stage. (The concept of SUBJECT and overlap or imitation in two voices, is an important foundational dimension of early assimilation that should be imparted in a form framed introduction)


If tempo is attuned to the readiness of a student, and not pushed beyond his ability to assimilate what’s on the page, (fingering included) then musicality and centering can co-exist side-by-side without delay.

What we first hear in our own practicing makes an impact on each day’s perception of the music and its subsequent growth. To dryly learn the notes, without including phrase contouring and projection at the outset, sets back the clock, exposing the ear to what we do not intend to communicate in the final analysis.

Play through in tempo:

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Adult Piano Instruction: Exploring weight transfer and supple wrist motions for improved phrase shaping

A new adult student is working on Beethoven’s Sonatina in F, one of the composer’s less played works, but nevertheless quite a musical gem.



While the composition has a Mozartean flavor, the abrupt shift in dynamics in the opening theme, for example, offers a glimpse into Beethoven’s later development of his larger Sonata form, where emotional highs and lows become more conspicuous with polyphonic support. (more voices)

The F Major Sonatina’s first movement is scored for two voices, yet still demands an understanding of weight transfer to produce dynamic contrasts through singing tone passages, and an exploration of supple wrist motions to improve phrasing.

In this lesson-in-progress, the student makes gains as he integrates attentive listening with needed physical expression or choreography. (He worked on refining his staccato–i.e. having destination-oriented, or directed detached notes, and enlisted a flexible wrist to resolve harmonies and taper phrases)

The concept of contrasting themes in the Exposition, sequential relationships, and key changes (Development section), expanded his understanding of the composition and how to communicate content, form, and structure in the Classical style.

Naturally, a behind tempo approach was appropriate to the student’s early learning efforts.

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Going Solo with the Schubert Fantasie for 4-hands

I found the perfect solution to practicing the Schubert Fantasie in F minor without my duet partner, since she’s absent for 6 days of the week. While we rehearse on Thursdays, the piano bench literally shrinks putting us both at risk for hand collisions and body blows.

In truth, the pushes and shoves have more to do with the way the composer has scored his music, doubling notes between players, and sometimes having one partner cross over the other’s arm.

So when I’m alone at the bench mending my wounds on SECONDO, I do a lot of spot practicing, and scout a compatible You Tube recording of the Fantasie as a stand-in for Louise, my Primo. (When she’s propped up beside me using her two hands, she plays the upper part, notated with two treble clefs.)

PHOTO: LOUISE, below, in a contemplative pose:


Inconveniently, we both sit at my Steinway grand.

two pianos

Practicing Solo

It’s not really a music minus one opportunity I’m seeking, but rather another experience to synch in my part and inch up tempo along the way.

Of course, in practicality, one must work side-by-side with a LIVE musical partner to “feel” the pulse of a true collaboration.

Therefore, trying to sniff out two overseas players who had their own breeding ground in the course of developing a personal ensemble, is a major challenge and accommodation.

Just the same, I drew upon Pires and Castro, pianists, to help me hone one of the most difficult sections of the Schubert Fantasie–the final fugue section that leads to a big fortissimo climax with a pile-up of voices.

While there were some synch issues, I still enjoyed playing along with these two fine musicians, though here and there, we were going our own separate ways.

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Piano Instruction: Allemande from J.S. Bach French Suite no. 5 in G Major

Andras Schiff, known for playing Bach “purely” without pedal, encourages piano students to indulge J.S. as actors cultivate Shakespeare. It’s our daily “bread,” he insists. Regardless of his mixed metaphor, I concur that studying the works of Johann Sebastian Bach builds a solid foundation for exploring music of all historical eras. And to pore over the master’s ingenious counterpoint through Inventions, Fugues, Partitas, French and English Suites, etc. is a compulsory universe of education and enlightenment.

Having begun to explore the opening Allemande of J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G, BWV 816, I found myself immersed in a step-by-step, voice parceled analysis, before permuting treble and bass; treble and alto or tenor as applied, and finally combining three voices. I tracked harmonic movement, sequences, cadences, scoped out balance of voices, dynamics and shadings. It was a riveting, introspective journey that kept me firmly grounded and on task—requiring the same type of discipline that Schiff applied to absorbing Shakespeare’s great body of works.

In the realm of a French Suite:

In my two videos below, I reveal a beginning learning process that encompasses many elements and grows by increment.

Play through Allemande followed by my study suggestions.

Bach French Suite p. 1


As William Shakespeare well said, “If Music be the Food of Love, Play On!”

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Does practice make perfect?

WQXR F.M. (NYC based) has posted its latest set of meta-based analyses of “deliberate practice” studies. (A mouthful of confusion to begin with!)

Three researchers teamed up to discount the wise old adage that “practice makes perfect.” (In their probings, they were “virtuosity” centered) The trio concluded that a much smaller percentage of so-called high-powered “experts” in their respective fields were churned out by mega-practicing regimens. (Dr. Brooke Macnamara was their spokesperson)


Yet starting with the simplistic premise that all kinds of “practice” produce high end results is an exaggeration of the truth.

As I listened to the WQXR delivered Podcast I became increasingly confused. It lumped so many ingredients into a befuddled menu and concluded with Moderator, Naomi Lewin, making matters worse by bringing up Lang Lang’s abusive father as the spark of his bedazzling career. Her verbal counterpoint in the music realm, suggested that researchers should add emotional abuse to the virtuoso breeding ground.

The only participant that made any sense, in my humble opinion, was Dr. Anders Ericsson, who addressed the whole matter in the context of high quality student/teacher interaction plus long hours of finite, well-focused practicing. Naturally, innate musical gifts were part of the parcel. (Thank Goddess his 1993 based studies had GRAVITY, WEIGHT, and substance, not AIRY, UP IN THE CLOUDS pronouncements floating away all sense of REASON)

Likewise, comments that followed the podcast were as earthy as Dr. Ericsson’s approach and demeanor. (He had insisted that Millennium meta-researchers failed to isolate the mentoring factor in their “expertise” collations)

Riveting words posted by Emily White, a piano teacher at the Special Music School in New York City, intelligently framed practicing, its context, and value in seeding and growing exceptional musical expression. (Italics, for emphases, are mine)

“Time is important, but there are many functions served by musical repetition toward the attainment of goals that are more efficiently managed by a compatible mentor than by hours of isolated discipline: first, the decoding of notation, the tightening or loosening of strict rhythmic pulse, the incremental building of speed and note articulation, and the solution of the spatial-muscular problems associated with the instrument; but later, the exploration of sound colors and the communication of the world-view and psychology of a composer, the use of imagination and taste in portraying the composer’s theoretical style, and the simmering of meditative processes that will give authority to a performance. A teacher’s pedagogical lineage and personal attention can affect the progress of a student as much as the expenditure of time, shaving hours off the excess hacking mistakenly called practice and interspersing moments of leisure and reflection in order to foster meaningful, healthy playing.”

Ms. White should have been invited to the WXQR studio in the heat of the music-related exchange. After all, why compare Scrabble playing to high level, expressive music-making in the first place?

Examining bulk area expertise and managing to conjoin musical virtuosity into the mix was a half-baked effort at best.

Make your own voice heard at the website.

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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: http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/bias-against-black-notes-stopped-me-in-my-tracks-video/ )

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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