Reviewing Debussy’s Arabesque 1 with its Impressionist palette

It’s been years since I learned Claude Debussy’s coloristic Arabesque No. 1, so my recent revisit was a reminder of how a solid learning foundation can deepen a musical reconnection.

Reviewing an “old” piece brings a renewed opportunity to delve into its character, form, structure, harmonic flow, phrasing, etc. while keeping an open mind about fingering choices. Fundamental “housekeeping” revisions may spring from experiences with music of diverse eras that have widened a music learner’s horizons on technical and musical levels.

The counterpoint of J.S. Bach, for example, spills into the “voicing” arena, even as we advance the clock 200 years to a musical period that embraces moods, colors, and blurred harmonies. We cross-reference and cross-fertilize as we practice Baroque Inventions, Preludes, Fugues; Classical era sonatas; Romantic period repertoire, and explore a rich repository of tonalities intermingled with dissonance. The journeys, regardless of historical period, are complementary.

Naturally, teaching a particular composition is another form of revisit that stretches our perspective and ripens our understanding of a composition.

The Debussy Arabesque No. 1, has been part of my learning and mentoring archive for years, yet this latest dip into its palette of colors produced new awakenings. With a long held embrace of layered learning, that included very slow tempo practicing, framed by a singing-tone, and seamless legato, I savored this latest journey of discovery.

Play Through:

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A 9-year old’s “complete” piano lesson integrates theory and ear training

After 9 months of study, “Liz” whom I’ve followed at regular recorded intervals since her first lesson in mid-February, has been exposed to multi-tiered music learning that’s incorporated a Theory and Ear Training dimension. (Note the choice of Frances Clark’s Time to Begin as a 6 month Primer, with my imposed creative modifications that expanded composing opportunities) Tonal explorations were built into my custom-made lesson design as well, offering pentachords, executed with divided hands in Major and minor “parallel” tonalities before I nudged the student into 8 note hands-divided scales. (Again it was my decision to alter the time worn approach where each hand is challenged to autonomously deal with complex thumb shifts before integrating both.)

Nonetheless, through a Circle of Fifths driven scale and arpeggio journey, my student acquired the ability to transpose, based on a solfeggio-framed moveable “DO” orientation which coexisted with alphabetically driven note naming. The latter is derived from traditional scale progressions that flow in “whole” and “half steps according to the alphabet. In this pursuit, Liz has nicely absorbed the structural aspect of scale construction and can easily navigate Major, and relative minor scales in three forms. (Adhering to the division of hands.)

This particular decision that alters traditional Major and relative minor scale fingering by dividing 4 notes between right and left hand in a one-octave span, was an intuitive gesture that I believed put a priority on phrasing and shaping a line, with supple wrist, and bigger, relaxed enlistment of arm energies. The one octave limit of the scale, implemented with an equality between the hands would ultimately provide a “natural” springboard to traditional parallel scale progressions over many octaves. The latter scale expansion would ensue after the pupil’s journey through the cycle of Major and minor keys had obtained completion. (clockwise motion in fifths, acquiring sharps, and counter-clockwise movement in descending fifths, accruing flats)

To travel around the WHOLE CIRCLE of FIFTHS, with an additional window into ENHARMONIC relationships (overlapping scales in sharps and flats) would be a tall order in itself that didn’t need the added complexity of multiple octaves with attendant thumb shifts “un-synched” between the hands except as applied to the pattern scales of B Major, F# Major and C# Major, that had thumbs meeting between the raised black notes in “mirrored” reciprocal fingering modality.

Liz, as it happens, is unusually equipped on a cognitive level to process the analytical (structural) dimension of scale-building where such an intense, layered exploration might be out of reach for many piano students. That’s why I’ve always supported a custom-designed music learning journey for each uniquely individual student–one that is not codified or based on a method book driven set of formulas. (Hence, my unabashed rejection of color sequenced method books through ponderously pretensive levels has been well aired.)


At this point in her piano study, Liz has practiced Major and relative minor scales through the keys of A Major and F-sharp minor. (From eighth notes, to 16ths to 32nds–legato to staccato) As pertains to F-Sharp minor, I’ve adjusted fingerings as illustrated in the attached Scale video with a particular change made in the Melodic form.

In the Arpeggio cosmos, I’ve supported hand-over-hand triadic movement that spans 4 octaves to prioritize agile shaping and contouring. (Historically, the student started with two-octave arpeggios and incrementally expanded to 3, followed by 4-octave travels.)

Through hand-over-hand transit, (LH fingers 5-3-1, and RH 1-3-5) Liz has learned to nicely “shape” the triplet flow of broken chords between the hands without the obstacle of bringing the thumb (root) under the “third” and “fifth” (middle notes)

In this arpeggiated endeavor, she incorporates PARALLEL minor practice by lowering the “third,” while scales flow in Major and relative minor relationships. (The AFFECTIVE contrast of Major to minor whether parallel or in relative minor relationship, has been amply explored.)


Prior to Circle of Fifths scale study, Liz was deeply embedded in “pentachords,” or five-note progressions, BUT NOT using fingers 1-2-3-4-5 in the Right Hand, and 5-4-3-2-1 in the Left Hand.

Instead, I had her divide the five-note progession between her hands.
(2 notes in the LH using fingers 3 and 2, and 3 notes in the Right hand, using fingers 2, 3, 4. This particular division nicely fleshed out the MAJOR and PARALLEL minor key relationships by having the critical and decisive THIRD note arrive as the first note in the Right Hand (finger no. 2) that altered tonality. In this regard, the student was repeatedly prompted to make an affective or “emotional” shift from Major to minor with “attentive listening” as an important underpinning.

While the pentachords proceeded through the Circle of Fifths, they could not realistically acquire sharps and flats that would attach to 8-note scale progressions. Still the journey, though attenuated, acquired an understanding of the Parallel Major/minor tonalities that integrated a companion EAR TRAINING experience.

Liz’s most recent lesson reveals how far she’s traveled over nine months time.
Following a stint with Time To Begin, I transitioned her to Accent on Gillock, Level 2, that has enticing character pieces with wedded musical and technique-driven goals.


In this vein, I’ve recorded two pieces from the collection–the first, “Splashing in the Brook,” is Liz’s newest assigned piece, though she’s simultaneously refining “Little Flower Girl of Paris.” (Following “Splashing in the Brook” we will embark upon the delightfully spun, “Sail Boats” that’s included in my recording)

The additional video below throws a spotlight on the most recent lesson segment that focused on “Little Flower Girl…” where the student has the challenge of fleshing out a cantabile legato melody in the Left Hand against Right Hand after beat harmonic thirds and seconds in staccato. The voices are inverted in the second section, along with a key shift from C Major to G Major. (Liz fully comprehends given her ongoing Theory exposures)


In the ear-training universe, Liz is learning to build and aurally identify Major, minor, diminished and augmented chords. To this effect, she has been given a chord sheet that tags these triads on every scale degree of C Major and ‘A’ Harmonic minor. (Theory and Ear Training are nicely interwoven)


In the attached recorded segment Liz specifically splits a triad in half, to construct a harmonic third between notes 1 and 3, and the same between notes 3 and 5. She has learned that a Major third plus a minor third equals a “Major” chord, and in reverse, a “Minor” chord. The “Augmented” and “Diminished” chords have also been carefully constructed with an integrated EAR TRAINING awareness. In this connection, I use “Do a Deer” from Sound of Music to track the first three notes of a Major progression from the Root to Third. (whole step/whole step) and then juxtapose the sad “Do a Deer,” (Whole Step/half step) through the first three notes of a MINOR scale. The pupil then splits a particular chord in half–analyzing the first to the third note as Major or Minor, doing the same from the third note to the fifth note. She then combines both to determine the identity of a chord. I’ve also exposed her to the instability of Diminished and Augmented Chords and how they have a pull toward “RESOLUTION.”

In summary, Liz has made enormous strides in cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic realms that span her 9 months of lessons. And even from the start of instruction, the fundamental focus on relaxed, “weeping willow” arms, supple wrists, and whole arm energies to advance a “singing tone” has been the underpinning of all her music-making.

Without doubt Liz has enjoyed a journey that has grown her sensitivity to tone production, dynamics (with weight transfer awareness), phrasing, and the ebb and flow of harmonic rhythm. In the Rhythm cosmos, the student understands the “color” of various rhythms and how BREATHING is intrinsic to well-shaped lines. Above all, ATTENTIVE LISTENING has been a central component of all her music-making that has a pivotal structural and aesthetic dimension.

Liz explores a Schoenhut Toy piano which enlisted an easy transfer of her Keyboard skills to a childlike universe.

P.S. Many of Liz’s lessons from Day ONE are available on you tube and these videos have been embedded into a series of blogs. (a few are sampled below)


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Reading Between the Lines: Making decisions about Dynamics

Dynamics cannot always be taken literally when a player embarks upon serious study of a particular composition. In fact, what often governs the shaping of phrases through many measures even with composer inserted soft (piano) or loud (Forte) directives, are harmonic rhythm and metrical considerations. So while a set of measures might attach a Crescendo in the score, it might be modified by a harmonic resolution that requires a dip in the intensified journey to climax.

Diminished chords that have chromatic dependency, for example, often fold in or taper into tonics, dominants, or any other sonorities within a scale. They have an organic pull that frequently will not be specifically notated. Same applies to the effect of Meter, and its overall framing through a composition. In 3/8 time, the last beat will be the lightest, unless the composer is bent on a syncopated effect. It would be un-musical, therefore, to hammer away at the end of the measure even within an overall, broad brush FORTE assigned portion of music.

Similarly, passing dissonances and pedaling decisions that aim to avoid blurring, will alter weight transfer over measures, precluding obedience to a fixed FORTE.

Illustrative of the aforementioned, and what can influence a dynamic landscape are revealed in Beethoven’s Fur Elise, tremolo Measures 61-78.


While the pianist must consider an overall intensification and de-intensification through this section, he will have to understand the effect of harmony, meter, and destination points on his dynamic decision-making. In this endeavor, he must “read between the lines” and create a “musically”-based mosaic of nuances.

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A musical journey through a Chopin Waltz in glowing terms


A particular composition that’s explored during a piano lesson can afford a multifaceted examination of phrasing. In this beauty-seeking musical cosmos, no singular focus will necessarily supersede others. Instead, a panoply of framing cues or prompts can nourish well-shaped phrases and lines.

As I uploaded a lesson video today, I found myself summarizing a journey through Chopin’s Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2,that invited specific “terms” in its “Description.” These provided a retrospective outline of what the student and teacher had aesthetically striven for in Romantic era framing.

The following headings were thematic and redundantly drawn upon.

“Phrasing,” spacing, think “groups” of notes, harmonic rhythm, choreography, destination, arm, hand and wrist flexibility, singing tone, singing pulse, mental imagery, mood framing–Three different sections, with individually defined “mood-sets.”


Often pupils think in terms of vertically driven “right notes,” which make horizontal, sculpted lines an impossibility. This is why the recommendation to play “groups” of notes is often the best antidote to “NOTEY,” undirected phrasing.

Tightly curved, or over-arched fingers that are cut off from a warm supply of relaxed energy coming down the arms through supple wrists, present additional barriers to limpid musical expression. These rigid, preconceived hand positions, constrict phrases, and inhibit the ins-and-outs of well-shaped lines.

To play the Chopin Waltz in B minor, for instance, with anything short of hand/arm/wrist/finger flexibility will preclude the release of an unabashed “singing tone.”

“Harmonic Rhythm” awareness, influences phrasing. Cadences suggest tapering while modulations both expected, and unexpected, infuse music with “emotional” shifts that are intrinsic to sensitive phrasing. In this regard, the B minor Waltz has a particularly poignant transition from the key of B minor to B Major, when the Trio Section begins in measure 50.

Likewise, pokey THUMBS, that are not folded into a well-breathed line of “spaced” eighth notes might literally eviscerate any semblance of smooth musical flow.

“Mood-setting” is another important ingredient of expressive playing, that fleshes out AFFECT and EMOTION. It prompts an understanding of what the music is “saying.” (“Mental imagery” partners nicely with mood framing.)

If the composer is “sighing” down, as in the opening section of the Chopin Waltz, through redundant descents of eighth notes, against a Tonic and Dominant underpinning, then Harmonic Rhythm and the direction of notes combine to create a mood picture with infused “emotion.”

Adding in note “destinations,” groupings, and a singing pulse to an archive of musical awareness, creates a “layered approach” to practicing and growing a composition in the short and long-term.

“Choreography” or the motion of the arms/wrists/hands is dependent upon the phrase and its particular contour. The middle section, for instance, of Chopin’s Waltz has a dance-like character that requires a loopy, or “rotational” set of motions.

Today’s lesson certainly captured much of what was laid out in specific terms under the Video DESCRIPTION, and it was mutually beneficial to mentor and student.

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What we learn from our piano students

Mentoring is a perfect complement to a life-long musical journey that includes practicing, growing repertoire, and accruing insights about the multi-dimensional aspects of artistic awareness. And what better way to enhance the development of a teacher, than to have a regular opportunity to assist students in their unique growth process.

From our seat away from the piano, we have a dual perspective, objectifying our relationship to a particular composition through attentive listening infused with an analysis of what might work to un-constrain a phrase, or nudge it toward the liberation of physical encumbrance.

It’s a big responsibility that has a willing partner to the whole undertaking: the pupil, who is no less than a full participant in a mutual journey of enlightenment.

Many of our piano students ask pivotal questions about fingering, harmonic progressions, rhythmic flow, the singing tone, phrasing, structure, and we have the obligation to provide the underpinning of sound foundational learning through our responses. It means we need to peel away our own process of musical assimilation, and frame it in cognitive, affective and kinesthetic terms.

In the two-way learning transaction a pupil might suggest an alternate fingering that for him/her seems more natural for a particular hand which invites a mentor’s reconsideration of what might have worked all along in theory, but needs adjustment in practice.

Flexibility is a big component of teaching because students of all levels and abilities require that we reject the one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring, and instead, tailor a curriculum to meet individual needs.

In one particular lesson that transpired a few days ago, the student asked riveting questions that required my demonstrations of weight transfer in the opening measures of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor. She was also curious about harmonic modulations, and the geography of her hands in various tricky measures.

Such inquiries required a careful set of responses that fed a layered-learning foundation we had both enjoyed over the years; It came with a common nurtured language that needed my elaboration/modeling to grow an improvement. Yet, the very fact that I had to deeply ponder each question, and devise a particular route to help the pupil, grew my own musical insights and understanding. Still, the process would not preclude my altered consciousness in response to a student’s experimentation.

We are fortunate to dwell in this ever-evolving cosmos of aesthetic expression; to be on the giving and receiving end of an unfolding musical relationship that is mutually satisfying and progressive.

It’s all the more reason to Thank students after each lesson for what we continue to learn from them.


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Early Stage layered learning with Context

Liz, a 9 year old student, who began piano lessons 8 months ago, has been consistently exposed to layered learning within a contextual framing. This approach, in substance and quality, will apply to pupils of diverse ages and levels.

During our most recent lesson, Liz practiced William Gillock’s “Little Flower Girl of Paris” (Accent on Gillock, Level 2), in the “context” of balancing a Left Hand fleshed out legato melody, with Right Hand rendered harmonic seconds and thirds in staccato. Naturally, in this first week exposure to the piece, the first half was assigned, with a separate hands direction.

The affect of a bass line “sung out” with beautiful, vocal model phrasing was the springboard to the very early practicing of the Left Hand. And the “light” Right Hand seconds and thirds, with a prompt to keep the third beat “lifted,” (with a supple wrist and buoyant arms), kept the “dancing” treble from sounding like pencil point attacks.

“Balance” between hands was a resonating theme of the lesson, and how to preserve the smooth flowing bass line against the LIFTED right hand staccato harmonic intervals. (The third beat was to be, as mentioned, “lighter” than the second in a recurring off-beat set of measures)

Embracing the whole undertaking, was a consciousness of tone production, framing rhythm, with an underlying singing tone legato and staccato.

In the technique portion of the lesson, the student practiced a “C” launched Chromatic scale in contrary motion, again within singing tone context, as well as having an imbued consciousness of “scale shaping” with “destination” to cadence. (The prompt urged a peak turn around as a “sub-destination,” with the final note as a resolution or ultimate destination with “tapering.”)

The student has learned to use supple wrist forward motions to taper phrases, which also applies to her playing B minor scales, divided between the hands in three forms. (Left Hand 4, 3, 2, 1; Right Hand, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

Journeying around the Circle of Fifths in Major and Minor Progressions (scales and arpeggios) has added CONTEXT to the pupil’s learning. (Composing has also been a strong dimension of the musical journey adding even more context in the theoretical and creatively expressive realm)

All the child’s musical exposures are multi-layered. We work on the affective, kinesthetic, and cognitive aspects of practicing, with framing rhythm or the singing pulse underlying each effort from back tempo approaches toward incremental increases in tempo.

From Day one, this pupil has been immersed in the singing tone and how to produce it. (relaxed arms, supple wrists)


A lesson sample at the near 8th month juncture:

A contextual example where the student “analyzes” Gillock’s “Summertime Polka.”


The child’s very first lesson in February 2016 is documented within this blog:

There are many more blog entries of this student’s progress over 8 months time. (See Liz has her first lesson; Liz Composes, etc)

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Phrasing at the Piano: Direction and Destination

Often I query my students about the “destination” and “direction” of phrases within a particular composition. Naturally, my questions are a reflection of a need to clarify what arrivals are significant in the transit of notes.

Part of this exploration encompasses the awareness of sub-destinations that are on the way to the peak or climax of a phrase. In addition, bundled into the journey is a framing singing tone, that requires a supple wrist, with a natural, unencumbered flow of energy through relaxed arms into the hands and fingers. (Needless to say, attentive listening is at the heart of sensitive playing, and “singing” helps to clarify shape and contour of lines)


Today, two pupils were grappling with essential elements of beautiful, well-shaped and directed phrasing as they respectively rendered a Chopin Waltz and Nocturne.

The Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, no.2 and the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 were both noteworthy for challenging the individual player to examine phrase relationships and the influence of harmonic rhythm, voicing, melodic contour, innate rhythmic flow, dynamic variation, nuance and more.

Mood-setting and changes that occurred in various sections of these compositions were also pivotal to fluid renderings.

In both these examples below, “destination” was a particular lesson focus.

Chopin Waltz in B minor

Chopin Nocturne in E minor

(Videos are edited for teacher demonstrations)

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