No shortcuts in teaching beginning piano students

Watching a colleague teaching a child in Madrid (on video) brought home the complexity of playing just two notes with beauty. What might be construed as an innately “natural” approach to piano playing, must in reality be learned by beginning students with meticulous attention to vocal modeling, touch sensitivity, and an infusion of imagination.

Irina Gorin is a remarkable example of mentoring at its highest level as she guides a young student to attain all the ingredients of a singing tone legato, by pairing two “sighing” notes with an activation of relaxed arms and supple wrist forward movements. But the right “mechanics” of motion are not enough. The student must absorb the “feeling” of weight transfer and fluidity of motion, as she ties it to the imagined/internalized tonal ideal. And tone is tied to the way we phrase notes that have a pervasive musical relationship to each other. (Words and music partnered together are particularly effective in furthering what should be imagined before playing)

https://www.facebook.com/yanira.soria.1/videos/10103342673133385/

(Those who cannot access Facebook posted videos can check Gorin’s comparable videos at her you tube site) This particular lesson sample below ties in nicely to the one generated from Madrid.)

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Irina Mints, another inspiring mentor who’s based in Germany, lays down a thorough foundation for her primary level piano students as revealed in this exemplary lesson. Working with just three notes, she “sings” beside her pupil, “liebes kind” while physically modeling a set of sequences.

https://www.facebook.com/irina.mints.3/videos/1869818886622848/

Another lesson sample in the public domain:

Both Mints and Gorin use props to help students “feel” the keyboard as soft and and pliant as opposed to being a hard turf. Gorin will often use silly putty in which pupils can dip their fingers to experiment with density, while Mints will use a toy with soft consistency to aid in a mental transfer to the piano.

Here, Mints plays a Gliere Prelude with a student, showing a dual collaboration of supple wrist movements to produce lyrical phrases.

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Irina Morozova, an accomplished pianist and teacher, patiently mentors a 6-year old at the Special School/Kaufman Center (NYC) with her focus on relaxed arms, supple wrists, and weight application in order to produce well-voiced, singing tone chords. (Left hand)

During the same lesson she works on legato/staccato groupings for the Right Hand, demonstrating a centered impetus needed to launch a pleasing group of well-shaped notes.

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My only young piano student (who began studies with me at age 8) has benefitted from a careful embedding of a supple wrist, relaxed “weeping willow” arms approach to the piano–always being ear-attentive, and centered on the singing tone and phrasing. Our “singing” back and forth during lessons reinforces an internalized ideal of mood, tone, and rhythm, while differentiating between vowel sounds and consonants, has a relationship to phrasing. Words and music are a particularly valuable pairing in early mentoring efforts.

In summary, there are no shortcuts in learning to play the piano. A teacher must have a patient commitment to developing sensitivity to tone production and phrasing right at the outset of lessons by working with a student in well-planned baby steps.

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Trading places with our piano students

As teachers, the empathy we have for a pupil’s budding learning process with its slips and slides, is at the foundation of good mentoring. By remembering what it’s like to be in the student’s position, sitting at the piano under a professional gaze, we can increase our pedagogical effectiveness.

If we revisit our own early student experiences in the riveting capsule of a mentor’s examination, we can extract what worked to improve our playing or what sadly drove a passage further into the ground.

Yesterday, I met Online with a student who prepared her scales beautifully but had a glitch in the Harmonic form (A-sharp minor/Bb minor) It occurred when I’d asked her to replay the peak 16th note rendering to remedy a perceived overcrowding or acceleration in the initial outpouring. In her repetition effort she tightened up and lost more notes than previously, saying “I guess I’m just good for the first effort.”

In truth, she tried a bit too hard the second time, tightening up in her earnest determination to improve the peak speed staccato. It was an approach that had the opposite effect than intended, funneling tension through the arms and wrists that impeded a naturally paced flow of notes.

At this juncture, I found it helpful to personally identify with the same propensity to recycle glitches and how I found a way to unravel them: This was about taking pause, restoring natural respiration, and freeing arms and wrists through mental imagery.

Ultimately, my experience resonated with the student who benefitted by a changed consciousness. (a NONjudgmental approach) In a resumed effort, she acquired presence of mind, regained equilibrium, and created an interval of calmness and contemplation before she rippled through her third repetition.

The scale portion of this student’s lesson continued with the Melodic minor which was on a more even keel. A sensible, relaxed application of spot practicing removed a minor snag in the last two octaves.

This particular pupil, based in Scotland, has made big strides over the past two years in the technical/musical cosmos. Her peak tempo 32nds through scales are quite pleasing as she contours them in a breezy flow. (So nicely revealed in the first video segment.)

In the second portion of the footage embedded below, I worked with another student on body movement in contrary motion scales and arpeggios. In the arpeggio segment, where the student had practiced a different fingering for E Major in 10ths, I didn’t dismiss her choice but rather took the position that we should try both fingerings to see if one or the other could be reliable in triple speed tempo.

An objective examination of fingering allowed for student input, narrowing the distance between mentor and pupil. It precluded an authoritarian model of teaching–where one individual becomes the singular font of knowledge without challenge.

By such an example, we can examine, modify and refine our attitude toward a student so that it maximizes his/her musical growth and development. Periodic self-reviews bundled in empathy will definitely improve our own playing and teaching as well.

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Link:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2017/03/18/student-i-get-so-nervous-when-i-play-for-you-the-teacher-responds/

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Before and After the Fall, Music Heals

As I sit under a webcam mounted on a 7 foot tripod, I have an uneasy feeling that the cam will dislodge, reviving the nightmare of my head injury, sustained in a backwards fall on June 29th. What made things worse for my noggin was a jagged incline that caused brute force contact with the concrete. I didn’t know what hit me as my limp body was lifted up by paramedics, placed on a stretcher, and shuttled off to the Emergency room. (Thankfully, a C-T scan showed NO intracranial bleeding and I was “conscious” despite the nasty impact.) Still, “concussion” that’s attached to such an injury, is a scary diagnosis with all its possible ramifications and complications, so I’ve been been treading lightly with ice-packed rest periods round the clock.

Prior to the slam, I’d stashed away some lesson footage that I’d intended to embed within two separate blogs, but they remained on hold until today when I decided to post them as a form of self-applied “Music Therapy.” (My framed NYU Master’s Degree in this field of endeavor had been collecting silverfish over decades, so it was the right moment to enlist the spirit of this particular journey that celebrates music’s healing properties.)

The two videos below certainly have a common thread as phrasing, harmonic rhythm, technique, choreography (rotation, arm weight variations, supple wrists, etc), the “singing” pulse, vocal modeling, all belong to an artistically nuanced musical endeavor.

The first lesson extract is with an adult student, followed by the second, with a child of 9 years old who’s been studying piano since mid-February, 2016, with a few interspersed breaks.

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Without doubt, music blessedly soothes during challenging times like these.

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Piano Student: “I don’t know what I want to hear?”

A commonly registered concern among my brood of adult students circumscribes an uncertainty about phrasing and overall musical expression. Many don’t trust their native musical instincts as they might apply to practicing fledgling pieces that are in early stage development. Yet a good sample of these self-doubters often have a natural inclination to shape lines as an outgrowth of choir experiences, or from vocal interactions with family members during growing up years.

In my particular childhood household, the exposure to poetically exemplary musicians came through a perpetual turntable of 78s that spun around, circulating concertos, operas and choirs through the tiny air space of a one-room flat in the Northeast Bronx. A life draped in recordings of Arthur Rubinstein, Leonid Kogan, Michael Rabin, a Russian Orthodox vocal ensemble, and Jan Peerce, among others, was a constant source of inspiration without educational pretension. Beautifully expressed music was organic to the home environment.

My parents (with no formal musical training) also plucked folkloric vinyl disks from sidewalk sales. I heard the South African duo, Marais and Miranda sing emotionally moving songs with tantalizing lyrics about childhood activities, while Burl Ives and Peter Seeger/The Weavers added to a repertoire of soulful melodies with captivating verses. The street singer, Edith Piaf sobbed through La Vie En Rose with impeccable phrasing and a tremulous vibrato. These artists left deeply embedded emotional impressions upon me from my earliest years.

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If I tapped into my studio of piano students, I know they could retrieve similar memories of songs, instrumental performances of one kind or another that had a pervasive influence on them, inspiring an echo effect, or a contagious affection for tunes in various genres: pop, classical, semi-classical, folk, rock, jazz, etc.

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Drawing upon these early exposures as they apply to the study of piano surely cannot be underestimated.

Yet, there’s always more to consider when examining the ingredients of developing a piece of piano music to a player’s full creative potential.

I realized such complexity in this process when one of my earliest piano teachers failed to mentor me about “how to learn,” despite my abundance of native musical instincts.

While I knew “what I wanted to hear,” I had insufficient knowledge/skills to develop a piece of music from a seedling stage to full blown ripening. At one particular piano lesson, high up in an apartment building on W. 103 and Broadway, my teacher had me copy pages of her fingerings for the Chopin Scherzo in Bb minor in the narrow vestibule of her musty kitchen, while a very advanced student was playing effortlessly though the Chopin Etudes. The disparity in her knowledge as compared to mine was too great to imagine.

And that’s when I broke down and cried at my last lesson, as if I was ready to give up unless rescued by an able mentor who would understand my need to be guided sensitively and with great care to a semblance of graduated independence–to a level where what I wanted to hear could be realized.

This very model of imparting basic musical skills and direction to my own pupils was channeled through life saver, Lillian Freundlich who was the singing tone messiah. She sang over my playing, conducted me with her hands, always responding viscerally to the music. She took me to performances of Richter and Gilels at Carnegie Hall, following the urtext editions, pointing out poetically rendered passages.

What I had innately within me, she was able to draw out and grow to new levels of creative awareness and expression–always in baby steps. It was back to fundamentals to my relief. Her resonating words, “I will teach you how to learn,” was exactly what I needed in my time of despair and frustration.

If I fast forward the clock to the present, I respond to queries that are familiar: “I don’t know what I want to hear.”

It’s then, that I urge my pupils to sing with me, and develop an allied sensitivity to tone production. To create a beautiful sound, one must imagine it at first and then learn to produce fluid physical motions that breathe life into music. (supple wrists, relaxed arms, rotations–these skills must be rehearsed and refined–along with an awareness of the BREATH) Then there’s context given to phrases that involve a harmonic orientation; an attachment of practical and musical fingerings; how to communicate a mood-set; how structural knowledge aids interpretation–voicing, balance, historical period. The list goes on with deep layers of immersion that a teacher should nurture along, acquiring additional insights and epiphanies.

As an example of such a satisfying exploration that incorporated many enumerated ingredients of musical expression, today’s lesson (Debussy Reverie) reassured me that my student felt a bit more confident about what she wanted to hear: Her playing became more expressive during the time we spent together.

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Chamber music and pianists: seamless interaction, ensemble, and musical growth

Most piano students don’t get ample opportunity to play piano trios, quartets, quintets, etc. because they’re consumed with learning solo repertoire and developing their technical/musical skills. Thankfully, the ongoing Cliburn International Piano Competition, in progress, fills this common void by reminding us that chamber music is integral to the development of a well-rounded musician. It underscores that pianists are not accessories to an ensemble weighted toward string or wind players. (Both Murray Perahia and Richard Goode enjoyed years of chamber music making well before their solo careers blossomed. Perahia was a regular, collaborating with the Budapest String Quartet on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, while Goode was a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.)

My own ensemble experiences date back to my adolescent years when I was a dual piano/violin student, savoring participation as second fiddle in a string quartet coached by Boston Symphony Principal violist, Eugene Lehner. (Merrywood Music Camp in Lenox, MA)

Simultaneously, I was assigned a keyboard role in the Gigue movement of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg 5 to be performed as the Camp Finale. A blog about my errant entrance “at the recapitulation” might have caused most players to cringe at any further group interactions, but I carried on, finding myself many years later, immersed in the Beethoven “Ghost Trio” with an insecure page turner (food columnist of the Fresno Bee) who advanced two pages forward while my nursing infant at a glitzy dinner party scowled for a feed. Ironically, the lavish home was enlisted for a shoot in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Birds with Tippi Hedren, which added a hauntingly perfect cloaking of our ensemble. Immersed in eerie tremolos and diminished harmonies, we were at one, in an ebb and flow of undulating phrases.

… such a musical encounter nicely flowed into a few more chamber music opportunities that interspersed my solo repertoire studies. I played the Mozart Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, K. 478 at the 92nd Street Y, coached by Yuval Waldman while my unreliable page turner snored through the Development section. Randomly occurring misfortunes such as these inspire pianists to draw on a repository of thorough preparation and increased Mindfulness.

Singular focus and sensitive interplay among players also apply to performing a Mozart piano Concerto which is the epitome of a chamber music framing. I was lucky to play the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 17 in G Major, K. 453 at the NYC H.S. of Performing Arts Winter Concert. And having had a number of prior interactions with musicians in quartets and quintet settings amplified my understanding of a needed responsiveness between music-makers. One can certainly apply the study of Bach counterpoint to chamber music preparation, with voicing so paramount to both, but unless a player is in the center of forces within the ensemble environment, he/she cannot fully appreciate the requirements of a cooperative, collaborative undertaking.

The Cliburn Competition, in progress, recently showcased 12 semi-finalists who each performed a selected Mozart Concerto that preceded the official Chamber Music Round. In the Concerto segment, the Fort Worth Symphony seemed over-sized for music that should have had a clearer, more transparent, ensemble inspired dialog between soloist and orchestra. Even the full dimension D minor, K. 466 came across sounding like a late Beethoven symphony in tutti (orchestra) sections. The added acoustical reverberation of Bass Hall contributed to the drowning out of crystalline keyboard passages as pianists labored to compete with woodwinds, timpani, and audibly loud streams of string choirs.

The official “Chamber Music” round at Cliburn with six surviving Finalists, was in full bloom during the last two evenings. It produced notable performances of Antonín Dvořák’s Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 featuring the magnificent Brentano Quartet. (My connection to the second violinist, Serena Canin, is through her uncle Stuart Canin, my violin teacher at the Oberlin Conservatory.) He was the brilliant first violinist of the Oberlin String Quartet. Years later, Canin relocated to the Bay area to become Concertmaster of the San Francisco Orchestra. Serena’s father, Martin Canin, is the distinguished pianist/teacher, and emeritus Professor, the Juilliard School. Without doubt, less than six degrees of separation hallmark the music world.

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At the Cliburn event, pianists, Kenneth Broberg and Georgy Tchaidze rose to the occasion in the Dvorak chamber work, while Daniel Hsu delivered a heart-rending reading of Cesar Franck’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor. His uniquely sensitive solo opening seamlessly flowed into an ethereal collaboration, inspiring Brentano to pulsate with more passion than usual. It’s clear that quartet members respond in kind when a pianist is fully engaged and intertwined with them–one who is attuned to structure, harmonic rhythm, counterpoint, thematic motifs, and dynamic give and take.

Daniel Hsu’s interaction included all the aforementioned.

June 8, 2017

http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/performance/finale-2

Finally, pianists should not seal themselves in a vacuum of solo repertoire study, but should branch out and add a significant amount of chamber music experiences to their musical journeys.

Both solo and collaborative undertakings complement each other, enlarging and enriching a musician’s universe.

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An Ear-grabbing Cliburn 2017 Piano Competition!

I couldn’t tear myself from my big Mac, savoring a big serving of tantalizing musical artistry via Medici TV. The sparing LIVE performances that I’d ingested through the opening days of the celebrated Fort Worth-based Cliburn event, had been other worldly, though a few pyrotechnically efficient players, had, for me, not risen beyond note-perfect playing.

Of course, such an aesthetic judgment is deeply personal and subjective–even validated by Cliburn Jury Chairman, Leonard Slatkin in a pre-recorded message to competitors that’s been aired publicly during intermissions, or at a weighty interval of jury tabulation that produced a quarterfinals roster. The original list of 30 Preliminary entrants had been whittled down to 20–a number that will shrink at the Semi-Finals juncture, and further dwindle down when Finals competitors are announced. (The Cliburn event runs from May 25 through June 10)

http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/

This year Anderson and Roe, two creative, powerhouse pianists, known far and wide for their duo collaboration, have added a touch of class to the competition–interspersing in depth comments that reveal their Juilliard-based immersion in music history, theory, and performance. What a pleasure to have two education-spreading messiahs at the helm, enriching the listening experience. In the visual universe, multi-cam views of the keyboard provide an eye-catching view of the performers’ hands, wrists, and arms in varied choreographies.

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Do I dare go out on a limb and cherry pick a few of my favorite competitors to date, with an avowed disclaimer that I may not have heard ALL 20 who made the cut from the Preliminary round. (In short, I’ve been revisiting Preliminary Recitals and the most recent round contenders at the quarterfinals level)

For me, a handful of players have possessed unique gifts of artistry and communication that were transformative during their ENTIRE recitals. (A reminder that logging onto the Cliburn Competition site, will produce recent and past performance videos of all competitors)

MY SHORT LIST may expand as the competition unfolds:

Yuri Favorin: A Bravissimo for today’s recital!

http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/performance/-30

What I posted on Facebook about Favorin in the afterglow of this evening’s remarkable performance was probably an understatement:

“…Russian pianist, Yuri Favorin, played beyond words to describe in today’s Cliburn quarterfinals. It’s going to be tough to outshine this uniquely gifted pianist.. Without doubt, he produced a jaw-dropping performance of challenging program offerings. And talk about the BREATH.. he had total mastery–breathing through tough transitions– from impassioned, bravura passages, to tender, lyrical sections. A good example for all of us who are eternal students of the piano, or any other musical instrument. And to add kudos to his artistry/accomplishments, he was appointed to the Moscow Conservatory faculty at the tender age of 29. He’s now turned 30, perhaps the Millenium’s new 20.”

A Facebook Friend corroborated Favorin’s “MATURITY” as unique among the crop of competitors, to which I wholeheartedly agreed.

My bubbling enthusiasm could not be contained in a follow-up post:

“The Rachmaninoff/Corelli Variations were just amazing.. I’m still hearing the Variations right now as Favorin permeated my very being through his abundantly communicative playing.. and structurally, he was right there, with threads going through all the variations. This fellow has enormous dimension and depth.” (synonym: MATURITY)

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Quite a captivating surprise: The artistry of 20-year old pianist, Martin James Bartlett. His playing from Scarlatti to Prokofiev, had a fresh, spontaneous energy, yet grounded in thoughtful musicianship. He possesses immense tonal variety and projection. Definitely a big DISCOVERY in this competition, and one that will be talked about to its very conclusion. Keep an eye on this young man!

http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/performance/-20

Another favorite:

Yekwon Sunwoo, age 28

Sunwoo’s most recent performance at the Cliburn 2017 can be located at the website.

Here’s a flashback to his Cliburn 2013 Preliminary Recital: It’s sheer musical poetry wedded to impeccable technique:

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A Very sensitive and lyrical pianist followed Yuri Favorin:

YuTong Sun (age 21)

His Chopin canvas was particularly beautiful

http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/artist/yutong-sun

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Not to overlook competitors, such as Daniel Hsu, age 19, and Alyosha Jurinic
28 years old, who have risen above collections of fast paced notes, to “sing” poetically from phrase to phrase. Their talents and gifts are treasured regardless of the flow of rounds and results.

Peaks in performances, as well, can be intermixed with occasional valleys of technical imperfection, making it often humanly impossible to please every jury member. Interpretations being be varied and controversial add another ingredient of complexity in assessment.

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A convergence of musical talent is by no means the equivalent of a sports event where points are deducted for fouls, or spills on the ice. Note errors of course, are a reality in all endeavors, but an efficient note-wise performance will not necessarily produce expressive or memorable playing. Therefore, selecting a so-called “winner” in a musical universe, can appear to be an oxymoron.

Many commentators, like the sagacious pianist, Seymour Bernstein, assert that it’s basically unfair and unjust to place musicians in a COMPETITIVE environment on any terms. And there’s additional doubt harbored about the wide age range of participants in numerous concours–where a 19-year old’s performance, for example, is juxtaposed with that of a 30-year old.

Finally, while many pianists, teachers, and others may hold differing opinions about placing pianists on a stage of comparison, we can at least collectively wish that all “entrants” will enjoy an ongoing journey of musical growth, development and enrichment as their lives unfold.

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Two-timing scale practice

I appreciate two-timing piano students who practice their scales with acutely sensitive ears. They are made keenly aware of what it takes to repeat a faulty step-wise sequence that’s been thrown out of rhythmic alignment along a 4-octave route. (Auditory memory is a vital ingredient through repetitions that require retrieval of a consistent underlying pulse.)

In a journey from 8ths to 16ths to 32nds, many pupils will underestimate the end game tempo, losing technical control in the final spill. To avoid a pile-up in the speed zone, they will put on the breaks, losing their initial framing beat. Ironically, a good proportion of two-timers who find themselves in such a jam will “think” they’ve doubled-up in the 32nds range, only to discover by a teacher’s real-time demonstration, that 16ths to 32nds were out of synch. (A metronome can be just as helpful in clarifying rhythmic disparities.)
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Ways to deal with rhythmic disorientation

I prompt students to back up by “half” from what they can realistically manage in 32nds. After a few retrograde repetitions in this practicing mode, they can revisit 8ths and then move forward in doubled sequence to peak destination. In most cases, a pupil comes to grips with what he can safely control at the 32nds level, knowing that the underlying pulse will increase through incremental learning stages.

A recent lesson sample illustrated rhythmic disproportion and remedy. (It’s excerpted at the juncture where a student zoned in on 16ths to 32nds in a D-sharp minor Harmonic form scale) A brief second segment focused on a “rolling into” effort in a more fast-paced staccato-rendered scale in Melodic form. It was a confidence-building effort that represented a “rite of passage” for this pupil who realized that she could, in fact, play brisker 32nd notes without faltering. Breathing, pacing, mindfulness, and lack of PANIC all kick into controlled, peak tempo playings.

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