Piano Technique: Playing LEGATO can be a drag!

One of my favorite verbal prompts to students who have a choppy approach to scales and arpeggios, is: “drag” your fingers from note note–“feel” the weight transfer with imagined resistance. I often talk about flowing “vowels” not consonants through an arpeggio.

Other mental images are equally effective: Think of the piano as a bowl of honey or molasses as you play through it. Avoid a top layer, thin, transparent sound. I’m known to resoundingly nix any semblance of tracing paper. (There I go with mixed metaphors that nonetheless register when students are trying to achieve playing “density.”)

And of course, it helps to have a cooperative piano–one that has some resistance built in re: the down weight, after touch, let-off. I’ve been dealing with this very issue as my Steinway grand’s regulation is on HOLD. The punchings that were cut beneath the notes,Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 1.26.44 PM in conjunction with some other applications, created a piano with barely any friction or resistance to create a seamless legato, so I’ve retreated to the brand new Baldwin that has this capacity. Updates on Steinway M will be reported as they occur. I’m happy to report that first stage improvement is in progress and it’s going to be a long haul.

Back to producing a seamless legato on pianos that have at least minimum potential. As it played out, my long distance ONLINE Fresno student had to psyche out her Baldwin Acrosonic when a voicing issue intruded. An F# in the bass range sounded like a tin can bouncing off a kitchen counter,tin can bent so we had to deal with subduing the note through an F# minor arpeggio in contrary motion. The very process of avoiding an attack on the vulnerable F# invited attentive listening and a semblance of muscle memory.

Here’s a lesson segment that proved to be a real drag in the good sense:

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My Steinway “M” Grand gets the Royal Treatment, DAY ONE!

Shawn Skylark at work

Shawn Skylark was given a royal welcome as he crossed the threshold of my piano-filled apartment. On this FIRST day of TWO slated for regulating and voicing beloved Steinway M, (1917), seasoned technician, Skylark rose to the occasion with meticulous analysis of stack mounting issues and attendant screw bearing irregularities. It was phase one of stabilizing the frame for a bout of intensive regulation.

In prep for Skylark’s appearance, I had cleared space around my grand, dismantling a second tripod with an overhead webcam, while shuttling music books, a music stand and my Yamaha Arius YDP 141 off to the side.

As it played out, Shawn glued and clamped a pivotal split rail (big surprise!) that he had to set overnight before he resumes work in the morning. (Stay TUNED)

Keyboard pile-up crop

Here’s a recap of Day 1:

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TOMORROW evening brings a culminating review of Steinway M, 1917.


UPDATE: Work is continuing beyond the two day schedule and will be tracked along the way.

piano action in room


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Pianist, Stephen Hough talks about growing a piece over time

Stephen Hough

In this excerpt from Lara Downe’s San Francisco Classical Voice interview with Stephen Hough, the universe of growth and musical ripening is explored.

Lara Downes: Your teacher, Gordon Green, was a great influence and inspiration to you, and you’ve quoted him as saying to you, when you were a young student: “I don’t care how you’re playing the piece now, what I care about is how you’ll play it in 10 years.”

Is that still true for you? As a deeply spiritual person, how do you experience the balance of making personal effort, and also just waiting for the revelation part of that learning process?

Stephen Hough: With this business of searching, I feel that I’m still very much a beginner. The idea of being patient for 10 years is not something that comes naturally to me at all! But I do think that it’s important for us to develop this kind of patience. It’s almost like farming. I mean, if you want to grow beautiful fruit, you do have to let the trees grow. You can dump chemicals on them and get them to produce very quickly, but if you want delicious fruit that’s going to grow season after season, even beyond your own lifetime, there’s a certain sort of time that simply has to pass, and I think it’s the same with learning music. We can learn a piece of music very quickly, but we have to be aware that it’s going to get so much richer over the years..

– See more at: https://www.sfcv.org/events-calendar/artist-spotlight/on-the-bench-with-stephen-hough?utm_source=SFCV+Newsletter+May+12%2C+2015&utm_campaign=May+12%2C+2015&utm_medium=email#sthash.AUK8fAlJ.dpuf

I applied Hough’s philosophy to a lesson on Bach Invention 13 in A minor. What I’d extracted from Hough’s poetically framed response, centered on the quality of study from the very start with its continuum of stages. If learning was quick and haphazard, it would not grow and blossom over time.

Naturally, as I taught an adult student last night, front and center in my mind, was laying a solid foundation in the early learning phase of a new piece:

1) Fingering had to be decided and solidified. (not a dice throw experience from one playing to another) It had to be a “musical” fingering that realized a phrase’s shape and contour. Sometimes replacing a thumb with an alternate finger at a cadence could make a qualitative difference. This applied to a segment in Bach Invention 13 in A minor where the student’s choice of a thumb instead of finger 2, forced an undesirable accent.

2) Rhythm, note durations, etc. needed specific attention.

3) Slow, separate hand practice with a framing pulse, factored into foundation building that would be the best bank deposit for future musical growth. It “banked” on good fingering choices and an awareness of context: what was happening structurally and harmonically to frame the learning process. (Included was a recognition of SEQUENCES)

Context reinforced each learning stage, and CONTOURING or SHAPING LINES was part of this phase, using singing as an aid to phrasing with equal attention to dynamics.

4) Spot practicing: Where finger trapping or redundant glitches occurred, making a conscious effort to work through specific measures that needed extra focus and attention became another solid, interest bearing bank deposit for optimum musical growth. (It’s opposite was meaningless repetition)

5) FRAMING ALL OF THE ABOVE was Hough’s PATIENCE mantra, that for me, was his most resonant theme.

Bundled into such wisdom, was an avoidance of tempo charging, or driving the learning process at a rate that failed to preserve quality in the present in order to insure ripening in the future.

Stephen Hough on the Practice of Practicing

Excerpt from a Masterclass (Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody)




Posted in adult piano instruction, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Lara Downes, music study and ripening, patience, pianist, piano, piano blogging, piano learning, piano study, piano teaching, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stephen Hough | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Stay LONGER with a piece for higher levels of learning and awareness

All too often piano students give up on a piece after so many weeks of exposure, thinking the fingering is settled, the beats are well-measured, and the notes have fallen into place.

At this juncture, a Big STOP SIGN Stop sign must impede the restless from plunging into a new musical journey despite their belief that the old one has run its course.

In truth, those who STAY the course at a point when boredom and frustration set in, can experience a heightened level of awareness about a composition if properly guided by a mentor.

To cite a case example, one of my adult students has practiced J.S. Bach’s A minor Invention in conscientious baby steps for quite a long period of time. Yet her tenacity as well as determination to realize the piece to a high level of artistry has stepped up her perception of multi-dimensional aspects of the composer’s two-voice masterpiece. (Patience is the WORD!)

First she grappled with fingering, phrasing, articulation and counterpoint–comprehending two independent, though interactive voices; then she learned about harmonic rhythm, modulations and their impact on phrasing and contouring lines. When note slip-ups occurred, she understood that blocking techniques would improve her sense of centering, and how shifts of the hand with rotation and relaxation synthesized in the flow of broken chords patterns. In stages she was ready to absorb even more analysis about the piece as she embraced a kinesthetic/affective/cognitive relationship to it over months.

These many STAGES of learning could not have played out in a predictable time span with pre-set deadlines. Instead, the student realized that committing long range exposure to a musical work provided a generous opportunity to increase the intensity of her awareness.

At our last lesson on the Invention, we specifically worked on threading a melody through reams of broken chords in a refined shaping process that created more musically fluid lines.

Naturally, through this whole developmental process, I became inspired to create my newest Bach Invention 13 tutorial that reflects a heightened journey of discovery made possible by a dedicated student.

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Good phrasing: listen for the decay, and psyche out your piano

The theme of today’s Online lesson beamed from North Carolina was following the decay of a note from the end of a phrase into the next measure with a thread of continuity. To have good conjunction between phrases one has to listen in two directions: from the before to the after, without forgetting the BEFORE. (Most students will pay more attention to the start of a new phrase,–clunking the downbeat–ignoring the influence of crossover harmonic rhythm and resolution, or dynamic relationships between measures.) So listening attentively draws awareness of how harmony affects melodic inflection and shaping, and what “colors” various rhythms offer as clues to phrasing beautifully in an ongoing BEFORE and AFTER strand of measures.

Part TWO:

Psyching out one’s piano has to do with whether a particular instrument is brashly bright, or sounding like cotton balls (It might also be an undesirable combination of the two). Nonetheless, the aforementioned requires that the player figure out a way to outsmart the instrument with its foibles, and create beautiful phrasing by adjusting entry into keys with various physically transferred weights, always realizing the pre-imagined sound. (In short, the pianist must hear notes before they’re played and adjust touch and tone to match the internal sound ideal)

The following lesson excerpt brought home both referenced dimensions of phrasing and auditory awareness:


In this sample the student is working on smoothing out E minor scale transitions that require attentive listening from the conclusion of one form into another. (i.e. focused conjunction of scales without sharp accents on the downbeat initiation of each new one)

Posted in adult piano instruction, Chopin, Frederic Chopin, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, Shirley Kirsten | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Adult Piano Student who builds pianos and restores planes”

David dog 1My adult student, David, is a man for all seasons! He not only studies piano, with a penchant for the works of Bach, but he restores antique airplanes, and builds pianos. Add into the mix, his taking a ride in one of his personal airborne creations with a J.S. Bach soundtrack to accompany his soaring adventure! Take a look!

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Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 8.24.50 AM

A recorded conversation with David revealed more about his background in the piano technology field as well as his retirement activities that include planes, pianos and lots more.

Note that in the spirit of cruising through the skies, David takes his piano lessons in cyber, though he formerly drove about 300 miles from Chico to Berkeley, just to stop off at the Roma Cafe for a snack or two.

An Excerpt from a Skype Lesson with David: (He restored the vintage Steinway model ‘A’ he plays)

KEEP FLYIN’ at the piano and in the air!!! You Go, David!

David’s Self-built Grand Piano in Progress

“Shirley, here’s a couple pictures of the McPiano in progress. At the moment, I’m in the process of applying the last mahogany outer veneer to the outer rim. It is done in 2′ sections. The 1st one is a section glued and clamped on the curved section of case. The 2nd, snapped today, is a section glued and clamped on the straight part of the case.

The Piano is 7’4″ long (Steinway C size). I’m also taking videos of construction sessions and will edit them and produce a little video over time. I have 2 more sections to glue on to complete the outer case rim veneer.”

David piano in progress 1

David piano in progress 2



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GRAND comparisons

It’s always telling to compare a piano’s tone, resonance and decay in the showroom where purchased to its performance in one’s living space. Unfortunately, one cannot transport the piano to one’s home while evaluating it at the store. In this regard, I can share a pertinent experience where a 7′ ft. Grotrian grand whose bass resonated off the roof in a Los Angeles warehouse environment, died in my arms, or shall I properly say in my hands when it arrived in my small piano room. The question remains, should the room have killed the bass? (while other ranges of notes were quite pleasing)

My new Baldwin 165 (5’5″) was a feminine piano from the start, but its bass and tenor had a more defined presence, boosted by a LIVE acoustic at the piano dealer’s space. Again, it was impossible to factor in the acoustical shift in my box-size apartment notwithstanding its hardwood floors and 1950’s era plaster walls.

Beside the NEW Baldwin grand sits my OLD Steinway M, (5’7″) 1917 that’s about to have two days of meticulous regulation. And despite its current land mines, it has more definition and reverb in all ranges, though I’ll concede that Baldwin 165 has a superior, to-die-for shimmering upper treble and touch perfection along with note-to-note perfection.

Enter, Baldwin Hamilton 1929 that was recently bestowed upon one of my students. It was my Blind Date piano that I purchased after a phone interview. Its profoundly long decay made it an instant Valentine’s Day addition to my piano collection.

Just a snatch of Hamilton reveals a lovely, defined and resonant piano with a decent bass and loving alto/tenor. Its upper range treble however, not sampled in the video below, was like glass due to hammer felt thinning, so it didn’t round out at the peak. Yet it had more character and personality than many shiny new pianos on display in showrooms around the country–(i.e. those nameless cookie cutters that are mass-produced)

Judge for yourself what resonates for you in these Grand comparisons, and add in my student Judy’s Steinway A, 1911, 6’2″ for good measure.

Note in particular, the Bach Invention 1 side-by-side samples.

Bach played on Steinway M (No pedal used)

Bach played on Baldwin 165 (No pedal used)

Same Invention on Steinway, M (No pedal used)

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