One grand piano in, and another out, but not forgotten

My tiny Berkeley apartment had been shrinking by increments with its herd of tight-squeezed grand pianos and digital keyboards. Count in a Baldwin grand acquired in April, 2015; a medium size Steinway grand (5’7″) bequeathed by my father after Oberlin graduation, and two side-by-side digital keyboards–YDP 105, and Yamaha Arius 141. The electronics were fun to play in the wee hours of the morning, with a snug pair of earphones to ensure privacy.

In truth, I had no real need to seal off my practicing from an appreciative audience of neighbors. Many admitted to eavesdropping–pressing their ears against my door, to savor a “free” concert of diverse timbres.

Why, then would I want to add a 6’2″ grand to my overflowing, “colorful” instrument collection?

I had no intention of allowing a tenuous keyboard situation to spiral out of control, until one Saturday, a neighbor’s baritone voice boomed through my door, announcing with urgency that “a Steinway A grand piano” was the centerpiece of a nearby Estate sale.

Instantly, I recognized the Letter “A,” like a dog sniffing out and pursuing a tantalizing beef bone– the impetus of which triggered a Pavlovian response.

I sprang out the door, running like a fiend to the McGee Street framed house only a block away, in hot pursuit of a prized instrument that I’d fantasized about since adolescence.



The ebony grand with lid open, was a 1911 model, making a stately appearance, and begging to be sampled. In a heartbeat, I was seated at the piano bench, running my fingers over its immaculate set of original ivories that afforded a fluid passage from phrase to phrase.

Steinway full view

Ivory keys

The piano sang like a nightingale and was smooth as silk to the touch. It sparked an impulse to possess it that barred a shred of doubt and common sense.

It was a mad love frenzy that sent me scrambling for my check book.

But first I’d dispatch a technician for a piano inspection.

His thorough assessment came within hours, and was so remarkably positive, that I sensed the man’s imminent, if not fantasized desire to rob the cradle of my future piano-playing pleasure.

I responded with a hasty offer aimed to thwart a bid by side-by-side salivating contenders. A few had huddled around me as I sampled the ‘A,’ with servings of Romantic era repertoire– the last offering was the first tableau from Schumann’s Scenes of Childhood. (Kinderszenen, “Of Foreign Lands and People.” )

As I inhabited my ethereal playing universe, a Chinese couple had edged close to the keyboard, breaking a spellbound immersion with a barrage of questions about the ‘A.’ They wanted to know if they should purchase it.

With a tiny, transparent sales slip chugging slowly out of a machine, I quickly sealed my ownership of ‘A’ and promptly contacted the piano movers .

While the logistics of containing THREE grands in a pod-size space were beyond my comprehension, I chose to let my fever pitch excitement abate before making a final decision about the fate of my PIANOS.

Somberly, I concluded that Steinway ‘M’ had to go with its modest, though resonant voice that matched its “medium” size and proportion.

My ads for an adoptive family spread far and wide in neighborhood Online listings. ‘M’ would either be placed in a temporary home with a suitable environment, or be sent to climate-controlled storage in a bumpy ride to Oakland. The latter seemed like a death sentence.

Israel Stein, my retired technician had e-mailed me a set of valuable recommendations that supported the well-being of my ‘M.’ These were borrowed and inserted in my posts.

“1. Keep it out of direct sunlight – always. (“only an hour or so per day” is just as damaging).
“2. Keep it away from open windows and doors (especially in the winter)
“3. Keep it away from heat sources (radiators, heat vents, space heaters, etc.)
“4. Keep it away from steam, vapor, and other excess moisture (in today’s “open” floor plans, pianos often get subjected to kitchen steam and vapor).

“Unfortunately,” he emphasized, “people too often placed pianos in accordance with their home decor needs, not considering what was good for the piano.”

My ardent pursuit of a caretaker took many twists and turns.

One eager prospect, was a song writer with admirable credentials. She and her composer husband who lived about 2 miles from Steinway ‘M,’ almost became its temporary parents, but for their open kitchen in close proximity to the grand. The gas heat, and vapor would swell the soundboard, ushering in a compensatory contraction. Their bedroom was at first a possibility for containment, but ‘M’ could not fit into the small space.

Other wooing adoptive applicants were ruled out by radiators, and very young children. Still, I was clinging to the hope that perhaps my neighbors down the walkway would agree to take my ‘M’ in exchange for piano lessons bestowed upon their chirpy 8-year old daughter who sang past my door each day. It was her dad who had first alerted me to Steinway ‘A.’


Through this whole, foster care-seeking process, I felt more than a shred of guilt for abandoning ‘M’ though I knew that it was time for ‘A’ to claim the rightful space that had been taken up by ‘M’ these many years.

To my great relief, my neighbors came through in the wee hours of the morning with a text that they would take ‘M’! And that’s how the piano shuffle began.

(‘A’ now sits snugly beside ‘B’ (Baldwin) in my music room, as ‘M’ is resting comfortably in her neighboring abode)

side by side piano best


Finally, piano lessons will soon start where ‘M’ resides, and I’ll keep my ties to a piano that will not be forgotten.

Little girl in front of M


Posted in pianist, piano, piano lessons, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway A grand piano, Steinway M grand piano, word press,, you tube, you tube video | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Mirrors and piano playing

As we age, we’re reluctant to look at our reflection in the mirror, but as we grow over time as musicians, the mirror of our playing in recorded “reflections” can foster quality adjustments in phrasing and interpretation.

If we nudge ourselves to step back and be “objective” about what we’re hearing, we may try to amend our next playing so it’s not a static, unaltered repeat of the last.

When I observe my own false starts, phrase imbalances, thumb pokes, and breath-short measures, I aim to improve these shortcomings by studying physical and musical dimensions that must be intertwined and synthesized.


In a separate but related universe, Alfred Brendel, renowned pianist, puts a negative spin on the “finished” recording, while his comments upon careful scrutiny, support the self-educational value of making longitudinal student recordings. (While these exist in an “unfinished” form, being raw and home-based, they still have significant redeeming value)

In the following abridged paragraph of his newly released book, Music, Sense and Nonsense, the celebrated pianist bemoans the “impalement” by the public of renderings that permanently emblematize player. Yet amidst a string of professionally recorded efforts, Brendel appreciates an evolution of artistry that ripens over time– permeated by modified creative perceptions.

“But a recording is… simply the fixing of a moment.. so the artist should have the right to identify his work within a certain phase of his development… (And) it is only the continuous renewal of his vision – either in the form of evolution or of rediscovery – that can keep his music-making young.”

The last sentence fits perfectly into the paradigm of enlisting recordings to illuminate a particular developmental phase and to move it along to the next with sensitive adjustments and acquired awakenings. These flow through an artistically dynamic chain of youth-preserving efforts that should draw students toward recorded reflections of their playing, not away from them.

For piano teachers who evolve beside their students in a comparable growth process, home-created recordings can mirror efforts that are undergoing constant refinement without their needing “fixed” deadline arrivals, or contrived makeovers to mimic youth appeal that has no depth or substance. (i.e. fast and furious top-layer playing without thought, emotion or REFLECTION.)

As a footnote to this discussion on the value of recordings in the learning environment, I offer a Student/Mentor mirrored-back lesson sample. (In teaching this Bach Invention repetitively, I will, no doubt, alter my ideas in consonance with an ever-changing process embedded in refined artistic illumination. The same metamorphoses will apply to the student.)

J.S.Bach Invention 13 in A minor:


Posted in Alfred Brendel, blog metrics, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, pianist, piano, piano addict, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano lessons, Piano Street, Piano World, piano worldwide, recording, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, word press,, you tube, you tube video | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

No piece is too easy

Having recently started mentoring a new student whose principal instrument is guitar, I realized that repertoire offered at the beginner level requires the same sensitive understanding of phrasing, nuance, framing rhythm and the underlying singing tone that applies to music of greater complexity. (Not to overlook the common cultivation of all-embracing mindfulness, focus, and full immersion that’s central to music learning.)

Coming face to face on Skype with an enthusiastic adult student who had an impressive  film composing history, matched by his well-earned degree from a reputable East Coast music school,  I welcomed his ingenuous introduction to piano study: “Treat me as a complete keyboard newbie,” he said, when I first  met him at his home recording studio in Belfast.

Noting  his agile left hand in nice partnership with the right, I selected penta-scales in C Major and minor to imbue the singing tone and how to produce it. Confident in his natural sense of coordination wedded to an attentive ear, I had no reservation about picking two pieces to partner with his five-finger romp that intermixed supple wrist dips,  artful phrase groupings,  and well-shaped snatches of legato released into “snipped,” contoured finger staccato.

What we were nursing along in the piano learning environment, was not qualitatively different from my  own approach to my “new” music or to  pieces that were on the review rack.

From the Baroque repertoire,  I had extracted two well-chosen Scarlatti sonatas that utilized the very supple wrist motions that my students were consistently exposed to during their earliest study phase.



New to my cosmos, was Scarlatti’s C minor Sonata, L. 252, that was developing beside the fledgling student’s efforts to learn the James Hook Minuet and J.S. Bach’s A minor Bouree. (Both selections were contained in the Royal Conservatory of Music, Volume 1–published by Frederick Harris) However, this particular album had been revised.

The Minuet looked “easy” on the surface, but to phrase it beautifully, one had to understand certain “lean/less” relationships that accorded appoggiaturas, and how harmonic rhythm (with just two voices) would amplify tapered points in the music.  Balancing voices also demanded keen consideration. And without a fluid, funneled energy through relaxed arms into supple wrists and naturally spilling into draped hands over the keys, lines could be choppy and unmusical. Such impediments to beautiful expression, were no different for an advanced player  who often placed his “harder” piece on a superior rung of importance.


Minuet by Hook

Students needed to come down to earth, with a common appreciation of early practicing strategies, not separated by level or musical rank.

My new beginner, who was a self-effacing, humble learner, had fully accepted a layered up piano learning journey. It required slow, deliberate practicing;  bigger, wrist-flexible energies, and an absorption of  the relaxed dimension of playing to nurse along the singing tone.  He agreed to parcel voices within a  “singing” pulse framing.

When he acquired a semblance of control  over his pieces in back tempo,  he could then gradually notch up the pace, while grouping notes with longer, flowing motions.

While  I shared  ways of contouring phrases with him as they presented in J.S. Bach’s Bouree,  I had ironically experienced a companion awakening: Side-by-side repeated notes in measure 2, for example, should not sound the same when played. Each demanded its own  mode of expression within the context of the measure, the meter, harmonic flow, and what followed. A mechanical pencil-point attack or dutiful repetition of same-sounding notes, impeded a smooth, well-shaped musical line, just as it had the same effect on a so-called “advanced” composition.

The cut time signature, 2/2  as indicated by the composer,  also suggested what part of each measure should obtain a natural stress.. At least the alla breve  time signature discouraged a player from counting 4 march-like vertical beats from the opener to final cadence..

J.S. Bach Bouree in A minor

In summary, isolating pieces as “easy” or “hard,” in the sense of diminishing the ones that seem to be “unchallenging” on the surface, has done an injustice to the whole foundational learning process.

Fundamentally, beginning, intermediate and advanced students have always shared a process of growing a piece from its seedling stage to full ripening so any self-defined level of importance is irrelevant in the lesson environment.

Posted in piano, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Livia Rev, pianist, ripens with age

Livia Rev at piano

Livia Rev, a seasoned pianist, ripened by her 99 years on earth, drew my attention during a You Tube search for performances of Chopin’s Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15. (It was at a time when I was studying and teaching the composition.)

The middle section of this work has a notable turbulent emotional shift that’s reflected in a technically challenging set of forte measures in F minor. They come with punctuated accents, and alternating, broken 6ths, 5ths, alongside larger intervals, etc. These roll over a tremulous bass carrying a melodic line that in conjunction with the relentless treble “accompaniment” above, break the spell of the opening “Nocturnal” tranquillity. (Often performers will race the tempo at this juncture in heightened displays of technical prowess.) And sometimes at break neck speed, the interlude can become a continuous blur with little definition, meaning or musical consequence.


To the contrary, Maestra Lev, in her performance, resisted the temptation to significantly accelerate the parallel minor section, and instead paced it according to her artistic sensibility, still convincingly realizing the mood transition intended! (Unfortunately, this particular Chopin Nocturne video has been removed from Rev’s you tube archives)

Upon reviewing the pianist’s discography, I discovered that many of her performances have been recorded on Naxos and Hyperion labels and can be accessed accordingly.

Into the Present

A Hungarian born pianist, now living in Paris, Rev still teaches piano at high intensity, keeping a repository of technical skills wedded to expressive musicianship that’s shared among her international cadre of students.

In an enviable mentoring example, Livia demonstrates the supple wrist as an ally to beautiful phrasing, (This is a physical/musical hallmark of her approach to the piano)


In the following performance of Czerny studies, Op. 821, the pianist amply puts her ideas into practice in a display of her flexible wrist that often bends beneath the so-called “acceptable” level, inviting critics in pedagogical circles, to decry “the dangerous broken wrist approach.” Nevertheless, Rev’s playing philosophy has worked well for her, and for generations of students who have absorbed her focused concentration and sagacious comments.

Lívia Rév (born July 5, 1916) is a classical concert pianist.

“Rév was born in Budapest, Hungary. She started her studies with Margit Varro and Klara Mathe. Aged nine, she won the Grand Prix des Enfants Prodiges. Aged twelve she performed with an orchestra. She studied with Leo Weiner and Arnold Székely at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, with Professor Robert Teichmüller at the Leipzig Conservatory, and with Paul Weingarten at the Vienna Conservatory, having left Hungary in 1946.

“Rév lives in Paris, with her husband Pierre Aubé.

“She has won the Ferenc Liszt International Record Grand Prix.

“Rév has performed across Europe, in Asia, Africa, and in the United States. She has been the soloist with conductors such as Sir Adrian Boult, André Cluytens, Jascha Horenstein, Eugen Jochum, Josef Krips, Rafael Kubelík, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Constantin Silvestri, and Walter Susskind.

“Her first US appearance was in 1963 at the invitation of the Rockefeller Institute.

“She is well known for her light touch and clarity. Her recordings vary from complete Debussy Préludes, Chopin Nocturnes, to Mendelssohn Songs without Words.”

Posted in Livia Rev, pianist, piano, piano blog, piano teaching, word press, you tube | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Art and Music synthesis: Does it exist?

Most musicians fully appreciate the extra-musical “programmatic” content in works by Romantic era composers. Robert Schumann, for example, captures children playing tag by throwing “got you” accents on the downbeats of measures framed in sprightly staccato. (short, detached articulations) The aforementioned is well-illustrated in Schumann’s colorful tableau, “Hasche-Mann”-“Blindman’s Bluff” from Kinderszenen: (The vocabulary of art naturally spills into descriptions of music and complements a visualization of children playing a derring-do game.)

Debussy’s La Mer, likewise suggests a pictorial representation of the sea, against the backdrop of the Impressionistic era that was represented by French artists, Renoir and Monet.

But while artistic metaphors like the above, may permeate music with subjective titles in the programmatic genre, the question arises whether a recent critique of Mark Rothko’s work by his son Christopher, claiming the painter’s abstract art is strikingly akin to Mozart in its Classical form, content and aesthetic is valid.

The writing to which I refer appeared in the Art Newspaper, January 2016:

Can a work of art “sing” according to the author? Does Mark Rothko’s Orange over Purple suggest a Mozart Aria? Is it certain that the artist’s love of Mozart seeped into his paintings? And isn’t the viewer privileged to own the freedom to inhabit a fancy free imaginative space without an inserted musical ingredient.

Orange over Purple
Rothko’s Yellow over Purple (1956).

M.Rothko’s son writes about the above: “The artist’s colour-field paintings “are like a Mozart aria… making possible the most passionate communication.” (painting, Courtesy of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko)


Mozart, along with Haydn who epitomized the essence of Classical form, was a composer whose melodies reigned supreme as Christopher Rothco correctly asserts, though he neglects to add that the composer had many notable fugal finales in many of his works:

Examples: In the “Allegro” from the String Quintet in D, K. 593, and in the finales of both the Jupiter Symphony and the K. 593 Quintet, Mozart fleshes out his contrapuntal prowess. (The last movement of “Jupiter” has 5-part invertible counterpoint.)

As for C. Rothko’s assumption that many of Mozart’s compositions are inevitably permeated by tears and joy, and not tears alone, such can be easily refuted by the testimony of a varied group of listeners, some unattached to the academic musicological community.

The singularly deep pathos registered in Ave Verum Corpus for example, has no counteracting joyful dimension as I hear it, though one’s personal affective response should not be generalized for all listeners.

Similarly the Mozart Masses contain dramatically tragic Kyrie sections that for many elicit tears of loss alone without pain relief that contradicts C. Rothko’s predetermined Mozartean emotional duality.

C. Rothko’s limited Mozartean vocabulary, therefore, is troubling by its omissions of works that do not support his thesis about the composer’s form and creative content, though his erudite way of describing Mozart’s music is conveniently imported into Mark Rothko’s paintings. (Perhaps the fact that the author was 6 years old when his father passed away, nullifies his first-hand knowledge that M. Rothko’s abstract offerings were actually Mozartean reflections.)

The “Strange Alliances” blog site featured the Jan. 9, 2016 entry, “Mark Rothko From the Inside Out by Christopher Rothko” with its WordPress host, “Elaine” offering a thoughtful opinion about the music/art synthesis.

“As someone who is not an artist or lacking an intimate knowledge of Mozart, to me it is the composition that is the key. The way the colours and shapes work with on another either creating harmony or dissonance. A piece of music or a work of art can both elicit a visceral response.

Orange over Purple seems to be a vibrant work and I think Christopher Rothko associates Mozart with this type of vibrancy and the colours engaging in a dialogue that, along with the way the rectangles are placed on the canvas, becomes more than a sum of its parts.

“To my amateur ear Debussy does not strike a listener with the same vigour as Mozart and would require more mellow colors. But this is the interesting phenomenon with art that each observer brings their own experience to the table and can view a piece in a different way.”


“Neil,” a poet who records his lovely lyrics over self-composed soundtracks chimed in.

“I don’t know precisely what he meant, but metaphor is a powerful tool for presenting things in a new light. It may not be a precise interpretation, perhaps a simile, but I do know from colour theory that some colours sing visually when placed against certain others. “Sing” meaning a different intensity and vibrancy (or it just appears to the eye that way). There are more ways of articulating this without devices but I feel they may not be as emotional in communicating a point and I think emotion is an important ingredient in this.”


Merrill Schleier, Emeritus Professor of Art and Architectural History and Film, U. of the Pacific at Stockton, CA added to the opinion mix.

“I think what the son is saying is that Rothko interpreted Mozart through his own subjective lens. The son is trying to interpret what that lens was, rather than force viewers to share the same vision.”


Judith Jacobs, a California Bay area-based digital artist took exception to the prescribed Rothko/Mozart alliance, while emphasizing her admiration for the painter:

“I read the Christopher Rothko excerpt and he’s really stretching it, intellectualizing the creative process way too much. From my experience, it’s impossible to explain completely how the process of making visual art (especially abstract art) is influenced by ANYTHING – it’s all in the realm of feelings and subconscious thoughts that can’t be described in words. Trying to explain how Mozart influenced the abstract, highly reductive paintings of Rothko (which I love) seems futile to me. The only discipline I’ve seen validly related to Rothko’s art is Zen Buddhism. But that has to do with how the art affects the viewer.”

Elaine Comparone, harpsichordist and art maven, who lives within easy reach of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and its Modern Art companion, shrugged off the beauty of M. Rothko’s abstract art but concurred with Judith about the process of artistic creation and its natural internal unity.

With a plethora of circulating ideas that celebrate diversity among artists, writers and musicians, it appears that a work of art can speak for itself without a word spoken, or a note emanating from it.

Posted in art and music, Christopher Rothko, Mark Rothko | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Barnyard follies in the piano studio, or how imaginative prompts can improve technique

As piano teachers, we often devise spur of the moment, impromptu strategies to deal with redundant student glitches as they frequently play out in scales and arpeggios. In this creative teaching/learning universe, we can become quite imaginative as we integrate physically-based adjustments with mental cues and prompts that might ironically lead us to the “barnyard.”

As far afield as this may sound, two of my pupils were “clucking away” to center their hands on the black keys, as they de-intensified unmusical, intrusive thumb accents. In the framing of the F# minor arpeggio arpeggio, by intoning “Black—Black, Black,” etc. (referring to the SHARPS), a student omitted a tendency to fall hard on her white note affixed thumbs.

clucking hens

Two examples:

In this particular terrain, one of the biggest obstacles to fluid legato and staccato romps through 4-octaves, is the obtrusive thumb.

Because it’s the shortest finger it will exhibit a Napoleonic complex, asserting its un-entitled authority along the scale or arpeggio route if not specifically reigned in.

To undermine its Accent-heavy Autocratic leanings, I give it “feather light” status, while I position it in a way where it’s stripped of its pretension to Power. (One of my suggestions is to obliquely angle the thumb on the key so it does not flatten out on its side making it positioned for a sneak ATTACK.)

Students usually thrive when given tangible instruction and imaginative prompts that they can take home and integrate into their practicing.

So while a pupil’s piano sanctuary may oddly transform into a barnyard, it will reap the benefit of providing fertile ground for improvement.

Posted in piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano technique, scales and arpeggios | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A balanced piano lesson of Technique and Repertoire

If a student is well-prepared, having devoted quality time during the week to practicing scales, arpeggios, and pieces assigned, a lesson can contain a nice balance of ingredients.

Barring holidays, long distance travel and time zone changes, most pupils will devote 15 to 20 minutes of their lesson to technique, and the remaining 40 minutes to repertoire.

Today, one of my Online students based in Scotland for the moment, (destined for Australia) had a well-rounded lesson that began with a focus on the E minor Melodic minor scale. She attentively worked on making a crescendo to the peak in Staccato while the companion Arpeggio drew upon a related practicing strategy at the final octave. Increased dead weight, rotation, and relaxation were required to achieve a convincing climax in both, while blocking techniques firmed up hand centering and related finger geography.

In the repertoire realm, J.S. Bach’s Little Prelude in F Major, BWV 927, and Schumann’s “Of Foreign Lands and People,” Kinderszenen No. 1, Op. 15 capped the lesson, with a common exploration of phrasing and its relationship to harmonic rhythm and counterpoint. In both compositions, line parceling in slow tempo was of particular importance.



Posted in adult piano instruction, piano blog, piano lesson, piano lessons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments