My early learning efforts (J.S. Bach) under the influence of Peter Feuchtwanger

My students know that I say what I do, while they do as I say, with the understanding that we are perhaps interchanging the whole music learning process on an egalitarian basis. Therefore, it’s no surprise that I regularly thank them for “teaching” me what I might otherwise have overlooked in my daily practicing.

For example, as I journey through all six French Suites of J.S. Bach, often in the company of pupils who’ve joined me at various common junctures of study, I can share my baby step approach to a “new” dance movement with a candid admission that my first shaky steps taken through virgin terrain can be as tentative and experimental as theirs. And to the extent that my students see me, their teacher, as the model of a work in progress, they might allow themselves the same space to grow a piece in stages without harsh self-judgment and self-imposed learning deadlines.

That’s why, periodically, I impart my very earliest, slow tempo, learning efforts embodied in various video samplings. (Sarabande, French Suite no. 3 in B minor, BWV 814)

I must admit that bundled into my first stage (second day) Sarabande immersion were epiphanies about phrasing, vocal modeling, fingering choices/rotations, etc. that were allied to Peter Feuchtwanger’s mentoring (via you tube)–my having been under the influence (his) in the proverbial sense.

The late pianist/teacher/and composer, who was based in London, formidably championed fluidity in the context of a vocalized musical line, with a technical universe that was inseparable from what he believed to be a particular expressive musical “language,” be it in the French compositional vocabulary, (Debussy), or within the framing of Couperin, Bach, Chopin, et al.

Fingering decisions reflected a pure, though innate expression of a phrase that had its analog in ways of speaking. (and singing)

Naturally, Feuchtwanger advocated freedom from tension in the arms and wrists, having devised certain exercises to liberate a pianist from any constraints in the flow of phrases. He embraced a flexible, supple wrist approach wedded to a Zen-like, here and now concentration that was the kindred focus of his musical colleague, Yehudi Menuhin.

This particular sample from Feuchtwanger’s home teaching environment is particularly emblematic of an approach that has tweaked my own consciousness about music learning and mentoring. Feuchtwanger begins by demonstrating the opening measures of Fur Elise with an untraditional fingering that heightens the “shape” of the line, preventing a vertical, inorganic rendering. (It allows for a “rotational” movement that promotes a curvaceous contouring of notes.) His student, sitting beside him, fleshes out a “circular” analogy that is quite relevant.

Feuchtwanger’s bio expands upon his legacy as a teacher, his having influenced so many prominent pianists including Martha Argerich.

In my own rush of enthusiasm, I urge piano students and all music lovers to ingest Peter Feuchtwanger’s ideas that are well communicated in a set of you tubes, one of which showcases his work with pupil, Marian Friedman. It’s an amazing display of virtuosity that’s inextricably tied to the natural expression of musical lines without physical constraint.

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Beyond Leon Fleisher’s riveting words about pianists and vocal modeling

Pianist, Leon Fleisher has given us his notable artistry over decades, while his insights about practicing and teaching have been invaluable for a vast community of mentors and students.

In his latest interview that coincided with the release of a new album, All the Things You Are, Fleisher spoke eloquently about the intrinsic relationship of vocal modeling and beautiful musical expression at the piano:

“I think, possibly … especially for pianists, to think in terms of ‘vocal.’ If you can sing something, and I don’t mean to sing all the notes, because the range of the piano is way beyond one person, but if you can sing the music, articulate it, then you can play it.

“One of the great challenges of a pianist is that every other instrument (I discount mallet instruments), violin to double bass, piccolo down through tuba, they have three things to think about: they have to think about how they attack the note; they have to think about how they support the note; and they have to think about how they stop the note. Most pianists just think of the first of those three, how they are going to attack the note, and not even all of them think about that. If they can expand their approach, new revelations will appear. You would be amazed how seldom one comes upon somebody who thinks in those terms or makes music on the piano in those terms.”


Fleisher has also given us the mantra, “Hear it Before you Play It,” which is an internalization of what the pianist imagines in sound before placing his fingers on the keys. (The opening notes of a composition are not haphazard, but instead, are planned in advance in the psyche.)

While the aforementioned ideas (including vocal modeling) are essential to a well-meaning approach to the piano, a student journeying through the masterworks with the counsel of teacher, needs MORE than a vocal paradigm to make significant progress toward sensitive music-making.

For example, once a pupil can “sing” what he wants to produce at the piano, he needs to know HOW to realize his own model which will encompass a host of ingredients that are included in the following set of questions:

1) What are the physical means to the end? Are there blocks to freedom of expression because of tension in the arms and wrists that need to be identified? What about the breath? Does the vocal model suggest places to breathe in the natural ebb and flow of a phrase? Is the breath short due to tension which inhibits free expression?

What about the nuts and bolts of playing staccato, legato in complex strands of notes? These surely warrant modeling by the teacher at the piano. (How are notes “grouped,”or “spaced?”) What about “Rotation” and its effect on phrasing. etc. A pupil, needs hands-on knowledge that a mentor needs to provide. These encompass issues of traction and weight transfer into the keys, etc.

What role does the pedal play in beautiful phrasing? These require demonstrations as well. (Again, vocal modeling is not enough, but ATTENTIVE LISTENING and harmonic understanding are a must.)

2) Is faulty rhythmic framing blocking the flow of what is internalized? Are legato triplets, for example sounding angular and choppy? If they are, then it follows that a teacher must enlighten a pupil about the “color” and motion of these threads and how they can be liberated in a seamless, horizontal flow. (Teacher demonstrations at the piano can include supple wrist grouping of notes.)

If a fundamental beat is non-existent, or if a true “singing pulse is absent,” a student needs to understand what is causing note crowding, undirected accelerations, or interludes of lagging. Often a teacher will remedy such problems by “conducting” the student, simultaneously instilling a sense of shape and contour to musical lines.

3) Does a pupil comprehend the relationship of harmonic rhythm or flow of harmonies to phrasing? (cadences, modulations, etc.) Even with a well-defined vocal model, a student would still need to realize the dips in phrases that occur with various progressions (like Dominant to Tonic), or to understand the emotional ramifications of Deceptive cadences, parallel minor/or Major transitions.

Decays of notes also factor into phrasing. Is the student keenly aware of how what comes before affects what follows? What about sub-destinations and full destinations in a chain of measures?

How do dynamics, crescendos and decrescendo’s contribute to the sculpting of lines?

4) How does the historic period of a composition influence the whole approach to sound imaging? (Debussy vs. Bach; Mozart vs. Chopin) This opens up a universe of tonal variation and exploration. (Mental imagery contributes to a realization of a sound ideal.)


In truth there are so many ingredients in an artfully sensitive music-making process that just one central focus, like vocal modeling, is clearly not enough.


In exploring my archive of videos, I found two that resonated with a multi-dimensional approach to creating beauty at the piano.

1) Footage from the first sample is derived from my 2014 visit to New York City where I filmed Irina Morozova teaching one of her young students. (Franz Liszt La Leggierezza) The Special Music School/Kaufman Center.


2) Excerpts from an ONLINE lesson to Scotland: Felix Mendelssohn Venetian Book Song Op. 30 No. 6. (The split-screen recording is a valuable playback reference for the student)

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Piano Technique: Practicing well-shaped scales and arpeggios (videos)

It’s always disheartening when students forego their scales and arpeggios at lessons, choosing instead, to dive immediately into repertoire. In their zeal to immerse themselves in the Masterworks, they neglect a pivotal Circle of Fifths journey that’s wedded to keyboard geographies, key relationships, and much more.

As a child, I reviled scales like most beginning piano students, and I relied on the faulty memory of my German mentor, Mrs. Schwed who heard me churn out the same C Major scale week after week– month after month. For me it was like taking uncoated cod liver oil pills cold turkey without a malted milk to wash it down. But at least I outsmarted my mentor in my one key-centered perseveration. (Ironically, C Major was probably one of my most unwise choices because it had no black key landmarks.)

It’s been decades since scales were hard to swallow, and over the years I’ve grown to love their ingestion. I will spend the first 45 minutes of my practice time, plying and shaping myriads of scales and arpeggios through Major and minor keys: in legato, staccato; by tenths, thirds, sixths. I will immerse myself in well-phrased note-rollouts in parallel and contrary motion with varied dynamics, feeling a kinesthetic and emotional connection to the “music” I make through these important preliminaries. Mindfulness, concentration, and a keen awareness of the breath converge in these keyboard-wide escapades. They’re intrinsic to a “centered” learning process.

One of my adult pupils who concurs that a scale-wise prelude to the repertoire segment of her lesson is relevant to her musical growth, shares her sprees through the key of G-sharp minor. Though my keyboard is under the webcam, one can feel a collective interaction of well-shaped scales and arpeggios par duo.

Over the past several months, this adult pupil has wedded her technique to the following repertoire:

J.S. Bach Prelude in F minor, WTC Book 2
J.S. Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847
Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72
Chopin Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64, No.2
Claude Debussy, “La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin” (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”)


Bonus video: Distinguished pianist and teacher, Irina Morozova mentors a student as he plays scales during his lesson at the Special Music School/Kaufmann Center in Manhattan. (His initial choice of “C Major” was instantly aborted)

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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)

(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.


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.

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.


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.


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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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.


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.


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.


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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