World Piano Competition Winner, Marianna Prjevalskaya shares thoughts about Recording


A pianist’s stunning win at a Major Competition held in Cincinnati reverberated through the international music cosmos with a singular, attached recording opportunity. The first place winner, Marianna Prjevalskaya, who had already put herself on the map as a globe-trotting recitalist of major import, added to her list of kudos with a notable recording of Rachmaninoff’s two sets of Variations. (Her previous disc release on Naxos, 2012, contains the works of Haydn, Scarlatti, Schumann and Zarate.)

Prjevalskaya’s most recent, Rachmaninoff-centered CD comes with an added perk of the pianist’s own inserted Program Notes that shed light on the form, structure, and musical essence of the two epic sets of Variations based on themes of Chopin, and Corelli.

Put in clear historical context, these Notes are a reflection of the performer’s dedication to communicating the composer’s intent through her well-conceived artistic lens.

Recently, I framed a set of interview questions around the pianist’s recording experience in Cincinnati, and how it compared to LIVE music-making.

1) You took on a great challenge when you decided to record two monumental sets of Variations composed by Rachmaninoff. How and why did you decide to select these particular works for a CD that was produced as part your first prize award in the World Piano Competition?

M.P. I have always felt that very special relationship with Rachmaninoff’s music. I should probably say that his music for me is like breathing, it is very natural, and at the same time so genuine.

I was about 18 years old when I first heard Variations on a Theme of Chopin. I was still a student in London, and I remember it left a tremendous impression on me. It was probably, at least at that time, one of the most beautiful compositions by Rachmaninoff I had ever heard. Instantly, I fell in love with the piece, and immediately started working on it. Some years later I performed it in major cities in Italy and in Salzburg in the big hall of the Mozarteum. After this tour, I decided to set it aside, but a few years later I realized it was a piece I would always return to. When I found out I would be recording a CD as winner of the Cincinnati World Piano Competition, I firmly knew I would record this set of Variations. The question was, what else would go together with it? As it happened, at this time I was working on Variations on a Theme by Corelli. Obviously, it was perfect timing. 

2) How would you compare the recording experience to presenting a LIVE recital?

Incidentally, in this regard, Pletnev and Perahia have both weighed in negatively about recording. Pletnev likens a disc revisit to perceiving his ugly reflection in the mirror. Murray Perahia expresses similar disdain for an interpretation that’s fixed in time and inalterable. He insists he would play nearly everything he’s previously recorded in a new and novel way, not stratified by CD and Mp4 technology.

Do you possess some of the same feelings about the recording process?

M.P. Yes, I would strongly agree with Perahia. Whenever I made a recording and would listen to it some months later, I would always feel that now I would play that passage differently! Or I would think: “Why haven’t I taken time here or there?” And the feeling would be quite unbearable because you can’t change it. It’s there forever!

In a live recital it is different, you share your interpretation of the score in the moment and then you’re finished–it is gone!

It was your honest and spontaneous interpretation, and you do not have the option of going back to redo it to the level you are satisfied. Performing on stage is creating in the moment, and that is what I love about a live recital. Recording, however, nowadays is different than what it was before. You cannot release a CD with wrong notes. We live in an age when everybody is obsessed with very clean playing, and that obsession is very stressful and unnatural, in my opinion.

3) How is preparation for recording different from that which applies to giving a recital? Is your concentration interrupted by retakes? Did you have more than one day to record nearly 52 minutes of music?

M.P. I had several days to record, but surprisingly we finished a bit earlier. Yes, I do think the concentration is often interrupted, and sometimes it feels like you cannot get into the right mood after repeating the same section several times. I also think that preparation for a recording is somewhat different. In my experience, I realized that some ideas that worked on stage in concert did not work for a CD. On a few occasions, I changed my interpretation of a certain passage or section after listening to my first take. This happens because very often what your ears hear is not what comes out in a recording, and you need to have a certain flexibility to adjust your interpretation accordingly.

4) Were there any big or unexpected surprises within the recording environment?

M.P. No, I don’t remember anything unexpected or surprising. I should say everything went very smoothly. I will be always immensely grateful to my team – producer, Elaine Martone and recording engineer, Chelsea Crutcher who made it a fantastic experience. I was greatly supported throughout our sessions together, and had the freedom I needed.

5) How do you adjust to a contrived, techno-supported setting without an audience to communicate with? (except for the producer and recording engineer)

M.P. For me it is similar to practicing in a room without an audience. When I practice, I dive deeply into music. I don’t care if there’s an audience or not, so that was never an issue, or at least that is what I think and how I felt. What is important for me is to maintain strong concentration for many hours. Nevertheless, I am pretty sure that if these works were recorded live, my performance would be different.

6) How did you select your piano? Did you have a choice of instruments to try before embarking upon this undertaking?

M.P. It was a Steinway grand that I had performed on during the Cincinnati Competition. I remember this piano pretty well and I liked it, so I was happy that it was available for the recording sessions.

7) I noted that you have a Naxos disc (2012) that was a maiden solo recording venture. You recorded the works of Haydn, Scarlatti, Schumann and Zarate. How did this particular experience compare to the more recent one.

M.P. It was definitely a very different experience. The disc was recorded in Jaen Music Conservatory. They had a wonderful Steinway and a beautiful concert hall with fabulous acoustics, however the team did not give me sufficient time to record all those works, and it was quite a stressful experience, to be honest. The fun part was that I was told the bells of the church next door would ring on every hour, and I had to manage to record between their ringing. In the end, it was not an issue, because eventually the bells were not heard, but I thought it was quite an unusual setting.

8) What is your overall preference: to record or present LIVE recitals? And why?

M.P. Of course, my preference would be presenting live recitals, because it is less stressful, and much more natural, and I can communicate with my audience, something that is really important for me. Being on stage is a very special feeling that cannot be experienced during a recording session even if you record on stage and not in a studio. But I also want to have good quality recordings published; so far, I have three, including Naxos CD released in 2012 and another album with works for violin and piano by Spanish Romantic composers that was released many years ago, in 2002.

9) I admired the detailed Program Notes you prepared which help the listener navigate through the many variations in each set. You have a thorough understanding of the music from a theoretical, harmonic, and structural dimension, and you’ve included historical context.

Did you approach the initial study of these variations with framing perspectives that you reveal in your commentary? 

M.P. I would say yes and no. There were many things I discovered while working on the Variations. It is like a two-way street, you discover from learning, and you also apply your knowledge while working on the piece. I also think that when I was younger I did not appreciate this music in the same way as I do now, and as I mentioned earlier, I started working on Variations on a Theme of Chopin for the very first time when I was much younger. I don’t think I perceived the structure in the same way, and I also did not work on Corelli at that time in order to realize how different these works are and how his language developed throughout thirty years.

10) The Variations seem to be well-ripened. Did your mother (your first teacher) mentor you on these variations, or were there other formidable teachers who did?

M.P. I had a chance to learn Variations on a Theme of Chopin with Alexander Toradze, and Corelli with Boris Slutsky. I am tremendously grateful for their time, their help, advice and inspiration. I also always play for my mother, and of course she had put her seeds into these works too.

11) What are your plans for the future as far as balancing LIVE recitals with recording?

M.P. Making recordings is not something I do very often, so most likely I will concentrate on performing concerts, and hopefully there will be another CD coming in the near future, I definitely have many ideas about what would be my next recording project.

12) How does your teaching expand your musical understanding, especially when you might be working with advanced piano students on this music?

M.P. When I teach, my concentration primarily is to expand a student’s musical understanding by sharing with them my knowledge and my experiences. We explore together the musical score and discover the treasures. It’s a mutual collaboration that works for them as well as for me.

13) Have you given any Masterclasses on these two sets of Rachmaninoff Variations, and do you plan any in the future?

M.P. Not yet, and if I do, that will be dangerous I am afraid of teaching pieces that have grown deeply in my heart.

Thank you, Marianna, for your generous time and thoughtful answers.


Samples of Prjevalskaya’s exquisite performances at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Poland. (2010)


The Pianist’s Website

My previous Word Press postings about the artist:


RECORDINGS with the performer as soloist




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Run to hear Pianist, Lucas Debargue!

A rising young pianist who placed 4th in the grueling 15th International Tchaikovsky Competition, but earned special RECOGNITION by the Moscow Music Critics Association, scored a unanimous victory on stage at Berkeley’s Hertz Hall. (February 12th, 2017 at 3 p.m.)


Without question, the 27-year-old French pianist, Lucas Debargue made an indelible impression on members of a full-house audience that included a diverse community of Classical music lovers.

Moscow Conservatory grads, local and international music teachers, piano students, and a stash of pianoforte mavens rose to their feet at the program’s conclusion, applauding for long intervals with interspersed “Bravo’s,” forming a loud choir of approval.

It was a visceral response to music-making that rose above the instrument, elevating itself to cosmic proportion. The pianist became a vehicle for the transmission of the composer’s ideals in his nuanced mosaic of impeccably sensitive phrasing that encompassed a diverse palette of tonal expression and colors.

In a journey through varied historical periods (Baroque, Romantic, Impressionist and Romantic Expressionist), Debargue’s expressive poetry synchronized beautifully with what belonged to each era. He possessed tonal flexibility; a repository of articulated and seamless legato, and sonorous chords that never slipped into offensively percussive attacks. In summary, he produced beautiful passage work, liquid trills, shimmering glissandi, and a wide dynamic range that served the highest musical ends. It was as if Debargue had carefully crafted various dialects of a common musical language to unify his program.

In essence, the pianist’s imagination had free-reign while it respectfully adhered to the composer’s intention in phrase peaks to climax and soulfully rendered resolutions.

As one concertgoer put it who stood on a long post-recital reception line: Lucas Debargue became a “co-creator” as he channeled the works of Domenico Scarlatti, Frederic Chopin, Maurice Ravel and Medtner. (The commentator turned out to be a Moscow Conservatory grad, married to a winner of a distinguished Piano Competition.)


Following the maestro’s remarkable display of virtuosity wedded to pure poetry, I had quickly joined a stream of audience members who had poured into the artist reception area and had immediately shared their unabashed enthusiasm for the performance. Naturally, with a blog in gestation, quickened by my intensified excitement, I broke out the iPhone and filmed the pianist during his reflective moments. At one point he talked about how a composition must “mature” and ripen in the course of YEARS, echoing the inspired words of his beloved Russian teacher, *Rena Shereshevskaia.

I was so “overwhelmed” by the whole panorama of events that streamed out of an awe-inspiring concert, that my adult student who’d joined me for the occasion, preserved a safe distance from me– promising to come forth at the right moment to snap of few photos of her teacher in the presence of musical royalty.


And so the icing on the cake amounted to a gush of praise that did not falter. Candidly, I confessed that I’d heard Gilels, Richter and Ashkenazy as a child growing up in New York, but that Debargue’s playing by far, had moved me the most.


So, Run, Run, Run to hear Lucas Debargue by first checking his website for a list of his scheduled recital appearances.

IMPORTANT LINK (From the blog “Slipped Disc”)
“The French pianist who caused a sensation at the Tchaikovsky Competition has given his first in-depth interview to Bertrand Boissard, at Parlons Piano.

*”Among other topics, he discusses his Russian teacher Rena Shereshevskaia; his two years working at a supermarket till, his preference for learning Prokofiev by ear and his favorite pianists of all time, singling out among French artists the little-known Marcelle Meyer.”

Read the full, in-depth interview here.
Ismene Brown has generously created an English translation:

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Favorites, On AND Off the You Tube screen

This week reaped a set of Internet-channeled treasures along with an off screen, chance meeting with a Rosina Lhevinne student at a Berkeley bus stop.

The first On Air stop-off was Seymour Bernstein’s riveting hour-and-44 minute long interview that covered his Korean war service: a rekindled journey of interspersed infantry training, piano recitals and chamber music.

Seymour’s recorded account is part of an Oral History project that’s been conceived to educate and enlighten Korean youth about a faint and distant war era. In this regard, Bernstein describes a particular outdoor concert that he and violinist, Kenneth Gordon had presented together in the heat of war where bullets were flying overhead while two musicians were thinly protected by a hill that barricaded them in.

Bernstein’s nostalgic, drama-filled memoir pours forth effortlessly in his conversation with a historian tied to the Korean War Legacy Foundation. The focus is Seymour’s four separate touchdowns that included three post-war visits, eliciting his recall of turbulent political changes in the small Asian country. Naturally, he peppers his reminiscences with colorful musical anecdotes.

Most of the pianist’s followers celebrate his time-honored book With Your Own Two Hands along with his Big Screen appearance in Ethan Hawke’s documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. In the 90 or so minute film, a piano teacher is lifted out of the ordinary cycle of giving lessons, to iconic status. Playing himself, Bernstein, a once promising concert performer, retreats to mentoring in the face of crippling performance anxiety and resurrects himself as a doting, thoughtful teacher in a singularly carved journey.

Throughout his Korean Legacy Foundation appearance, Bernstein is on location in his thoughts, revisiting a war-torn Korea, determined to include a tender scene from his early days in uniform. As he tells it, a fawn appears in the fog on the countryside, making Seymour believe that he has died and gone to heaven. The flashback, also a moving segment in Hawke’s documentary, is worth a revisit with additional memories colorfully packed into the recorded Legacy interview.


On the You Tube Playlist, I was fortunate to have spotted two hot releases by pianist, Irina Morozova:

The following performances are beyond words to describe and speak audibly for themselves. I must admit, in all honesty, that the more I’m exposed to Morozova’s artistry, the more my heart aches that this pianist’s name is not a household word. The sheer poetry of her expression coupled with an effortlessly fluid technique, should invite the adulation of local and international audiences, if only the commercial packaging of musicians, and the social/political demands of making a career did not intercede.

Finally, to cap off my week, OFFLINE, I found myself waiting for the 25A A.C. Transit bus on an overcast weekday afternoon, anticipating an easy, uneventful route to gym. Little did I foresee an encounter with a perfect stranger, a petite senior, who had a pervasive connection to the music world–one that had its alliance to my own life as it unfolded during my New York City teenage years.

The woman had arrived ten minutes after me, thinking she might have missed the bus, but was reassured by my careful scrutiny of the bus schedule that we were both “on time.” I had added that we were clear to board within minutes, if the bus had not experienced delays.

Meanwhile, I kept checking 511# on my cell phone for updates once I realized that we’d passed the posted arrival time. And it occurred to me that delay after delay was the rule of the day, without any certainty of our common means of transport.

As it happened, we were given ample room to start up a conversation that was sparked by the woman’s allusion to an upcoming “Symphony” outing. That was my immediate cue to introduce myself as a “pianist,” which was her CUE to respond, “I’m a pianist, too!”

At this point in our alternate exchanges, I had acquired my rightful turn to squeeze out a stream of details from her past which she was amenable to share.

“I studied with Madame Lhevinne at the Juilliard School,” she announced, proudly. “It was in the mid 1950’s, but I never really graduated. Well, because I didn’t like the whole environment, and then I decided to go to Europe and earn my Ph.D.”

She admitted that she had never completed her studies, coining herself, an “almost there” individual, exposing her whimsical side–the extemporaneous, coy, and self-deprecating dimension of an emerging, delightful persona.

At this juncture, I wasn’t sure if she was going to veer off from our music-centered talk or re-focus on her studies with Lhevinne. I gently nudged her back to her Juilliard days.

In the ensuing conversation, I learned that Rosina’s crop of students were part of a tight-knit musical family and one particular pupil was my would-be bus companion’s favorite: “John Browning.” She insisted he was far more gifted than Van Cliburn. In rebuttal, I maintained that Van’s Tchaikovsky’s Bb minor Concerto, No. 1, was lyrical, straightforward and without eccentricity. She insisted that Gilels had held the crucial key to Cliburn’s thawed out Cold War victory. (He’d supposedly threatened to resign from the panel of judges if Van was demoted to Silver or Bronze)

I interjected that Nikita Kruschev was the deal-maker, having to rubber stamp the Gold pick! (it was notwithstanding his shoe-banging escapades at the UN)

Obviously, I wanted to milk my newfound musical traveler for any juicy gossip that surrounded Lhevinne, in particular, although I’d viewed one or two lengthy documentaries (on You Tube) that were better than any tell all gossip column. And as it turned out, the only uniquely colorful anecdote that gushed out of my awaiting bus partner’s mouth, was one about Lhevinne interrupting a lesson to talk in Russian by phone with the famed, and often dreaded piano teacher, Isabelle Vengerova. This well-known mentor had been characterized as a tyrant in Seymour Bernstein’s tome, Monsters and Angels, Surviving a Career in Music.


(Yet, I dared not bring up, Seymour’s inclusion of the Russian icon in his list of “monsters,” aka emotional abusers.)

While the bus lingered somewhere OFF ROUTE, I had more space to impart my own Lhevinne-related memoir that rapidly shrank degrees of separation between two common bus riders.

As I recounted:

I had been present at Madame Lhevinne’s 80th Birthday celebration at the very Juilliard School that my newfound companion, who finally identified herself as “Francesca,” had attended. This was at a time when the homespun-looking building was located in the heart of Harlem on 125th Street. As a teenager enrolled at the High School of Performing Arts, I was bestowed a complimentary ticket to the event by my beloved mentor, Lillian Freundlich. The birthday fete featured soloist and honoree, Rosina Lhevinne playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467, under the able baton of Jean Morel.

While I didn’t have the yellowed PROGRAM tucked into my backpack as hard core evidence of my attendance, I did assure Francesca that it existed, and that it had been embedded in my blog posting about my having “been there,” right smack in the center of an adoring audience.

R. Lhevinne program

My story became expanded during our repartee when I described finding myself years later in the Oberlin Conservatory music library, listening with earphones to a turntable spun vinyl of Lhevinne’s very performance that day at Juilliard.

What memories were rekindled, stored safely in my repository of special musical moments, now shared with a common traveler.

Because the bus ended up being delayed by over an hour due to the driver’s apologetic admission of being lost in another city on HER FIRST DAY OF SERVICE, I had been serendipitously connected to a kindred “pianist” who tore off a snatch of her paper shopping bag with her scribbled name and phone number on it. She handed it to me as she disembarked.

“As fate would have it”… I uttered these words right after Francesca’s departure.

However faint they were, they carried over to the driver who glanced with a smile at the empty seat beside me. Without a shred of doubt, she had put two and two together.

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Patience and Practicing

I rarely write what is characterized as a fluff piece, a filler blog that meanders around the powers of positive thinking and related platitudes. Such flighty commentary often sounds time-worn and replete with cliches.

Yet, I have to admit that in my own cosmos of practicing and learning, having all-embracing “PATIENCE” frames my most fundamental pathway to musical progress and development. (Naturally, this paradigm filters down to my students, who are consistently reminded that their journey is taken in “patient,” incremental baby steps.)

In so many words, Patience is my mantra that I spread far and wide with the fervency of a musical missionary.

But putting Religion aside, I have observed through decades of teaching, that many adult students have a particular, self-inflicted time line for learning a new piece to their level of “expectation.” They nip the word “patience” in the bud, setting a preconceived deadline for the type of achievement they have subjectively determined.

Perceiving pages of notes, many crowded with double and triple beams in fast tempo, they resist the very slow temporal framing that magnifies all the necessary details in the score. Add in a need to practice with separate hands that comports with this mega-lens view of a composition. So through this parceled undertaking, it takes PATIENCE to unravel the many dimensions of learning: fingering assignment, meter, articulation, harmonic analysis, structure, phrasing, dynamics, mood, character and more.

Finally, without PATIENCE underlying a learning experience, a student cannot begin to ENJOY the PROCESS of engaging with a new piece.

And here’s where PATIENCE is wedded to gratification in the present. It is NOT delayed gratification as is commonly assumed. The JOY of exploring in the here and now; breathing into notes that are relaxed in time, so that they are “felt” from their inception through their decay, and how they relate to notes that precede and follow them, is made possible by a SUSPENSION of time, where it does not exist with limits, but instead has its own temporal inner space.

I guess, I’m somewhat influenced by my Eurhythmics teacher, Inda Howland when I laud these timeless metaphors that she well- integrated into her life as a musician and teacher. And if there was anyone who had a wealth of “patience” it was this treasured Oberlin Conservatory icon.

To summarize and integrate the ingredients of “patient” practicing by way of a video representation is difficult, since many adult students have traveled through many months of practicing a particular piece, realizing that there are always more enlightenments on the horizon at each learning juncture.

In this particular sample, one of my pupils, who has “patiently” worked on the Beethoven Bagatelle, Op. 119, No.1 for several months, if not a year, is sculpting, shaping lines with the added dimension of wedding words to phrasing in a SINGING frame. At least as this lesson unfolded, the best prompt to improve the contour of a particular phrase was to seize upon a few choice words with the added ingredient of Harmonic rhythm to clarify the contour of a phrase to final cadence.

I’m reminded here of the impressionable delivery of pianist, Irina Morozova when she made words and music the theme of the video I was privileged to make and circulate. (The link is included below). This approach is inevitably part of a progressive unraveling in the learning process that I referenced earlier. (As it happened I was studying this very piece, Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb, Op. 9, No. 2, and it brought some “new” revelations that I was open to absorb without a defensive, boundary imposed attitude.)

When the student is patient, he/she is open to these new awakenings, transformations, re-assessments, and refinements that are the keys to musical growth and development.


A second lesson sample where patient examination of phrasing, harmonic rhythm and choreography apply.


Music and Words: The window to learning the Chopin Nocturne in Eb, Op. 9, No. 2 (Irina Morozova)

The gift of Irina’s “patient” practicing:

Eurhythmics, A whole body listening experience

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When the flu hits or the weather tanks, ONLINE piano lessons preserve progress


Here in California we’ve been blitzed by pounding rain, gusty winds and the inevitable round of flu. In the midst of bad weather conditions and the flight of viral illnesses, piano lessons are often suspended, as students are immobilized and lose ground. But to the happy rescue is the Internet that affords ONLINE instruction by Face Time, Skype, or any other nifty provider that ploughs through piles of natural obstacles.

This past week I was able to teach via webcam from my safe, insulated bubble at home as my 9-year old student was protected from my contagions. It can obviously work in reverse when a pupil is afflicted with the latest bug, and is in the recuperating stage, but still contagious.

For teachers who travel, ONLINE transmission is a particular lesson-saver as rip-roaring hurricanes, snowstorms, etc., tie up roads and public transportation.


As it played out here in Berkeley:

A FACE TIME activated lesson focused on composing, practicing chord inversions, and exploring repertoire. The hour sailed through smoothly without a hitch, while the use of FACE TIME RECORDER afforded a valuable split screen playback. (I chose the Overhead Keyboard view)

Liz, 9 years old responded well, and continues to make progress. Having completed about 11 months of piano lessons, she grabs every opportunity to compose and experiment. Naturally, her composing exercises are devised to weave in theoretical and musical goals that advance artistry.

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Two Romantic era piano lessons are wedded beautifully together

Why not pair Mendelssohn and Chopin in a harmonious duo.

Two piano lessons transmitted over the Internet were framed by the same period expression: mellifluous melodic threads against relentless rocking motions in the bass. A Boat song and Nocturne respectively swayed in TWO, requiring an examination of recurring bass line arpeggios that frequently spanned beyond the octave. These enlisted a ROTATIONAL approach for a smooth, seamless rendering while preliminary BLOCKING techniques acquired a sense of distance and transit.

Rotations, in particular, discouraged twisting associated with thumb shifts. And traveling through various harmonies in arpeggiated form, developed a pupil’s awareness of bigger GROUPINGS of notes as they moved through a horizontal landscape. Finally, infusions of dips and swells through various DESTINATIONS nourished well-shaped lines along with an awareness of harmonic rhythm and cadential sequences.

It was uncanny, though quite predictable that both lessons, one to London, the other to Australia, would form a happy alliance providing a dual opportunity for two students to grow their artistry by watching the other practice in similar framing modalities with a resonating SINGING Tone. (Don’t forget supple wrists and relaxed arms)

Here’s how each lesson unfolded:

To Sydney, Australia

Mendelssohn Venetian Boat Song in F-sharp minor, Op. 30, No. 6

You Tube Video Description
Published on Jan 18, 2017

“We worked on phrasing in slow practice tempo; smooth transit of broken chords in Bass (using rotation)- Feeling a sense of TWO beats per measure. (Duple Compound meter) Shaping and SINGING lines; understanding HARMONIC relationships that influence phrasing; voicing and balance; relaxed, measured trill practice.”

Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No. 1

To London, England

Video Description:

“Romantic era phrasing; Think in TWO impulses per measure; Use Rotations for relentless Left Hand broken chords; Enlist blocking techniques in this regard; Play with a SINGING tone legato; Be aware of harmonic rhythm or harmonic progressions/cadences as they influence phrasing. Work on shaping lines and balancing voices. Observe dynamics and use various weight transfers to realize them.”

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Exploring modulations, secondary dominants and sequences in a J.S. Bach keyboard learning journey

Without doubt, the French Suites and other keyboard works of J.S. Bach require a multi-dimensional learning approach. It’s not enough to enter the universe of the great Baroque master with a singular intent to absorb counterpoint, or parcel voices, sing them, juggle them, properly finger each hand, and in some cases divide one voice between two hands. Even with a two-voice Allemande that resembles a two-part Invention, it’s of necessity to map harmonic movement, study modulations brought about through the use of secondary dominants, and assimilate sequences, in both melodic and harmonic appearances. Yet the true value of detailed theoretical analysis is its direct application to musical expression and beautiful phrasing.

In my recent journey through the J.S. Bach Allemande of French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817, I was immersed in several tiers of learning:

1) I learned each line separately with attention to fingering, though I knew from past experience, that when parts are combined, or interact, that what might be a practical fingering when hands are played alone, would not necessarily work when they played together. So this preliminary fingering gradually firmed up as layered learning unfolded.

Part and parcel of studying each line, is to actively SING either with the same deeply embedded familiarity. I always test this absorption, by prodding myself to sing either line out loud while playing the other. Such an ability bodes well for fleshing out the contrapuntal dimension of the Allemande. (In this learning phase my tempo is regressed, but it’s still framed with a singing pulse and imbued with expressive phrasing.) I don’t hesitate to deeply connect into the keys with ample arm weight, and I ply phrases with a supple wrist and relaxed arms.

Once I put the hands together, I refine fingering, make certain adjustments, and insert options in parentheses where they apply.

At this juncture, how I GROUP NOTES in a Baroque framing is a big part of my exploratory process. Such decisions evolve from experimentation with various articulations, as there are numerous possibilities that can preserve the style, mood and affect of Bach’s music.

2) When both hands actively interact with a modicum of ease, I carefully map out HARMONIC transit. With two parts running horizontal and vertical at same time, the dimension of underlying Harmony again furthers musical expression.

As melodic segments in the treble appear in sequences, I make note to intensify threads that ascend, and relax those that descend. The same will apply to sequences in the bass. How simultaneous sequences in both hand interact, is still another dimension of exploration and experimentation.

Naturally, an understanding of modulations that are driven by “Secondary Dominants” offers the player an opportunity to respond to the leaning effect on the DOMINANT to the resolving, dissolving Tonic. And then any chain of modulations in close proximity prompts a decision to make a crescendo, or in some instances to do the reverse, especially where a deceptive cadence might intrude. Then again, the undulating nature of phrases in the Allemande doesn’t encourage a flat dynamic by any means.


Learning the Allemande comes with a Multi-dimensional understanding of its essence. In fact the journey of discovery is only at its beginning, and a ripening process often brings changes in articulation, voicing, dynamics, and fingering that individually and collectively further the realization of beauty.

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