Schumann’s ‘Rocking Horse’ comes with a spring forward wrist

Rocking Horse

Schumann’s Kinderszenen album, (Scenes of Childhood) includes a child-inspired Rocking Horse piece that enlists spring forward wrist motions to help frame its character. If the pianist tightens up and tries to realize third beat accents with a tight jolt of a stiff hand, then it’s all over for the player who will tire quickly while undoing the rocking nature of the music.

So what better opportunity exists for a piano teacher than to AWAKEN a student to a redundant motion that enlivens a composition and keeps it percolating with well-delivered energies.

But the mentor should also enlighten the pupil about the multi-dimensional nature of the Rocking Horse that’s not necessarily pumping back and forth in needless repetition. There’s syncopated rhythm; melody and counter-melody, as well as perfect fifths that are inverted to perfect fourths that carry a snatch of the opening thread. It’s the probing musician, therefore, who will discover that the wrist spring forward motions are part of a larger exploration, not merely a demonstration of moto perpetuo.


Play Through

Posted in piano, piano instruction, Schumann, Robert Schumann, blog, Kinderszenen, piano blog, piano blogging, Romantic era piano music, Romantic era | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Anatomy of a Scale

If you want to pick your brain, ultra-analyzing a scale: finding symmetries, asymmetries, reciprocals, common tones with common fingers, upside down, inside-out relationships between the hands, and anything else that will solidify it, you might add an extra few senility-proof years to your life. Example: I can’t remember my neighbor’s first name, or my best friend in high school, but I can dissect all scales in the Circle of Fifths (Major and minor), taking them apart piece-by-piece and putting them back together in the holistic sense, guaranteeing their well-being in brisk tempo.

As an example, I offer my latest dissection of Ab Major, bestowed by a generous donor from the piano student population, whose interest in advancing  micro-exams of scales produced a mega-analysis beyond his wildest dreams. And in this essential post-mortem, after the scale was D.O.A. (dead on arrival), I posted a homework assignment for the catastrophe-prone pupil: Chart the 4-octave spree based on all the nit-picky relationships fleshed out in the attached video.

Once completed, he will diligently practice the scale, enlisting faith and determination, combining all the brain/brawn power necessary to resurrect it.

Ab Major:
Basic fingering, two octaves: (4 flats: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db)

Ab Scale two octaves

Posted in A flat Major scale, Ab Major scale, piano addcit, piano addict, piano blog, piano scales, Piano Street, piano technique, Piano World, scales, Shirley Kirsten, word press, you tube | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

J.S. Bach Prelude in Ab, BWV 862: A Fresh Start for Student and Teacher

In the course of teaching, a situation may arise where a particular favored piece is requested by a student that I’ve never studied–which means a deep-layered journey is ahead of two learning partners.

And given that J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Ab, (Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1) requires thoughtful fingering choices; an awareness of Baroque era ornamentation, phrasing/articulation/voicing, and a knowledge of counterpoint/harmonic movement/structure, the undertaking requires a baby-step advance.

Therefore, one of my learning reinforcers is to create a self-made tutorial early in the assimilation process, well before I’ve had significant exposure to a composition. The goal is to exemplify a parceled practicing approach that is stacked heavily in the direction of gaining mastery, or relative fluidity when the piece ripens to tempo.

The big embracing mantra, however, is Patience un-enslaved to any Deadline because learning and growing into a desired tempo has no marked out notches of predictable progress. Yet one has to have a heap of confidence on credit to keep optimism in high gear.

With that said, one pivotal aspect of the learning journey is setting a good fingering and in the case of Bach’s Prelude in Ab, a separate hand approach becomes only one dimension of the undertaking. In truth, there are more than two steps to be taken in determining a workable fingering.

1) I assigned what I thought were reasonable choices for the Right Hand in a slow tempo frame.

2) I did the same for the Left hand.

3) The above first and second steps had to be refined if not revised significantly in certain measures, when hands were played simultaneously.

And this is an epiphany that most students will have as they explore a new score. Where fingering might work separately for each hand, it will not necessarily comport for both. (This explains the current adjustments I’ve made since I last e-mailed my student)

Naturally, the Baroque style of phrasing is the other important universe of decision-making, and all that follows in relation to harmonic rhythm, modulation, and the contrapuntal cosmos must be part of a nit-picking, ground-up exploration.

So in the spirit of step-by-step learning, the video below should be foundational and of particular assistance to my student and others taking this common journey.

Bach Prelude in Ab WTC revised p. 1 revised

Bach Prelude in Ab WTC revised p.2

Posted in Bach Prelude no. 17, Baroque music, blog, blogger,, BWV862, California, fingering, J.S. Bach, J.S. Bach Prelude in Ab, Johann Sebastian Bach, learning a new piano composition, making fingering choices, pianist, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano lessons, piano teaching, piano technique, piano tutorial, practicing new piano music, Preludes and Fugues, setting a good piano fingering, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, tutorial, Well-Tempered Clavier | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Two San Francisco musical attractions: Pianist, Trifonov and a Chinese Harpist

Within 48 hours, high-level music-making was heard in vastly different venues.

Louise Davies Hall with its golden hue of lights and balconies provided a stunning backdrop for Daniil Trifonov’s heart-throbbing performance of Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Trifonov poster crop

balcony of Davies

Big hall gold

trifonov facing concertmaster

Respighi’s Roman Festivals that concluded the concert, pierced the sound barrier in percussive outbursts, while the featured pianist, to the contrary, had taken explicit care to melt his lyrical phrases with a pervasive singing tone.

Following his mellifluous Chopin, Trifonov rippled through an encore demonstrating his unconstrained virtuosity.

As if this was not enough of a musical banquet, I found myself the following day, at an opposite polarity when I encountered a Chinese harpist at the BART Powell station.

Chinese harp and player

According to the player, the instrument is notably ancient:
“The Guzheng musical instrument originated during the Warring states period (475—211B.C) in China and its tones sound like high mountain waves and continuous water flowing. It has been played over 2500 years.”

The harpist’s supple wrist was as graceful as Trifonov’s fluid approach to the pianoforte and to be sure, both understood the singing tone and how to produce it.

I noted the Chinese musician’s Internet Channel and her charming rendition of a song about a horse which simultaneously evoked a duet that Lang Lang had performed with his father, mid-point in the pianist’s Carnegie Hall debut recital. These offered a nice comparison of instrumental timbres.

“Horse Racing”!videos/c9qb

Here’s Lang Lang and his dad playing “Competing Horses” which displays an ancient Chinese string instrument known as the erhu.

Without doubt China has a rich and diverse culture of musical expression that takes many ancient and modern instrumental forms.

Finally, it was a pleasure to experience a street musician and one inhabiting a concert hall in the course of two well spent journeys to San Francisco.

Posted in blogmetrics, Chinese harp, Chopin, Chopin Concerto in F minor, Chopin Concerto no. 2, Daniil Trifonov, Erhu, Frederic Chopin, Guzheng, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, pianist, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, pianoforte, San Francisco Symphony, Shirley Kirsten, word press, you tube | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Piano Technique: Avoiding thumpy thumbs!

One of the biggest challenges for pianists, particularly in the staccato playing scale cosmos, is to avoid a downward, pack-a-punch “thumpy thumb!

This unwanted lead weight-loaded attack often interrupts a buoyantly springy journey, transforming it into crowded pile-up of space-less notes.

Yet it seems inevitable that the shortest finger of each hand would overcompensate for its size by adding clout to its arrival, unless the player deliberately deals with its over-assertion.

During a recent lesson with an adult student, a staccato romp in E Major imbued the “UP”-lift of the thumb to counter its fall down flat persona.

And a mental image of the “bouncy” rebound effect, with an infusion of UPWARD energy was enough to put the thumb in its proper place along the scale route. But it also needed to be folded into a finger family-centered smooth transit, not HANGING OUT, determined to throw its weight around.

In the universe of forearm staccato, we worked on the UP-ward release of the thumb in a slow, exaggerated tempo that “untangled” the scale. Eventually, it allowed a well-spaced, well-breathed out journey that was unencumbered by tension and nervous acceleration.

Our key lesson prompts were: “rebound effect, UP, short, springy, well-spaced out notes, FRAMING RHYTHM, composure, centering, relaxed breathing.”

Applying the unobtrusive thumb to practicing Bach Invention 1 in C Major, BWV 772:

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How to Practice and Analyze Schumann’s “Blindman’s Bluff” from Kinderszenen

Blindman's Bluff

This is a devilish musical tag that flows out of my journey round the bend in finger staccato in the good company of my students. While none to date have tackled Schumann’s animated “Hasche-Mann,” otherwise known as “Blindman’s Bluff,” our recent focus on a variety of staccato deliveries re-ignited my interest in reviving Schumann’s clever game-playing miniature.

And having grown my technique over the years along with my adult brood, I thought it fitting to apply a well-practiced finger staccato to a snatch of Romantic era repertoire.

In my tutorial that grew out of a “Hasche-Mann” revisit, I provided a practicing approach that focuses on the short detached note landscape with interspersed accents, (both sudden and explosive–Sfp) partnered with a detailed harmonic analyses. Building to tempo feeds a childhood playing spree well-realized by the composer in a colorful framing.


Play through in tempo:

Posted in blogging, finger staccato, Kinderszenen, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano technique, Robert Schumann, Romantic music, Scenes of Childhood, Schumann, staccato | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Jewish New Year ushers in poignant musical memories

We sometimes think of our childhood in musical terms. Seymour Bernstein mentions hearing Schubert’s Standchen that brought him to tears. Otherwise his home was bereft of music, let alone the time-honored Classics. It was mostly silent.

I was bathed in Yiddish melodies that my South Bronx grandmother (bubbe) sang in her beautifully tremulous voice, but even from an old victrola placed on a corner table came the wailing voices of Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce (both Cantors) before they acquired operatic fame.

This particular recording stays with me to this day, and has deep significance because my father, a railroad worker and very schmaltzy man, sang it in a less than perfect tenor, but with great emotion:

Here’s Peerce in a soulful rendering:

The heart-wrenching song was so embedded in my DNA that it rose above the drone of a short wave radio that my zayde, (grandfather) blasted from sunrise to sunset. It was Radio Moscow, with static that drove my bubbe crazy. She shouted “Shweig,” which meant shut-the damn thing off, NOW! He would roll the tuner around to capture Radio Free Europe that had even more static, at which time, bubbe would escape to the kitchen and shut the door. (I remember her braided Chalah, fatty flanken, feathered chicken legs, and soup with luction.. add a few kreplach; burnt peas/carrots–and for dessert, apple pie with a lumpy crust)


Otherwise, when not cooking, she would cavort with plump Mrs. Lox who barely made it down a flight of stairs with her edematous ankles. Together they would gossip about this or that neighbor who was adulterous or in search of a Match. My father mimicked one of their pairings between a deaf man and stuttering woman in perfect comedic rhythm, a talent nourished by my bubbe who took him to the Yiddish Theater on the lower East Side.

Not to overlook the Shule that bordered the tiny apartment. I would see and hear davenning men droning prayers through parted curtains. It was an auditory hypnosis, snuffed out quickly by bubbe Besse who deemed it sacrilegious to eavesdrop. She worried that the Rebbe would get wind of it, and the Evil Eye would interminably haunt her. (That’s why she often met my father on the corner of Longfellow Avenue to have a bite of Chinese pork, well out of Rebbe’s range)

Somewhere around 1956 or so, my Marble Hill project dwelling (in the North Bronx) was another repository of emotion-filled musical outpourings. Would you believe that between vinyl servings of David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern, and Arthur Rubinstein, came Perry Como singing the “Kol Nidre?” (Incidentally, my late aunt Leepee, was Perry’s secretary and social assistant before she moved over to Mary Martin, and eventually Bella Abzug.)

Perry is no Peerce, but gives it a warm framing:

This lament or prayer, is sung at the end of Rosh Hashanah during the Day of Atonement–Yom Kippur, which leads me to my bubbe’s tremulous outpouring of two Yiddish songs: One is a Lullaby– “Schluf Meine Kind” with these lyrics in part. (English translation)

“Sleep my child, sleep be peaceful,
There’s a song I want to sing;
When you, my child, are somewhat older,
There’s something you will come to know.”….

The other is “In the Glowing Stove.. ”

“Oyfn Pripetchik”

“In the glowing stove
Flames leap merrily
And fill the house with heat
And the rebbe teaches
All the little ones
Our Aleph Beth.”(the alphabet)

L’Shana Tovah! (Happy New Year to all!)


Posted in Jewish New Year, music, piano blog, piano blogging, Ruth Rubin, Shirley Kirsten, Yiddish Songs, Yiddish Theater | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments