Two-timing scale practice

I appreciate two-timing piano students who practice their scales with acutely sensitive ears. They are made keenly aware of what it takes to repeat a faulty step-wise sequence that’s been thrown out of rhythmic alignment along a 4-octave route. (Auditory memory is a vital ingredient through repetitions that require retrieval of a consistent underlying pulse.)

In a journey from 8ths to 16ths to 32nds, many pupils will underestimate the end game tempo, losing technical control in the final spill. To avoid a pile-up in the speed zone, they will put on the breaks, losing their initial framing beat. Ironically, a good proportion of two-timers who find themselves in such a jam will “think” they’ve doubled-up in the 32nds range, only to discover by a teacher’s real-time demonstration, that 16ths to 32nds were out of synch. (A metronome can be just as helpful in clarifying rhythmic disparities.)

Ways to deal with rhythmic disorientation

I prompt students to back up by “half” from what they can realistically manage in 32nds. After a few retrograde repetitions in this practicing mode, they can revisit 8ths and then move forward in doubled sequence to peak destination. In most cases, a pupil comes to grips with what he can safely control at the 32nds level, knowing that the underlying pulse will increase through incremental learning stages.

A recent lesson sample illustrated rhythmic disproportion and remedy. (It’s excerpted at the juncture where a student zoned in on 16ths to 32nds in a D-sharp minor Harmonic form scale) A brief second segment focused on a “rolling into” effort in a more fast-paced staccato-rendered scale in Melodic form. It was a confidence-building effort that represented a “rite of passage” for this pupil who realized that she could, in fact, play brisker 32nd notes without faltering. Breathing, pacing, mindfulness, and lack of PANIC all kick into controlled, peak tempo playings.

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A Happy Day for a 9-yr. old piano student playing on her first recital

Maeve, aka “Liz” was welcomed into the universe of music sharing in the beautiful Oakland Hills of California. What better backdrop, cloaked in nature, as breezes wafted through branches, shaking out leaves in graceful patterns. The images, extracted from the East Bay’s gorgeous panorama are in Maeve’s mental repository, as they feed relaxed energy down her arms into supple wrists. Many Russian piano teachers draw on the “weeping willow” tree model, in particular, to inspire fluidity of movement. Graceful approaches to the keyboard that are in synch with phrase contours do not happen by chance. They are nurtured along by mentors with great care.

Maeve has learned in this spirit for a bit over a year’s time, having been exposed to the singing tone and how to physically produce it. From the very start of lessons we have integrated composing, ear-training, theory, structure, with an underlying MUSICAL framing. Sound is imagined before it can be channeled into the keyboard in physical motion. This very sensitivity begins from day 1 continuing in increments through developmental phases.

Maeve’s own journey has been logged in videos from late February 2016 to the present. These can be found on You Tube under “LIZ’s” piano lessons.


Today was a Rite of Passage as all first recitals are. Can we remember our own? In my day, there were no cell phones, camcorders, computers, etc.–perhaps just old-fashioned home movies generated by what would be considered antiquated hardware—Nothing like the mega-technology of the 21rst Century. I have no personal recollection of playing in a group recital at my humble music school on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. Not even a Brownie camera captured my first Diller-Quaille, two-note “Ding-Dong” piece that required my Russian teacher, Mrs. Vinagradov to accompany me to make the music sound full and resonant. That’s why I hungered constantly for our rich harmonic collaboration, having to wait for too many years before I was allowed to play with TWO hands–ADD in the White NOTE obsession of this era’s teaching, and delayed exposure to the Bass Clef which instilled fears of moving forward.

Thankfully the state of the teaching art is different today, more progressive than regressive, breaking down inhibitions of the past associated with MIDDLE C fixated madness and black note avoidance.

The fortunate beneficiaries of this new learning/teaching consciousness are Maeve and many of her contemporaries.

Today’s recital revealed the fruits of collective labors. Maeve was poised and determined to SHARE the pure beauty of the music she had so thoroughly learned. It was her entry into the world of giving and receiving that will propel her studies along with heartfelt commitment.

A big Thank You to the host of the group recital, Betty Woo, on behalf of the Music Teachers Association of California, MTAC.


Flashback: Maeve’s First Piano Lesson (parts 1, 2 and 3)

There are many more sample lessons with Liz on You Tube.

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The Importance of Analytical Practicing

Needless repetitions that are unfocused, without attaching an analysis of what requires improvement will impede a piano student in the advancement of a composition. And while a tricky, isolated passage or complete section of a piece may have been carefully learned by layers in slow tempo, the very same area of the piece can develop finger traps, stumbling zones, and voicing problems as the tempo is inched up.

This is when the teacher patiently intervenes to clarify what retro-baby steps must be taken to smooth out shaky measures so the march toward more brisk playing is an attainable goal.

Unfortunately, many students will say, “You must have told me about that same problem in those measures a 100 times, and I just haven’t paid attention.” Added to such a pupil’s self-humiliation, is the belief that he/she is being LEFT BACK or is not up to the challenge of GOING FORWARD at the pace expected. EXPECTATION is the pupil’s self-made burden that inhibits progress and growth.

To bring a self-punitive, guilt-ridden pupil back to reality is to reassure him/her that even the most advanced players BACK UP, and revisit passages that can become riddled with unexpected glitches. The difference is, they usually have the insight from experience to apply an objective, methodical approach to extricate themselves from the doldrums of despair.

In so many words, there’s always a way dig oneself out of a pit if presence of mind and thoughtful analysis are applied.

Today, I worked with a student who’d been nicely upping his tempo in Fur Elise, until he reached the “stormy” tremolo framed section through measures 61-77. At this point, he lost the thread of the melody through the chords, and muddled a few measures by over-pedaling them. The arms and wrists also needed enlistment in a way that prevented tension and tightness. (Some of the movements were jerky inhibiting a GROUP flow of notes in horizontal procession while shaping of lines through dynamic swells was inadequate.)

Naturally, I reminded the student that unfocused repetition would not accomplish the improvement he desired.

Rather than extract footage from today’s lesson, I chose to make a short video that zoned in on the crux his problems in order to aid practicing during the week. These lesson supplements are always valuable for both pupil and teacher.

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A Jet-setting adult student makes time for piano

No need to say Play it Again Sam, to Sam P. who’s been a super dedicated piano student ever since he approached me for lessons in Berkeley, nearly 4 years ago. And if we factor in a significant interruption of instruction due to Sam’s Acrosonic Console having been shipped to London when his company transferred him to Europe in 2014, he’s left with about 3 solid years of study. Along the way, we’ve doubled up on lessons to accommodate his rigorous travel schedule that includes departures to India, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Amsterdam, Dubai, etc, with a Tanzania Safari thrown in.

Sam has a meticulous approach to practicing. He relishes a deliberate and thorough journey through his assigned compositions that includes parceled, layered learning and he has no affixed deadline in his explorations. Most of all, he appreciates the process of musical discovery; how it spills over into other life activities, such as Chess for which he has a passion. He observes “patterns” in his pieces that have a direct tie-in to the game.

I had a chance to interview Sam about his piano studies after he landed back in London from Abu Dhabi. Since he’s working on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” a crown jewel piece for many students, I decided to separately include excerpts from his most recent lesson that focused on rhythmic unity between sections. Viewers will notice Sam’s earnest and methodical approach to this composition, that also infuses an awareness of the singing tone and how to produce it. He’s been working assiduously on relaxing his arms and wrists, while shaping phrases within a vocal model. For a time, Sam took singing lessons, until his travels made it nearly impossible to focus seriously on voice AND piano. I’m glad he gave the PIANOFORTE top priority!

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Alessandro Deljavan is a uniquely gifted pianist

Sometimes winners of piano competitions are not true messengers of great musical artistry. They might succeed in pleasing a panel of judges who often reward interpretive conformity and convention bundled in pyrotechnical displays, bestowing the Gold medal upon the least offending contender. Yet such a career launch may be short-lived once the round-by-round environment is no longer a convenient safety net. A truly creative musician must ultimately emancipate himself from a competitive framing and develop an unbridled, form of individual expression.

Alessandro Deljavan is one of the few young pianists of his generation whose participation in the renowned Cliburn Competition brought singular adulation from audiences far and wide, but did not attach a Gold, Silver or Bronze Medal. His BIGGER THAN LIFE talent, LIVE-STREAMED from Fort Worth, Texas, in 2009 and 2013, drew a chorus of praise from pianists, teachers, and listeners around the world who enthusiastically mouse-clicked their way to his scheduled offerings. Yet, when the Italian pianist did not make the Finals, global sighs of outrage were funneled into Discretionary honors that would not soften international waves of disappointment.

Fort Worth arts critic, Gregory Sullivan and others summed up the reaction to Deljavan’s playing during the course of the Cliburn rounds:

“Deljavan’s performance was revelatory in every respect. Everyone in the hall knew that they were hearing something special-something wonderful from the very first notes. At the end, the spontaneous eruption of cheers was so different from the perfunctory ovation that any decent performance is awarded, that being part of the thrilled crowd was a unique experience in itself.”


It’s no surprise that Deljavan is a virtuoso and poet of the piano without needing the rubber stamp of Competition juries. (Yet, he’s amassed a generous serving of first place awards at International concours)

With a mellifluous singing tone, deft technique, and immaculate phrasing, his deeply probing art serves the music and composer.

(I must admit to having shed tears listening to this Concerto excerpt) Deljavan’s riveting emotional connection to a score comes through in all style periods.



I had a rare opportunity to converse with Alessandro who was in the Silicon Valley area (CA) performing chamber music with violinist, Daniela Cammarano, and cellist, Eugene Lifschitz. The group will showcase the works of Beethoven and Brahms at the School of Music and Arts at Finn Center, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View, CA. Sunday, April 16th, 2017 at 3 p.m. Otherwise Deljavan is jet-setting around the world giving concerts to appreciative audiences.


Alessandro shared his thoughts about the role of chamber music in the development of a pianist, along with providing a profile of his earliest exposure to the piano, journeying into the present.


Deljavan’s OFFICIAL WEBSITE: (Click “MEDIA” for more performance samples)


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Keeping up our skills as piano teachers, with an “eye” to taking on challenges

I couldn’t resist juxtaposing the importance of learning new and challenging music with an “eye” toward how we can best accomplish our short and long-term goals within our teaching milieu. (The EYE metaphor becomes CLEARER and dual serving as the posting progresses.)


So many music teachers have a tight schedule of back-to-back students that precludes personal musical development. They’re caught in a tight squeeze, trying their best to keep up with the repertoire assigned to pupils, with the painful knowledge that they could use more than a spoonful of time to more deeply probe a Bach Fugue or a Beethoven Sonata movement.

Yet by not specifically setting aside daily periods for serious practicing, teachers are short-changing themselves and their students.

In my own professional development, I’ve been focusing on the J.S. Bach French Suites these past months– an undertaking sparked by an Online pupil in North Carolina who wanted to study the Allemande from French Suite No. 4 in E-flat BWV 814. Because I’d never worked on this particular movement, or the whole Suite No.4, I felt compelled to immerse myself deeply in the music so I could more effectively mentor the student. Otherwise, I would have been “winging it” without much depth.

The Allemande project led me to a set of independent discoveries within the total volume of French Suites. At first, I was drawn to movements that Murray Perahia had previewed in his you tube trailers where he covered all 6 of the French Suites. The last one in E Major caught my “eye” because it had an enchanting Courante and Bourree which I’d first explored before committing myself to a thorough study of the whole work.

(Without a doubt, the Sarabande proved to be a heart throb)

Perahia will play the French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817 during his appearance at Davies Hall, Sunday, April 25th. My pre-immersion in this composition will have deepened my understanding and subsequent revisit. It will keenly benefit my teaching on many introspective levels so the next student who embarks upon this work, will have the advantage of my intensified relationship to it.


An ongoing French Suite journey has brought even more musical growth opportunities. Sarabande from French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812,is a tender love note, filled with sadness that demands a sustained mood of pathos and tenderness.

But my biggest learning challenge is embodied in the Gigue from French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812.

Upon first glance, the Gigue looked like an uphill climb with its complex rhythms and crossover voices from hand to hand. In fact, when I tapped into Perahia’s Trailer on this very D minor Suite which ends with a snatch of the Gigue, I realized it was DIFFERENT from all others I had encountered in Bach’s collection: The Gigue from French Suite in G Major, BWV 816 was one I had previously learned when a student asked to study it. In 12/16 time, it has the characteristic mood and motion associated with a Bach GIGUE while the D minor is a cut time (2/2), “triple fugue,” according to Perahia–a revelation that was invaluable to my assimilation of this work from the ground up.

In the first few days of my exploration, I knew tackling this Gigue would ignite a significant growth spurt–the kind that I welcome in my musical evolution. A triple fugue, with its internal complexity, was a big serving that required meticulous voice parceling and thoughtful, painstaking fingering decisions. (The internal trills and ornaments compounded the complex rhythmic overlay that I characterized in totality, as “a cow.”)

In a companion email to my students, I shared the agony and the ecstasy of my journey, putting an emphasis on this very COW aspect of my learning adventure. These pupils know by this time that I’m always looking for ways to notch up my skills, hoping my efforts will trickle down to their individual musical travels. The collaboration, we collective realize, is a two-way growth process.

Finally, with an EYE to taking these big leaps in our musical excursions, and making challenging opportunities for ourselves along the way, I conclude with what may seem to be a mix-and-match ADD-On. It suggests a FOCUS that we should be made aware of in our own playing and that of our pupils.

The attached video provides food for thought, suggesting a discussion about how we absorb, play, read, and retain music when sitting at the piano bench. It certainly factors into our whole creative learning process and how we shape our development as pianists and teachers.

Posted in, Classical music blog, French Suite, French Suites, J.S. Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano, piano teaching, Shirley Smith Kirsten | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Piano repertoire: Review and Refresh

Striking a balance between learning new pieces and keeping a connection to older ones, requires a commitment to well-parceled, organized practice time. It presents a challenge that invites a particular focus on preserving familiarity with repertoire that can easily slip into obscurity during months or years of neglect. As time passes, tactile estrangement grows.

A review and refresh approach can therefore morph into Repeal and Replace if older compositions had been incompletely learned or prematurely abandoned. In their resuscitation, they will need additional fingering adjustments, introspective harmonic analysis, phrasing revisions, and altered practice routines. Oldies, on the other hand, that had enjoyed embryonic growth to full development in layered stages, will experience a smoother transitional review with the added crossover effect of simultaneous, infused NEW repertoire exposure.

In short, a harmony of new and older pieces in a reciprocal developmental relationship, will enrich a musical journey.


One of my adult students, who appreciates the review process and its enduring musical value, requested a reconnection with Schumann’s “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples,” Kinderszenen 1, Op. 15. When I suggested a first step parceling of voices, with a plan to permute them in various combinations as we had done before, the task became daunting. Yet such a roadblock simply meant that although the pupil’s initial learning experience had been thorough and layered, a revisit might take a bit longer, requiring a dose of patience and self-compassion.

Second and third reviews of a piece over time, help solidify learning gains and insights, making retrievals less cumbersome and quite natural. In addition, a REVIEW having been built on a solid foundation, even if shaky in the early phase of re-exposure, will attach a deeper understanding of structural, harmonic and affective dimensions in the RETURN.


In a video summary of ingredients attached to a Kinderszenen 1 Review, I drew upon the tenets of the original approach that added a few epiphanies.


In a separate, “new” learning journey undertaken by a student, (Beethoven, Adagio Cantabile, Sonata Pathetique in C minor, Op. 13), a voice-parceling approach, comparable to that which applied to Kinderszenen 1, is valuable in the PRESENT, while it’s equally beneficial for a future revisit.

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