Piano Technique: Different Strokes for Different Folks

I’ve heard myself say a thousand times over, that each individual piano student deserves a custom designed plan of study.

In essence, there’s no instructional METHOD fixed in perpetuity that will fit every musical traveler. In fact, with a diversity of student personalities, backgrounds, and approaches to life/career (where adults, in particular, apply), some pupils for one reason or another, will lunge and grab at notes, while others have a more detached, laissez-faire, “tracing paper” relationship to the instrument. (excuse the mixed metaphor)

For those who transfer the ethos of a dog-eat-dog world of corporate competition to the piano, I become a Life Coach/Psychologist, de-emphasizing a DEEP, in the KEYS WARM-UP. Instead, I substitute a PARADOXICAL LIGHT-NESS of BEING APPROACH.

To the OVERDETERMINED, I say, Throw fate to the wind.

Don’t grab, stab, or capture the RIGHT notes. They’ll be there without op_PRESSIVE over-possession. (Shed the Napoleanic Banner!)


FlOAT, and gently roll your arms/hands into the scale. Think clouds, magic carpets, or whatever releases the body from enslaved tension.


“STATE of Mind,” always comes to MIND: An ever-evolving GLOSSARY of nonsense syllables and mental images feed the imagination, freeing the spirit. Students shuffle pads and take notes.

“How to undo a sweat and tears, Pain/gain, Battle-ready, rage against the 88 demonic finger traps?”

Simply, “LIGHTEN the strokes for these FOLKS.”

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A nine-year-old Piano student at the six-month juncture of study

It’s hard to believe how far “Liz” has come in her musical journey.

With a half year’s exposure to the piano, she composes, transposes, and approaches her practicing draped in the singing tone.

In a repertoire-based phase of learning (with a primer method book tossed asunder) the student is embedded in relaxation techniques, with supple wrist, and graceful arms as the centerpiece of her keyboard approach.

Riveted to Accent on Gillock Book 2, and having embarked upon the composer’s “Summertime Polka,” she can play the charmer in back tempo, (after 3 weeks), though nonetheless expressively and with dynamic contrasts. Having a natural hand position, that’s nourished by “weeping willow” prompts, she’s well on her way to growing her skills to a level of pleasing artistry, through it will be an incremental, baby-step progression over the long-term.

Today’s video illustrates the pupil’s passage since she had her very first lesson on February 18th, 2016. (A side interview about the child’s creative Legos universe is a companion treat.)

Included below is a flashback to Liz’s very first encounter with the piano. (Note that numerous blog postings have tracked the child’s studies at periodic intervals)



I started my pupil on the Primer, A Time to Begin (Frances Clark) having spent about 4 and 1/2 months poring through this material.

Concurrent to using this book, I nourished transpositions, and composing opportunities in the Major/Parallel minor spectrum.

Penta-scales divided between the hands were part of the pupil’s progressive technical regimen. (She understands the composite of Whole Step, Whole Step, Half-Step, Whole Step for the Major tonality, with the lowered third creating the MINOR.)

At this point she is dividing complete ONE-OCTAVE scales between her hands and has comprehension of RELATIVE MINORS (three forms), to the extent that she composed a piece, “EGYPT” in ‘A’ Harmonic Minor. (I created a Teacher SECONDO)

M's Piece cropped

Through the pupil’s six months of piano study, she has accrued a nice collection of her own pieces, that at first were rendered as floating notes, but are now properly realized on the Grand Staff.

Liz references and understands the CIRCLE OF FIFTHS, and has added a regimen of divided hands ARPEGGIOS in two octaves with a cross-over LEFT HAND using finger number 2, before the descent.

She has also been given theory assignments that I have devised along the way, but recently these have become formalized with a companion workbook. (Snell/Ashleigh Series)

The student is also directed to write reviews of performances that I tab on You Tube. (Some are my own.)

Her most recent report describes the Gershwin Prelude No. 2.

Title page Gershwin review

p. 1 Gershwin Review

p. 2 Gershwin review

Liz clearly loves her creative journey and I’m thrilled to be a companion mentor/traveler. What can be more gratifying!


Liz’s piece, “Egypt” was so beautifully composed that I experimented with creating a set variations on it. Someday, she’ll have the skills to embellish it in octaves, sixths, etc. or however she chooses.

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A Grand Piano with a captivating design!

Bluthner Modern

“GET THIS!” A piano with sleekness and significant musical dimension: an eye and ear-catcher with a respectable pedigree among keyboard giants.

Who can gloss over the Name Bluthner?

I won’t say more lest I spoil the uniqueness of the LOOKING and LISTENING experience.

So UP and AWAY with alacrity!

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Piano Technique: Energy-saving, Relaxed, Resting hands

It’s common for piano students to tense a hand that is not actively engaged in playing during measured rests.

Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” an aspirational piece for so many, is the perfect representation of interactive, woven hands, that flow across from Left to Right, with a spacious margin of relaxed breaths. (as rests are notated) This over-all legato line mosaic that permeates the opening section, should be responsive to an uninterrupted outpouring without intrusive tension in the hands, wrists and arms at any point.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 12.20.53 AM

In beautifully phrased music-making, a basic underlying, hand-to-hand motion plays out simultaneously in the present and in the future. Therefore, if one hand stiffens while the other is sculpting a portion of the phrase, then extraneous energy is expended to the sacrifice of a well-shaped, continuous line. (In the outflow of “Fur Elise,” in particular, while one hand is not playing, it should gracefully move to its next destination.)

In the following lesson-in-progress snippet, an adult student exerted what was energy-draining in a perceived left hand tightening in Beethoven’s character piece.

In this second lesson sample, a youngster, having studied for 4 and 1/2 months, plays a duet with me with a nice interaction of her hands in relaxed motion. Having been trained from the start with the image of “weeping-willow arms” and supple wrists, she’s well imbued with an approach that will further her progress.


In this third and fourth example, an adult student is made aware of stiffness in her left hand as she practices the F-Sharp Major arpeggio. In the course of our lesson, I demonstrated ways to relieve tension and smooth out the broken chord progression.

Mime Practicing, both hands

Many students, often unconsciously, tense a hand that is not playing in synchrony with the other. By reinforcing the hanging hands off relaxed arms framing, and replaying videos of what needs amending, pupils will practice relaxation techniques that will foster improvement.

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Patient voice-parceling in practicing Beethoven’s Adagio Cantabile (Sonata “Pathetique”)

Some piano students view playing a choir of voices with a rich bed of sustain pedal as an un-delayed gratification. It’s an icing on the cake indulgence that often eludes the main course of diligent, attentive, and analytical practicing.

A case in point is Beethoven’s hauntingly beautiful, Adagio movement of the “Pathetique” Sonata, Op. 13, with its layer of voices that begs for a satisfying exploration.

Beethoven Adagio Cantabile segment

From my perspective, the composer’s mosaic is best assimilated through a careful voice-parceling process that invites a sensitive awareness of harmonic rhythm and balance–first among treble, tenor and bass lines, but quickly blossoming into a 4-voice effusion. (Soprano, Alto, Tenor Bass). In a variation-like unfolding, Beethoven eventually adds a rhythmic variant with a triplet underpinning, while he fleshes out a melancholic melody that’s always draped in lush harmonies, moving as chains of broken chords within the texture. And as a core of underlying support, a soulful bass meanders with flowing, cello-like expression.


In the attached teaching video, I examine a recommended layered-learning approach to Beethoven’s middle movement by individualizing voices, then permuting them, so they’re understood in relation to each other before being integrated into a developed whole. In this step-wise journey to musical unity bundled in patience and slow tempo framing, a newfound ecstasy is experienced that’s tied to a deep well of understanding.

(Note: The contrasting, mood-shifting middle section in the parallel minor is not explored in this segment.)

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How to stay calm in the Eye of “The Storm”- Practicing Burgmuller’s L’Orage, Op. 109, No. 13

Most piano students are familiar with Friedrich Burgmuller’s set of Twenty-Five Easy and Progressive Studies, Op. 100, that are tasteful Romantic era miniatures with appealing programmatic titles. “Tender Flower,” “The Little Party,” and “The Wagtail,” to name a few, are far from dripping with the excesses that one might encounter in the manuscripts of Romantic era contemporary, Franz Von Suppe, who orchestrated thunderous music that ceaselessly gallops to final cadence in The Light Cavalry Overture.

Such exaggerated musical forays, though instantly ear-catching, would inevitably invite well-recognized eyeball-rolling among listeners who absorbed a stash of rhythmic and melodic repetitions.

Burgmuller, no doubt, must have possessed a keen ear to the pulse of such 19th Century musical culture, responding with a markedly colorful piece that would earn instant popularity among advancing piano students.

Though the composer’s “L’Orage” elicits a reserved nod of approval, it will nevertheless remain a signature piece for students who want to ride into the “eye” of the storm without being overcome by the force of its technical challenges.

To tame gusty winds and rain rising to climactic levels, one must, therefore, examine ways to practice the piece so it does not overwhelm, intimidate, or imperil the player.

Braving the natural elements, I set out to plan a video built around slow practicing Op. 109, No. 13, using big arm energies, supple wrists, weight transfer and rotation, framed by attentive listening.


L’Orage (Baldwin piano)

L’Orage (Steinway piano)


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My Piano Students of Yesteryear: Where are they now?

Over decades of teaching, and with relocation being the norm for students and mentors, it would have taken a bit of research to track down all my beginner, intermediate, and advanced students dating back to 1968 (NYC); and from 1979 (Fresno CA) to 2011, before my 2012 move to Berkeley, California.

What I discovered in a retro-journey to my very first students in Manhattan post-Oberlin Conservatory graduation, was mind-boggling! To think that my earliest pupils are now in their 50s!!

I’m not ashamed to admit that Naomi and Annie Ehrenpreis were 5 and 7, respectively when I set out as a traveling teacher in Manhattan. (It was by Washington Square Park, in a luxurious high-rise)

As a fledgling mentor, I shunned method books but found sanctuary in Robert Pace’s uniquely creative materials. They became the springboard for composing activities that filled one full hour of lessons, divided in half between the sisters. As little children enrolled in the Ramaz school on the East side, and as the grandkids of a great Talmudic scholar, it was natural for them to be quite attentive; to have a singular motivation to compile a decorated collection of their own pieces that had original rhyme schemes. And with words scanned into iambic pentameter, they appreciated mood shifts from “Major to minor” that kept interest aflame through our time together.


Looking back, I often wondered where these first students were today?

Would they remember me and my efforts to enrich their imagination?

I tried contacting them through Facebook but was stunned by their silence. Would their knowing I had named my first child,”Naomi” in honor of the younger sister have altered such indifference?

Without further word, I took it upon myself to check Google and Linked-in to satisfy my curiosity:

“Ann Ehrenpreis Scherzer” is a Judge of the New York City Criminal Court in Bronx County, New York. She was appointed to this position by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2013, and her term will expire in 2018.

Sister, Naomi E. Voss graduated Harvard, and subsequently relocated to Israel as a Computer Software Professional.

Did one or both sisters return to the piano as adults, or had their children been music students? I would never know.


I fast forwarded to 1985, six years into my relocation to Fresno, California from New York City.

As I perused a self-published 1985 collection that contained student names attached to their individual compositions and companion illustrations, I found these entries:

composing children

Jason H. was 15 in 1985 when he composed “Scottish Highlands,” which would make him 46 years old today! I happily discovered that he’s a pediatrician in Kaysville, Utah, having graduated Brigham Young University and the University of Utah School of Medicine. Bravo J.! Naturally, a large family is woven into his many accomplishments.

Scottish Highlands crop

Michelle S. who was age 6 in 1985 when she composed “Music Box,” is now a Central Valley California-based M.D. Anesthesiologist. Her father, I recall, was a physician specializing in lung diseases.

Paul M. who is not represented in the album, but was one of my first piano students when I arrived in Fresno in 1979, (he was about 7 at the time) stayed with the piano until he entered UC Berkeley. He’s in the Engineering field, but I haven’t specifically tracked him down. His mom was a Nursing Professor and Administrator at Fresno State University when her son studied with me.

Melissa S. age 9, in 1985, and composer/illustrator of “Windsor,” is Executive Administrator of Bain & Co., previously employed at Goldman Sachs.

Windsor Pic best

Windsor music crop

Julia Dahl (real name disclosed as I’m sure she’ll appreciate the exposure) is a novelist with a commanding website.


In 1985, at 7 years old, Julia composed “Clouds.”


Becca Wong was a diligent piano student in the late 1980’s to early 1990’s who became a dance accompanist.

When we reunited as Facebook friends, I took the opportunity to interview her about her fascinating career.



Amy B., 12, was immersed in Burgmuller pieces, Op. 100, in 1990, as she continued her musical journey with dedicated practicing. Today, she’s an intellectual property attorney working in the Silicon Valley.

Valerie F. studied with me years later, in 2009, and was an entrant in two MTAC piano local branch competitions. Attached is one of her recorded performances of “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” (8-12 year old competitive division). Though the video is grainy, the audio track is a testimony to her splendid musicianship.

In 2011, older sister, Stacey (also a student of mine) performed the Fugue in C minor, by J.S. Bach BWV 847 at a Baroque Regional Festival.

Valerie and Stacey are currently students at Brigham Young University.


David Su was age 6 when he began piano studies. He’s now a software developer in San Francisco, having completed his graduate work at UC Berkeley. His, sister, Stacey, not a student of mine, who won many Local Fresno-based and Statewide piano competitions, is a practicing physician in the Department of Surgical Oncology, Division of Thoracic Surgery, Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadephia, PA.

Not to overlook, Mark C. an adult student who studied piano with me in Fresno for over 6 years! At the time, he was a Federal Attorney, who managed to sandwich in practicing between jaunts around the country.

Most recently, he sent me an email about his promotion to Judge, an appointment made by Governor Brown! A big Congratulations!


There are many other pupils whom are not as easy to locate given the passage of years, but it’s apparent that many have carved out successful professional careers, perhaps owing in part to their piano study.

May the love of music embrace them for a lifetime!



Shrinking Degrees of Separation in the Music World

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