Music and Words Revisited in Chopin’s compositions

In a lifetime, a few flashing moments of inspiration may guide our musical journey, deepening our understanding of a composer and his music.

In this nostalgic universe of enlightenment, I treasure a precious parcel of wisdom imparted by gifted pianist/teacher Irina Morozova at the Special Music School in Manhattan, 2014. In a private sitting with an icon in the world of mellifluous phrasing and heaven-on-earth renderings, I absorbed her convincing, poetic alliance of words and music in the Chopin literature. The initial introduction that encompassed the Rondo No.2, Op. 16, was a desired segue way to a phrase-centered discussion of the composer’s ethereal Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, No.2.

At this juncture in the Fall, 2014, I’d been studying the “nocturnal” composition, having struggled with various phrase marks, that if literally obeyed, would seem to impede a long musical line, with sub-gestured lifts of the hand.

Morozova’s ideas and demonstrations that were pertinent to my introspective process, became embedded in my consciousness, growing over time in a memory bank, to be drawn upon in a re-learning sequence of Chopin Nocturnes, Mazurkas, and Preludes.

Knowing the challenges my adult students face in their individualized creative journeys through Romantic era piano literature, I thought a timely revisit of the pianist’s treasured epiphanies in the attached video would be a valuable source of learning and inspiration.

NOTE: Morozova’s understanding of words and the breath in alliance with tasteful rubato, requires supple wrists relaxed arms, and a natural application of weight transfer.


A sample of Irina Morozova’s Chopin-rendered musical poetry.(The composer was wedded to the opera in his embrace of Bellini)

Chopin Mazurka, Op. 63, No.3


My own growth spurts in interpreting Chopin have been nursed along by my long-time, East Coast friend whose playing and mentoring are powerful influences upon the greater community of students and teachers.

Chopin Mazurka in G minor, Op. 67, No. 2

Chopin Nocturne in Eb Major, Op. 9, No. 2


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The Ingredients of beautiful phrasing

In the course of three piano lessons, spacing, shaping, voicing/balance, grouping, harmonic rhythm analysis, relaxed breathing, singing tone and pulse, etc. were resonating interdependently through beautiful phrases. And with the introduction of two minor scales as a springboard to the repertoire segment, the SPACING of notes, without anticipation or anxiety with a lightness of being dimension, (think “clouds under the arms”) encouraged a limpid expression of horizontally floating notes in legato. (smooth and connected)

Because a step-wise progression in D-Sharp minor (contrary motion) required a preparatory BLOCKING phase that encouraged Note GROUPING, as opposed to up/down, single note-note vertical playing, the student could transfer this particular awareness to her Chopin Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2. The Relaxed breathing aspect of playing scales without a temptation to grab, squeeze, lunge at or ANTICIPATE NOTES, complemented expressively rendered, poetic lines that permeate Romantic era compositions. (The SINGING TONE as the underpinning)

A video evolved as a synthesis of ideas that arose from an initial exploration of SPACING that enlarged upon itself as various elements of phrasing flowed together in harmony.

PS An added extract from the technique portion of a piano lesson that addressed SPACING.

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A 9-year-old piano student devises a plan to improve her practicing


Into her seventh month of music study, Liz has more clearly defined her approach to practicing various pieces by devising a well-written outline of phrase-loving reminders. And though her vocabulary is an understandable offshoot of her teacher’s, with its emphasis on floating, flowing wrists, side-by-side with “pokey” finger prohibitions, she manages to offer an original spin for preparing her latest piece by William Gillock, “Summertime Polka.” (It’s in the ripening phase)


Not surprisingly, children and adults who embark upon a journey of musical discovery, inevitably face common challenges that Liz well-articulated.

These are fleshed out below:

1) Keeping a framing rhythm in legato and staccato

Subjectively, a pupil might “think” he/she has preserved a singing pulse in transit from smooth/connected playing to short, detached notes, but on playback of a recorded segment, rhythmic irregularities become conspicuous.

Liz tended to rush the staccato section of “Summertime Polka,” not to the extreme, but a trace of anxious rushing can disturb the expressive flow of a composition.

The remedy, is not necessarily metronomic reinforcement, though it can be helpful. I prefer, as teacher, to assume a conductor role, assisting with beat driven gestures, together with singing prompts steeped in vibrant/musical pulsations.

Such SINGING fused with a framing pulse provides a memory reservoir that a student can draw upon in the interval between lessons.

In successful playings, with pertinent prompts, Liz improved the rhythmic stability of her staccato notes.

P.S. The student was similarly made aware of the need for buoyant, “bright,” and crisp staccato releases that she’d enumerated in her practicing plan, but like most pupils, she will benefit from teacher driven reminders that refine the character of detached notes, and contrast them with those that are “tenuto” marked. Ironically, Liz’s own written header attached a tenuto designated note with her self-imposed admonition to “lean” and not “poke.”

2) Preventing the thumb from making fall down, obtrusive accents

This is a universal vulnerability that can be addressed in part, by mentally configuring the shortest finger, as “featherlight,” and by thinking “UP” rather than down.

With my adult students, I talk about “folding” the thumb- played notes into the texture; thinking of it as having a soft cushion, while imagining its levitational dimension.

Liz improved her thumb approaches in consecutive playings of “Summertime Polka” as I sang “soft thumb” at pertinent junctures in the music.

3) Phrasing with horizontal fluidity; not succumbing to “Rosie the Riveter” percussive down strokes

Liz eradicated any semblance of a pencil point, pokey, approach to the keys, though as with all students of diverse ages and levels, I will continue to reinforce the singing tone, and how to produce it. The vital ingredients include the use of supple wrists, full arm relaxed energies and creating musically pertinent “delays” into notes.

Forward wrist motions similarly promote graceful resolutions at cadences in their status as “shock absorbers.”

4) Promoting Attentive listening and awareness of note decay

Early learners and those at more advanced levels always need reminders to fine tune their listening skills. When a teacher exposes students to how music travels in a before/after sequence, notes that were insensitively played at incongruous auditory levels, can begin to flow more sensitively with an imbued consciousness of balance and voicing.

Liz expressed her awareness of “decay” and how she planned to respond to it, as part of our recorded conversation.

5) Making Dynamic variation

Through various degrees of arm/hand/wrist delivered weight transfer, students learn the art of expressive dynamic contrasts, though the imagination must be ignited before the first note is played. All students are timely nudged to energize their mental framings of pieces that include “visualization,” and mood-setting among other strategies.

In summary, piano students of all ages and levels are confronted by a host of common challenges that should drive an enthusiasm for creative adventure, and progressive musical growth.


Piano technique segment of Liz’s lesson at the 6th month juncture

Liz’s first piano lesson/February, 2016

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Piano Technique: Playing Lyrical Legato Octaves

I recall my beloved teacher, Lillian Freundlich, teaching me how to play singing tone, legato octaves through a process that separated the upper fingers, 4 and 5, from the lower thumb progressions. She would not advance to the actual octave spread until voicing between upper and lower notes was separately clarified and each line was practiced with shape and contour.

As it happened her approach to lyrical, Romantically framed octaves had direct application to several measures of Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 where the composer elaborates the opening theme in octaves.

In short, through my slow practicing phase, I would imagine I had NO thumbs when I floated fingers 4, 5, 4 etc. in a horizontal direction, incorporating crescendo-s, diminuendo-s, etc. followed by a featherlight thumb journey imbued with rolling wrist forward motions.

When I finally played the octaves as notated, I prompted myself with an invisible thumb image, so I would relax my hand and not think of STRETCHING to the octave, or grabbing the octaves but, instead, I yielded to the upper voice in a floating modality.

While my hand easily navigates the eight note span, I still steer my attention to the upper fingers that can create a legato line autonomous of the thumbs. (Even small hands can learn a technique of relaxation that makes octaves feel smaller than they appear if the thumbs are not rigid or tense.) Yet there are instances where a student can feel comfortable using all 5’s in the octaves, and still create an ILLUSORY legato with a relaxed, thumb-lightened approach. He/she must above all thread the notes with a SINGING TONE.

If I fast forward to the present in my mentoring universe, I always add a bit of mental imagery to the mix.

“FLOATING” prompts assist smooth connections between notes, and in the case of the Chopin Nocturne, there’s no doubt that a seamless voyage in TWO, rather than 4, (with triplets as the underpinning), helps to avoid bumpy playing.

The pedal as a finishing touch, can obviously promote legato octaves but it cannot substitute for the technique of connecting the upper notes with horizontal, contoured, and relaxed transit.

For demonstration, I made a supplementary video for a student that focused on pertinent measures of the Chopin composition previously referenced.

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Piano Pedagogy article by Byron Janis in the Wall Street Journal

This latest piece on how to teach piano (creatively) is gathering attention far and wide, most notably as an eye-catching feature in the Wall Street Journal. And if I’m not mistaken, an article on the joys of returning to the piano as an adult accorded a similar flood of adulation and empathy in this same media universe.

The Janis contribution, packed with pedagogy-related shoulds and shouldn’ts, includes a tribute to Vladimir Horowitz as the ideal mentor. His imparted words of wisdom about how a pianist must evolve on his own terms, without copying, or God Forbid asking his teacher how to turn or shape a phrase can be framed on the wall as the ULTIMATE arrival of the individualized, ripened artist, of whom Mr. Janis might have exemplified. But by the time Janis had arrived at the door of Volodya, the pianist/virtuoso would have been well schooled in the ART of PIANO Technique integrated with the how-to of producing a singing tone. (Supple wrists, relaxed arms, bigger energies feeding the hands and fingers)

In addition he would have had continuous, deep exposure to the Theory of music with its invaluable application to phrasing as it’s wedded to harmonic rhythm: how Deceptive and other cadences/resolutions help shape a musical line; or what it means emotionally to transit from the MAJOR tonality to parallel minor. (Add in voicing, balance etc.) Compositional studies, without doubt, further enriched Byron’s musical passage. (Why not ask students to COMPOSE along their creative travels. Janis sadly omitted in his text.)

Basically, one does not play piano in a bubble of ignorance. And for this edification, a teacher is needed who TEACHES and does not necessarily send the student home with the vague prompt that something is NOT right, so go figure out what it is, and come back with the CORRECT PHRASING.

What fledgling does not hunger for direction in this vast universe of learning so he can begin to play expressively. Piano playing does NOT necessarily come NATURALLY. We are not born pianists. We come into the world with developmental hurdles to overcome in specific, graduated stages. We cannot be propped up on a piano bench and instinctively produce a beautiful set of tones.

Unfortunately, Janis goes to great lengths to eschew COPYING, as if our lives are in fact NOT copies of others who breathe through decades of existence. We might go to concerts, operas, etc. and subliminally internalize how great musicians and singers turn a phrase. If we have a favorite recording of the Brahms B Flat piano concerto as I have (Richter with the Chicago Symphony) we often find ourselves adopting in our own playing what was musically engaging. I certainly look for great recordings, and attend performances by pianists and singers who inspire me. And I dare say, I might warm up to the tempo of a Chopin Mazurka, and overall style communicated by Ashkenazy or Perahia, and borrow it as my own.

Does this mean I am NOT creatively driven as a player, and by association as mentor? Have I lost my individualism through exposure to many influences?

Since I deal mostly with adult students, even those who have returned to the piano years following their studies as children, need specific guidance in the basics of piano technique wedded to tone production. (Phrasing is an outgrowth of merged skills) Otherwise fledglings and beyond, are lost, and ask, rightfully, for direction.

Finally, each pupil has particular strengths and weaknesses that need to be sorted and addressed in a pedagogically sensitive environment without framing lessons with a bunch of cliches or doctrinaire assertions that the teacher and pupil must embrace.

And in this wrap-up, I embed a video that has experienced wide popularity. For me, this is the gold standard in teaching the singing tone. Go ahead and COPY. It’s the best thing you can do for your playing and ultimate development.

And here I’m helping a student phrase Robert Schumann’s “Curious Story,” Op. 15, no. 2. Both teacher and pupil learn from each other in the creative learning cosmos. (Sometimes the teacher might “copy” the way a student phrases a line, because it is beautifully rendered)

SINGING, SINGING and more singing is the best nurturance of gorgeously spun lines. Both mentor and student should SING expressively through a fulfilling piano learning journey.

And that’s where Janis and I wholeheartedly AGREE!

Here I’m singing through a lesson: Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72

My late, beloved teacher, Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich drowned out my playing with her singing during our 3-year musical association.

Richard Goode profusely SINGS during his masterclasses while he DEMONSTRATES at the piano for a student, and it’s a joy to behold.

PS MY Comment at the WSJ article site
“This is a praiseworthy article where it concerns an ocean of repertoire study where a student is able to integrate the art of piano technique with aspects of interpretation. The challenge many piano teachers encounter, even with students returning to the piano as adults, is that the very basics of acquiring a singing tone with supple wrists, relaxed arms, and enlisting energies beyond the fingers, require down to earth emulation, demonstration and to a large extent, copying. At the level Janis addresses, it makes sense to harvest individual imaginations in phrasing, etc. but in my own experience with pupils of all levels, they are needing HANDS ON knowledge of how to create the singing tone–and what physical ingredients are involved. (Yes of course to mood-setting, emotional expression being intrinsic to the creative process, of which mental prompts and images can afford.)”

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Piano Technique: Finding a secure nesting ground on Black Notes

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In our Circle of Fifths journey through the ARPEGGIO universe, the one KEY that stands out as the most dreaded among adult students, is F# Major. A slippery slope of skinny raised BLACK notes, it often feeds separation anxiety from the more spacious WHITE notes.

In the face of such traumatic avoidance of ratted black keys that can poison the piano learning environment, a mentor has the challenge of neutralizing fears by using mental prompts to nurture a SAFE HAVEN for flighty fingers.

But part and parcel of this remedial undertaking, is an examination of a student’s FROZEN encounter with the blacks that prevents a necessary FREEDOM of the arms, wrists and hands. This is where my personal FLOP, FLOP approach has the wrist hanging off the arms, SHAKING OUT the staccato notes. While I encourage a BIG, if not EXAGGERATED Full Arm/Supple Wrist follow-through GESTURE, it will be sized down by increments to encourage centering on the blacks without feeling SKITTISH or INHIBITED.

Ideally a LEGATO contouring should precede the Staccato playing because the former is likely to allow a student to SETTLE IN, before he detaches notes. However, in both LEGATO and STACCATO, a CONNECTION to the BLACKS, both PSYCHOLOGICAL and PHYSICAL, must remain.

In my LIVE and virtual studio, I always start with the premise that BLACK KEYS are welcoming to hands and fingers. They provide a secure nesting ground, NOT a high-wire challenge over a steep decline. With this mental SAFETY NET, the BLACK-KEY ARPEGGIO should be DE-Charged in ALL articulations.


P.S. A student’s response to this posting that’s shared far and wide.

“And I thought I was the only one that was having trouble with that arpeggio in F# major! I’m glad you did not tell me ahead of time that it was the most dreaded.

“It’s better now, but remains the most awkward feeling of them so far as I find myself halfway around the circle! Hard to believe it’s only halfway….seems like I have been to the moon and back and I’m only half way??? Oh well,the journey continues to delight, and occasionally frustrate, but not for long with you rescuing us from the slippery slopes!”

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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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