Early Stage layered learning with Context

Liz, a 9 year old student, who began piano lessons 8 months ago, has been consistently exposed to layered learning within a contextual framing. This approach, in substance and quality, will apply to pupils of diverse ages and levels.

During our most recent lesson, Liz practiced William Gillock’s “Little Flower Girl of Paris” (Accent on Gillock, Level 2), in the “context” of balancing a Left Hand fleshed out legato melody, with Right Hand rendered harmonic seconds and thirds in staccato. Naturally, in this first week exposure to the piece, the first half was assigned, with a separate hands direction.

The affect of a bass line “sung out” with beautiful, vocal model phrasing was the springboard to the very early practicing of the Left Hand. And the “light” Right Hand seconds and thirds, with a prompt to keep the third beat “lifted,” (with a supple wrist and buoyant arms), kept the “dancing” treble from sounding like pencil point attacks.

“Balance” between hands was a resonating theme of the lesson, and how to preserve the smooth flowing bass line against the LIFTED right hand staccato harmonic intervals. (The third beat was to be, as mentioned, “lighter” than the second in a recurring off-beat set of measures)

Embracing the whole undertaking, was a consciousness of tone production, framing rhythm, with an underlying singing tone legato and staccato.

In the technique portion of the lesson, the student practiced a “C” launched Chromatic scale in contrary motion, again within singing tone context, as well as having an imbued consciousness of “scale shaping” with “destination” to cadence. (The prompt urged a peak turn around as a “sub-destination,” with the final note as a resolution or ultimate destination with “tapering.”)

The student has learned to use supple wrist forward motions to taper phrases, which also applies to her playing B minor scales, divided between the hands in three forms. (Left Hand 4, 3, 2, 1; Right Hand, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

Journeying around the Circle of Fifths in Major and Minor Progressions (scales and arpeggios) has added CONTEXT to the pupil’s learning. (Composing has also been a strong dimension of the musical journey adding even more context in the theoretical and creatively expressive realm)

All the child’s musical exposures are multi-layered. We work on the affective, kinesthetic, and cognitive aspects of practicing, with framing rhythm or the singing pulse underlying each effort from back tempo approaches toward incremental increases in tempo.

From Day one, this pupil has been immersed in the singing tone and how to produce it. (relaxed arms, supple wrists)


A lesson sample at the near 8th month juncture:

A contextual example where the student “analyzes” Gillock’s “Summertime Polka.”


The child’s very first lesson in February 2016 is documented within this blog:

There are many more blog entries of this student’s progress over 8 months time. (See Liz has her first lesson; Liz Composes, etc)


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Phrasing at the Piano: Direction and Destination

Often I query my students about the “destination” and “direction” of phrases within a particular composition. Naturally, my questions are a reflection of a need to clarify what arrivals are significant in the transit of notes.

Part of this exploration encompasses the awareness of sub-destinations that are on the way to the peak or climax of a phrase. In addition, bundled into the journey is a framing singing tone, that requires a supple wrist, with a natural, unencumbered flow of energy through relaxed arms into the hands and fingers. (Needless to say, attentive listening is at the heart of sensitive playing, and “singing” helps to clarify shape and contour of lines)


Today, two pupils were grappling with essential elements of beautiful, well-shaped and directed phrasing as they respectively rendered a Chopin Waltz and Nocturne.

The Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, no.2 and the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 were both noteworthy for challenging the individual player to examine phrase relationships and the influence of harmonic rhythm, voicing, melodic contour, innate rhythmic flow, dynamic variation, nuance and more.

Mood-setting and changes that occurred in various sections of these compositions were also pivotal to fluid renderings.

In both these examples below, “destination” was a particular lesson focus.

Chopin Waltz in B minor

Chopin Nocturne in E minor

(Videos are edited for teacher demonstrations)

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Piano Technique: Creating an illusion of legato

It’s a challenge to play scales, arpeggios, and passages lifted out of the mainstream Classical piano repertoire with a well-shaped and nicely spaced legato. (smooth and connected playing) But it can be more daunting to navigate particular sections of masterworks that have legato markings over chords, for instance, that carry a melodic thread that is impossible to realize seamlessly without compromise, and a shift in consciousness.

By example, I refer to Beethoven’s Fur Elise, measures 62-68, that’s easily characterized as a “stormy” section with its relentless tremolo in the (Bass) Left Hand, while the Right hand above, has the task of “voicing” chords that carry a haunting melody in the soprano. In order to obey the notation of slurs over a procession of chords, thirds, and sixths, with a melody to flesh out at the very top, the player has to devise a means of preserving a smooth melodic flow, by letting go of certain fingers in deference others.

The sustain pedal is pivotal to the whole undertaking, because it can hold down elements of chords that would otherwise be missing or lost in the prioritizing of melodic movement in the uppermost voice. However, the pedal cannot replace a well thought out finger-connecting strategy that shores up the legato, albeit with some missing ingredients in lower voices, that will be filled in by well-conceived pedaling.

In the attached video, I model an approach to the “stormy” section that creates an illusion of legato by demonstrating fingering choices in concert with maneuvers of the arm, wrist, and hand.

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Phrase variation and imagination

During a lesson today beamed to Scotland, my student presented an invaluable opportunity to explore phrase variants in Burgmuller’s “Tarentelle,” Op. 100, No. 20, with particular attention to imaginatively rendered mood shifts.

This charming character piece has an abundance of repeats built into its fabric, with keen dynamic and emotional contrasts. Should the player conscientiously obey notated swells, and directive crescendos and diminuendos, this observance won’t be adequate to communicate various mood alterations that permeate strands of co-dependent phrases.

What brings the Burgmuller “Tarentelle” and other compositions to life, is a realization of:

1) How the work is structured and from what historical era it is derived.

Are there exact repetitions of phrases, or variations of these that require an emotional change? (What role does tempo rubato play in phrasing in a Romantic era framed composition?)

2) How do dynamic markings, including crescendo and diminuendo influence changes in mood, emotion, etc.

3) How does Harmonic rhythm impact the rendering of a phrase variant, utilizing the imagination and fused nuance as important ingredients?

4) What role does articulation have in the alteration of an ensuing, partnered phrase? Certainly, a punctuated allied phrase following a smooth, legato set of measures influences its emotional significance and transition.

In our lesson today, these points became a springboard to improve the whole landscape of Burgmuller’s colorful tableau.

Finally, in partnership with analysis of phrase relationships, is an understanding of how to physically realize mood variations. Weight transfer, supple wrist motions, relaxed arms, and a pervasive realization of the singing tone and how to produce it are essential underpinnings of convincingly beautiful phrasing.

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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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