The piano playing speed zone: Letting Go but Staying in Control

At some point, piano students will face the challenge of playing a super fast-paced piece without having it fall apart. And while such a task may seem daunting, the player can begin to allay his fears by devising a parceled out practicing strategy.

The best panic attack prevention, (at the sight of a MM quarter= 138) is a measured approach that should include crowd control: spacing notes in incremental tempo settings; anticipatory anxiety relief (when bursts of energy follow tapered cadences); relaxed breathing at climactic junctures, intensified crescendo sections and poignant harmonic moments.

If the score is permeated by insanely driven staccato notes that are interrupted by sudden outbursts of obtrusive accents (sFp’s), these mood-triggered shifts must at all costs, not ignite a fight/flight reflex.

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The mood state duality

Robert Schumann’s “Hasche-Mann,” (“Blindman’s Bluff”) from the composer’s well spun Kinderszenen (“Scenes From Childhood”) begs the player to inhabit a dual universe.

Hasche-Mann

Framed as a very short, energy-packed tableau, it requires a face-off between a pianist’s sensibility and his propensity to fly off the handle.

If the latter prevails, the piece collapses like a house of cards.

However, where unabashed freedom of expression is allied to technical control,(Horowitz’s “Fire and Ice” analogy) the pianist will have mediated a potential conflict between the two.

In the attached video, I walk through a stepwise process of desensitization that enlists back tempo practicing, and draws on legato playing as the model for shaping lines in a CALM frame, before “snipping” 16ths into staccato. I also pinpoint the most vulnerable, anxiety-provoking measures, using mental prompts and chord “blocking” choreography to oppose frenetic tempo spurts.

An examination of harmonic rhythm also helps to clarify dips in phrases that flesh out deceptive cadences, and Neapolitan to Dominant progressions.

In summary, capturing the spirit of a piece in the fast-lane must exist side-by-side with impeccable control so that practicing should encompass both.

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What should be natural is hard for many piano students

I often think about artificial barriers that many students erect when practicing. Of the adults whom I’ve mentored (and learned from) over the years some have had a formidable line of defense against “hitting” wrong notes.

In many cases they’ve lifted action verbs from the battlefield zone, transferring them to the keyboard conquering turf.

Such an aggressive and unnatural approach that basically ignites gripping tension in the arms, wrists, and hands, inevitably results in hapless, keyed-up repetitions that have no value. Certainly in this “call to charge” mode, students will keep “misfiring” to a point of mental and physical exhaustion.

But why should any player take a hard as nails approach to practicing?

Might it derive from the NO PAIN, NO GAIN, gym workout/weight training paradigm?

From my perspective, a great workout is a mind and body expanding experience minus grimaces and grunts. It’s an emancipation of the breath that feeds the muscles.

Stretching and relaxed breathing, therefore, in synch with repetitions become my specific consciousness-raisers that I transfer to the piano.

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Mental prompts aid the physical…

Without doubt, mental imagery plays a significant role in one’s whole attitude toward practicing. Fluidity requires a visceral sense of LETTING GO. The arms need to swing breezily while the wrists like sponges, are pliant.

The hands and fingers flow from relaxed funneled energy down the arms.
If there’s tension anywhere along the spectrum, the player is in opposition to his instrument, not in partnered harmony.

Teacher demonstrations, bundled with pertinent “verbal suggestions” can ameliorate a combative/self-competitive climate, and effectively turn the tide.

In this vein, I’ve observed some remarkable turnabouts in the course of 5 or ten lesson minutes if a pertinent image can filter down to the level of awakened physical/musical awareness. It’s in this touch/tone sensitivity universe that a satisfying co-dependent mind/body relationship ideally exists to nourish practicing and growth.

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In the attached video sample, an adult student, although boxed into the Skype screen, experienced a pertinent shift in consciousness as she worked on a C# minor arpeggio. While initially her wrists and hands were visibly filled with tension, I watched a gradual transition to a more relaxed approach that produced an audibly pleasing result.

Key words:
“springy, spongy, flexible wrists.. hanging hands, hanging arms.”

Roll toward the black notes that are your center of gravity.”

“Hang wrists and hands off the arms.”

(Revisits of recorded segments between lessons are invaluable for students.)

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Unlocking Schumann

My first thought last night as I was revisiting “Gluckes Genucht” after resting it for months, was that this tableau like others in Kinderszenen, Op. 15, beg for hand, arm, wrist flexiblity as antidotes to tension-driven lockdowns. The after beats, for instance in Genucht. (I’ll leave out the “Happiness” aspect for a moment) can easily constrict a soaringly beautiful melodic line, especially if they GRAB undeserved attention. In the best sense, the composer’s childhood fantasy of well-being introduces a bouquet of harmonic enrichment that propels “Gluckes” in horizontal musical directions and does not welcome vertical gasps and interruptions. The composition, however, embodies a contrapuntal overlap of an opening thematic fragment that has aesthetically appealing wave-like motions that must be fleshed out.

Gluckes Genug

Challenges:

Students who tackle this particular miniature often become distracted by treble fingering gymnastics attached to off beat 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, and 6ths. They freeze up just when the music is asking for a warm Romantic era outpouring.

To deal with what some call an UN-PIANISTIC looking score, where comfortable five-finger positions are method book fabrications, it makes sense to parcel out lines and shape them with natural, complementary choreographies that include an awareness of phrase-influencing Harmonic rhythm and imitative lines.

Finally, exploring ways to lighten the load of voices bundled with harmonic parcels and threads of counterpoint, can be efficacious if funneled energy through floating arms and supple wrists is always on tap.

(I, for one, lean on the leader soprano voice to “sing” and soar without diminishing the polyphonic dimension.)

**

In the teaching environment where student and mentor share back and forth to mutual benefit, voice parceling coupled with relaxation techniques can unlock Schumann in his childhood revisit and well beyond.

Piano Lesson sample: “Curious Story” (“Kuriose Geschichte”) Kinderszenen, No. 2, Op. 15.

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Cruising the piano forums

Amidst my morning journey to Huffington Post, Salon.com, Slate, NY Times International edition, Twittle-Tweet and Twittle-Trumpf, Democracy Now, and Facebook’s Headline HQ, I check the latest humdrum at the piano forums. Some of these Internet-driven PRIVATE GROUPS by invitation only, differ by a subtle nuance of interpretation so that “Art of Piano Pedagogy” and “Art of Piano Technique” will have permeable borders without crossover consequences. But the key is to land at the right chat venue among THREE or FOUR with the same TECHNIQUE tag. (that includes LINKED-in groups). And if you factor in the challenge of a fading memory that blurs one’s last posting, it could have unknowingly instigated a world-wide teaching CONFLICT.

How about a contentious STICKER CRISIS!

In literary circles, it could be re-framed: “To Give or not to Give a sticker as the burning controversy of our Time.”

A Facebook “search and destroy” term search, led me astray, before “Art of” this or that had me well-grounded to add my two cents to morning after apologies directed at those whom over-reacted to rejections of human generosity of a “sticky” nature. There were two camps, thankfully unarmed: one that aligned with the Forever sticker contingent while the other felt it was a false and dubious OTHER-centered route of approval.

A young piano student, (the sticker detractors asserted) should have an inner sense of satisfaction for having practiced and achieved a self-satisfying result.

I would not join the fray, having once straddled both sides of the issue, and not wanting to be enmeshed in a sticky back and forth, I decided to register my opinion in blog format, obtaining a pseudo-safety net from tribal warfare.. i.e. the kind that encircles the Taubman method, for example. Whether the “forearm” is the sole piano playing proprietor of the human anatomy had frequently burgeoned into a battle of wills on multiple forums increasing exponential divisions. It could lead to pedagogical rifts with global consequence without hope for a discernible climate change.

Refreshing my fuzzy memory of a previously bickering cosmos, I had posted that the whole arm funnels energy to supple wrists and relaxed hands. It was in response to a posted video that celebrated the “forearm” as the principle route to a crisp and resilient staccato. Others on on the forum embraced Irina Gorin’s leap frog spring forward staccato motions generated by the whole arm into supple wrists. (Gorin created Tales of a Musical Journey, an early instructional method for children that opposes early five-finger position ideologies, and supports a singing tone with embedded physical/musical demonstrations.)

Her holistic approach to technique was channeled in a filmed staccato excerpt where she enlisted a tiny plastic frog perched on the pupil’s wrist. As I watched the child’s improved efforts to produce a crisp set of animated detached notes, I wondered if he would get to keep the cute little toy following the lesson. It would certainly incentivize his practicing–breathing life into it, while a lifeless sticker mount of the reptile would have little practical use.

To her continued credit, Maestra Gorin encourages her students from day one to breathe through their “weeping willow arms” without circulatory restrictions or anatomical cut-off points. She embraces a “healthy approach to piano technique” that comes “armed” with enough “toys” in its arsenal to entice the young student. A collection of them come with her Tales of a Musical Journey packet, one which is a miniature monkey puppet that’s affixed to the pupil’s wrist with velcro. It swings back and forth, with teacher prompts, encouraging flexible arm/wrist motions.

***

Having tactfully veered away from stickers, I return full circle to question their role in the piano studio.

Is not the joy of making beautiful music its own reward? And what happens to a child’s psyche when a teacher doesn’t offer the expected sticky reinforcement?

Does its value diminish if it’s routinely offered for showing up to a lesson, or for 100% attendance during the year? Might a child feel personal rejection, or internalize the lack of a concrete reward as a reflection of inadequacy? Will he notice that the student following him, or preceding got a sticker and he didn’t?

From my perspective, Words of encouragement seem like the best source of affirmation during and following lessons, and such imparted positives evoke memories of my very first teacher, a Russian woman, who lavished praise upon me in her thick, Russian-accented English. If I didn’t practice or stumbled, she was an ever-present partner to learning without dispensing harsh judgment. At just 6 years of age at the time, I couldn’t become addicted to what was not given, and hence I have no sticker archive to revisit.

My very young piano students in Fresno used to choose among an assortment of paste-ons which became a weekly ritual without much significance but the adults were particularly astonished to nail a gold emblem for whatever improvement it indicated.

sticker excellence

I even erected a “Front Door of Fame” for all students who received a companion medallion.

wall of fame

sticker student holds

Now 4 years into my Berkeley relocation and teaching mostly by the Internet, stickers have became obsolete.

Skype students can’t reach over to pick a favorite, but they can check their you tube lesson wrap-up video for a weekly pep talk:

“Hey now, remember to give yourself a pat on the back!”

My mantra seems to be working with my brood, though in other studios, time-honored stickers will always be dispensed and cherished.

Amen!

****
LINK:
Irina Gorin’s You Tube Channel

https://www.youtube.com/user/pianoteaching

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The earliest steps in piano learning

The earliest dip into piano study includes many ingredients some of which are overlooked or minimized. When mentoring a young child of 6 or 7, or a beginning adult student, sensitivity to tone/touch seems very basic to making music, yet it’s underplayed. While assigning finger numbers to notes and absorbing letter names are fundamental to note reading, one can’t casually move away from an attentive listening focus on a note, or two that links directly to the tactile “feel” of its ping, or “centered” resonance. This physical fusion with an imagined tonal ideal is the beginning of a focal musical journey that should be patient, persistent and perpetual. (It includes the nurturance of free flowing relaxed “weeping willow” arms, supple wrists, and gently curved hands/fingers.)

Unfortunately, beginners of diverse ages, grab and squeeze notes in their earnestness to land the RIGHT ONES. And where children are concerned, who are immersed in the current public education system, being RIGHT is more often rewarded than delving deeper into a zone of creativity and expression that is abstract and intangible.

An applauding classroom of listeners will reinforce with approval, a piece played or even pounded out note perfect, although it lacks color, shape, expression and engagement. Perhaps the listeners’ consciousness has not yet been awakened which results in a mutual oblivion to aesthetic possibilities.

Regardless of the performance milieu, the beginning student faces common specific learning challenges:

NOTE READING

Given most of popular method books abounding, the piano teacher and student are confronted with a dearth of holistic approaches to piano learning.

In truth, most of the hot-selling, mainstream method books offer quick gratification five-finger pieces, (after a short stint with two and three-black key experiences) And even if the white note pieces are transposed from artificially constructed, “C Position” to “G Position,” they come with a built-in set of crutches. The student will fill in any missing finger numbers on the printed page, and might even write in the letter names he has learned from among seven in the alphabet. Each time he plays the piece, he relies on the finger numbers or inserted letter names, though finger number retention seems easier. (Manipulations of the alphabet that require reversals of letter names, when notes descend can be tricky, especially minus the BLACK INK reinforced reminders.)

I personally reject materials permeated with five-finger pablum. Instead I embrace Pre-notational symbols that are best absorbed and synthesized in baby steps with touch/tone sensitivity. And I embrace the floating, staff-less notes that show movement up and down or on the same level for repetition, while my singing voice prompts the student to join me with phrase sensitivity. We add Hand Signals to reflect melodic movement in space that’s borrowed from the teachings of Kodaly.

The black note experiences, incidentally, can be prolonged, and not inserted briefly as a form of anti-discrimination tokenism.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/bias-against-black-notes-stopped-me-in-my-tracks-video/

These twin or triple black key phrases don’t leave the child or beginning adult saddled with more than they can handle in early stage learning.

COMPOSING is a nice adjunct to Note name LEARNING and READING.

What better way to assimilate note names, movement in space, and meter, than for a student to create his own piece at each learning juncture.

Case in point, “Liz,” age 8, composed two pieces that included two groupings of notes that required an echo on the repeat. Her initial composition was framed in 3 using quarters and half notes at her discretion. Her second, most recent composing experience, was based on learning to play a sequence of whole tones, hand over hand, F,G, A, B, that provided a “watery” atmospheric. (It invited submergence with sustain pedal which was enticement enough to encourage daily practicing.)

The student notated her own piece with stem up and down quarters and half notes of which she had considerable book exposure, and I expanded upon it for the upcoming lesson. Tomorrow I will attach one chord per phrase in graduated steps through the morsel’s development, not using three different chords that I’d inserted in my playing and on paper. The child will continue to practice a relaxed physical relationship to the keys with supple wrists, that will be reinforced at each lesson. She, like others, need continuous work on the synthesis of touch and tone that’s not an overnight accomplishment.

Maeve's piece  Final April 3, 2016

(My notation of the pupil’s piece does not include inserting letter names or finger numbers in the direct score except for the starting finger, though there’s a map of the three-black keys and their relation to white notes.)

In playing through the short phrase, musical rhythm counting is encouraged by singing, and the same will ensue with LETTER NAMES, absent inked in CRUTCHES within the score.

Frances Clark’s Time to Begin, delays use of the complete GRAND STAFF, as it feeds the floating staff-less notes for a considerable time using the black keys, but it simultaneously offers opportunities to identify white notes in relation to blacks by suggesting composing activities.

(In the realm of composing, a child or adult is motivated to create a collection of their pieces and even illustrate them. In 1985 I published an album of students compositions that included my added teacher accompaniment so that composing became a mutually satisfying adventure.)

composing children

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As far as published piano methods are concerned, none is perfect, in my opinion, with pitfalls abounding, but the fact that Clark resists the five-finger exposure ad nausea, and introduces the STAFF in an attenuated form with a line to space fragment of the whole, is laudatory.

In the course of Clark’s inspired Music Tree series, that integrates words and music, different fingers are assigned to notes that are related to LANDMARKS: Treble G, Middle C, Bass F, etc. which I find to be pedagogically sound, though sooner than later, my beginning student will be exposed to repertoire-based learning as a substitute for Method Book addiction of any kind.


Early MEMORIZATION

Adults and children alike will memorize parts of their pieces while learning them, so they lose their place as eyes veer from the score to hands, or to another fleeting internal or external cosmos. I discourage the dualism of memorization and note reading-in-progress, by focusing attention on the touch/feel/attentive listening triad of music absorption, with eyes riveted to the score. The transfer of visual note movement on the staff to relaxed arms, wrists, hands, and fingers, draped naturally over the keys, reinforces note reading, synthesized with musical expression.

The eventual mastery of a piece leading to memorization should ideally have an analytical foundation where beginning students find patterns, sequences, repetitions, within a composition that support its retention as it ripens over time.

Recommended examples of early pedagogy:

Irina Morozova teaching a 6 year old

Irina Gorin teaching a transfer student

Liz has first piano lesson, Part 2

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When Upbeats have a new meaning and importance

For most piano students, an upbeat is considered a lighter springboard to a more predominant DOWN-beat, as if the UP in music should always be taken LIGHTLY. (except in Jazz framings where syncopations are characteristic of the genre.)

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We can universally agree that in the patriotic Star Spangled Banner, the dotted 8th/16th upbeat is conspicuously wedded to the baton assertive first beat of whole measure one, but this will not be set in stone, as exemplified in Schumann’s “Curious Story.” (Kinderszenen, Op. 15, no. 2)

The Romantic composer’s second tableau turns the upbeat cliche on its head, prodding the student to rethink his weak mindset. If he persists in embracing the subservient upbeat mantra that it must be a co-dependent partner to a domineering downbeat, the player will be headed in unmusical directions. In fact, as a practicing experiment, the pupil can downgrade the anacruses in the first 4 measures of “Curious Story,” to experience its effect.

Curious Story

During a piano lesson with an adult student, we UPGRADED our upbeat conscious-raising journey. In fact, it helped us to clarify phrasing and attendant choreography. (Use of the springy, supple wrist, for example.) Such rhythmic phase focus was just one of our examinations, since we also delved into section contrasts, breathing, and harmonic rhythm as they influence phrasing. (inclusive of Major/parallel minor emotional shifts, etc.)

One pertinent practicing tool is to LIGHTEN the load of voices, and pick out the uppermost soprano line to realize the buoyancy or LIFT of the upbeats, and to understand their importance and value in achieving the whimsical/childlike nature of the opening measures. They are quite motivic to the character of the piece as the composer envisioned it.

Play through

Practicing routines

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Piano Technique: Shaking out Bach Ornaments! and the influence of Claudio Arrau

When working on executing ornaments with an adult student as they appear in J.S. Bach’s Prelude in F minor, I thought instantly of Claudio Arrau’s allusions to “shaking” these out, without having a thread of tension in the arms, wrists, and hands. One of his biographers, Joseph Horowitz, profiled the pianist in an extensive interview that drew out many of the virtuoso’s ideas about technique, of which ornaments were a particular focus. (Conversations with Arrau)

A central aspect of Arrau’s playing is arm weight technique as taught to him my Martin Krause: “Relax and let loose, never be stiff of cramped in any joint. Krause even recommended that pianists should engage in sports.”

It was no surprise that I had for years integrated the whole arm, “shake” out recommendation as it permeated Arrau’s teaching, and related it to playing long trills. (in Mozart sonatas, concerti, etc.), and then through years of studying the Classical repertoire, along with Baroque and Romantic era compositions, I drew upon Arrau’s resonating quotes, to unkink my Bach ornaments, freeing them of tension.

Rather than dissect the physical ingredients of the SHAKE ’em out approach to ornaments as they appear in J.S. Bach’s F minor Prelude, BWV. 881, I decided to let a lesson video illustrate the main points.

P.S. As it happens, one of Arrau’s proteges via his assistant, Rafael De Silva, was Ena Bronstein, who perhaps influenced MY SHAKE IT OUT, FREE THROW, ARM LOOSE, WRIST SUPPLE, ORNAMENT GRAPPLE. She was my teacher in Fresno, California for about a year before relocating to Princeton, New Jersey.

The following sources contain Arrau’s ideas about piano technique:

Piano Lessons with Claudio Arrau: A Guide to his Philosophy and Techniques by Victoria A. Von Arx. A book preview is found via the link below.
https://books.google.com/books?id=LGOMAwAAQBAJ&pg=PT141&lpg=PT141&dq=Claudio+arrau+on+trills&source=bl&ots=Lh77NME2Im&sig=DkZ0hWCAxBlFpzj5_3l0tijzo7A&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwizl-bXhNvLAhUI82MKHehQB8MQ6AEILTAD#v=onepage&q=Claudio%20arrau%20on%20trills&f=false

By the same author from her Dissertation: The Teaching of Claudia Arrau and his Pupils: Piano Pedagogy as a Cultural Work (2006)

https://books.google.com/books?id=T8vOlfQyq3sC&pg=PA85&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

“Arrau explained relaxation as avoidance of stiffening within the joints that impair the body’s ability to move freely. Freedom of motion would allow the realization of musical impulse, the transmission of musical intentions through the body to the keyboard. The freer there body, the more the piano would be experienced as an extension of the player’s body, converting musical impulses into sound.”

Essentially Arrau “expressed the importance of experiencing mind and body as an integrated whole.” (There’s a substantial section on the maestro’s “Piano Technique” that’s easily accessed within the Von Arx Dissertation.)

LINK:

Conversations with Arrau
Conversations with Arrau
http://www.amazon.com/Conversations-With-Arrau-Joseph-Horowitz/dp/0879100133

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