I wish I could have waved a magic wand when I was six years old and produced a beginning teacher who would have artfully nursed me through my crawling stage to a graceful, phrase-loving adulthood at the piano. I needed to learn how to produce a singing tone, moving with agility from one note to another under the physical guidance of my mentor, but there was no one with such capability on the horizon.
Instead, I remember seven years of torment and frustration when what I knew as my tonal ideal deep within me never materialized. My tiny, but growing hands betrayed me time and again. I couldn’t put my imagination to work in a practical way without hands-on knowledge.
At the age of 13 or so, when I entered the New York City High School of Performing Arts, which was an easy entrance since I played the violin as well, and string players were always in short supply for school orchestras, I finally transferred to a piano teacher who brought me back to the basics which I desperately needed.
Like Irina Gorin (whose teaching videos I’ve shared), Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich took the time to step back, and work with me on a NOTE-to-NOTE basis, DROPPING my whole arm, with dead weight gravity into the keys– my fingers being cushioned by a supple wrist.
As she held my arm until I let go of all tension, I exercised repeated free falls as if I were tossed out of a plane with a parachute, experiencing the abandon of disarming flight. She would check my wrists and elbows for tension, and then together, we weeded out all the pokes, like pencil point jabs that disturbed the flow from one tone to the next. In the process, my ear sensitivity was stretched to a point where even a dog couldn’t compete with me if one of those high-frequencey whistles summoned him at an inopportune moment.
This introduction to my lessons transpired for weeks with little if any repertoire covered, and I was grateful to ingest what I hungered for in my formative piano learning years. Scales and arpeggios were next, putting principles of RELAXATION, attentive listening and tonal focus to work. And never once did I regret the necessary pause before I was given my very first Mozart Sonata, K. 311 where I put all the tonal awareness and physical knowledge into practice. Soon followed the Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Beethoven’s second Piano Concerto and Mozart’s K. 453 in G Major. It was icing on the cake to perform the Mozart with our High School Orchestra after I auditioned it for Nadia Reisenberg. I’m convinced that my singing tone earned me this memorable opportunity.
So now that I’ve grown up to be a piano teacher following in the footsteps of Lillian Freundlich whom I dearly miss since her death many years ago, I’ve continued her legacy by spending inordinate time with my students on tone production, relaxation and riveting note-to-note listening–all ingredients of fluid playing.
As example, here are two videos that impart practical knowledge about the physical side of playing when teaching students from the earliest to most advanced levels.
(Snatched from a piano lesson given by Irina Gorin, creator, Tales of a Musical Journey)
A gem produced by Barbara Lister-Sink
Finally, what I’ve learned from Mrs. Freundlich and Irina Gorin (by Internet exposure) is that it takes a patient teacher with undying passion to go back to the very physical fundamentals of tone production, teaching the singing tone legato as the underpinning of piano playing, regardless of style or genre. Such meticulous work will produce limitless dividends as students enjoy a life-long connection to the piano that brings them closer to the very soul of music-making.
An example of whole body listening, relaxation, and pianistic fluency: