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Stimulating the imagination: choosing piano repertoire that embraces childhood themes (Video)

I was awakened this morning to an inspired Facebook post that featured a six-year old captivated by a delightful piece that amounted to a “playground” of light-hearted chords with engaging harmonies. The piano teacher, Irina Gorin played snippets of Samuel Maykapar’s “In the Garden” that seemed to share character kinship with Kabalevksy’s Op. 39, Children’s pieces. Both Russian composers set aside time to compose a body of work for children embarking upon piano study.

“Maykapar was born on December 18, 1867 in the city of Kherson, to Karaite Jewish parents and spent his childhood in Taganrog. In 1885 he graduated from the Boys Gymnasium where he studied with Anton Chekhov. He also took private music lessons from Gaetano Molla, director of the Italian Opera in Taganrog.”

According to an entry in the Wikepedia, The image of Taganrog and its people was featured in numerous Anton Chekhov works, including Ionych, The House with an Attic, The Man in a Shell, Van’ka, Three Years, Mask, My Life and more. It is believed that the Taganrog image may have been used as Lukomorie (fairy tale land) in Alexander Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila (1820). It also appeared in the novels of Ivan Vasilenko, Konstantin Paustovsky and in the poems of Nikolay Sherbina and Valentin Parnakh.”

What a backdrop to a composer whose music contained more than an incidental repository of child-centered themes to engage the ears of children and motivate them to dance across the keyboard from the beginning of piano study.

Here’s an example drawn from a lesson in progress, as a child and his teacher are in a playground on the same imagination-driven turf. What could be a more divine immersion in the fantasy world of music and its evoked emotions.

Repertoire that springs from childhood activity is a big attention getter and technique builder. I have countless times found that particular miniatures work wonders in motivating practicing. Just to name a few: Kabalevsky’s “Clowns,” “Joke,” “Galop,” (from his Op. 39 Children’s pieces), and from Tschaikovsky’s Album for the Young, Op. 39 for the piano: “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” “Playing Horse Games,” “Morning Prayer” among others.

Robert Schumann had his own Album for the Young that included a host of harmonically engaging pieces: “Soldier’s March,” “The Happy Farmer” and the “Wild Rider.” For more advanced students he produced a tableaux of Childood “Scenes,” known as Kinderszenen. Who could not fall in love with music for a “Sleeping Child” or be rhythmically engaged by “Catch Me!” a child’s lively spree of tag.

Not to forget Grieg’s Lyric pieces and his ebullient, “Elf Dance” with elves prancing in staccato through Norwegian caves.

Bartok’s Children’s pieces are also musical enticements. Bathed in the Hungarian folkloric idiom they include an engaging “Magic Dance” and “Sewing Song” among others. These compositions imbue a rhythmic consciousness as they teach various ways to phrase and articulate.

William Gillock is a favorite composer of mine. Untold students have been lifted out of their practicing doldrums with his animated pieces. Favorites include “Flamenco,” “French Doll,” “Little Flower Girl of Paris,” “Stars on a Summer Night,” “Fountain in the Rain,” “Dragon Fly” as well as “Soaring” from the composer’s “Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style.”

Burgmuller’s Op. 100 25 Progressive pieces are an assortment of imagination-grabbing miniatures in the Romantic genre: “Ballade” in C minor might as well be titled “Spooks” with its “misterioso” opening and punctuated minor chords. Students insist it’s a Halloween inspired piece by its overt mood and character.

Other popular compositions in this album include “Arabesque,” “The Chase,” “Tender Flower,” and “Chatterbox.”

Shostakovich’s “Children’s Notebook” includes harmonically sparkling miniatures such as “Clockwork Doll,” “March,” and much more.

Here, the composer plays his own compositions:

Add in selections by Prokofiev from his repertoire of Children’s pieces, Op. 65:

(Irina Gorin includes the “March” from this album in her “Tales of a Musical Journey”) Children tap, clap and move with alacrity to this miniature as they begin their piano learning adventure.

Please share your own favorite compositions inspired by childhood themes and how they influenced your piano study.

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Rolling arm movements and videotaped slow motion replay of Chopin’s Waltz in C# minor, piu mosso section

I demonstrate a swing or roll of the arms to realize the circular flow of the piu mosso section of Chopin’s Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64, no 2. At the end, I add slow motion frames. Needless to say a state of relaxation is desirable to achieve Oneness with the piano. Mindful practicing and being in the moment are always helpful. Muscle memory and “feeling” the translation of movement into sound are important ingredients of joyous music-making.








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At the piano: Exploring the Chopin Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64 No. 2 (Video)

I finally sat down at “Haddy” (my Haddorff piano that sings like a nightingale) and spun out a few ideas about the Waltz in C# minor. A slow motion journey through the composition underscored the suspensions and harmonic rhythm on the first page, then moved on to the piu mosso, 8ths with their rounded contour, and finally flowed into a reflective Db section. I summed up three sections that constitute the whole work. It’s one of Chopin’s gifts to piano students that they’re acquainted with the content of the complete Waltz in short order because of God given repetitions.

In this reading, I decided to play everything quite slowly with a semblance of a rubato even at practice tempo. (recommended) At least one does not experience an altered consciousness with each and every playing whether in tempo or not.

Ideally, I would start with a separate hands approach and parcel out voices. In this case, playing the Left Hand with great care not to have ponderous second and third after beat chords would be a major focus, along with dealing with those ties across measures in the right hand, where an unintended poke of the thumb would smother the melody above. These tied over measures are both melodically and harmonically poignant.

The 8th–16th rhythms in the Right Hand are also a challenge to be met..They can pop out at any moment or get drowned by pedal. My Haddorff is so resonant, that it appears like the pedal is down when it isn’t, but better than having a sustain-less piano.

Onto the piu mosso eighth notes that need the flowing arms and swinging elbows. I could have done better, but ideally one must patiently practice the Right Hand alone to get the sweep and shape, and then make sure the Left Hand is examined separately for its own color and contour. Chords can be “shaped” too, and not just tacked on to what’s in the treble.

The third section in Db, was my favorite in this video. I believe that it should be being played piu lento, (as noted) with a reflective approach. Feeling the transition from the preceding section in C# minor to the PARALLEL MAJOR but spelled in FLATS was the big event for me, and how that emotional shift was realized affected the course of the musical journey.

Finally, having played through the THREE sections in a slow tempo frame, I felt more prepared to lift the tempo in stages, when ready.

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Piano Lessons: After a long summer break, where to begin? (Videos)

The first lesson with a student who took the whole summer off for one reason or another is a challenge. I repeatedly ask myself should we pick up where we left off and drag out the last sonatina that became time worn well before its time or start a completely new musical project.

One student had a spurt of energy when I had propped Burgmuller’s “Ballade” on the piano rack in the company of a Willy Wonka favorite. It was a novel combination meant to get practicing into full swing after Labor Day. But would the “newness” of carefully selected pieces be enough to nourish the baby step follow through that would bring the pupil beyond a stumbling sight read?

Magic bullet pieces, even those requested by a returning student following a long break from lessons might not necessarily weather the course of learning in slow motion parcels to obtain confident mastery. The developmental period would include patient separate hand practicing with an eye and ear to phrase shaping, good fingering and noted dynamics.

Encouraging this more detailed approach to a new piece would be a challenge especially with gaps in weekly practicing and other competing activities getting in the way. But it might still be worth the effort to nudge a student along on the layered learning path with lots of singing back and forth at lessons.

An 8-year old student made big strides in her patient practicing module at home. Aside from working up pieces in Faber’s Piano Adventures, she chose some favorites outside the method book grid that musically blossomed in a matter of weeks.

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” reached a lively tempo and became a centerpiece treat when she played it with me in duet form. Her next request was to study “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” so she could perform it on the electronic organ at the local sports stadium.

Her own built-in motivator drove her daily parceled out practicing and gave me ideas to spread around among other students.

Our local branch of the Music Teachers Association (MTAC) initiated its start of the year, pick-up-the-practicing momentum drive by scheduling Fall Festival recitals with various themes. (In the past these were planned for February to allow students time to get back to a regular practicing routine.)

The most popular was centered around “Halloween” with this description: “Students are invited to dress up in their Halloween costumes and play spooky music. Pieces do not have to be from a Halloween book. Classical pieces in minor keys often work well. You can even transpose a piece in a Major key to a minor key. Trophies will be awarded for the best costume and the spookiest piece.”

I thought about the 11-year old who was half-way through Burgmuller’s “Ballade” which I had tagged “Spooks” because of its mood and character. Perhaps she might be willing to pick up where she had left off back in June, planning graduated practicing in preparation for the late October MTAC sponsored event. At least goal-setting would frame our weekly meetings along the way.

About 8 of my students kicked off last season’s resumption of lessons by participating in the MTAC sponsored theme recitals. One wore a western style costume for “Halloween.”

Other recitals were “Dance” inspired, or classified under “General repertoire.” Duets for two players at one piano, or at separate pianos were part of combined theme categories. A 7-year old played Faber’s “Doorbell” with me.

Recitals with themes are a great idea, and I’m thinking that scheduling these under various headings during the year would provide a shared learning experience with parents, students, and family members in the audience.

Otherwise the MTAC’s mid-year “Celebration” Festival would invite students from all studios in the city to play compositions of various styles, awarding medallions for “Excellent” and “Superior” performances.

Every participant comes away from the event with something tangible in their hands: a Certificate and an attractive piano pin.

Surely, these medals, certificates and other rewards would be practicing motivators at any time of year.

Not to forget the MTAC’s Big Baroque Festival as a practicing enticement for Intermediate to Advanced level students. Last year’s event produced a vast array of beautiful performances one of which personally delighted me.

Finally, I can’t overlook the teenagers who have personally brought pieces to study in the beginning of the year that they’ve added to their sonatina roster.

These have included, “100 Years,” “Forever and Always,” “Hey Jude,” “You Raise Me Up,” and “Liz on Top of the World” from Pride and Prejudice.

Here are videotaped snippets of pupils at various levels, playing their own personal choices that ignited their practicing:

From Mary Poppins:

From Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory:

“100 Years” and “Forever and Always”

“You Raise Me Up” (Early stage practicing with sub-divided counting)

And why not encourage composing to coincide with back-to-school, back-to-lessons time.

A motivated 7-year old student played his own piece and was excited about videotaping it for You Tube. His grandparents who lived back East enjoyed a cross-country sample of his creative effort.



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Thoughts about teaching a 4-year old with an innovative approach (Tales of a Musical Journey)

I would never have entertained the idea of teaching a 4-year old child. Over the years I had adhered to a rigid age boundary when accepting new piano students. Seven was the magic number.

When an opportunity arose to sample a new book created by Irina Gorin that focused on instruction for children in the 4-7 year old age range, I decided to embark on the journey with an open mind. It just so happened that my Amtrak traveling companion had a very young daughter who’d been enrolled in Music Together classes for about two years. The opportunity to harness some of these music appreciation experiences and expand upon them in a piano lesson framework was inviting.

With only four lessons now completed, I haven’t yet formed a conclusive opinion about the whole book and its merits, but so far I’m very pleased with its baby-step approach that would likely benefit students even older than 7 or 8.

And as far as measuring the attention span of a 4-year old coming for weekly lessons, I think two shorter ones spaced by a few days would be a better fit. It would permit goal-reaching without putting strain on a young child’s patience.

The Instruction:

Gorin presents her book as “a complete piano method that comprehensively introduces and reinforces the materials through technique training, theory practice, and performance repertoire.” One of her motivations for creating this instruction was a response to commercially circulated method books that separate out Lesson, Performance, Theory and Technique aspects of learning.

In my experience the more popular methods on the market tend to feed too much information with inadequate focus on the singing tone and how to physically produce it. Too many skills are expected to be mastered in short order as these books advance along.

Randall and Nancy Faber’s Primer Piano Adventures:

An enticing Lesson book opener like the “Pecking Hen” has the student hopping from middle C to the very highest note on the piano, using fingers 3 and 1 shaped like the animal image. Following this brief but charming keyboard escapade on white keys, two and three black-key groups are cleverly introduced with poetic verses underlying them. (Pictures of an attenuated keyboard are good reference points, and I like the word and music combination) But I have doubts that a fledgling is ready for this advance without a better physical foundation that requires rehearsing individual fingers over a relaxed space of time and practicing supple wrist movements and flowing arms. This visceral practicing phase bridges the distance between the player and the hammers inside the piano that hit the string.

By the time Faber’s method book exposure to black-note miniatures is exhausted in the very beginning pages, (and there are some lovely pieces, like “Shepherd’s Flute and “Wind in the Trees,”) it’s off to the white notes with a saturation of “Middle C” and “C positions.”

Through this crutch-burdened keyboard terrain, I often wonder how a beginning student of 7 or 8 can journey from point A, to B to C without a hands-on serving of the physical approach to tone, timbre, and rhythm parceled out in teaspoonfuls.

Tales of A Musical Journey, Book One, has a different premise. There’s no race to meet a goal on a fixed schedule. A teacher might spend lesson after lesson working on the flow of hands from lap to keyboard; making smooth, graceful “rainbow” movements between high and low areas of the piano, or eventually traveling from little houses to big ones (“neighborhoods” of two and three-black note rooftops with their white note rooms below) All these excursions occur in the Magical Kingdom of Sounds and Rhythm with King Meter, Fairy Musicalina, and Wizard Metronome presiding in a helpful way. These colorful characters stimulate a child’s imagination. If you add in movement exercises that invite a “weeping willow tree” and soaring eagle into the space of 4 or 5-year old, then you have built-in body relaxers.

For naming notes, the young student places animals inside one of two pictured houses: C for Cat, D for Deer, and E for Eagle go into smaller one, and F, G, A, and B, also named for animals are placed into the larger one. As the child finds these notes on the piano, he becomes aware of landing on keys without a forced poke or attack. (The “weeping willow tree” image softens impact)

Progress, therefore, is not measured by how quickly a student can sit down and pump out a collection of songs. To the contrary, a student’s developing consciousness of the piano as a singing instrument and his flowing wrist and arm motions are considered valued achievements.


These accouterments included in the instruction packet are very appealing.

What child would not like a fuzzy, purple monkey attached to his wrist to swing with the breezes, (teaching relaxed elbow movements) or two soft, happy face, soft and spongy balls that are inserted into tiny palms as reminders of a gentle, round hand position. Rina’s eyes always light up when she has contact with them.

In time, the Musical Journey student will embrace cardboard black notes and other teaching aids in readiness for notation. Yet, there’s no rush to “read” the notes on the staff until a student has a firm mastery of note letter names, C, D, E, F, G, A, B from his little/big house explorations, and lots of practice traversing the keyboard.

Limited goals, achieved over time, in baby steps, pace this “Journey” which aims to promote long-lasting effects.

About Rhythm

Irina Gorin enlists “Wizard the Metronome” to fine tune rhythmic consciousness, and in this pursuit, she includes an attached CD of recorded selections that have beat ticking reminders. While in the past I haven’t used the metronome in my teaching except as a tempo consultant, I plan to reserve a firm opinion about its more frequent use in Tales of a Musical Journey.

For now, Rina seems to enjoy tapping C’s to a ticking “Flute and Orchestra Selection.” It’s her first piece, so she’s very excited.

More to come!



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Piano Lesson: Shaping scales and arpeggios with syllables and tempo prompts (Video)

In this video segment, a 10-year old student warmed up with 3 forms of the D minor scale played in contrary motion in 16ths followed by 32nds. Syllable prompts helped shape these and kept them rhythmically framed. (Tempo variations were enlisted to smooth out playings) With arpeggios, we usually chunk “tunnels” through which the thumb passes–and swing out elbows for smooth thumb shifts in the Right hand, ascending–same for the Left Hand, descending. The goal is to have relaxed, flowing arms and supple wrists at all times–and a smoothly advancing thumb.


4 octaves of 16ths legato, each form consecutively played in Legato (Natural, Harmonic and Melodic)

4 octaves of 32nds, same as above.

The D minor arpeggios were practiced in parallel motion from 8ths to 16ths. (legato to staccato)

Three octaves of triplet 8ths, Legato

Four octaves of triplet 16ths, Legato

Four octaves of triplet 16ths, staccato, Forte

Four octaves of triplet 16ths, staccato, piano

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The Metronome, a blessing or curse?

My original opinion on this topic was unequivocal. I would never use a metronome under any circumstances in my teaching except to consult for overall tempo. The expression, to be “ticked off” summed up my attitude toward the robotic beat counter.

Setting the wand to any magic number created a despairing search for the downbeat that eluded me when trying to keep up with it. As Thoreau would say, I was marching to the beat of a different drummer.

For students who had endlessly strained and struggled to play five finger step-wise warm-ups, subdividing quarters into 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, I would tell them countless times that there was hope beyond the bounds of the ticking timer. The beat would eventually flow out of the unconscious, when the player allowed it to “breathe.”

In truth, the metronome cannot breathe or allow for a tempo rubato, the flexible time frame of Romantic era piano repertoire. A Chopin Waltz played with the gadget will sound like it was written as a Czerny exercise, though Czerny, Hanon and their contemporaries surely would not have wanted their music parceled into mechanical measures.

Shaping a beautiful musical line from any era of musical composition eludes the ticking arbiter. The beginning or end of a phrase has its own unique moment of truth discovered when the mind and body are at rest not stressing to meet the metronome at the downbeat. Silences between notes often ride their own crest, giving cues as to when the next note begins. A fermata over a note, suspends it, and eases it out of rhythmic reinforcement.

In Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” there’s a recitative-like section from measures 36-39 that would be beaten to death by a metronome.

Mildred Portney Chase addresses the subject of “Rhythm” in her inspired writing, Just Being at the Piano.

Under the chapter heading, “Innate Rhythm” she says, “We all know the teacher who sits beating on the piano with a pencil (the metronome substitute), counting aloud and directing the student to keep steady time. The student and teacher are so concerned with keeping time that neither is listening to the tone. Tone should not have to be sacrificed to rhythm, or rhythm to tone, but all too often a pianist may end up able to keep a half way decent rhythm having sacrificed tone sensitivity. Development of rhythm and tone can be intertwined by moving back and forth in emphasis in practice. It is possible to achieve a balance between expressiveness of sound and expressiveness of rhythm.”


So what’s the remedy for piano students who insist that they will always be rhythmically compromised?

As language is passed from parent to child, with nuances of expression, punctuations, rhythms of speech absorbed through continuous exposure, so the music teacher, should take the lead at every opportunity to sing, conduct, and phrase measures with syllables to reflect the unfolding landscape of a piece. Tone, phrasing, rhythm, dynamics belong together, all influencing each other.

Conductors use syllables to guide tempo and create rhythmic cohesion. A teacher can double on this approach, using “double-leedles” as a transition from 8ths to 16ths. But her beat substitutes however contrived, must be animated as if their life depended on it.

(Here, I’m conducting a student with big sweeps of my arms to assist rhythm and phrasing) The counterpoint of a Bach Invention was also illuminated in the process.


Singing with syllables (without a need to hammer beats out for emphasis) is in my opinion the best approach that has any hope for success in the teaching environment.

Portney Chase chimes in with the same: “When teaching a child, I prefer to use syllables to express rhythm. She refers to Quantz having told his students “to use the sound of syllables (tu-ra-lu-ra) to feel the flow of the rhythm in a group of notes. The syllables lend a natural lilt to the grouping and accentuation that the fingers might miss in their more mechanical response to such written rhythmic combinations… Pronouncing a sound vocally puts you in touch with the place from which rhythm physically originates. The hand has only to follow.”

So having recited a gospel that refuses to embrace metronomic counting or anything related, how could I justify having used a metronome with a 4-year old who was wedded to Tales of a Musical Journey, a new piano instruction for children in the 4-7 year old range. The book had a strong adherence to metronome reliance in the early stage of learning. All its CD selections were permeated with a ticking timer.

First, this was new territory for me, and a landscape that I might not have sought out. Just the same, my inclination was to go along with the program in the short run, and release myself and the student from the bondage of mechanical beats as soon as the opportunity arose. I don’t think I had a choice given my intuition and training.

As a matter of observation, I had noticed that setting a metronome for the Tchaikovsy “March of the Wooden Soldiers” caused both the *student and I to ignore it and go with the flow. We were in harmony as duet players in a rhythmic- framing partnership.

The more opportunities a teacher took to join a student at the piano bench, imbuing a sense of time’s ebb and flow, with nuances of tone and phrasing embedded, the better chance a pupil had to evolve into a living, breathing musician.

Post script: *Rina, who began her piano studies with me at age 4, no longer requires a mechanized beat ticker. She has developed a good sense of rhythm over time in a patient, learning-positive environment.

RELATED: My original writing about Metronomes