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Accept where you are in your piano studies, know your limitations, but still strive to improve (VIDEO)

This is my credo or philosophy that allows for imperfection without self-punishment. Yet students of all levels tend to invalidate their own performances despite growth spurts springing from dedicated practicing. Many have done all the layered learning steps, but have come to a plateau in a particular piece which is perhaps where that composition will remain for a while, but not permanently.

There are also the realities of technical challenges that may or may not be met in this lifetime, and I’m the first to admit them. I’ve had to accept physical short-comings associated with any number of so-called bravura pieces.

Other players, in mellower moments, have likewise made peace with themselves.

In many cases, technical problems as they occur in sections of pieces, may relate to an individual’s built-in limits of what his hands, fingers, arms, wrists can produce. Some pianists have the gift of a genetically rapid trill. Others can practice their hands off, and still not create a shimmering ornament.

When I studied violin I had a natural vibrato and beautiful singing tone, but no matter how much I slaved over exercises for the left hand, I could not amble up and down the fingerboard with strength and certainty. Even having had the best teachers, I had to admit to myself that an astounding left-hand technique was not within reach. Still, I played for hours on end and improved, but fell short of my goal to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Instead, I gracefully settled for performing the Vivaldi Violin Concerto in A minor and lots of chamber music from the Baroque and Classical eras.

A number of violinists that I’d encountered in my musical journey had a slower, wallowing vibrato and less than ideal tone, but they had astounding left-hand agility with excellent bow technique that landed them in the finest symphony orchestras.

Back to piano..

and speaking of physical prowess,

Just the other day, I decided that I would confront my demons head on in the the Middle section of Chopin’s F Major Nocturne. In the past I had dodged any opportunity to post a reading on You Tube, let alone try to teach it in full view of an Internet audience. I was always stopped in my tracks by interminably long strings of broken chord patterns at forte level jumping from hand to hand. Some taxed my small fingers by their big spreads (another limitation that had to be reconciled)

But as I shrunk from a full-blown dive into the work, I approached the difficult section behind tempo, inching my way around familiar landmines.

And while it was all well and good in a slow rendering, what would play out in the big boy universe of in tempo, CON FUOCO? (with fire!)

Seymour Bernstein was listening from the sidelines as I shared my step-wise efforts with him. His full-blown, uncensored comments lit a fire, but not enough to adequately ignite bands of 16ths!

Once my personal bonfire had been smothered by tiring hands, Seymour chimed in with assistance:

Shirley, there are many things to discuss about that passage from the F Major Nocturne. The most important thing concerns the r. h. It would seem that the choreography is down-up for each pair of double notes. Yet my theory is that all double notes are wrist-arm activities with each tone going up (prepare)-down (play), as though we were playing non-legato. In fact if you practice those double tones at first non-legato and then legato with the same wrist-arm movements (but always leading with the fingers), you will see how much more comfortable they are to play and how evenly they sound. The other way requires crab like movements of the fingers alone which creates arm tension.

“Now, having said that, the l. h. can’t choreograph as though you were playing a scale. So because the r. h. goes up-down for each tone, so, too, must the l. h. do the same on each tone of the scales. So practice both hands non-legato to get the correct choreography, and then play legato. Those hairpins are not only dynamics, but, more importantly, tempo fluctuations (see my book entitled INTERPRETING CHOPIN’S NOTATIONAL SYMBOLS). As hairpins open, I suggest they mean to broaden out the tempo. The dynamics must be of our own choosing. I play the passage beginning with an accented forte, drop to piano as the scales descend, and then make a
cresc. together with broadening out the tempo on the ascending scales. The requirement of double notes in the r. h. and single notes in the left occurs on the opening page of Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise. In that piece, the l. h. appears like a simple short chromatic scale. Yet if each tone doesn’t go up-down with each double tone of the r. h., the body goes into shock. In short, both hands make the same movements on each tone. The feeling when you go fast in all such passages is like a vibrating shiver.

“In the final analysis, we all have our pet ways of solving difficulties. If something works for you, certainly adopt it.”

(The last line was diplomatic. It was a bone thrown to me in my dogged despair)

Nonetheless, I took Seymour’s advice.

My next try was abbreviated with its focus on his recommended STACCATO strategy followed by a Legato playing.

Two brief uploads tumbled out evincing sedated cheers from him. He was both encouraging and once again, diplomatic:

“That’s the idea,” he said. But be sure to play with the dynamics I suggested. Now do the same shivering motions fast and legato with vibrato pedal and it should sound terrific.”

A second pianist and teacher with singular gifts and achievements, added her own two cents:

“Feel very strong support in your palm, in the knuckles, and try putting your wrist down every bit lifting it a little higher toward the end of each group of 6 intervals, (every BEAT)”

That would have worked if I could do it consistently over long spans of measures, not in bite-size chunks. (A goal to strive for)

Seymour Bernstein added his final comments to my growing collection:

More suggestions about the middle section: stop concentrating so intensely on the r. h. and focus exclusively on the l. h., especially the eruptions at the ends of the ascending scales. You must broaden out the tempo and make a decided cresc. as you approach those rests before the final quick repeated tones. The feeling should be energy going to the key bed in the l. h. and a floating, surface approach to the double notes in the r. h., shimmering, so to speak, only to the escapement level of each key and not to the key beds. In fact, practice this section sounding the l. h. and simulating the correct touch with your r. h. only on the surface of the keys without sounding them. Then gradually allow a few tones to sound in the r. h. until you hear a fast murmur of those double tones. This way you will gain speed and make progress.

Incidentally, these discussions suggest another blog on preferred tempo. I noted that Livia Rev had a playing time of 5:24 (Nocturne in F Major) so the middle section perhaps was played on the moderate side of the metrical spectrum. In its divine simplicity, the reading was for me very appealing.

(I’ve heard from many towering pianists/teachers that a slower tempo can still have the vitality or spirit needed. I tend to agree)


When all was said and done, I recorded the complete F Major Nocturne, with a few prayers said before the camera rolled.

While the performance was not stellar, the playing showed marked improvement compared to my efforts years ago.

If nothing else such progress was worth celebrating.

And that’s what I’ve always said to my piano students as they advance along in baby steps…





Seymour Bernstein, Video 4, You and the Piano


4 thoughts on “Accept where you are in your piano studies, know your limitations, but still strive to improve (VIDEO)”

  1. That’s great that you’re getting coaching from Seymour Bernstein, even long distance. I am in the middle of reading his memoirs, and they are fascinating. “With Your Own Two Hands” is up next in my to-read pile.

    Good luck with the nocturne. It sounds like you are making progress. Playing fast and clean is, I suspect, among the most difficult technical challenges on any instrument.


  2. I really enjoyed reading your post. I once kept a music diary of not only my musical progress, but how the progress felt emotionally. It was revealing, and made me better. A lot goes into that wonderful sit down when the music is flowing freely.


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