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Piano performance: The moment of creation can be deceiving and how we can learn from video playbacks

I was telling a musical friend about the discrepancy between what we think we’re hearing during our own performances and what bears out in a review of our self-made recordings. This is why teaching and learning opportunities abound in comparing one reading to another by way of video/audio replays.

It’s not only our own playing than can grow in this process, but our students can directly benefit by hearing/watching themselves after rendering a well-studied piece.

One of my pupils, Claudia, who participated in the yearly Baroque Festival held in the Central Valley (my former area of residence) spent the better part of her lessons a few weeks before the event, recording her Bach Invention 13 (A minor) and C minor Prelude BWV 847 in my studio. And not only did she become aware of phrases that needed refinement, but I learned enormously from our collective critique.

Here are some examples of how this process played out:

Claudia recorded the C Minor Prelude, and separately the A minor Invention:

We reviewed both videos, and this follow-up lesson attempted to improve phrasing in both works.

I recommend this process as a teaching tool, but also as an individual enrichment of our side-by-side, ever-growing musical journey.

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Piano Technique: Playing with bigger energies beyond the fingers

Practicing a programmatic miniature from Kabalevsy’s Op. 39 Children’s Pieces can draw on energies well beyond the fingers.

“Funny Event” is a good example with its series of sound bursts on the first beat of each measure. If a student takes the pecking approach, typing away at the keyboard, one note at a time, his self-limited pursuit will be at the expense of capturing the “feel” of a robust staccato dialog between the hands.

In the video below, I demonstrate how my own practicing routines helped me clarify ways to realize the shape of a redundant, highly charged motif that is both playful and bundled with joy.

Kabalevsky Funny Event

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Piano Lesson to Brazil: Trills and Spills (Beethoven Presto, “MOONLIGHT” Sonata)

This was a SKYPE Day to remember! Not a sinking ship, but a catastrophic event at a musical climax. The Brazilian student, in good form, however, was SAVED by the NEAPOLITAN!

He rendered the UNEXPECTED with show-stopping emphasis! Bravo, cavalheiro!

Here’s the snatch on You Tube: (A CRASH HEARD ‘Round the WORLD!)

Life isn’t always a bowl of cherries, but what follows are still fruitful learning encounters.

TRILLS (excuse the slipping strap–I didn’t delete because words rose above the fray)

About MEASURED TRILL practicing

In summary, a productive instructional transmission despite a few pitfalls.

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Attentive listening, singing, and awareness of harmonic rhythm improve phrasing at the piano

I notice a common thread among many piano students, young and old. They tend to play measure to measure, doting heavily on downbeats as if the first beat of each bar begs for reinforcement. Perhaps a Marching Band might fall prey to stepping through a muddy football field with over-emphasis, just to make sure everyone “falls” into line.

No so, when playing a Minuet from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook. One of them with its rolling arpeggio in both soprano and bass parts, must be finessed, shaped, and spun along in a conversational manner, given the pronounced interaction of independent voices. (counterpoint) The player, therefore, must sense phrase groupings with their natural resolutions. (voice dropping) And not to forget SINGING as one of best illuminations of threaded lines.

In this piano lesson by SKYPE to the southern reaches of the US, my adult pupil and I worked on BEFORE and AFTER listening–how to resolve or taper down a measure that flowed out of a DOMINANT underlying harmony, for example. Too often, pupils will overlook preceding musical events such as these that impact those that follow.

The best way to illustrate how priming listening skills can improve phrasing is to watch this lesson segment:

p. 1, Minuet in G


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Should a piano student be a carbon copy of the teacher?

The whole universe of music teaching and learning became crystallized when I found myself bouncing ideas back and forth with two parents of Suzuki-trained children on a blog COMMENTS forum.

First, I questioned the purist form of the Japanese imported “method” to the piano that delays note-reading to conform with the acquisition of language. Babies, for instance don’t learn to write until years after “speaking” the mother tongue.

But as they move right along to Kindergarten, letters and other symbols enter consciousness, and phonetics progresses to letter groupings, words, sentences, etc.

In the musical realm, there are differing opinions on what age is best to start a child on individualized piano study. The Suzuki followers often begin teaching a fledgling as young as 3 if not younger. Naturally, at that age, reading music is hardly expected.

According to parents who are pleased with the program, they regale the efforts of toddlers who listen to their teachers and copy what she plays.. they insist, without looking at their mentor’s fingers on the keys. (though fingering decisions are pivotal to good phrasing)

This is supposed to be ear training–or more specifically, “playing by ear.”

If this continues for years at a time, perhaps the child will have an ability to hear a tune, and play it back with a minimum of note errors. But what’s next?
And what’s the content of his playing from an interpretive dimension?

Let’s fast forward the clock to a 9-year old, “copying” the teacher week after week, month and after month, etc. and let’s say he’s playing a J.S. Bach Minuet. Whom does he sound like.. himself or an imported version of his teacher? Is he reading the music, looking at harmonic progressions and their influence on phrasing/nuance? Is he analyzing the form of his piece, etc. or still copying the authority figure without a second thought.

I believe a piano student grows over the years with a teacher who tries to imbue a sense of independence in the creative learning process. She takes baby steps with the pupil, but doesn’t leave him tied to her apron strings.

Here’s an exemplary lesson with a 9-year old student where she combines the tactile experience of playing, with singing, and analyzing the music under my guidance. (Gillock’s “Stars on a Summer Night.”)

With adult students, the goal is likewise to nurture them along so their practicing becomes the prototype for musical growth in the long term–and they can feel confident to have landmarks for learning independently.

How is this best done? Singing phrases with the student helps as he looks at the score while he plays– singing helps contour phrases. The greatest teachers like Boris Berman, for example, conspicuously sing and conduct during their public masterclasses with highly gifted pupils. (Fingering choices also need to be discussed)

Choreographing the music as a conductor does with physical gestures in front of an orchestra helps a student shape a musical line.

But why deny the student, his own ideas about how to craft phrases? Certainly over years, that should be a process that unfolds, not leaving a student in the dark, groveling always to copy the teacher.

Here’s an example of a very fine pianist, who tends to push the student off the piano bench to copy her. And while I love the mentor’s playing, I feel the pupil should explore a bit more on her own, with necessary teacher prompts.

Contrast this to my working with an adult student on Mozart’s Andante movement of Sonata k. 545. As a preliminary, we had discussed the composition’s harmonic flow and its influence on phrasing and eventually on pedaling when she was ready to add it.

So going back to the original theme of this writing, I don’t favor a so-called method or approach that makes a student a carbon copy of his/her teacher. (especially when note-reading is absent or not specifically required in a course of piano study–adhering to the “playing by ear model”)

A reminder that the score is a reference that should be the point of departure in the long-term growth of a student’s artistry and love for music. This allows a joyous interchange with the infused elements of learning previously discussed.


The Right Age to Start Piano Lessons?

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A musical birthday shared that can’t be overlooked

MorozovaJ.S. BachIt’s still the right side of midnight on this Coast before the day melts into another, so I have a snatch of time to celebrate the birthday of two favorite musicians, Irina Morozova and J.S. Bach–both born on March 21rst.

My feelings about J.S. are well known, as evidenced by reams of you tube postings memorializing his genius. And to be fair, I’ve shouted to the heavens about the moving artistry of Maestra Morozova, grabbing any opportunity to embed her priceless musical jewels in my writings.

Suffice it to say that words won’t ever do justice to her piano playing, so in an upbeat spirit, I’ve decided to post a track from the artist’s amazing Gershwin CD–It’s an ear-grabbing experience from start to finish!

Face the music, while it’s Irina’s birthday, she’s bestowing her gift of love to a swelling crowd of admirers.

Just listen!


Irina Morozova Shines playing Gerswhin Virtuoso Transcriptions

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Photo memories of my December 2012 trip to NYC

DSC05314A native New Yorker, I rarely found myself at the Statue of Liberty, but yes, to Central Park, and gentle walks though Fall and Spring paths. My last visit to the home land, was this past December when I sauntered with my daughter, Aviva, along the periphery, taking favorite photos of the lake, and surrounding trees.

Next, here’s Aviva, near 59th Street and Columbus Circle


My daughter sampled the BIG Keyboard at FAO Schwarz

429463_4524987015936_196480460_n  Aviva on Keyboard

Illumination of Verdi Square–on 73rd street, a stone’s throw from where I used to live on 74th and Amsterdam. I peered over at Needle Park before Verdi was honored.



My NYC High School of Performing Arts that was gutted by a fire, but remodeled and dedicated with a plaque. (no longer a public school) P.A. merged with the High School of Music and Art to become Fiorello Laguardia H.S. located in the Lincoln Center neighborhood.



My touchdown at Seymour Bernstein’s West Side apartment

dscn0636  seymour 1

A visit with Elaine Comparone at her Harpsichord palace:

best harpsichords and chandelier

Not to forget a delightful lunch with pianist, Irina Morozova at the Time Warner building. (Happy Birthday, Irina!)

It seems all other events were anti-climaxed by the aforementioned.

Finally a pic looking down from one of the hotels in the Columbus Circle area:


2011 visit to NYC