learning a new piano piece, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano learning, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Tchaikovsky

Early stage learning, and ways of knowing a new piano piece

One of my adult students has embarked upon studying Tchaikovsky’s “German Song,” Op. 39, and in her initial baby-step exposure to the composition, she has already explored multiple ways of “knowing” the work.

German Song, Tchaikovsky

1) Setting a fingering for each hand, and counting beats through each measure in a sub-divided way (within a slow tempo frame) is a good start. (KNOWING THE SCALE of the piece and practicing it, is a vital part of its framing)

Noticing the articulation, slurs, groupings of notes is part of the exploration. Once security or connection into notes is established, dynamic shifts and how to make them are part and parcel of the early learning stage that grows by increments over time. (Patience is a desirable mantra to frame all practicing.)

In any approach to the keyboard, the arms and wrists should be relaxed. Elasticity, flexibility, pliancy are all important physical framings. A singing line supported by supple wrist, spongy chords in the bass are part of the hands-on knowledge pursuit.

2) Defining harmonic structure and flow (Harmonic “rhythm”) of the composition enrich an understanding of how to phrase and “shape” the treble line. In “German Song,” the Tonic and Dominant chords alternate. There are NO modulations, but resolutions from Dominant to Tonic are pivotal to phrasing.

For a student who needs more theory exposure to navigate a piece like this, practicing Tonic and Dominant chords and their inversions is a good route. First it’s essential to build chords on the first and fifth degree of a scale (in this instance G Major) before inverting them.

Demonstrating elements of voice leading between chords is of course, equally valuable.
Block practice helps map out chord relationships and voice movement between them.

3) An awareness of the fundamental bass line in “German Song” is invaluable. Practicing the singular bass line without the after beat chords is recommended. Or practicing the after beat chords without the fundamental notes (downbeats) is another way of “knowing.” Understanding the relationship between fundamental bass notes and after beat chords is invaluable. Will the chords be played louder than the first beat notes?

Eventually the distance between the downbeat notes and after beat chords shrink because the floating arm has a good perception of voice leading between chords. The jumps, or fear of them, therefore will not be an impediment to smooth playing.

4) Playing hands together evolves and develops from first “knowing” treble and bass parts separately. Coordination of hands together is another dimension of knowing the piece.

The PERIOD of Composition is worth KNOWING–What is its STRUCTURE? Do sections REPEAT–Are there SYMMETRIES between phrases? or differences that should be noted? What was the practice in regard to rubato? (flexibility of time) For tempo choice, that’s an allied consideration as the piece develops along to fluency. Same for pedaling choices, etc.

4 thoughts on “Early stage learning, and ways of knowing a new piano piece”

  1. Hello Shirley,
    What a comprehensive and insightful blog this is! Speaking of new pieces, I thought you and your students might enjoy this book of newly composed works for students of grade 5-6 level. It is called High Five and is available from an online store in New Zealand, here: http://sounz.org.nz/manifestations/show/16332. I am one of the five composers who was commissioned to write a piece for the book. My piece, In the Woods, can be heard in a wonderful recording by David Ianni, here: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/album/ewan-clark-in-the-woods-single/id968877939. I would described my piece as being neo-Romantic. It seems to be very popular with teenage piano students who have an introspective personality, as it resonates with them, being emotional, contemporary and with plenty of depth and complexity. In any case, I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please share the music with your followers.


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