adult piano lessons, Bach, Bach Invention, Beethoven, Beethoven Bagatelles, Classical music blog, piano, piano addict, piano blog, piano blogging, piano learning, piano lessons, piano pedagogy, Piano Street, piano teaching, Piano World, recorded piano lesson videos, Shirley Kirsten, summary piano videos

Piano Lesson summary videos cut to the chase

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I used to customarily record segments of lessons in progress that required sensitive editing before I uploaded them to you tube. It was not only a big job, but much of the video time was taken up with students lumbering through difficult passages, needing more settled post-lesson time to sift through teacher corrections, comments. Therefore with careful reflection, I decided to send my pupils a wrap-up of their lesson, (just me demonstrating) to flesh out pivotal practice routines that are meant to improve phrasing/shaping and over all fluidity. (Naturally, structural and theoretical explorations are central framings of the tutorial.)

For J.S. Bach Invention 1 in C, I found myself producing a few step-wise videos that covered sections of interest to the student as these played out over weeks. In a sample video, magnified views of the Subject and its inversion, augmentation, clarified my own approach to the learning process from the ground up, while it brought new personal awakenings. That’s when I realized that a post lesson tutorial was for my benefit as well as the student’s. (A mutual learning journey in progress!)

(Note correction of my playing parallel 6ths in a harmonic examination of Bach Invention 1–end of measure 10 to 11, but saying “10ths”–without doubt, one of my senior moments)

An Online student in North Carolina validated the importance of the wrap-up video.

“I love our lessons, but this added bonus of having you send summary videos is such a wonderful teaching tool. I for one, often sit at my piano with my computer backing sections up over and over.”

Likewise, many of my long distance piano students sit with their laptops perched by the piano, reviewing the main practicing goals derived from their lessons, and because of these video helpers, they make significant progress over the short and long term. The same applies to LIVE students who often forget some of the main points made during their lessons and need concrete reminders to improve quality practicing.

Here’s another recently Recorded Lesson summary that examines the Coda of the Beethoven Bagatelle in G minor, Op. 119 No. 1:

In conclusion, recorded lesson overviews are of great value to piano students while they create an important challenge to the teacher who must crystallize and fine tune approaches to music learning.

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Flower Piano in photos at the San Francisco Botanical Garden

white grand piano people listeningFor twelve days pianos of all shapes and sizes were sprinkled through a verdant paradise as players with diverse repertoire from jazz to Classical serenaded clusters of listeners and a large brood of Canadian Geese. Nature’s backdrop was irresistible.

flower piano poster big

flower piano small poster

Canadian geese

This white grand was a challenge to navigate with its stiff, moisture-filled action, though some players managed quite well with pop tune offerings.

White grand piano 1

white grand piano Asian player

The ambiance

water lillies and pond

pond to the side and palms

pond straightened out

pond more green

More pianos

back view brown console piano

brown console male player

brown grand piano under large tree

I had less problems with this Storey and Clark, though a few sticking notes were the ruination of Fur Elise.

hand up playing brown console piano

These steps led to still another piano.

steps with trees Botanical garden

small piano maple

trees, grass, and mist

I returned for an encore before heading home.

standing by white grand piano

bricks and flowers

piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano learning, piano playing, piano teaching, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

Early Musical Exposure and its importance

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I recall my early childhood in the East Bronx on Featherbed Lane. At age 2 or 3, I was exposed to music emanating from a victrola perched on a corner table in a small two-room flat. From sunrise to sunset, heart-throbbing violin concertos, interspersed with operatic solos of Puccini played endlessly. My mother, standing by the ironing board, with a pile of freshly dried clothes that were line-dried on the roof beside a fleet of message bound pigeons, squeaked out arias as tears rolled down her cheeks. Such a poignant emotional response to music was deeply embedded by her Russian parents and grandparents who sang bits and pieces of operatic solos, along with Yiddish folkloric melodies.

mother family

To confirm a music gene of sorts that complemented the environmental nurturance of a musician-to-be, I was told that my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Musikant. Yet I had no reference to a specific relative who made his living playing a musical instrument. All I knew was that the violin had been embraced in my family as the living, breathing expression of full blown emotion, beside the human voice.

When I think of my pianistic idol, Murray Perahia, his earliest exposure to music was through the opera. His father took him as a toddler to the Met every week, and when the child returned home, he would sing parts of arias by memory. Similarly, I was astonished when I heard a crawling 8-month old, intoning the opening measures of Bach’s C minor concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060. His father was an oboist and member of a well-known symphony orchestra. His chamber ensemble had been rehearsing the Bach work over days and weeks as the baby meandered between music stands.

Countless musicians hearken back to their earliest childhood years that were permeated by the sounds of beautiful music. The genres could have been diverse: folk, jazz, Classical, but the performances and performers offered a level of music-making that was riveting and made a profound and memorable emotional impression. (Seymour Bernstein refers to his early discovery of a Standchen recording that brought him to tears)

In the universe of phrasing, the impact of these early musical exposures is significant, because a LANGUAGE is passed down that becomes the basis of a primordial “feeling” about music, its contour and shape as one grows and develops.

As I grew older, my mother took me to Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, the Museum of the City of New York to hear Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazi, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, Rosalyn Tureck, Daniil Shafran (cellist), Nathan Milstein, violinist, while an updated living room hi-fi system in the Marble Hill Projects of the Bronx, delivered 33 LP recordings of Arthur Rubinstein, Oscar Levant (Chopin? where did they get that one?), Perry Como singing Kol Nidre; Zino Francescatti rendering the Mendelssohn violin concerto; Michael Rabin playing Paganini 1 beside Oistrakh’s Beethoven Op. 61, and Leonid Kogan’s Tchaikovsky D Major Concerto: (the second movement was a well of sadness and catharsis) Meanwhile my brother blasted Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture and Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, increasing interest on my musical memory deposits.

All of the above puts EXPOSURE center stage in feeding musical study. And since many pupils come to the piano without an early embedded language of music, they must make up for lost time through various directed opportunities.

Since I work primarily with adults, I recommend that they saturate themselves with the best performances they can access, whether LIVE (preferred), on you tube, by CD, etc. and in favorable acoustical environments. Mp3s fall short. Same for iPhone delivered transmissions of the masterworks which sound like they’re coming from a tin can.

About Modeling

Last week I found myself, at my student’s request, sitting at my grand piano, giving an overview of the sonata she was studying. This followed her rendering that I had interspersed with comments and small segment demonstrations/analyses. Still, she requested and needed a lingering musical impression that was the equivalent of a language exchange.

My most treasured teacher, Lillian Freundlich, communicated by singing. She sang over my playing, guided and shaped phrases, though she didn’t displace me at the piano bench to demonstrate the interpretation of a composition. Instead she taught a physical/musical approach that emphasized relaxation, supple wrist, bigger funnels of energy down the arm, that she would channel by guiding my arm/hands. (I was 13 at the time, having my first encounter with the physical dimension of playing that allowed my well-embedded imagination to roam free.)

In retrospect, the physical dimension of playing should have occurred earlier, as artfully illustrated in the video below: (another form of “exposure”)


No to be redundant, but exposure to beautiful phrasing can indeed be nurtured along at lessons without fearing the universal taboo that a student will not develop his/her own personal rendering or style if unduly influenced by the teacher. Same applies to recordings and LIVE performances. They are, to the contrary, a repository of enrichment that in many cases may not have been available in the formative years, so better late than never resonates to crescendo levels.

Grigory Sokolov, Irina Morozova, Livia Rev, Murray Perahia, piano, piano methods, piano teaching

Does any one piano method or playing approach work?

Most piano teachers get inquiries from parents who are riveted to “methods.” The most frequently posed question is, “can you tell me how you teach?”

Under duress and painted into a corner, a prospective mentor’s perfect, all-encompassing answer seems unattainable. And upon closer consideration, a boundary limited approach for every student who crosses the threshold or logs in by Skype is virtually impossible.

In the larger sense, I respond with the “singing tone” as my point of departure…interspersing my music vocabulary with “relaxation, fluidity, fluency, the joy of learning, exploring, experimenting.” While I can’t attach myself to a specific method, I can say that I don’t teach Taubman, or represent a pure Russian School approach if it exists. Yet considering all the powerful musical influences in my life including Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich, Ena Bronstein, Eugene Lehner (my chamber music coach); Murray Perahia, my classmate, cruising through the High School of Peforming Arts, and in the past few years, the artistry of Irina Morozova and Grigory Sokolov, their overall contributions synthesized in some way to make my teaching and learning process a never-ending repository of revelation, reflection, and refinement.

Therefore, when I hear about rigid do’s and don’ts encapsulated in a fixed teaching METHOD that’s disseminated for mass consumption, I have my doubts.

Surely in the pedagogical realm, students need guidance about what causes tension, strain, rigidity in their approach to the keyboard, and how the breath can affect phrasing, nuance, swells, resolutions. And the context of a composition, its historical period, structure, theoretical dimension are all part of the creative learning process. But when various choreographies are considered, the music itself is the best guide.

As a perfect example, Livia Rev, a Hungarian pianist, residing in France, performs here in 2010 at age 94. Notice how each Czerny etude with its particular musical landscape is well realized by the pianist through her diverse physical motions that include supple wrist dips (“breaks”) that are frowned upon by strict Taubman method followers. (According to Taubman tenets, these motions are supposed to cause injuries such as carpal tunnel) Yet far as I know, Rev has not been afflicted.

If Livia Rev inhibited her organic response to Czerny’s music, we would be denied the gift of her artistry.

In a touching flashback at age 43 (in 1959) Lev serenades a group of enraptured children with two of Schumann’s Album for the Young pieces. These are charmingly played with impeccable phrasing and nuance.


Various great pianists have different styles and physical approaches to the piano. Sokolov and Perahia are both poetic players with postural and playing contrasts.

Perahia’s motions are somewhat more economical than Sokolov’s.

In the teaching universe, Perahia’s masterclasses are structurally and theoretically charged in his musical cosmos with little in the way of technical guidance, whereas other artists fuse the technical dimension of playing with matters of phrasing and dynamics.

Snatch of a Perahia Masterclass

Finally, as piano methods abound, one must be circumspect about any approach that is now and forever a perfectly spelled out route to so-called piano mastery. Strike that last word since no one arrives at the golden juncture of perfection simply because there’s always room for growth and development.


Lívia Rév
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Lívia Rév (born July 5, 1916) is a classical concert pianist.

Rév was born in Budapest, Hungary. She started her studies with Margit Varro and Klara Mathe. Aged nine, she won the Grand Prix des Enfants Prodiges. Aged twelve she performed with an orchestra. She studied with Leo Weiner and Arnold Székely at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, with Professor Robert Teichmüller at the Leipzig Conservatory, and with Paul Weingarten at the Vienna Conservatory, having left Hungary in 1946.

Rév lives in Paris, with her husband Benjamin Dunn.

She has won the Ferenc Liszt International Record Grand Prix.

Rév has performed across Europe, in Asia, Africa, and in the United States. She has been the soloist with conductors such as Sir Adrian Boult, André Cluytens, Jascha Horenstein, Eugen Jochum, Josef Krips, Rafael Kubelík, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Constantin Silvestri, and Walter Susskind.

Her first US appearance was in 1963 at the invitation of the Rockefeller Institute.

She is well known for her light touch and clarity. Her recordings vary from complete Debussy Préludes, Chopin Nocturnes, and Mendelssohn Songs without Words.

Irina Morozova, Oberlin Conservatory, piano pedagogy, piano playing, piano teaching, piano technique

Piano Technique: No Pain, Much Gain

Sometimes we learn a floating, flowing path to beauty through the unfortunate school of HARD knocks. To this effect, I recall my esteemed Oberlin Conservatory piano teacher dealing in mindless, stressful repetitions of meaningless exercises that caused joint pain and unremarkable displays of flat-lined, tightly squeezed playing. His teaching, to an extreme level of adherence to workhorse regimens (Pischna, et al) caused me to reel into a pleasure zone that my New York City piano teacher had kept as a safe haven after graduation day. I returned to her fold just in the nick of time.

With my Performance-Piano degree in hand, I was reunited with the singing tone and its physical/musical dimension, unencumbered by methodical routines that could extinguish the very basis of my love for the piano as an expressive instrument.

In retrospect, through decades of my own teaching, I observe students having to surrender the false security of grabbing, squeezing, and attacking the keys in their week-to-week practicing. It’s almost taught as a cultural norm to work so hard as to sweat–to extract pain to attain proficiency in nearly every endeavor, whether it be sports, music, or taking exams in any number of fields.

One is conditioned to meet a challenge head on, taking the bull by the horns with aggressive advances toward an imagined VICTORY of great magnitude.

But most of us have learned through a process of ELIMINATION, that pianistic fluency, by analogy, is not a strength enduring pursuit with an expected grit your teeth stoic approach. But rather the execution (oops) of scales, arpeggios, chords, Etudes, Nocturnes, Sonatas… and the rest should be natural outpourings with an aesthetic balance of physical and emotional forces—meaning, that the journey to beautiful playing should be paved with artful motions, feelings, fluid approaches, and imbued imagination.

Modeling a B minor scale as a stage by stage learning experience, we can extract a natural sequence to mastery without the preconceived EFFORT that is bundled with negative reinforcements. Instead, practicing should have a path of least resistance.

A few of my adult students are immersed in B minor, so I prepared a short video to steer them into more relaxed, non-confrontational directions. By focusing on floating, flowing images, we collectively refresh a harmonious musical journey.

And by example, this extraordinary pianist’s artistry is the ultimate in what sounds effortless and ethereal.

piano, piano regulation, piano voicing, XV Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition

Tiers of dynamics, well-regulated pianos, and expressive playing

CherkasskyThe legendary pianist, Shura Cherkassky made triple ppps (pianississimos) melt in his hands through a fluid keyboard approach that encompassed an array of colors and shadings. In Shura’s exemplary performance of Saint-Saens’ Swan the pianist’s multi-voice tier of dynamics was particularly astounding for its repository of textural timbres. Not surprisingly, the artist’s touch sensitivity intertwined with his uniquely vivid imagination and paired with a well-regulated/voiced piano were important ingredients in his lushly expressive outpourings.

In truth, Cherkassky was known to be ultra concerned with the height of his piano bench and whether it squeaked during his normal shift of body weight at the keyboard, but he also made it a point to check out pianos before a concert for their tone and touch dimensions. In his often perfunctory assessments, he’d breeze over 4 or 5 keys, easily dismissing a whole piano because of one unimpressive register, but for the most part he would not fuss over two nearly matched instruments.

The pianist’s innate sense of “feel” allied to his “sound” ideal had been nursed through years of playing and in one media interview tinged with humor, he confessed that his practicing if overheard, would be akin to the keyboard-wide meanderings of a piano tuner. Perhaps he was NOT fleshing out a percussive approach by analogy, but instead a soft range exploration of peak level responsiveness.

Another fine pianist, Seymour Bernstein, was seen bench hopping from one piano to another in the film Seymour: An Introduction as he assessed a series of concert grands at Steinway 57th in preparation for his Rotunda performance. (This was prior to the company’s relocation) While Seymour muttered unkind words about one particular model ‘D,’ he swooned over another as Ron Coners senior Steinway technician observed him at a safe distance, arms folded.

While Cherkassky and Bernstein both enjoyed the opportunity to choose a desirable concert-level piano before a recital, Sviatoslav Richter, Russian pianist icon, often journeyed to the countryside playing any piano he was given, making the most of what it offered, even if notes failed to produce sound, or jammed because of long-term neglect.

Ironically, it’s no surprise that to this day many impoverished pianists with significant talent can barely afford a decent piano, though they valiantly march on, playing deficient instruments and making the best of it. (Lucas Debargue, 4th place winner in the XV Tchaikovsky International Competition is an example)

My own humble dilemma in playing a super-well regulated NEW piano beside one that is currently full of bumps and blubbers poses many philosophical and performance-related issues. It’s not that I yearn for a big, booming, tone-defined piano, but I want the opposite–an instrument that responds at the softest dynamic imaginable to a finger sensitive approach.

In the recent XV Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, a very able Steinway trained tuner from Sydney, Australia,(Ara Vartoukian) was dispatched to Moscow to keep the Concert grand Steinway in peak playing condition for a slew of first round contestants that eventually whittled down to six Finalists. His riveting journal entries about the whole competition backdrop are of particular interest in this discussion. They lend credence to the meticulous pursuit of providing a touch/tone satisfactory instrument as a funnel for expressive artistry.

piano technician

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The Big Winner in the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition!

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It would be easy to reel off a list of prizes in 4 separate Moscow competition categories and characterize all recipients as “winners,”–that is if we put music-making into the sports arena with a clear cut victor and an opposing loser. In pro-tennis, for example, where a point-scoring system is in part influenced by calls of the referee, we still attribute a Match outcome to the athletic skills of the superior player. (Court strategies and the big serve factor into a championship victory)

In the arena of music-making (excuse the gladiator framing), where judges, who might occasionally doze off through arduous rounds of performances can be blamed for a bad call as they eliminate favorites (for some listeners) while passing through others, we still want to believe that ARTISTRY will reign as the biggest consideration in the adjudication process.

(Artful playing is of course bundled with an ample virtuoso technique that affords musical fluency, though listeners might “connect” with a performer who is less technically bedazzling, and more organically communicative.)

For me, the spread of players at Tchaikovsky XV offered various styles of playing, with consistency of high-level music-making not always manifest, yet the subjective side of reviewing a performance by a so-called skilled adjudicator, or a sophisticated listener, or less musically informed audience member (LIVE or by Internet) is just as valid, since ART unlike SPORTS has no intrinsic need for CONTENDERS to vie for an OLYMPIC wreath.

I guess my lengthy oration, by no means Greek inspired by Spartan and Athenian framing, is to justify the global audience of MILLIONS as the true WINNER in this so-called Moscow-based competition, and that a powerful Medici driven TV partner gave Classical MUSIC unprecedented mega-exposure. (A WIN/WIN for all!)

In short, the Masterworks and their divinely inspired creators acquired a new stature amidst a feverish international SPORTS frenzy! (Soccer anyone, on ESPN?) No thanks we had the war horse concertos beamed through a select group of young performers–one, like a young Stallion (Kharitonov), catapulted himself to favored status with his Lisztian lyricism while Dmitry Masleev landed a second round prize for his rather mature rendition of Mozart’s D minor concerto. In the last grueling lap he nailed the Gold!

Finally, I must admit that I had my personal favorite through the Moscow-based opening round to the finale, and it was GEORGE LI, though in truth, my ears were captivated by playing moments of others–but not to the extent that George’s CONSISTENCY and heart-moving playing affected me from start to finish. (update: Li packed a punch subbing in for Masleev with the Tchaikovsky Bb minor concerto in a post-competition performance with Gergiev/Marinksy Theater Orchestra. And in a recent interview, Martin Engstrom, a Moscow juror, singled out the pianist as “a fantastic musician with a unique charisma that causes a range of positive emotions.”)

Without a doubt, the powerful EXPOSURE, Silver medalist, George Li received at the Competition was worth its weight in Gold.

And while I was mesmerized by Lucas Debargue’s Ravel and Medtner renderings, I didn’t feel that his last concerto round performance fed my personal need for unabated inspiration. (not humanly possible in any event)

Nonetheless, my opinion by no means invalidates scores of others. (excuse my inadvertent athletic analogies)

Obviously listeners far and wide should trust their innate assessment of beauty and artistry without having to apologize for a variety of aesthetic preferences. And at the same time, they shouldn’t be wooed to a Moscow talent showcase with the incentive of a declared Grand Prix winner in the spirit of a Nascar finale.

From my perspective, the Tchaikovsky Competition that culminated in the purple-tinged GALA awards ceremony with its crescendo to the PRIX was not about the essence of MUSIC-making.

Even its wrap-up had contestants tied for Bronze or Silver prizes while off the competitive stage, a pianist named Debargue captured a wreath from the Moscow Music Critics Association. He otherwise trailed off to fourth in the official standings. Not much of a horse race.

Those who shared second or third place might have been well-poised for a sudden death, extra round tie-breaker. But barring an overtime match re-play, were they considered on par with each other? (Golf anyone?)

All kidding aside, perhaps my UTOPIAN wish would be that a global audience of listeners could be drawn to an international showcase of musical talent without the incentive of a fever pitch march to the WINNER’s circle. To this effect, a cadre of UTOPIANS, including Seymour Bernstein have been clamoring for a new framing that would preclude putting music-making into a competitive category.

Still, for now, the big Tchaikovsky Competition, occurring in 4 year cycles, is here to stay with a new INTERNET-driven, LIVE-STREAMED boost. For this alone, we should be grateful!


Results of the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition
Piano category
I prize – Dmitry Masleev (Russia); II prize – Lukas Geniušas (Lithuania-Russia), George Li (U.S.); III prize – Sergei Redkin (Russia), Daniel Kharitonov (Russia); IV prize – Lucas Debargue (France).
Violin category
I prize – no winner; II prize – Yu-Chien Tseng (Taiwan); III prize – Haik Kazazyan (Russia), Alexandra Conunova (Moldova), Pavel Milyukov (Russia); IV prize: Clara-Jumi Kang (Germany); V prize: Bomsori Kim (South Korea).
Cello category
I prize – Andrei Ioniță (Romania); II prize – Alexander Ramm (Russia); III prize – Alexander Buzlov (Russia); IV prize – Pablo Ferrández (Spain); V prize – Seung Min Kang (South Korea); VI prize – Jonathan Roozeman (Netherlands).
Voice category
Female: I prize – Yulia Matochkina (Russia); II prize – Svetlana Moskalenko (Russia); III prize – Mane Galoyan (Armenia); IV prize – Antonina Vesenina (Russia).
Male: I prize – Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar (Mongolia); II prize – Chuanyue Wang (China); III prize – Hansung Yoo (South Korea); IV prize – Dmitry Grigoriev (Russia).