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No dumbing down piano study for adult students

I’m ready for a shower of criticism on this one. After all, some adults want their favorite transcription of the Elvira Madigan theme song, (aka Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 in C, Andante) to encapsulate their musical journey—at least for part of the time. And that’s OK if the transcription route of top ten, poorly transformed (rotten tomato) versions of the Classics doesn’t squeeze out real deal pianoforte masterworks in unadulterated form.

On that pessimistic note, one of my students from the Central Valley, (aka agriculture’s West Coast heartland) had studied with me for 6 years before I escaped to pesticide-free Berkeley CA. Thinking she might be a carry-over on SKYPE, I’d already planned her next deep-layered musical exploration: Chopin’s B minor Waltz which would have been a logical follow-up to the less complex Waltz in A minor, No. 19, Op. Posthumous.

But no sooner than my pupil showed a lack of enthusiasm for ONLINE instruction, I had referred her out to a seasoned Valley mentor who’d graduated from one of the most distinguished European conservatories and made no bones about her “superior” training.

With such a self-ignited reputation, one would have expected a sequence of lessons on an exceedingly high level.

No such luck. The progression of selected works was tantamount to a poorly transposed, two-page FUR ELISE reduction, minus the meaty middle section and chromatic bridge to final theme.

It wasn’t the Beethoven Classic that was CUT to unrecognizable form, however, but a Chopin substitute that might have been as harmful as a banned artificial sweetener.

In short, the student was given an impossible remake of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude in Db Major, transposed to the key of G, with more technical land mines than the original. Certainly, the overwhelmed pupil was not ready to tackle the URTEXT edition or a shoddy substitute.

The good news is that she grew so frustrated with the roster of fakes, that she headed over to SKYPE in sheer desperation. Now two years later, she’s back to basics and deep-layered learning…

Which brings me full circle to the solid journeys my adult pupils are taking minus God forsaken short-cuts.

Case in point:

One student embarked upon the Schumann “Traumerei,” No. 7 from Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood) and has realized how fingering choices and voicing are pivotal to the initial learning stage. If fingering is haphazard, then a seamless legato line is unattainable.

Schumann Kinderszenen Urtext

To assist her study, I prepared a video that draws on the URTEXT edition, with recommended finger-switching maneuvers that will aid smoothly connected lines.

But her first assigned goal this week is to thread through the treble melody without adding the balance of voices.

Such a study model is shown in the video below:

And here’s my play through:

In summary, it all hearkens back to the meaning of piano study and its serious ingredients. If a student wants to read through fun transcriptions in his/her own spare time, I have no objection, but when lessons roll around each week, it’s most valuable to pursue compositions that have been time-tested for their substance and beauty. And as a direct benefit, they seed technique and advance musical growth.


PS: There are finely composed Jazz pieces, contemporary literature, etc. that can be integrated into the curriculum. These should be assessed for relevance to a student’s level of advancement.

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When an adult piano student advances well beyond Primer preliminaries

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Peter started piano lessons from scratch about 1 and 1/2 years ago, not reading a note of music at the time, but having gads of enthusiasm about his maiden musical journey.

Readers will be reminded of his earliest efforts playing Faber Piano Adventure duets with me. (I chose the Primer edition because it moved slower than the companion Accelerated Adult Adventures)

Peter’s second piano lesson: Jan. 14th, 2014

The purple-colored book provided more opportunities to explore black note-based melodies for imbuing the singing tone/supple wrist/weight transfer/dynamic contrast spectrum while the companion adult book raced too quickly through the preliminaries. Still, the standard “method book” mentality was not compatible, in my opinion, with long-range acquisition of sound note-reading skills.

If I had to do it over, I would have thrown Frances Clark’s Music Tree into the mix. (Her materials shuffle fingers on landmark notes, Treble G, Bass clef F, Middle C, etc. and create departures from these at various, gradated intervals, 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc.)

Nonetheless, hitched to early FABER pages, Peter made remarkable progress in a 4-6 week sprint with the material. The lovely Faber duos with harmonically engaging secondo parts, grew his love affair with the piano at a pivotal learning juncture.

Fast forward to the present. My inclination had been to snatch engaging music from various collections, creating a repertoire-based study environment, though Peter has had a regular dose of scales and arpeggios in legato and staccato. (parallel and contrary motion) Most recently he’s added 4-octave parallel 10ths to his technical routines.

In a Circle of Fifths journey through Major and Relative minors, he’s absorbed a lovely singing tone and animated staccato. With the latter, he can play convincing forearm to wrist-driven detached notes as demonstrated in a recent penta-scale framing. (Peter has also zoned in on clipped finger staccato contrasts when needed)

Yesterday, my very engaged pupil, made a landmark leap in playing J.C. Bach’s Prelude in A minor. His legato pedaling practice stemmed from his exposure to Poole’s Mist, and using the sustain, he admits, was comparable to experiencing a first sunrise. Without doubt, it ushered in a universe of piano love eternal.

Post Script: Over the past 18 months, Peter has acquired a beautiful singing tone that is advanced by his supple wrist approach to the piano. Combined with an understanding of weight transfer and its relationship to a producing a wide dynamic palette, he’s creating steadily beautiful musical outpourings.

Peter’s Repertoire List

“Happiness” by D.G. Turk
“Sadness” by D.G. Turk
Minuet by James Hook
“Go No More A-Rushing” (in two-part Invention form) by Willard Palmer
Study no. 6 Chernyavskaya
Study no. 8 Barenboim
“A Little Joke” by Kabalevsky
“Mist” by Poole
J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor
Peter is currently learning “First Sorrow” by R.Schumann, from the composer’s Album for the Young
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Applying technical skills to sensitive music learning, and reading between the lines

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Just when I thought my wellspring of blog inspired ideas had endured a drought, I had a nagging thirst to explore how technical tools (playing scales, arpeggios, chords, octaves, etc) are woven into music study. Allied to this undertaking, was the idea of inferences and how we make certain decisions about phrasing, articulation, etc. based upon a firm bedding of knowledge wedded to intuition.

So having introduced this post cloaked in abstraction and a degree of eclectics, I'm coming down to earth, digging deeply into an exemplary composition that's packed with inferences, (reading between the line opportunities) while it has a touch/tone universe of color and expression worth sampling.

W.A. Mozart’s final movement, Allegro Assai of Sonata No. 12 in F, K. 332, is a gorgeous mosaic of Classical era expression. The composer runs the gamut from impassioned strings of 16ths careening down in the opener, to sudden coquettish interludes with varied detached notes, some of which are press-lifted, and not calling for crisp finger releases. To complicate matters, both hands playing together, are not always synched in with matched detachments. Even the Urtext edition may not give precise directions about execution of staccato, non-legato, potato, or tenuto, etc.

And that’s where inferences and good musical instincts kick in. (Performance practice is without doubt a vital ingredient in the mix)

In my examination of this final movement, I explore more than what exists between the lines. My focus is primarily how our technical repository feeds repertoire–how we must take our well honed skills and apply them to our pieces so they have relevance to our total musical journey.

Rather than write about aesthetic decisions and the intertwined skills we need to grow as musicians, I will reference the video below as the best living, breathing example of satisfying a personal quest for knowledge.

Instruction: (Technique, inferences, etc.)

Play Through:

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Physical fitness and piano playing

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I have an addiction to my daily workout at the Downtown ‘Y” gym and it’s proven beneficial for my piano playing so I’m spreading the word.

In the opener of my self-made video, I show examples of dead weight transfer into the keys, which for me, allows a pliant range of dynamics. If I need the big splash crescendo to double FF (Fortissimo) I’ve got reserves of energy and strength, not to mention breath control to peak a passage without choking.

In my piano studio, which often doubles as a home-based workout center, I focus on achieving ONENESS with the instrument through various approaches. Nothing is set in stone as a fixed dialectical methodology, but instead I apply a constellation of relaxation, supple wrist, natural breathing techniques, and weight transfer to grow technique in partnership with the imagination. Artful expression supported by fluid movements also happens to prevent injury.

In the first attached video, I briefly share my particular fitness routine. (I don’t use weights because they pose a strain on my wrists but I do build upper body strength on the Gravitron). My remaining gym itinerary includes basic Core developers: ab table workouts, the Captain’s Chair for the same, and various bicep builders on machines that aid toning and good health.

In the second video I offer a variety of tips to assist a full blown crescendo through F minor scales especially in STACCATO, where the forearm is enlisted. However, in very fast tempo, the student and I probe a finger-driven component that applies to drawing down the crisp, detached notes in a diminuendo. (In one particular segment, I reference and briefly demonstrate weight transfer as an aid to intensify a scale into the last octave)


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Getting immersed in LEARNING Bach’s F minor Fugue, BWV 881 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2)

My journey through the Baroque master’s Fugue no. 12 has been a labor of love though the form enshrined by J.S. Bach can be intimidating by its structural nit-pickings. Wikipedia, for example, cites BWV 847 in C minor, (the Fugue) as a model of internal order, with a carefully marked out Subject;  Answer (a fifth above the subject Key), and Counter-subject, all amounting to a well-defined Exposition. And as Episodes branch off (without the full Subject) though pieces of it, or motifs, (including that of the Counter-subject) will be included in so-called Subject departures, the learning process can eaily slip in Cognitive directions, bereft of soul and spirit.

Naturally, my teacher psyche has always had a significant influence on how I map out a NEW composition to alleviate, in this case, fugual anxiety. For one thing, I’m interested in finger choices, ways of grouping notes, and how to deal with finger switches or substitutions in order to be true to the score, or notation. If Bach wants a tenor voice to be held over another, and the only way to do this is by finger shuffling, then those key decisions have to be made early in the game. Yet these choices are considered in the context of three independent and co-dependent voices weaving in and around each other.  (Fortunately, my individual study of Two and Three Part Inventions and four Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 had provided a bedrock of contrapuntal exposure)

Therefore, in my early fugue-learning process, I meticulously studied each of three voices, so I could sing every one of them as a personal solo. I then nudged myself to learn every line by heart, so at any given point in the music, I could focus on a particular voice and flesh it out.

I will admit that this particular fugue was a hill to climb on the basis alone of having to devise a fingering for each voice that needed occasional carryover or division between hands, while in some measures the requirement to hold down notes with awkward finger switches might  guarantee a crash in tempo. Therefore,  I juggled fingering possibilities and eventually drew a few compromises.

As I traced the paths of Subject and Countersubject with interspersed episodes, etc. my cognitive examination fueled the affective dimension of Bach’s composition. An examination of tonal shifts, modulations, a deceptive cadence, and sequences struck a good balance with aspects of form.

Rather than drape my learning process in wordiness, I’ve created a video that demonstrates slow motion assimilation of the F minor Fugue.

The first video is an IN TEMPO reading of Fugue No. 12, BWV 881, followed by the tutorial.

Play Through:


In summary, I recommend VERY slow parceled voice practice when embarking upon learning the Fugue.  

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Adult piano student stumbling blocks and overcoming them


I sometimes offer a bit of counseling to my brood of adults who often fall into a pit of pervasive self-punishment.

The beating up myself student, will often berate himself/herself for having played a scale or piece better before the lesson began.

The pupil reasons, if only the teacher disappeared or never showed up, he/she would be in playing heaven, coasting through an “error”-less piece, having no need for a lesson in the first place.

As part of this negative framing before the first note is played, the student will add a list of days he couldn’t practice, letting the teacher know that the PERFECTION showcase he had in mind, is a NO-go.


And while many high-striving students bring iPhones to lessons to record their teacher’s suggestions for reinforcement, they will more often re-play a self-generated psychic recording that drums in feelings of inadequacy.

These playbacks subsequently become injurious when students relentlessly compare progress at the piano to professional and occupational accomplishments.

From a retired lawyer into her second year of lessons:

“Why can’t I do this as well as I prosecuted criminals?”

She forgets that completing college, going to law school and practicing her trade, were time-honored, gradual learning processes not overnight achievements. (So why should she criminalize herself and her fledgling efforts at the piano?)

Apropos, I snatched the following paragraph from one of my previous postings:

“Most adults I’ve taught over decades, regardless of level, are too critical of themselves, and try to compare other fields of endeavor to piano. Meaning that what work they have methodically invested and accomplished in their chosen careers, should immediately transfer to a universe they have not inhabited nearly as long.

“But no one is born playing the piano, and if one uses the metaphor of birth, followed by stages of development such as the first smile, rolling over, pulling oneself up in the crib, crawling, and then walking, then comparable developmental landmarks apply to piano learning as well. And given that babies don’t weigh and measure each advance, or attach a value judgment but just experience a growth PROCESS as nature takes its course, the same self-acceptance is needed when studying piano.”



From a dentist after three years of lessons:

“I pull teeth every day, do root canals, reconstruct jawlines, but I can’t manage to play this piece the ‘”right way.”‘

He has so drilled into his head that he can’t make the grade (according to his standards) that his tireless self-invalidation minus a dose of humility will reach an irreversible crescendo level jeopardizing piano study.

From a social worker delving into the works of Bach:

“Why does C. (another adult student) play those Two-part Inventions so well, when they just crash on me?”

Such unreasonable and futile comparisons are tangential to a student’s unique growth and development. More importantly, the notion of competition is not a part of our learning environment, so there’s no need to measure one pupil against another.

Nonetheless, such a self-debasing tendency by students, can infect and adversely effect piano lessons to the point of quitting.

The good news is that those who survive their first-round, self-directed knock-out punches, will emerge with a healthier perspective about the music-learning process.

They will realize that piano lessons are an enrichment of their lives–a gift to themselves with ever blossoming rewards over time–That study cannot be commodified, or measured in concrete profit/loss columns. That lessons are about self-discovery, not self-punishment.

Given this awareness, they will also come to understand that while they might have survived parental pressures in childhood to take piano, practice, be note perfect, and perform on demand, their coming back to the piano in adulthood is their own decision, without parental prodding.


Recently, one of my Online pupils validated the positive influence of piano lessons on her day-to-day life. She mentioned discipline, focus, centering, concentration, inspiration, gratification, challenge, tenacity, and self-growth.

One can also add enriched immersion in the great masterworks, with ongoing awakenings and epiphanies in a deep-layered learning process.

In summary, Music is about enriching one’s life with beauty, and having a partner mentor who leads and follows in a harmonious pursuit of what is largely intangible but still a miracle of creation.

Are Adult piano students stigmatized?

Adult Piano Student Themes and Issues

Celebrating Adult Piano Students

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Capturing the rocking motion of Mendelssohn’s F# minor Venetian Boat Song

In Felix Mendelssohn’s Op. 30, No. 6 Gondola Song, the very character of the lilting motion is sustained in the Left Hand with a metrical awareness of Two beats per measure, not 6. The composition (from the Songs Without Words album) is in 6/8 but translated as duple compound, giving a leaning emphasis on the first of two/3-8th note groupings. In the opening bass measures, rotation of the arm also assists the floating, flowing nature of the music, making the journey down a Venice canal a peaceful one.

Page 1:
Mendelsson Venetian Boat Song p. 1

This is a wonderful learning experience on so many musical/technical levels as I demonstrate in the attached video. Very slow practicing preserves all nuances of phrasing while a student manages the lighter half of each measure with arm weight transfer and a supple wrist.