piano, piano instruction, piano teaching

What we learn from our piano students

Mentoring is a perfect complement to a life-long musical journey that includes practicing, growing repertoire, and accruing insights about the multi-dimensional aspects of artistic awareness. And what better way to enhance the development of a teacher, than to have a regular opportunity to assist students in their unique growth process.

From our seat away from the piano, we have a dual perspective, objectifying our relationship to a particular composition through attentive listening infused with an analysis of what might work to un-constrain a phrase, or nudge it toward the liberation of physical encumbrance.

It’s a big responsibility that has a willing partner to the whole undertaking: the pupil, who is no less than a full participant in a mutual journey of enlightenment.

Many of our piano students ask pivotal questions about fingering, harmonic progressions, rhythmic flow, the singing tone, phrasing, structure, and we have the obligation to provide the underpinning of sound foundational learning through our responses. It means we need to peel away our own process of musical assimilation, and frame it in cognitive, affective and kinesthetic terms.

In the two-way learning transaction a pupil might suggest an alternate fingering that for him/her seems more natural for a particular hand which invites a mentor’s reconsideration of what might have worked all along in theory, but needs adjustment in practice.

Flexibility is a big component of teaching because students of all levels and abilities require that we reject the one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring, and instead, tailor a curriculum to meet individual needs.

In one particular lesson that transpired a few days ago, the student asked riveting questions that required my demonstrations of weight transfer in the opening measures of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor. She was also curious about harmonic modulations, and the geography of her hands in various tricky measures.

Such inquiries required a careful set of responses that fed a layered-learning foundation we had both enjoyed over the years; It came with a common nurtured language that needed my elaboration/modeling to grow an improvement. Yet, the very fact that I had to deeply ponder each question, and devise a particular route to help the pupil, grew my own musical insights and understanding. Still, the process would not preclude my altered consciousness in response to a student’s experimentation.

We are fortunate to dwell in this ever-evolving cosmos of aesthetic expression; to be on the giving and receiving end of an unfolding musical relationship that is mutually satisfying and progressive.

It’s all the more reason to Thank students after each lesson for what we continue to learn from them.

***

piano, piano teaching

Early Stage layered learning with Context

Liz, a 9 year old student, who began piano lessons 8 months ago, has been consistently exposed to layered learning within a contextual framing. This approach, in substance and quality, will apply to pupils of diverse ages and levels.

During our most recent lesson, Liz practiced William Gillock’s “Little Flower Girl of Paris” (Accent on Gillock, Level 2), in the “context” of balancing a Left Hand fleshed out legato melody, with Right Hand rendered harmonic seconds and thirds in staccato. Naturally, in this first week exposure to the piece, the first half was assigned, with a separate hands direction.

The affect of a bass line “sung out” with beautiful, vocal model phrasing was the springboard to the very early practicing of the Left Hand. And the “light” Right Hand seconds and thirds, with a prompt to keep the third beat “lifted,” (with a supple wrist and buoyant arms), kept the “dancing” treble from sounding like pencil point attacks.

“Balance” between hands was a resonating theme of the lesson, and how to preserve the smooth flowing bass line against the LIFTED right hand staccato harmonic intervals. (The third beat was to be, as mentioned, “lighter” than the second in a recurring off-beat set of measures)

Embracing the whole undertaking, was a consciousness of tone production, framing rhythm, with an underlying singing tone legato and staccato.

In the technique portion of the lesson, the student practiced a “C” launched Chromatic scale in contrary motion, again within singing tone context, as well as having an imbued consciousness of “scale shaping” with “destination” to cadence. (The prompt urged a peak turn around as a “sub-destination,” with the final note as a resolution or ultimate destination with “tapering.”)

The student has learned to use supple wrist forward motions to taper phrases, which also applies to her playing B minor scales, divided between the hands in three forms. (Left Hand 4, 3, 2, 1; Right Hand, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

Journeying around the Circle of Fifths in Major and Minor Progressions (scales and arpeggios) has added CONTEXT to the pupil’s learning. (Composing has also been a strong dimension of the musical journey adding even more context in the theoretical and creatively expressive realm)

All the child’s musical exposures are multi-layered. We work on the affective, kinesthetic, and cognitive aspects of practicing, with framing rhythm or the singing pulse underlying each effort from back tempo approaches toward incremental increases in tempo.

From Day one, this pupil has been immersed in the singing tone and how to produce it. (relaxed arms, supple wrists)

***

A lesson sample at the near 8th month juncture:

A contextual example where the student “analyzes” Gillock’s “Summertime Polka.”

***

The child’s very first lesson in February 2016 is documented within this blog:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/an-8-year-old-begins-piano-lessons/

There are many more blog entries of this student’s progress over 8 months time. (See Liz has her first lesson; Liz Composes, etc)

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/a-9-year-old-piano-student-devises-a-plan-to-improve-her-practicing/
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/liz-age-8-composes-a-piece-at-her-third-piano-lesson/

Chopin, Frederic Chopin, phrasing at the piano, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano lessons, Shirley Kirsten

Phrasing at the Piano: Direction and Destination

Often I query my students about the “destination” and “direction” of phrases within a particular composition. Naturally, my questions are a reflection of a need to clarify what arrivals are significant in the transit of notes.

Part of this exploration encompasses the awareness of sub-destinations that are on the way to the peak or climax of a phrase. In addition, bundled into the journey is a framing singing tone, that requires a supple wrist, with a natural, unencumbered flow of energy through relaxed arms into the hands and fingers. (Needless to say, attentive listening is at the heart of sensitive playing, and “singing” helps to clarify shape and contour of lines)

***

Today, two pupils were grappling with essential elements of beautiful, well-shaped and directed phrasing as they respectively rendered a Chopin Waltz and Nocturne.

The Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, no.2 and the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 were both noteworthy for challenging the individual player to examine phrase relationships and the influence of harmonic rhythm, voicing, melodic contour, innate rhythmic flow, dynamic variation, nuance and more.

Mood-setting and changes that occurred in various sections of these compositions were also pivotal to fluid renderings.

In both these examples below, “destination” was a particular lesson focus.

Chopin Waltz in B minor

***
Chopin Nocturne in E minor

(Videos are edited for teacher demonstrations)

Beethoven, Fur Elise, piano, piano lessons

Piano Technique: Creating an illusion of legato

It’s a challenge to play scales, arpeggios, and passages lifted out of the mainstream Classical piano repertoire with a well-shaped and nicely spaced legato. (smooth and connected playing) But it can be more daunting to navigate particular sections of masterworks that have legato markings over chords, for instance, that carry a melodic thread that is impossible to realize seamlessly without compromise, and a shift in consciousness.

By example, I refer to Beethoven’s Fur Elise, measures 62-68, that’s easily characterized as a “stormy” section with its relentless tremolo in the (Bass) Left Hand, while the Right hand above, has the task of “voicing” chords that carry a haunting melody in the soprano. In order to obey the notation of slurs over a procession of chords, thirds, and sixths, with a melody to flesh out at the very top, the player has to devise a means of preserving a smooth melodic flow, by letting go of certain fingers in deference others.
beethoven-fur-elise-stormy-section-1

The sustain pedal is pivotal to the whole undertaking, because it can hold down elements of chords that would otherwise be missing or lost in the prioritizing of melodic movement in the uppermost voice. However, the pedal cannot replace a well thought out finger-connecting strategy that shores up the legato, albeit with some missing ingredients in lower voices, that will be filled in by well-conceived pedaling.

In the attached video, I model an approach to the “stormy” section that creates an illusion of legato by demonstrating fingering choices in concert with maneuvers of the arm, wrist, and hand.

piano, piano lessons

Phrase variation and imagination

During a lesson today beamed to Scotland, my student presented an invaluable opportunity to explore phrase variants in Burgmuller’s “Tarentelle,” Op. 100, No. 20, with particular attention to imaginatively rendered mood shifts.

This charming character piece has an abundance of repeats built into its fabric, with keen dynamic and emotional contrasts. Should the player conscientiously obey notated swells, and directive crescendos and diminuendos, this observance won’t be adequate to communicate various mood alterations that permeate strands of co-dependent phrases.

What brings the Burgmuller “Tarentelle” and other compositions to life, is a realization of:

1) How the work is structured and from what historical era it is derived.

Are there exact repetitions of phrases, or variations of these that require an emotional change? (What role does tempo rubato play in phrasing in a Romantic era framed composition?)

2) How do dynamic markings, including crescendo and diminuendo influence changes in mood, emotion, etc.

3) How does Harmonic rhythm impact the rendering of a phrase variant, utilizing the imagination and fused nuance as important ingredients?

4) What role does articulation have in the alteration of an ensuing, partnered phrase? Certainly, a punctuated allied phrase following a smooth, legato set of measures influences its emotional significance and transition.

In our lesson today, these points became a springboard to improve the whole landscape of Burgmuller’s colorful tableau.

Finally, in partnership with analysis of phrase relationships, is an understanding of how to physically realize mood variations. Weight transfer, supple wrist motions, relaxed arms, and a pervasive realization of the singing tone and how to produce it are essential underpinnings of convincingly beautiful phrasing.