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Pianist, Seymour Bernstein revisits the Schumann Arabesque at the age of 90

As I grappled with matters of tempo, mood, and interpretation in learning a Baroque era work, I found a kindred spirit in Seymour Bernstein who openly shared his introspective thoughts about re-thinking a well-known composition in the piano literature.

Encapsulated in an e-mailed communication to his league of followers, Bernstein addresses the common temptation among musicians to check recordings of other pianists to validate personal and individualized interpretative choices. His words are sobering and candid as he explains how he has come to choose a “new” pace and affective interweaving of emotions through various sections of the Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18. His enlightening revisit is a tribute to his evolving understanding of music that has grown by steady increments over decades. It suggests a creative point of departure from which we can derive great benefit.


Dear friends,

“Schumann’s Arabesque is among the romantic works that elicit a wide variety of interpretations. I, personally, don’t like to listen to performances of the pieces I study. I prefer to come to my own conclusions, and then listen out of curiosity to see how other pianists interpret the compositions I am working on. In terms of tempo, Arthur Rubinstein and I are the only pianists I have heard who take the opening theme of Arabesque leisurely. Everyone else races through it with breathless intensity, even though the English translation of Schumann’s indication is “light and tender.” More curious is that most pianists play sections B and C faster in contradiction to Schumann’s “etwas langsamer” (“somewhat slower”). I’m no exception. I confess that I did the same in my first performance of this work on You Tube, which I now will remove.

“Perhaps it’s the age of 90 that has inspired me to probe this work with far greater introspection than I have in the past. Now that I know that most “hairpins” in romantic music mean rubato, and not cresc. and dim. I take more time whenever they appear. Moreover, I like to play the coda, Zum Shloss, Langsamer (“slowly”) as Schumann indicated.

“Finally, the question is “How fast is fast, and how slow is slow?” It is the human condition to respond as we see fit. There are no rules concerning tempo, even though composers often leave Metronome markings. But through the years, composers have come to place the word circa, meaning around, or approximately, before the Metronome number. Beethoven said it all when Schindler asked him “Master, how fast is this Allegro?” Beethoven’s response must have amazed Schindler: “Allegro doesn’t mean fast,” Beethoven replied; “It means “merry.” The lesson we learn from this is that tempo indications are feelings, and not simply mathematical equations. Because we all think that the composers whisper their secrets in our ear, it is small wonder that there is an interpretation for all seasons.”


Peter Feuchtwanger, piano instruction

My early learning efforts (J.S. Bach) under the influence of Peter Feuchtwanger

My students know that I say what I do, while they do as I say, with the understanding that we are perhaps interchanging the whole music learning process on an egalitarian basis. Therefore, it’s no surprise that I regularly thank them for “teaching” me what I might otherwise have overlooked in my daily practicing.

For example, as I journey through all six French Suites of J.S. Bach, often in the company of pupils who’ve joined me at various common junctures of study, I can share my baby step approach to a “new” dance movement with a candid admission that my first shaky steps taken through virgin terrain can be as tentative and experimental as theirs. And to the extent that my students see me, their teacher, as the model of a work in progress, they might allow themselves the same space to grow a piece in stages without harsh self-judgment and self-imposed learning deadlines.

That’s why, periodically, I impart my very earliest, slow tempo, learning efforts embodied in various video samplings. (Sarabande, French Suite no. 3 in B minor, BWV 814)

I must admit that bundled into my first stage (second day) Sarabande immersion were epiphanies about phrasing, vocal modeling, fingering choices/rotations, etc. that were allied to Peter Feuchtwanger’s mentoring (via you tube)–my having been under the influence (his) in the proverbial sense.

The late pianist/teacher/and composer, who was based in London, formidably championed fluidity in the context of a vocalized musical line, with a technical universe that was inseparable from what he believed to be a particular expressive musical “language,” be it in the French compositional vocabulary, (Debussy), or within the framing of Couperin, Bach, Chopin, et al.

Fingering decisions reflected a pure, though innate expression of a phrase that had its analog in ways of speaking. (and singing)

Naturally, Feuchtwanger advocated freedom from tension in the arms and wrists, having devised certain exercises to liberate a pianist from any constraints in the flow of phrases. He embraced a flexible, supple wrist approach wedded to a Zen-like, here and now concentration that was the kindred focus of his musical colleague, Yehudi Menuhin.

This particular sample from Feuchtwanger’s home teaching environment is particularly emblematic of an approach that has tweaked my own consciousness about music learning and mentoring. Feuchtwanger begins by demonstrating the opening measures of Fur Elise with an untraditional fingering that heightens the “shape” of the line, preventing a vertical, inorganic rendering. (It allows for a “rotational” movement that promotes a curvaceous contouring of notes.) His student, sitting beside him, fleshes out a “circular” analogy that is quite relevant.

Feuchtwanger’s bio expands upon his legacy as a teacher, his having influenced so many prominent pianists including Martha Argerich.


In my own rush of enthusiasm, I urge piano students and all music lovers to ingest Peter Feuchtwanger’s ideas that are well communicated in a set of you tubes, one of which showcases his work with pupil, Marian Friedman. It’s an amazing display of virtuosity that’s inextricably tied to the natural expression of musical lines without physical constraint.

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Beyond Leon Fleisher’s riveting words about pianists and vocal modeling

Pianist, Leon Fleisher has given us his notable artistry over decades, while his insights about practicing and teaching have been invaluable for a vast community of mentors and students.

In his latest interview that coincided with the release of a new album, All the Things You Are, Fleisher spoke eloquently about the intrinsic relationship of vocal modeling and beautiful musical expression at the piano:

“I think, possibly … especially for pianists, to think in terms of ‘vocal.’ If you can sing something, and I don’t mean to sing all the notes, because the range of the piano is way beyond one person, but if you can sing the music, articulate it, then you can play it.

“One of the great challenges of a pianist is that every other instrument (I discount mallet instruments), violin to double bass, piccolo down through tuba, they have three things to think about: they have to think about how they attack the note; they have to think about how they support the note; and they have to think about how they stop the note. Most pianists just think of the first of those three, how they are going to attack the note, and not even all of them think about that. If they can expand their approach, new revelations will appear. You would be amazed how seldom one comes upon somebody who thinks in those terms or makes music on the piano in those terms.”



Fleisher has also given us the mantra, “Hear it Before you Play It,” which is an internalization of what the pianist imagines in sound before placing his fingers on the keys. (The opening notes of a composition are not haphazard, but instead, are planned in advance in the psyche.)

While the aforementioned ideas (including vocal modeling) are essential to a well-meaning approach to the piano, a student journeying through the masterworks with the counsel of teacher, needs MORE than a vocal paradigm to make significant progress toward sensitive music-making.

For example, once a pupil can “sing” what he wants to produce at the piano, he needs to know HOW to realize his own model which will encompass a host of ingredients that are included in the following set of questions:

1) What are the physical means to the end? Are there blocks to freedom of expression because of tension in the arms and wrists that need to be identified? What about the breath? Does the vocal model suggest places to breathe in the natural ebb and flow of a phrase? Is the breath short due to tension which inhibits free expression?

What about the nuts and bolts of playing staccato, legato in complex strands of notes? These surely warrant modeling by the teacher at the piano. (How are notes “grouped,”or “spaced?”) What about “Rotation” and its effect on phrasing. etc. A pupil, needs hands-on knowledge that a mentor needs to provide. These encompass issues of traction and weight transfer into the keys, etc.

What role does the pedal play in beautiful phrasing? These require demonstrations as well. (Again, vocal modeling is not enough, but ATTENTIVE LISTENING and harmonic understanding are a must.)

2) Is faulty rhythmic framing blocking the flow of what is internalized? Are legato triplets, for example sounding angular and choppy? If they are, then it follows that a teacher must enlighten a pupil about the “color” and motion of these threads and how they can be liberated in a seamless, horizontal flow. (Teacher demonstrations at the piano can include supple wrist grouping of notes.)

If a fundamental beat is non-existent, or if a true “singing pulse is absent,” a student needs to understand what is causing note crowding, undirected accelerations, or interludes of lagging. Often a teacher will remedy such problems by “conducting” the student, simultaneously instilling a sense of shape and contour to musical lines.

3) Does a pupil comprehend the relationship of harmonic rhythm or flow of harmonies to phrasing? (cadences, modulations, etc.) Even with a well-defined vocal model, a student would still need to realize the dips in phrases that occur with various progressions (like Dominant to Tonic), or to understand the emotional ramifications of Deceptive cadences, parallel minor/or Major transitions.

Decays of notes also factor into phrasing. Is the student keenly aware of how what comes before affects what follows? What about sub-destinations and full destinations in a chain of measures?

How do dynamics, crescendos and decrescendo’s contribute to the sculpting of lines?

4) How does the historic period of a composition influence the whole approach to sound imaging? (Debussy vs. Bach; Mozart vs. Chopin) This opens up a universe of tonal variation and exploration. (Mental imagery contributes to a realization of a sound ideal.)


In truth there are so many ingredients in an artfully sensitive music-making process that just one central focus, like vocal modeling, is clearly not enough.


In exploring my archive of videos, I found two that resonated with a multi-dimensional approach to creating beauty at the piano.

1) Footage from the first sample is derived from my 2014 visit to New York City where I filmed Irina Morozova teaching one of her young students. (Franz Liszt La Leggierezza) The Special Music School/Kaufman Center.


2) Excerpts from an ONLINE lesson to Scotland: Felix Mendelssohn Venetian Book Song Op. 30 No. 6. (The split-screen recording is a valuable playback reference for the student)

adult piano studies, adult piano teaching, piano teacher, piano teaching, piano techique

Piano Technique: Practicing well-shaped scales and arpeggios (videos)

It’s always disheartening when students forego their scales and arpeggios at lessons, choosing instead, to dive immediately into repertoire. In their zeal to immerse themselves in the Masterworks, they neglect a pivotal Circle of Fifths journey that’s wedded to keyboard geographies, key relationships, and much more.

As a child, I reviled scales like most beginning piano students, and I relied on the faulty memory of my German mentor, Mrs. Schwed who heard me churn out the same C Major scale week after week– month after month. For me it was like taking uncoated cod liver oil pills cold turkey without a malted milk to wash it down. But at least I outsmarted my mentor in my one key-centered perseveration. (Ironically, C Major was probably one of my most unwise choices because it had no black key landmarks.)

It’s been decades since scales were hard to swallow, and over the years I’ve grown to love their ingestion. I will spend the first 45 minutes of my practice time, plying and shaping myriads of scales and arpeggios through Major and minor keys: in legato, staccato; by tenths, thirds, sixths. I will immerse myself in well-phrased note-rollouts in parallel and contrary motion with varied dynamics, feeling a kinesthetic and emotional connection to the “music” I make through these important preliminaries. Mindfulness, concentration, and a keen awareness of the breath converge in these keyboard-wide escapades. They’re intrinsic to a “centered” learning process.

One of my adult pupils who concurs that a scale-wise prelude to the repertoire segment of her lesson is relevant to her musical growth, shares her sprees through the key of G-sharp minor. Though my keyboard is under the webcam, one can feel a collective interaction of well-shaped scales and arpeggios par duo.

Over the past several months, this adult pupil has wedded her technique to the following repertoire:

J.S. Bach Prelude in F minor, WTC Book 2
J.S. Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847
Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72
Chopin Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64, No.2
Claude Debussy, “La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin” (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”)


Bonus video: Distinguished pianist and teacher, Irina Morozova mentors a student as he plays scales during his lesson at the Special Music School/Kaufmann Center in Manhattan. (His initial choice of “C Major” was instantly aborted)