piano, piano blog, piano blog by Shirley Kirsten, piano mentoring

Anti-boredom formula=Daily, attentive, patient, layered practicing

Over decades of teaching children from beginners to advanced levels, I’ve been struck by those who progress over a lengthy period due to their focused, disciplined, and organized practicing. Each encounter at lessons becomes for them, an awakening, reinforced by deeper probing. If a pupil is willing to partner in such a journey where a mentor guides and also receives valuable student feedback in a reciprocal exchange, then frustration or boredom with a piece, should not ensue.

A sample of travels through the Clementi second movement of the composer’s well-known Sonatina in C, Op. 36, No. 1, serves as an example. It’s bundled with a complexity that on first glance might be overlooked. A pupil will often shakily sight-read through a few lines, ignoring a satisfying balance of voices; the emotional effect of harmonic rhythm/key changes; the mosaic of a flowing, seamless triplet underpinning against a prominent solo treble melody.

The teacher’s role in this virgin journey, is to recommend and demonstrate an approach that transforms a less refined, top layer view of the movement into a deeper musical perception. Such an exploration, delivered in parcels, includes elements of structure, harmonic movement, meter, historic period framing, and aesthetics—all bundled with sound technical knowledge: i.e. how to produce a “singing” tone that pervades a cantabile treble line; how to create seamless broken chord triplets as they carry harmonic meaning through the movement; how to balance voices; how repeated notes and finger substitutions need to be threaded with shape and contour. (What are the principle destination notes?) In the cosmos of phrasing and voicing, a focus on weight transfer will direct energy transit through relaxed arms, pliant wrists and the natural curve of the hand. (This should be demonstrated, with regular reminders about natural, unblocked energy flow) The breath will accompany well-shaped phrases framed by a singing pulse.

Blocking can reinforce the soft supple wrist entry through arrays of harmony that, when unraveled, discourage finger-generated attacks or punches.

And as the piece flows with an affect of grace with its relentless spin of legato triplets, the imagination is stirred, accompanied by mentor prompts. Notably, in the midst of an F Major progression of phrases, a transition to G minor through a secondary dominant, brings a pivotal moment of modal pathos—perhaps comparable to the experience of a first sunrise.

While a student may not be theoretically advanced enough to automatically comprehend the mechanics of a modulation, he should have been prepared along the learning route with a parallel course of scales, arpeggios, and chords (inversions, etc.) through the Circle of Fifths.


To create beauty, a bounty of ingredients cannot be shoveled into a few introductory lessons related to a “new” movement. The pace of learning is in tempo with what an individual can assimilate in spoonfuls–not beyond his/her capacity to ingest. Progress is not measured by any deadline, but it evolves naturally, when the student and teacher are on the same page in the conscientious preparation of a piece, between lessons.

If practicing is erratic, sporadic, inattentive, and impatient, the propensity for a student’s interest to wane is likely. Frustration and boredom set in, culminating in premature abandonment of a piece.

While a “new” piece on the horizon can provide a certain relief of the doldrums, it will only endure the same shortcomings that befell the preceding one.

Finally, a vital, and growth enhanced learning process is worth the baby steps taken through daily, attentive practicing. For both teacher and pupil, such a paradigm affords a foundation to build upon in future piano discovering adventures.

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