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My New Piano Studio in El Cerrito, California, and panoramic views taken from Amtrak 711 and 712 along the Bay route


After my arrival in El Cerrito, I walked to my new location in a very old, established neighborhood with mature shade trees and lush foliage. It had to be the perfect paradise for teaching piano.

Photos down below were taken at the Bart station looking down from the platform, and then along the Bay route on Amtrak 712.


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Between California and Oregon: Skyping Chopin with an eight-year old student (Video of lesson in progress)

At the cue of a SKYPE musical trademark ring, I tapped the green-colored phone icon and brought an eight-year old, her dad, and a grand piano into view.

A second virtual lesson beamed between California and Oregon officially began!

Featured composition: Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, no. 17, Op. Posthumous.

This time I aimed my camcorder at the iMac screen and kept it there throughout the lesson.

In a pleasant state of satisfaction with this mode of transmission, I continued to believe that improvements in a student’s playing could be made over SKYPE. As proof, right before my eyes I watched an 8-year old phrase more beautifully with a desired singing tone as compared to her first playing that was transmitted by private video.

In the pre-Skype phase of our teacher-student relationship, dad set up a two-way video sharing channel and this provided an opportunity to have the raw playing sample before any teaching occurred and to zero in on what needed improvement.

This preliminary video exchange process was a vital supplement to the real-time Skyped lessons when they were scheduled because it allowed the student to revisit my remedial videos as many times as needed, and likewise, I could follow her progress between Skypes as she incorporated my suggestions into her playing. Dad uploaded additional practice sessions that I could comment on.

Each Skyped piano lesson that followed video sharing provided reinforcement of points already made.

Here is a sample of today’s virtual lesson in progress:

Chopin Waltz in A minor No. 17, Op. Posthumous, with Aiden Cat sitting beside me on the piano bench:

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My Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook favorites, and why it’s best to play the real deal (Video)

I was thinking about an adult student I currently teach in the Bay area who thumbed through her Faber Older Beginner Adult Accelerated Piano Adventures Method Book, and was instantly drawn to “Musette,”one of the many pieces contained in Anna Magdalena’s Notebook. Transcribed to “G Position” by Randall Faber and reduced to a fraction of itself, (considering the lack of repeats) the Musette was essentially a training wheels version of the original, in a different key and with a gaping hole in the middle because an important section was missing.

Call it a transcription, adaptation, “arrangement,” make-over, or whatever, it was still not what “Anonymous BWV 126” had intended.

For decades, piano students of all ages thought J.S. Bach had composed Musette as well as Minuet in G, BWV116 and March in D that were part of Anna Magdalena’s collection, but one day, a news release claimed Christian Petzold was the true composer of some of the entries, while others were attributed to C.P.E Bach, (one of Johann Sebastian’s sons) and ANONYMOUS. (There are 3 verified J.S. Bach originals in the collection, but these are not under discussion)

From this potpourri I selected three favorites to record:

Minuet in G, (Anonymous) Musette in D, (Anonymous) and March in D (C.P.E. Bach)

Having indulged my “Notebook” preferences, I had wished that Method Book composers/editors would think twice about introducing a student to a watered down version of music that in its original form had substance and sprang from genius. (If you could locate the composer)

Why not instead, reprint pieces like the James Hook Minuet or self-borrow from Developing Artist Series Book One with its brief, but “real” manuscripts (I hope) of composers contemporary to Bach and Mozart.

The Royal Conservatory of Toronto Level One Repertoire Book, also has a host of pieces that can be cross-dressed, or borrowed, to ward off gender changes associated with performing surgery on the masterworks. When you take the Op. 18, Eb Major Chopin Waltz, p. 49 (Faber Older Beginner) and butcher its quarters, it plays like a La-ti-dah, “Skip to My Lou,” partner-stealing dance from America’s frontier period. Funny, I should pick that one with its theft overlay.

Yes, it’s a bit of steal, to take Mozart, Chopin and Anonymous, redesign and repackage them for mass consumption while composers like Tansman, Schein and Kabalevsky, would make a nice presence in the Older Beginner, Abbreviated, Accelerated, Attenuated, Piano Adventures.

Don’t get me wrong, I use these Faber books with my adult beginners, but I can’t wait to get out of them and into the real deal, unadulterated musical universe. (The placement of “Irish Washerwoman” beside counterfeit Chopin is another issue–not to mention interspersed Boogie Woogie pieces that are meant to break things up)

For youngsters, I take the training wheels away at the Lesson One Method Book juncture and head in the direction of Hook, Schein, Kabalevsky and Tansman, among others.

In this regard, what are your preferences as teachers or students? Let’s hear from you.


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The Emotionally Abusive Piano Teacher and Suggested Rehab

Over the years my ears have been pinned back by stories from students who experienced emotionally abusive teachers. One who transferred to my studio from another, described her head having been shoved into the music after striking a wrong note.

In biographies of well-known performers, strands of anecdotes about foot-pounding, screaming master instructors remind readers that the learning landscape can be marred by personal invectives hurled at students for imperfect playing. There have even been cases where ultra strict pedagogues have cracked hands into rigid positions with rulers and other hard objects. It’s all very disconcerting.

If studying piano is a growth and development process nurtured along by a caring instructor, there’s no basis for attacking the student personally (or physically) just because the expectations of a teacher are not fulfilled.

The music is clay in the hands of a fledgling who looks for guidance in shaping it along the way. He needs assistance learning to communicate what’s beyond the printed notes on a page. If a few “wrong” ones are produced and a teacher allows verbal wrath to pour out as a consequence, then negative reinforcement becomes the standard tone at lessons. Notes that are correct become self-limiting rewards as they are tagged and separated from the whole learning experience. Anxiety- attached note errors are the seeds of performance nerves and overall aversion to taking lessons.

A teacher has to train himself to step back and put music above and beyond his need to vent frustration through it. If the instructor has dealt with his own relationship to music-making and practicing, cleansing it of self-punishment and deprecation, then he is on the way to relating to students with a healthy attitude, eschewing verbal abuse of any kind.

Affirmations for teachers that promote a nurturing learning environment:

1) Patience is valued. A student who doesn’t “get it” right away is not reprimanded. Instead, he’s taught to calmly walk through a set of steps that will smooth out a line of music. It might involve slow, separate hand practicing under the advice and guidance of the teacher.

2) Deadlines about playing difficult music up to tempo are discarded.
The teacher realizes that pieces with technical challenges ripen over time and should not be prematurely pushed in directions unnatural to the flow of learning.

3) Making memorizing demands on a student who has difficulty in this region of learning are ill-advised. Allowing memory to flow out of practicing over a lengthy period of time without a fixed, assigned end point, is encouraged. If memorization doesn’t happen, let it be and move on.

Warnings to heed:

1) A teacher does not live through a student. He is not realizing his dreams of performance grandeur in any shape, sense or form by using his pupil as such a vehicle.

2) The teacher does not insult a student for a performance he disagrees with on an interpretive level. Instead he shares ideas based on sound performance practices and integrates these into lessons, allowing the student to engage in an interactive, productive dialog.

3) An instructor welcomes questions from a student. He encourages inquiries about practicing techniques, phrasing, fingering, performing, and problem solving. He is never threatened by inquiries even he is not equipped to answer all of them satisfactorily. Any gaps in knowledge should not make him feel like less of a teacher. Similarly a student shouldn’t be penalized for not knowing everything.

4) A piano instructor does not force or coerce a student to participate in a student recital or competition. There are no threats attached to these opportunities. Framing the event as a sharing occasion will go a long way to remove feelings of dread and anxiety. Still, the right of a student to decline participation is respected.

5) There is no teacher/student–dominant/submissive relationship.
The teacher and pupil are partners in learning, with one having more experience to impart knowledge meant to expand the universe of the other.

The instructor realizes that teaching a student of any level is a valuable learning opportunity. It helps him fine tune his teaching and gain insight into remedies for technical and musical problems.

Finally, the piano teacher respects and observes boundaries. He will not get involved in volatile family situations and divorces with pulls and tugs of fathers and mothers using piano lessons as dumping grounds of anger.

Cleansing piano instruction of extra-musical contamination goes a long way to purify it, paving the way for a positive and productive journey.

Above all, the teacher/student relationship is bound by mutual respect making the experience of giving and taking lessons a joyful one.

FEEDBACK from a reader:

“The piano is difficult enough without adding a hostile and destructive relationship. My latest teacher (from Russia) was offended when I asked her what pieces she had studied when she was a student at the Conservatory, jumping up from her seat and saying she refused to teach me anymore. I pondered that long and hard, and could only think my inquiry somehow was a challenge, (or a crime against authority) which someone raised in a more authoritarian environment could not tolerate.”

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A Piano Room with a View

I thought of E.M. Forster’s novel as an inspiration for this blog, but “The Hills are alive with the Sound of Music” would have more aptly described what I was writing about.

Every week, a breathtaking view of the El Cerrito Hills streams into my piano room through an open, maple-paneled door. Depending on the time of day, clouds speckled with pink, gray, or a combination of the two decorate a rich, blue sky.

Terraced homes fill in the backdrop with their built-in crescendo to the top. It’s an easy distraction looking over the piano rack from time to time during lessons. My students know when I’m off somewhere, in the clouds.

Yesterday, I brought my Camcorder with me on Amtrak 713 from Fresno, to film 7 year old Fritz playing his newly composed piece, “Finding Gold,” but besides setting up the studio for a shoot, I took an opportunity to capture the hills, zooming in and out, with the Ken Burns effect.

Tomorrow, I’ll likely post all the footage, including a flock of domestically raised pigeons to the right that coo constantly and flap their wings in a dust up when their owner shoves his arm into the cage with a bundle of seeds. I’m so used to it now, but I was plagued by curiosity until I figured what was going on next door.

A parent who came to pick up her child one afternoon, remarked that “pigeons” were on the other side of the fence. I replied as if it wasn’t a big deal.

The avian brood reminded me of home bound birds that were sent off to deliver messages from rooftops in the South Bronx. When I visited my grandparents on Longfellow Avenue, I saw them take off into the horizon, letting my imagination run wild.

News traveled faster in the tenement from window to window, Molly Goldberg style. My bubbe got the latest gossip faster than a speeding bullet.

The view from her apartment was no match for the one in El Cerrito, though both shared one thing in common, a clothesline that brought everything back down to earth.

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What can you do with a Performance-Piano Degree?

Face the music! Most new Conservatory grads with fancy Bachelor of Music, Performance-Piano Degrees bound in leather must improvise when catapulted into the competitive job market. With only a tiny space on the world stage reserved for budding soloists, many aspiring concert pianists will teach privately, wait tables, babysit, or become high school choir accompanists.

In my case, upon Oberlin graduation, I spent nearly ten years working at the New York State Department of Labor, starting out as an Employment Interviewer in the Household Division. In my spare time, I schlepped around the city giving piano lessons.

My first students, Annie, 7 and Naomi, 5, who lived in an upscale apartment complex off Washington Square in the West Village, benefited from my idealism and determination to be uniquely creative.

Instead of relying on John Thompson’s pixie popular primer series with its middle C fixation, I decided to have my fledglings create their own compositions from scratch. They would write short poems with simple rhyme schemes and we would scan them as iambics or trochees, and from there pick out five-finger positions and create melodies. Before long, I had composed a book of enriched accompaniments that kept our creative juices flowing.

Eventually, I experimented with Robert Pace’s materials that continued to invite sound explorations as it encouraged transpositions, but my job at the State, reigned in my teaching, and I was pressured to become a weekend private teacher in my tight quarters on West 74th and Amsterdam.

The daily stint at the Household Office, though energy draining, afforded a colorful work backdrop. Each day I sent mostly African American and Latina maids into hostile work environments on the East and West Side of Manhattan and then fielded follow-up calls from angry employers about missing booze in liquor cabinets, scratched furniture tops, over-polished, gummy piano racks, shattered kitchen tiles and mysterious bathroom puddles.

These complaints forced my involvement in a fact-finding investigation, not my favorite undertaking.

With Form ES.2 in hand, I called the accused applicant to my desk from the peanut gallery that was stacked with myriads of maids, some literally smelling like Ajax (We had several complaints about one particular worker whom I ardently defended) Who cared whether she over-used scouring powder? Other people layered themselves with perfume or the latest deodorant on the market.

In fact, “Jane” still had a contingent of fans who always requested her.

Inevitably, she got off, was put on an ES3.22, watch hold, a form of probation, and continued to saturate homes with her occupational odors.

In the meantime, I was trying to complete my Master’s Degree in Music Therapy and to this end, invented a cardboard “scanner” decorated with an assortment of Employment Service forms. I cut a horizontal opening measured to a book line of print that allowed me to roll it up and down over my course work text so I could surreptitiously read large chunks of material.

With an understanding supervisor/budding Romance novelist who had me proof read her unedited chapters on the sly, I was able to arrange time off the job to complete a Music Therapy related Internship at St. Vincent’s Hospital on W. 14th Street.

For three afternoons a week I would design musical activities for short-term alcoholic and psychiatric patients enlisting the musical philosophy of Karl Orff, and at the end of my service I had published a paper in Hospital and Community Psychiatry, a Journal of the American Psychiatric Association that summarized the techniques used to improve social interaction skills. These included the use body percussion (clapping, snapping fingers, tapping knees), singing activities and individualized, private piano lessons, etc.

Psychiatric Services — Table of Contents (26 [7])
Shirley M. Smith. USING MUSIC THERAPY WITH SHORT-TERM ALCOHOLIC AND PSYCHIATRIC PATIENTS. Hosp Community Psychiatry 1975 26: 420-421 [PDF] …

Naturally, with a publication to my credit and a new Degree in hand that was shipped to my office in a hollow tube resembling a toilet paper holder, I thought I was destined to acquire a music-related full-time job.

But like most others holding the same piece of parchment with Gothic lettering, there was no work out there for me. Music Therapy was not regarded with as much respect in those days as it is today. Art Therapy had far more clinical standing.

My relocation to California definitely advanced my private teaching career, though it was not enough to put food on the table. For supplementary income, I subbed for the Fresno Unified School District in every subject known to mankind, and as a side bar, I helped organize substitutes into a union because of dirt-low wages spanning ten years. This effort succeeded and carved out a new legacy for those of us who toiled in the trenches, and spurred much needed change in the work environment. Teacher Magazine and Education Week put Fresno subs on the map in articles about their victory against all odds. (“Substitutes Unite!” October, 1999 by David Hill) Among these fighting back subs, were a few piano teachers, most likely with performance degrees.

So what does a music major do in the long term with such a prize-less piece of paper?

On this final note, I can’t overlook my high school choir accompanying experience that stole precious practice time otherwise devoted to the works of Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart and the other masters.

I won’t forget the day a pile of Christmas music with five endings, “da capo al fine,” and an added repeat inserted by the conductor was handed to me by the District’s Music Administrator. It was an overnight assignment with a medley of super-fast paced Christmas carols to be performed at the Big Winter Concert! While it went well, I swore I would never again be enslaved to such a pressure deadline to the tune of $12 per hour!

After that whole episode, I quit accompanying choirs and decided that teaching privately was my niche.

Coming back home was nice as it’s always been. Throw in some blogging and You tubing, and I was content.

Finally, with a sweet El Cerrito Hills piano sanctuary, I was, without a doubt, in seventh heaven!

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Piano teachers, students, and reluctant farewells

  Lillian Freundlich


For many piano teachers who’ve nursed along students from Primer toddlerhood to an Intermediate level confidence-climbing phase, through to the Advanced, smooth riding finish with flashy fingers, the pupil’s farewell is an emotional event.

Of course, it depends on the circumstances of the departure and who is saying goodbye to whom.

I remember my heart-wrenching farewells to two private music teachers going back a few decades. My mother as proxy delivered the news first to my violin teacher who taught me with great passion but missed too many lessons to make music study meaningful. Frustrated by her absences, starts and stops, the only way I dealt with my anger, was to channel my sturm and drang (storm and stress) into the piano. But at this very time, my piano teacher who had been referred by the violin instructor, was giving me pieces so way over my head that I could barely come up for air. While I knew what a composition such as Chopin’s Bb minor Scherzo should sound like, I had no technical skills or musical foundation to approach it with any degree of success.

A case of compounded frustration led to a double teacher firing.

For these instructors it was an emotional blow, and for me, the one who’d abandoned them at the tender age of 12, I felt bundled with guilt and remorse. Still, I had to move on.

The piano teacher I left had been an impressive performer who played to applauding audiences and critics on the local New York concert scene, but she couldn’t easily put herself in the place of a fledgling student and devise a stepwise, thoughtful approach to piano study. My learning gaps were so immense that I nearly gave up the piano–hanging by a thread because I dearly loved the instrument.

Years later, the abandoned piano teacher had swallowed her pride in the wake of my departure and restored her affection by sending a congratulatory note after my Mozart concerto performance at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. By then, I was 15 and studying with my beloved, long sought after teacher, Lillian Freundlich whom I’d met through her nephew, Douglas Freundlich, a Merrywood Music camper (Lenox, MA)

As I had hoped, Mrs. Freundlich went back to the beginning, awakened me to the singing tone dimension of the piano, and had me playing individual notes for the first weeks of study. In the process, I realized that the way I balanced my fingers with the relaxed support of my arms could create the resonating sound I had always imagined. Each lesson brought a revelation that compared to a child’s first encounter with a sunset.

The sad part of my musical relationship with Lillian was its premature ending. No sooner than I’d set foot in her ethereal musical space with its ebony shining grand pianos, Persian rugs, and window view of Riverside Drive, I had to leave and make my rite of passage to the Oberlin Conservatory. That’s where all signs led. No other destination was planned since Mrs. F. was an alumna and had carefully groomed me for this next phase of my life.

Teacher farewells usher in changes and new beginnings that are very much like marriage break-ups. They have a powerful impact leaving twinges of emotion that are re-awakened in the course of our lives.

If I listed all my teachers who came and went, it would be a laboriously long, drawn out epic, bogged down by burdensome detail.


My arrival at Oberlin, the “Learning and Labor” school with its formidable music conservatory, brought the antithesis of what I had grown to love about studying the piano.

Suddenly I found myself in an antiseptic, white structure stacked with tightly-spaced practice rooms and paper-thin walls. Far worse was my instructor who had students lined up at his door pumping out the same Hanon exercises. They played with arched hand positions and stiff wrists. It made me want to jump the next plane back to New York.

My only option was to leave the teacher and request another in the piano department. Meanwhile, my dorm roommate, who’d been a Performing Arts High classmate, having left her studies with an inspiring Manhattan-based instructor, Leon Russianoff to attend the Midwest Conservatory, had already packed her bag and was on her way back East to reunite with him. Her hasty Oberlin-based musical marriage break-up was followed by a second wind New York relationship.

Would I follow my bunk mate? Although, I wanted to go AWOL, contemplating a full separation from the “Con,” I decided to tough it out with a string of teachers that finally produced a good match with Jack Radunsky, who passed away a few years ago. (Along the way, I had switched my major to violin to escape the first, didactic, soul-absent piano teacher) Uncannily, Stuart Canin, former concert master of the San Francisco Symphony was my brief mentor before I reunited with the piano.

Returning to the Big Apple after graduation in the embrace of my newly acquired Performance Degree, not exactly a job market titillation, I found myself back with Lillian Freundlich, who was by that time, blanketed with wall-to-wall students. Nonetheless, I enjoyed rekindling musical ties with this former teacher before I headed off to California to start a career and family. Another heart-breaking farewell.

The twist ending to this long-winded story of coming and going teachers reads like a novel’s denouement.

Once settled in the San Joaquin Valley, agriculture’s heartland, I met up with Roselle Bezazian Kemalyan, who was Lillian Lefkovsky Freundlich’s roommate at Oberlin in 1933 and endowed the Bezazian Piano Scholarship. Quickly, she became my musical surrogate mother as we looked back fondly upon our musical memories of Lillian.


Now that I’ve been a piano teacher for decades, I fully comprehend the emotional effects of students coming and going.

A two-way musical journey can easily be interrupted by circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Sometimes students choose to change lanes and seek other study options while at other times a teacher has to make the difficult choice to discharge a student who’s not practicing for months at time or respecting studio guidelines.

Piano study is a metaphor for life, and the teachers, students we encounter along the way leave their indelible traces behind them. The collective path taken often comes with emotional highs and lows but just the same, it’s worth the effort.