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J.S. Bach Prelude in Ab, BWV 862: A Fresh Start for Student and Teacher

In the course of teaching, a situation may arise where a particular favored piece is requested by a student that I’ve never studied–which means a deep-layered journey is ahead of two learning partners.

And given that J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Ab, (Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1) requires thoughtful fingering choices; an awareness of Baroque era ornamentation, phrasing/articulation/voicing, and a knowledge of counterpoint/harmonic movement/structure, the undertaking requires a baby-step advance.

Therefore, one of my learning reinforcers is to create a self-made tutorial early in the assimilation process, well before I’ve had significant exposure to a composition. The goal is to exemplify a parceled practicing approach that is stacked heavily in the direction of gaining mastery, or relative fluidity when the piece ripens to tempo.

The big embracing mantra, however, is Patience un-enslaved to any Deadline because learning and growing into a desired tempo has no marked out notches of predictable progress. Yet one has to have a heap of confidence on credit to keep optimism in high gear.

With that said, one pivotal aspect of the learning journey is setting a good fingering and in the case of Bach’s Prelude in Ab, a separate hand approach becomes only one dimension of the undertaking. In truth, there are more than two steps to be taken in determining a workable fingering.

1) I assigned what I thought were reasonable choices for the Right Hand in a slow tempo frame.

2) I did the same for the Left hand.

3) The above first and second steps had to be refined if not revised significantly in certain measures, when hands were played simultaneously.

And this is an epiphany that most students will have as they explore a new score. Where fingering might work separately for each hand, it will not necessarily comport for both. (This explains the current adjustments I’ve made since I last e-mailed my student)

Naturally, the Baroque style of phrasing is the other important universe of decision-making, and all that follows in relation to harmonic rhythm, modulation, and the contrapuntal cosmos must be part of a nit-picking, ground-up exploration.

So in the spirit of step-by-step learning, the video below should be foundational and of particular assistance to my student and others taking this common journey.

Bach Prelude in Ab WTC revised p. 1 revised

Bach Prelude in Ab WTC revised p.2

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My Birthday present to me!

Who would have imagined that a new piano would be my special gift to myself! It was one week since my mother had passed away at 100 and I was devastated, shaken by the loss– too distressed to be thinking about celebrating my upcoming birthday in any way. Yet when I saw an ad for a vintage Steinway grand, 1926 on Craig’s list that had an enviable list of positives, including a rebuild by a respected technician, I thought about checking it out, perhaps to honor my mother who had always supported my artistic endeavors.

Even during economically hard times, she had managed to buy me my first real piano–a Sohmer upright that replaced a wheezing Weiser (about 52 inches high) that had land mines of buzzing notes, and many not playing at all. Yet on the up side, the keyboard provided a landing for my cage-free parakeet whose droppings further complicated my playing experience.

Fast forward to Oberlin Conservatory graduation.

My father, a railroad worker, had replaced the regal upright with a gorgeously resonant Steinway M, 1917, that sustained me through graduate school and my California relocation. And after two quality rebuilds, (one on the East Coast) the piano became a permanent fixture in my life.

Cohabiting with the old-timer, my Baldwin Hamilton, known as the blind date piano, barely survived with its glassy upper treble and faltering bass– And considering the instrument’s age and condition, it had been cared for to a remarkable level.

Yet with my personal grief rising to fever pitch, I knew that I needed some kind of immediate emotional relief and replenishment.

In so many words, that’s exactly how a new Baldwin grand came into my life….

Baldwin name on the piano

So without further ado, here’s the beauty that won my heart and eased my pain.

Baldwin profile


(P.S. the Steinway on consignment below didn’t make it to the winner’s circle, though it’s still deserving of a good home.)

Here’s me trying it out before I met up with Baldwin 165.



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East Coast/West Coast (East Bay) culture shock

Bigger appleBezerkeley

Recently, I made a trip back East to New York City to attend my aunt’s Memorial Service, and the experience hit “home!”

Being a child of the Bronx and Manhattan, my emigration to California over three decades ago, definitely came with culture shock, but my most recent relocation to the East Bay (Berkeley aka “Bezerkeley”) fleshed out stark bi-coastal differences in social environment/interpersonal communications that are worth screaming about!

For example,

NYC–You make friends on the elevator. I stayed at my ex-roommate’s apartment on Central Park West and ended up stuffing 27 crinkled post-its into my pockets with names, addresses and phone numbers. Three days, 9 rides, 12 floors.

East Bay–No phone number unless you OCCUPY the bank, post office, street corner, or even Trader Joe when it refuses to take Fiji Water off the shelf.

NYC– The subways are a miraculous social network–Getting lost is the best thing to happen. People will scramble, if not trample each other to assist. Goes with the territory. You’ll find your pockets bulging with more names, addresses and phones.

At my aunt’s Memorial, I had a reunion with my Performing Arts High math teacher, and she brought along a friend. No sooner than I offered my arm to the 85-year old, I found an empty pocket to stuff with her name, address and phone. (Not three days back in California, I received a no-strings-attached invitation to stay at her East Side digs.. food, lodging and a guaranteed schmaltzy hug)

By contrast,

The East Bay: No bed, no breakfast– but one small space for a homeless person in Downtown Berkeley, or an endless ride on the friendless BART.

: The ‘Y’ gym on West 63rd is another great hangout! Free bi-coastal passes–no hitch in snaring a clean towel or directions to the women’s lockers. Getting lost in the maze of work-out rooms is another opportunity to make new friends.

The East Bay ‘Y’— An instant death sentence. Once inside the Women’s gym, it’s solitary confinement. No eye contact! Talk under your breath and risk a 5150 to the Alta Bates psych ward.

And Heed these posted WARNINGS!

1) NO CELL PHONE USE in this AREA 2) NO FREE PASSES to Albany, Oakland, or any ‘Y’ gyms in the area. Pay up or go back to where you came from! (Good Idea!)


NYC: Getting together with a friend is as easy as pie, i.e. “Meet me at the coffee shop on Amsterdam in twenty minutes.” (a done deal)

East Bay: It’s three years of strategy planning with NO clause to reconnect in a lifetime. Anything sooner is considered a “boundary” violation.

My first house guest, (after 18 months of back and forth text-ing) confessed that her appearance was “ephemeral.”

“Don’t think I’m coming back. That way you won’t be disappointed.”

Your friends will wine and dine you with unswerving generosity– home-cooked delights and an unconditional welcome mat are your birthright.

East Bay:
A Berkeley eating companion, who turns up 9 months after the planning stage, brings a calculator to evenly divide the tab.

(She forgot that you treated her the last ancient time at the Ethiopian Hut on Durant)

Every other spoonful, she mega-Networks and collates foot massage flyers for you to post around the neighborhood.

“Hey, how about us bartering a big toe rub-down for life-time piano lessons?”

“NO thanks! I’m pre-OCCUPIED!” (Need to practice!)

NYC: Performing opportunities may be sparse in the Big Apple, but no one will ask you to play Chopin into a drone of meaningless, high-decibel banter!

East Bay: Expect to be drowned out!


From Sanity to Insanity

The Last Lap My return to California

NYC: Going to the airport for my departure comes with good wishes. Elevator friends, the doorman, street cleaner–even the garbage men and fruit cart pushers give a warm thumbs up! Peace, Goodwill, and God Speed.

East Bay: At SFO arrival. Where’s the baggage area? Super shuttle, anyone?

Icy stares from a skeleton crew of janitors and OCCUPIERS, everywhere!

Rent controllers scream, “I hate landlords!” Landlords rage against the Rent Board. An avalanche of hate! A round of gunfire! Revolution now! Che Guevara!

Geezus! I’m way safer in NYC under Bloomberg.
When’s the next Apple-bound jet? I’ll call the lady who offered me her place on the East Side and firm up my reservation a.s.a.p.

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When sight-reading is not enough: Learning a new piano piece from the ground up so we can teach it to our students (Videos)

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Sviatoslav Richter when asked how he approached a challenging new composition of virtuoso proportion:

His reply– “I read a new piece and then start practicing the place that irritates me the most. After learning that one I move to the next irritation, etc.”

Well, most of us would die to have such comparable talent, but our perfunctory read of a new composition only skims the surface, requiring our deeper commitment to musical and technical discovery.

I will admit that earlier today I dove into a virgin piece, submerging myself for greater than two full hours as I refined fingering, mapped out harmonic rhythm, probed voice layering, and the rest. It was in readiness for my video tutorial of Mendelssohn’s Children’s Piece, Op. 72 No. 1.

This composition, with a hymn-like, singing tone quality, happened to be the second one brought to me by my “new” Bay area adult student. As it turned out, she was very committed to hard work and personal musical development which was one of the rare blessings to come my way over a long teaching career. For me, this was an opportunity to grow along with her and expand my pianistic horizons.

In the embedded video offered, I literally approached the Mendelssohn work as if I were a maiden voyager on a musical journey, wanting to make my student’s foray a bit easier.

Along the way, I encountered a perfectly heart-warming character piece that looked deceptively simple, but wasn’t. And as I dealt with a choir of voices, with a few inner ones needing to be fleshed out, I re-fingered measures that had poor editorial choices, and examined harmonic rhythm and phrasing to ensure a depth of learning that would be long-lasting.

Previously, I’d studied many of the composer’s “Songs without Words” which provided a good Romantic era underpinning for this undertaking, but still, I required quality time to examine a brand new composition that was not in my repertoire. (Separate hand practice could not be avoided)

The video instruction contained baby-step advances that would bode well for a progressive learning and ripening process, and in this effort, I would partner with an enthusiastic adult student who was on the same page with me.


The very first lesson with a new Intermediate or advanced piano student: thinking creatively on your feet

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A former piano student carves out a unique life as a dance accompanist or is it “Freeway Gypsy?”

For Becca Wong, her career path seemed predestined. Having had a firmly rooted music and dance background in her native Hong Kong prior to her arrival in California, she was at least predisposed to a future vocation celebrating the arts.

Her enrollment in the Royal Academy of Dance, allied to the British school system, added to piano studies at the Royal School of Music created a solid foundation. But subsequent private lessons taken here in Fresno from 1989 – 1993 (age 11-15), followed by college level classes, bolstered the ingredients of her life’s work.

Ultimately, Becca received a B.A. in Music with a piano emphasis at the California Baptist University and continued to graduate school at Claremont University. There, she earned her Master’s in Piano Performance with an Interdisciplinary in Dance Music.


I was privileged to have been Becca’s piano teacher during her adolescent years before she wound her way to Southern California for advanced musical studies interspersed with dance classes. The dualism of her artistic pursuits accompanied a journey that brought her to the shining ambiance of the ballet studio.

You might say that her career peaked when she found herself in a universe of renowned dancers at the University of California, Irvine where the National Choreographer’s Initiative rented a yearly space.

Becca provided details:

“NCI handpicks 16 dancers, 8 female, 8 male from companies all over the country and they come together for 3 weeks, coordinating with 4 well-known choreographers. There’s one showing at the end of the 3 weeks.

“We have dancers from Richmond Ballet, Houston Ballet, Hubbard Street, Ballet Met, Boston Ballet…just to name a few, and they’re all exceptional! It’s one of the many events out of the year that I look forward to playing for.”

Becca’s pianistic skills were on display at a NCI rehearsal, though she was not seen in the footage.

She described her creative process:

“Notice the Brahms waltzes where there was some ‘altering’ involved to make it work for ballet. Ex: Brahms Ab Waltz, the B section only has 6 measures in the phrase, I had to magically add 2 measures to make it 8 counts.”

This is where Becca stands out from a crowd of casual dance accompanists who might improvise their way through a class without giving it a second thought.


Her background alone steeped in music and dance led naturally to the limelight of ballet accompanying.

“When I studied piano with you,” she said, “I recall that we played through a few Kuhlau Sonatinas, Clementi Sonatinas, Mozart Sonata C Major; a Burgmuller Book (I use a few for ballet), some Chopin Waltzes, and the Schubert Impromptus. (All 4 of them)

“And yes, I always had a particular sensitivity to Classical music. My mom claimed it was her doing. I would kick her belly in rhythm to the beat when she went to concerts. And when I lived in Hong Kong (up to age 9), I grew up going to recitals, musicals, ballets, etc.”

And what about her specific dance training that followed upon arrival in California?

“In Fresno, most of my dance exposure was through Color Guard. I was very fortunate to have had well-rounded teachers who were knowledgeable in all genres of dance. We had regular training in Ballet, Modern, and Jazz and there was always ‘live’ music since we were dancing to the marching band with its pit percussion and drum line. Hearing a tempo and poly-rhythms while dancing became second nature. In the process we all developed great sensitivity to meter, rhythm, and phrasing.”

Becca eventually took dance classes at Riverside Community College, (RCC) where she bonded with the program and faculty. She described her teachers as a part of a “second family”

I was curious about when she sought a position as a dance musician?

“I didn’t become interested in the profession until I was actually in it,” she insisted. Originally, I wanted to play the piano in musical productions because I loved Broadway. I could sing and dance, but I couldn’t act to save my life. In every audition, I would choke during the reading portion, so I knew the only way I would be able to be a part of any production was to play the piano in the pit.

“At my Senior Recital in college, the dance faculty from Riverside Community College (RCC) came to support me. As they were walking out, one of them said, ‘We want you to be our dance accompanist. Think about it and come talk to us when our winter concert is over.’

“I probably only thought about it for 5 seconds. Sure, why not? It’s a job, in music! That beats working at a bank from 9-5.”

Becca would wind her way to Southern California in pursuit of further job opportunities.

“I realized most of the dance ‘happenings’ were in Los Angeles and Orange County. In some ways I was heading for a life as a ‘Freeway gypsy.'”

Traveling between studios would pose a challenge, with gas prices and all.

“Los Angeles was more commercial dance, where Orange County had more ballet training schools and Universities.

“After RCC, I got a job playing at Pomona College, which was a part of the Claremont Colleges where I was attending grad school. With RCC’s recommendation, I contacted Orange Coast College, and explained that I was pursuing a career in dance accompaniment. As luck would have it, there was one class available. One class turned to two, three, and substitute teachers took down my name, and word got out that I could play for ballet. Within a year of being in Orange County, I went from playing at one school to four schools!”

2012 happened to be very special! It marked Becca Wong’s 10-year anniversary as a Dance Musician!”

When I asked Becca about the the precise title of her dream profession, she curiously replied that there was no official term. “It ranges from simply ‘Accompanist’ to ‘Dance Musician,’ ‘Dance Accompanist,’ or just ‘Musician.'”

Recently, however, she adopted a new label that she loves. It’s “repetiteur” (In opera, répétiteur is the name given to the person responsible for coaching singers and playing the piano for music and production rehearsals. In dance, the responsibilities involve teaching steps and more)

Becca’s freelance travels have taken her to many sterling venues, though budget cuts have taken a toll.

Still her roster of encounters with the cream of the ballet universe continues to grow.

“I’ve had amazing opportunities working with the American Ballet Theater, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Mark Morris Dance Group, Hubbard Street Dance, and have played for master classes of some current big names in the ballet world like Desmond Richardson (Alvin Ailey, Complexions), Sascha Radetsky (ABT, Film: Center Stage), and Amanda McKerrow (ABT) to name a few. Twelve years ago, watching PBS in Fresno, I’d never have guessed I would be HERE right now!”

Currently, she’s working at Chapman University and Orange County High School of the Arts, while also taking assignments at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

“I play for a lot of master classes and company classes when these pull into town. And while I have a ‘staff’ position, I look at my scheduling and bookings like a freelancer.”

Freeway gypsy again comes to mind as an ample description of Becca’s life that’s often on the road.


I wondered about the ill-maintained pianos that sometimes turn up in the rough and tumble turf of dance venues. About these, Becca waxed philosophical:

“Most of the instruments are hand-me-downs. Because of fluctuations in temperature and moisture (being close to the ocean), and the fact that the piano is on a sprung floor in a dance studio, the pianos NEVER stay tuned. EVER. But you work with what you’re given.”

In the spirit of a true repetiteur she has to make snap accommodations as necessary. That’s the nature of her profession.


Finally, how on earth does a dance musician manage a diverse repertoire of pieces that might need alteration and trimming to conform with a choreographer’s requirements?

Becca rises to the occasion with her remarkable organizing skills:

“I have about 230 pieces of music for ballet technique class on top of the musical theater collection I’ve stored in my iPad.

“A spread sheet lists all the classes I play for with pieces sorted as -Plié-Duple Slow-Duple Moderate-Duple Fast-Frappe-Triple Slow-Triple Mod-Triple Fast-Ronds de Jambe…the list goes on and includes Mazurka/Polonaise, plus even more….

“Every time I play a piece, I mark it for that day so I don’t play it again until all the pieces in the section have been played. Therefore, a specific piece will finally repeat itself in 4-6 weeks. In this way, I don’t bore the dancers and teachers by rehashing the same compositions over and over again.”

Being resourceful, Becca has digitized all her music to keep pace with it.

“I decided early on that it would be best to transcribe my ballet music into the Finale program. In this way I can cut measures and edit them to make them ‘kosher’ for ballet. I also eliminated page turns if possible, since most pieces were 16-32 measures long. If there were page turns, I made sure the last bar in the page had a free hand to turn. I did this to all my ballet music in the course of 3 years, saving every piece of music on Finale, as PDF files. I had hoped that Apple would eventually come up with a way to store all my music, and thankfully, that’s where the miraculous iPad came in.”

With her peak devotion to dance accompanying, brought by fate to be her life’s passion, Becca sings its praises.

“I love what I do and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

About ballet, she avows a cherished place in her heart.

“It’s a discipline that other genres don’t have. All pettiness and drama are left at the door. In ballet, you’re there to dance, to respect the art, and the people who are in it. Above all, there’s a reverence for the teacher, the pianist, and the dancers.”


Becca Wong is pictured with Vladimir Malakhov

From Wikipedia:

“Vladimir Malakhov (born 1968 in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine), was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. In 2004 he became the artistic director and first soloist of the Staatsballett Berlin (Berlin State Ballet) which was newly formed from the ballets of the three public opera houses.

“He began his dance training at the age of four at a small ballet school in that region and remained there until continuing his training at the school of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. From age ten on, he was under the tutelage of Peter Pestov and upon graduation in 1986 joined the Moscow Classical Ballet as that company’s youngest principal dancer.

“In 1992, Malakhov joined the Vienna State Opera Ballet as a principal artist and the National Ballet of Canada in 1994. In the spring of 1995 he had his debut with the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Since that time, he has remained a principal dancer with ABT and has continued to dance principal roles in Vienna as well as the renowned Stuttgart Ballet. Malakhov also appeared quite often as a guest in Berlin where he has recently become Artistic director. His repertory encompasses a wide range of styles from classical ballets to the works of today’s contemporary choreographers.

“Critically acclaimed globally for his artistic lyricism, he has won prestigious awards in his field from competitions in Varna, Moscow and Paris.”


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Aiden Cat Dozes off to Debussy (Video)

Looks like Aiden was out like a light… except for 2 well-timed ear twitches … otherwise, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Arabesque no. 1
Played on my Haddorff console piano (manuf. 1951) a real musical treasure with divine resonance.

Aiden’s awake-time pics:

A Purrr-fect Musical Match Made in Heaven

Aiden Cat Joins Ilyana, 8, at the Haddorff piano

Aiden Cat and Willie Wonka

Aiden and Chopin:

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Should piano students listen to recorded performances of pieces they are first beginning to learn?

I was thinking of Palmer’s edition of Chopin, an Introduction to His Music, and when I first purchased it years ago there was no inserted CD of recorded selections contained in the album.

With subsequent published editions, a CD popped into an envelope, beckoning a player to sample another pianist’s interpretation of music he had just barely sight-read through.

I am here emphasizing the fledgling who is embarking upon a virgin learning process, finding correct notes, counting out beats, piecing out fingering, etc. with a guiding teacher at the helm.

In this regard, I remember telling Claudia, one of my ten-year old students who was feasting on a new journey into the Romantic period, about to study the Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous, NOT to listen to X pianist’s CD sample of the work, not because it might not have been a sterling interpretation, but because it could, in my opinion, stultify her individual, creative, developmental musical process.

An additional reason for my admonition was that I felt listening so quickly to a piece played at performance tempo by a competent pianist, might make the child feel intimidated by a composition she was just beginning to learn. Polished to a high level of performance, it would separate the student from the baby-step approach I would encourage and implement over weeks and months.

One might say, that jumping too quickly into trying to COPY another pianist’s performance, or benefit from exposure to various nuanced interpretations could prevent the pupil from trusting his/her own musical intuition, with the assistance of the piano teacher.

Now I’m sure that I will be barraged by opposing opinions which will have valid arguments at their foundation.

I, for one, can say, that I like to listen/watch performances on You Tube of compositions I have lived with over time, studied in-depth, struggled with on many levels, and put my autograph on as best I can, because after all, we’re all exposed to performances of our pieces through studies with our piano teachers, and on the Internet when we least expect to encounter them.

But I always hesitate to consult another artist’s performance until I’ve fully absorbed a piece on many intricate levels. At that point I feel open to other pianists’ interpretations and ideas. Let’s say that I feel that I can most benefit from these outside musical influences on You Tube, CD, whatever, after I’ve allowed myself an unassisted deep-sea dive into the composition.

Here are a few counter-arguments to my premise that are valid where it even applies to my particular music-learning journey.

1) I’m having difficulty with a passage because of meter complexity or rhythm, and I’m not near a teacher, or have one at the moment.

Why not find a You Tube of Perahia, Richter, et al, playing the piece, and use as the clarifying reference.

2) If I’m a beginning student, or one of intermediate or advanced level, I can resolve the problem with my teacher at lessons. But If I’m advanced enough to have the issue addressed by way of a sample recording in between lessons, why not use an outside resource.

Most of the time with beginners, however, they need the teacher to help them along with the basics of rhythm, articulation, fingering, etc. so You Tubes performances, CDs, DVDs, whatever will usually not do the job.

Therefore, my premise of not being CONDITIONED to another interpretation at the very BEGINNING of a learning experience still holds, though I open myself to this resonating opposition to my thesis:

Well, then, isn’t the piano TEACHER the biggest outside influence upon the student in the artistic shaping of a composition?

Okay, YES, I would have to admit that, but I would NOT sit down and keep playing the whole composition at a polished level, at every lesson while the student was struggling along. That would be the perfect antidote to the pupil’s engagement with the composition. She would feel discouraged before she began to piece out measures at a time.

If I was an empathetic teacher who wanted to advance a student along the path to fluency, I would put myself in the shoes of the pupil, and take the baby steps, one at a time, with her. Over weeks and months, where individual measures led to mastery of phrases, sections, and finally to an absorption of an entire piece, the teacher and student would have been on the same wave-length.

In addition, where interpretation was concerned, I would expect the teacher to have an understanding of performance practice, so that certain choices made by the student could be considered in the context of a musical historical period and the style of the time. (This opens the door to a long-winded polemic about tempos taken, and various turns of the phrase which will be deferred. Two hot topics in one blog are a NO NO!)

So, yes, the teacher’s spin on the piece would have to factor in and be considered in this discussion.

In this connection, one of my basic reservations with the Suzuki method of teaching piano is that at its core, the approach is based upon COPYING THE TEACHER along with ingesting the contents of a CD loaded into the program. A student must be on playback after the teacher delivers a “live” musical sample, supplemented by a recording that is supposed to saturate the student for days and weeks. That is, if the Suzuki method is applied in its purest form.

One could say that a standardized performance is the rule, with deviations at beginner level being discouraged.

On that score alone I am decisively opinionated but open to feedback from students, teachers, and all music lovers.