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Growing piano technique in baby steps: Rina, 5, advances to hands together five-finger positions (adding in 10ths)

Rina may not know the words “pentascales” and “tenths,” but she has the intelligence to notice when her fingers move up and down together, playing the same notes an “octave” apart. With a sound knowledge of the music alphabet in both directions, she has good cognitive reinforcement. (She also knows “running notes” or 8ths, “long sounds”–half notes, “short sounds”– quarters, and “half-note dot” is a dotted-half note.)

But note-name recognition and having a concept of rhythmic values are just part of the learning process. She needs to cultivate the singing tone wedded to limpid phrasing–a dimension of playing we’ve explored from day one embracing Irina Gorin’s Tales of a Music Journey philosophy.

In this regard, Rina is working on softening the impact of her thumbs, so she can nicely roll into her LEGATO five-finger positions and smoothly taper them. (LEGATO means smooth and connected, finger-to-finger)

She has progressed from having played each hand alone through five notes ascending and descending, in a “conversational” way, to synchronizing both hands at the same time in parallel motion.

She also creates an “echo” effect on a repeat and we make sure to include the parallel minor in her playings. (Black notes also belong to the keyboard family)

Next, I thought to introduce a bit of “magic.”

How about starting the Right Hand on E while the Left Hand remained on bass C. (still five notes up and down but spaced in 10ths)

Rina took to it like a duck in water especially with an enticing harmonic landscape.

Here are two snatches from her lesson, starting with the first (both hands playing same notes in legato)

In the second video, she plays in 10ths:

Our next piece is “Little March” by Daniel Gottlob Turk. This follows Minuet by Reinagle of which Rina is separately studying the bass part. In addition she’s rendering it in the “minor,” enlisting a “B flat.” (She performed the melody on our recent Spring Recital) The Reinagle piece came with its own new landmark: Rina played detached and legato notes in one selection.

I’ve prepared a video to assist mom with ear-training experiences for “Little March” during the week. Rina will be saturated with listening; doing hand signals for melodic shape; singing notes and then rhythms. (phrase one) This is the first stage of her learning process.

***

LINK:

Rina plays at the Spring Recital


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/rina-5-performs-at-our-spring-recital-after-8-months-of-piano-lessons-video/

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Scouting a Piano Teacher

I have to thank “Lisa” for generating this idea for a new blog. Sometimes, the fountain runs dry until a student experience, teacher-related crisis, or musical event renew the supply.

Let me think about this whole issue of picking and choosing the “right” piano teacher. (Applies to adult student-seekers as well)

Hmm… I probably covered the emotion-packed farewells, but gave short shrift to the preliminaries of finding these instructors in the first place so perhaps I should amplify my journey and what I learned from it.

My very first piano teacher, already critiqued in another blog, was on faculty at the “progressive” music school in the Bronx, off Kingsbridge Road. So there was little if any choice in the selection. She came with the program.

Mrs. Vinagradov was kind, caring, encouraging, and knew how to play the Diller-Quaille accompaniments to my two-note melodies without missing a beat. That was what I needed as a primer level, six-year old student.

If I had to advise a mom about picking out the very important FIRST teacher for a child, I would say, look for the right “chemistry” as well as musical competency and sensitivity. One would not expect the initial beginning instructor to be a virtuoso, or even one approximating. COMMUNICATION skills should stand out as the clincher decision maker along with knowledge of beginning materials. The teacher should lay out her philosophy, course of teaching including theory, and a schedule of student recitals. I would hope she has a Bachelor’s Degree in Music or the equivalent in teaching experience/ professional study. (By the way, If a JAZZ teacher is sought, be clear about the skills of a particular instructor as it applies to a desired course of instruction. Better to know the teacher’s leanings, abilities in this direction before you go further)

My second mentor, also part and parcel of house faculty at the Bronx location, was a strict Classicist, holy terror and rhythmic foot-pounder. Needless to say, I had to run like the plague and find a more civilized replacement.

The next stop on W. 103 St. off-Broadway, didn’t produce anything much better, though this prospect was a nicer human being all the way around and played quite well. As previously mentioned in another writing, she couldn’t figure out a systematic, step-wise way to impart musical knowledge and gave me pieces way over my head that nearly triggered a nervous breakdown! Kaput, finished!

For the advancing student, a teacher who knows the piano literature, can play the great works with skill, nuance, sensitivity, and be able to communicate the many dimensions of the music including structural/theoretical, is one who should be in the running.

But these criteria may not be enough. The first reality check involves finding out if this individual will live up to his or her printed resume. It could be crowded with every public performance he or she has ever given, dating back to age 6. Or the CV may list a horde of Degrees, Masterclass appearances, and students who went on to world-renowned competitions. It could be a drop in the bucket if the one-to-one interaction between a prospective teacher and student doesn’t make the grade.

This speaks to the necessity of having the in-person appointment scheduled to try out the teacher as with any “product.” Oops I didn’t mean to say that, or to demean the entire community of bespectacled piano teachers. (I wear glasses, too) And none of us are products or commodities.

Finally, it would be wonderful if the very first teacher was the ONE who stayed on as the permanent musical fixture in our lives. But such rarely happens in the scheme of things due to life transitions, relocation, divorce, death and the rest, though there have been exceptions.

The great pianist, Murray Perahia, a musical poet of his generation studied with Jeannette Haien from age 3 to 18, which brings up the subject of when a youngster should begin individualized piano lessons, covered in another blog. But just a passing word. If you want a Suzuki teacher, who teaches by rote and not by written notes on the staff, you can consider observing this approach as compared to more traditional ones. But at least you should know your options. In that arena, read up on instructional philosophies by going to the library, checking the Internet, etc. (Be aware that most Suzuki teachers require the parent(s) to be very involved in assisting their children with learning and practicing from week to week) In most cases they sit beside their children while lessons are conducted and must thoroughly absorb the material. (cross reference, http://elcerrito.patch.com/blog_posts/the-suzuki-piano-method-pros-and-cons)

To summarize, try out any number of teachers for size and see how the relationship “feels” and goes. Look for substance, an organized curriculum, (having room for elasticity) and a love of teaching.

If your community has a Music Teachers Association like MTAC in California or MTNA (a national group) shorten the list of prospects by reading through any number of bios that might draw your attention.

Talk to other parents in your local school, church, recreation center, etc. and ask about what piano teachers they have engaged for lessons. See if the same name turns up over and again. If so, make it your business to attend one or more of these individual’s planned recitals and listen carefully to the quality of the performances. Observe the overall mood at the gathering and take note of the teacher’s presence; how he/she relates to performing students before and after their appearances.

If there’s a conservatory, university or community college with a music department in your city, scope out the chairperson, or write to him/her for a possible teacher recommendation. While in-house faculty may or may not give private lessons, an administrator might provide referrals to other teachers. In this regard, keep an eye out for public performances of musicians who live in your area and may be teaching privately. Internet and newspaper listings might assist your search.

Finally, if your child or teenager is very advanced and needs a top of the line teacher who can notch him up a rung on the musical ladder, attend the local competitions sponsored by the music teacher association in your area and see what instructors have students who were finalists and won prizes.

Listen for the interwoven musical sensitivity and technical skills of the performers.

Dare I mention business practices in the same breath with instructional competency? Obtain a copy of the teacher’s studio policies that should include the payment schedule, lesson cancellations and make-up practices. Be clear about what is expected on the $$ end of the deal. You don’t want any surprises late into the instructional phase.

Recommended Websites:

Music Teachers National Association:

http://mtna.org

Music Teachers Association of California:

http://www.mtac.org

Facebook: Piano Teachers Directory

RELATED BLOGS:

The Neighborhood Piano Teacher Lives On:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/the-neighborhood-piano-teacher-lives-on/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/22/the-right-age-to-start-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/23/the-joy-of-teaching-piano-to-young-children-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/the-joy-and-value-of-teaching-a-piano-student-over-many-years/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/piano-lessons-the-two-way-learning-process-teaching-albertina-and-her-sister-ilyana/

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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] …psychservices.psychiatryonline.org/content/vol26/issue7/

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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Why Play Scales?

Scale practicing examples:

***
The Backdrop:

As a young piano student living in New York City, I remember my reluctance to prepare a mandatory scale each week for my lesson. In fact my first teacher had so many students, she always seemed to forget the scale she had assigned to me, so I remained happily in the key of C for most of the year. (Played on all white keys) Little did I know that C Major was a lot more challenging to practice than the keys of B, F# and C# Major that had nice, regular patterns of double and triple black notes that fit the longer fingers perfectly, with the thumbs meeting in between.

Frederic Chopin was known to teach these three black-key scales before all others. Think about how much easier it would have been for a sightless person to play these step-wise passages with braille-like elevated black notes in regular patterns, as opposed to a sea of white notes without reference points.

Now that I’ve grown up to be a piano teacher and you tube poster, I realize the importance of scale study in the growth and development of musicianship.

Scales are about the “feel” and geography of the keyboard. They are about shaping, phrasing, sculpting. Sometimes they’re practiced with catchy rhythms, crisp and detached (staccato) or as smooth and connected, freely spun out, rolling triplets. You can even reverse the direction of the fingers when practicing scales, having them lightheartedly dance together and apart, in shades of loud, soft, and in between. And you might bring out one voice over another, by drawing more intensity from the left hand, then reversing the process, giving the right hand its place in the sun.

Most importantly, scales help us understand where we are in a piece of music because they define the TONAL CENTER of a composition or a section of it.

I wish I had known about the famous Circle of Fifths when I was beginning my piano studies. The Circle maps out the progression of scales (Major and minor) in an orderly fashion with sharps acquired going clockwise, and flats in reverse. As a student moves from the Key of C, to G, to D, to A, etc. he/she learns not only the new sharp that is picked up in the clockwise journey but comes face to face with fingering adjustments that make the smooth playing of various scales more attainable.

Scales, in summary, are part and parcel of piano study and they feed in and out of the piano repertoire. What could be a better entree to the pieces we most cherish than to find the key they’re in, and dance through a few preliminaries.

Example of a Classical era Sonata by Mozart (first movement) permeated by a series of scales.

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Piano Lesson: Step by step Diminished 7th arpeggio warm-up with a 10 yr. old student

I previously discussed diminished 7th chords and how they are constructed as an introduction to an actual warm-up routine. The missing ingredient was the student:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/piano-instruction-playing-diminished-7th-chords-and-arpeggios-video/

In this video, a ten year old pupil fills the bill, romping over the keyboard, joining in a scintillating choreography with her teacher:

Diminished 7th arpeggio sampled: G# B D F

1)Played in open position with resolutions to MAJOR and parallel minor chords
LH–5,3,2,1 RH 1, 2, 3, 5
Parallel and contrary motion routines.

2)Practiced across the keyboard in parallel motion with rhythmic build-up:
G#,B,D,F etc

RH 2 1 2 3 4 etc Arpeggio ends in RH with finger 4
LH 4 3 2 1 4 Arpeggio ends in LH with finger 3 (or optional, 2)

quarters, 3 octaves legato=smooth and connected
8th notes, 3 octaves legato
16th notes 4 octaves legato
staccato 16ths, loud and soft

Advanced students might add 32nds, legato/staccato

Next played in 10ths
Left Hand remains in root position starting on G#
4, 3, 2, 1, 4 etc.
Right Hand starts on B–finger no. 1

B D F G# B etc.
1 2 3 4 1 At the end of arpeggio RH has open position fingers: 1,2,3,4,5
B D F G# B

Same rhythmic build-up applies as in root position, parallel motion

Advanced students can add 32nds, legato/staccato

Dynamics can vary according to instructor’s direction.
Advise lighter approach on faster note values.

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/piano-instruction-five-finger-warm-ups-in-major-and-minor-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/piano-gym-routines-with-my-10-year-old-student/

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Piano Lessons: The Two-Way Learning Process, Teaching Albertina, and her sister, Ilyana

First Lesson: “Flamenco” by Gillock (Early Intermediate Level)


Student: Albertina, age 10

This is a teacher/student musical exploration with the use of the second piano at the studio

The second piano provides a unique opportunity to share back and forth, provide rhythmic reinforcement when needed, and remind the student about what dynamics, phrase markings, legato, staccato articulations, etc. are noted in the music. As this particular lesson progressed over a 45 minute time span, the student had more opportunities to play the piece on her own and then to improve specific measures and phrases. She gained insights about the overall structure of the composition, its peak, contrasting middle section, and the requirement for an energetic and convincing accelerando (getting faster) with increased dynamic intensity to the end. The Latin flavor of the piece and its mood character, were important frames in the development of its interpretation.

With any teaching videos that have instructional footage of students, I require a parental signed release.

This piece is being prepared for an MTAC Festival recital planned for March 2011.

The Two Way Learning Process

I’m always grateful to my students for providing a lens into the music making process, and for creating mirror like images that benefit the teacher and pupil alike. From my perspective, sitting at the second piano, I can easily observe the movements, phrasing, articulation, comportment of the student as he or she plays, and then carefully examine what can be fine tuned and improved.

When I demonstrate a phrase for a student, the process is reversed, and he/she revisits a composition with some of my suggestions, but by no means is there a finality of interpretation. (Which doesn’t exist in the world of musical art) Learning is incremental and there are a diversity of ideas to be exchanged back and forth. These are the two way mirrors of learning and development.

Second Lesson: Ilyana plays Bastien’s “Taco Joe” (Level 1)

Ilyana, age 8, is a second year piano student and her older sister, Albertina has been studying with me for about two years longer. She is the student in the video, “Flamenco” by Gillock.

“Taco Joe” was a great treat piece for Ilyana. It was used to supplement Faber Piano Adventures. I liked the catchy Latin dance rhythm and the changes of register with contrasting dynamics. This particular sheet music solo turned out to be a real practicing motivator.

As learning played out in stages, Ilyana planned to perform “Taco Joe” at the Celebration Music Festival sponsored by MTAC in March. She had already played the piece at the Fall MTAC event, 2010, that was held at Fresno Piano.

Ilyana was very excited about making this videotape and her parents were also thrilled.

The use of the You Tube medium can advance teaching, reinforce learning, and help set learning goals.

Related blogs/videos
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/23/the-joy-of-teaching-piano-to-young-children-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/22/the-right-age-to-start-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/piano-instruction-five-finger-warm-ups-in-major-and-minor-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/more-piano-teaching-favorites-burgmullers-25-progressive-pieces-op-100/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/piano-instruction-tarentelle-by-burgmuller-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/31/piano-technique-related-videos/

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More piano teaching favorites: Burgmuller’s 25 Progressive Pieces, op. 100

Burgmuller, a German composer living in France during the Romantic era composed these delightful programmatic pieces in order of “progressive” difficulty; I’ve chosen 3 favorites to showcase: “Arabesque,” “La Chasse” (The Chase) and “L’Harmonie des Anges” (Harmony of the Angels)

Arabesque (“beautiful decoration”) is a sprightly, fast paced miniature in “A” minor, that basically utilizes an open hand position. There is just one shift of the thumb under other fingers, in the “A” section. The challenge is to observe punctuated accents and learn to shift the 16th notes from right hand to left hand with as much facility as possible. The piece whizzes by so fast that it’s easy to forget the precise phrasing, articulation of notes, etc. The best approach is always exaggerated slow practicing with attention to detail until the student is able to pace himself at a faster tempo and not lose sight of Burgmuller’s phrase marks, dynamics, accents, etc.

The Chase: This is a hunting song in C Major, with a punctuated chordal Introduction followed by three distinct sections. The “A” section is tricky to master, because the composer has triplet staccato figures over legato, dotted quarter length chord progressions that emulate the hunting horn motif. (harmonic sixth, fifth, third) Hands should be separated in slow motion before playing “up to tempo” is undertaken.

The “B” section is in G Major (the Dominant key) and is less technically challenging as compared to part “A” Once again, slow and steady practicing always helps in the overall learning process.

The “A” section then returns before a distinctly contrasting “C” section begins.
This is a beautifully spun out part of the compositions, with broken chords in the left hand over a gorgeous lyrical minor (sad) melody in the right hand. This is a good opportunity to block the left hand chords alone as a preliminary, and then play the melody over these chords, before the chords are broken as written.

Finally the “A” section returns again with an added Coda concluding the piece.

“Harmony of the Angels” strikes a real contrast to the preceding two pieces from Burgmuller’s collection. It is totally spun out broken chords crossing from hand to hand, and should be seamlessly played if at all possible. A supple wrist, and rotating hands will assist in the communication of a limpidly flowing melodic line.

What a simply heavenly composition this is, and a nice one to conclude with.