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Piano Lesson: The challenge of playing a slow movement

I chose Muzio Clementi’s popular Sonatina in C, Op. 36, No. 1 to flesh out the contrasting middle movement designated ANDANTE by the composer. It’s definitely a challenge to play just 6 lines of music with beauty and finesse.

As a start, the player is exposed to realizing rolling triplet 8th-notes in the left hand against a flowing treble melodic line with interspersed trills. These “decorations” or embellishments move rapidly through principal notes lending a shimmer to them. One can choose less repercussions (in 16ths) for the trill or try the alternate group of more notes in 32nds. (Indicated in the score)

I personally believe that more repercussions give the movement a gem-like character in the Classical style. Mozart’s music, for example, sparkles with trills. Why not give Clement the same deference.

The video below offers a step-wise approach to learning the Andante movement. As expected, the rolling forward motion of the wrist helps to phrase the bass and treble. In addition, striking a nice balance between voices is a significant dimension of a satisfying performance.

This movement may have a tendency to drag, but in truth, Andante, if taken literally, comes from the Italian ANDARE, “to walk.” Andante being the gerund, WALKING does not mean lumbering along.

The triplets should therefore, pleasingly move with grace giving support to a fluidly played melody. And between the hand-crossovers of triplets, the ongoing legato must be preserved.

Where parallel 6ths are introduced, one should think of a single melodic tone through each group of three, best illustrated in the instructional footage.

Molto Cantabile (cultivation of the singing tone) is one’s best frame in playing this movement with beauty and refinement.

Playing through in tempo:

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Piano Instruction: Common student problems related to playing Clementi Sonatina, Op. 36, No. 3, Spiritoso (Video)

The student I’m currently teaching by Skype has received a number of supplemental videos from me that target problems universal to those learning Clementi Sonatina, Op. 36, No. 3.

In this video, geared for teachers as well as students, I define areas in the first movement, Spiritoso, that need particular focus for improvement:

As a preliminary, the Classical era Sonatina Form should be explored, fleshing out the EXPOSITION (first and second themes); DEVELOPMENT (devices used that relate to rhythm, and modulation to various keys) RECAPITULATION (return of Theme I and related material in the home key)

In summary:

1) The left hand broken chords that open the composition are usually played vertically and far too loud, detracting from the melody or THEME I (The same issue presents where Theme I is inverted in the Development section, and returns in the Recapitulation)

Remediation: Have the student first “block” out these two-note Left Hand figures with a “spongy” wrist, and then unblock, playing softly with a rocking motion, being attentive to the notes that move. (a flexible wrist is needed)

2) Piece lacks a steady, underlying, cohesive beat. Tempo changes are frequent.

Remediation: DON’T use a metronome. Instead instill a rhythmic consciousness by lifting beats as a conductor beside the student. Sing beats, so they have a phrase context. Subdivide counting using ANDS between beats as necessary.

3) Dynamic range is not wide enough throughout the composition, and Theme II needs a contrast and change in character. Underlying broken chords played in the bass under Theme 2 are too ponderous.

Remediation: Encourage Attentive listening for changes in dynamics; requires deeper in the key weight transfer to lighter application having a relaxed arm, wrist, and elbow. For the broken chord figures in the bass, block with a spongy wrist, and unblock with a rotation of the left hand.

4) Notes are played without awareness of a singing tone. Phrases lack shape.

Remediation: Sing phrases with student, and apply weight transfer to create swells of a line, as well as crescendo and diminuendo, enlisting a supple wrist.

5) Where music has measures of imitation, student overlooks.

Remediation: Focus on these and practice feeding the imitative lines between the hands, framing as a “conversation.”

6) Note values are not observed, giving short shrift to quarter notes, in particular while rests are ignored.

Remediation: Focus on measures where these figures need attention, and count beats aloud with student. Where quarter notes are dropped too early in relation to eighths running through them, single out those measures for extra practice.

7) Articulation and phrasing as noted by the composer are not observed (slurs, legato to staccato figures, etc)

Remediation: Remind student of the composer’s markings in the music and separately practice measures that need clarity.

8) Detached notes, such as those indicated with a staccato marking are clipped too short or come out sounding too heavy with unwanted accents.

Remediation: Work with student on lengthening these, keeping the wrist pliant to avoid crash landings on the keys.

9) Fingering is frequently not observed which impacts phrasing, articulation, etc.

Remediation: Single out measures that need fingering adjustments and practice behind tempo.

10) Trills bog down the flow of the composition, mostly played too slow, and in a tempo that is markedly different from the rest of the piece.

Remediation: Practice a measured trill and have the student focus on the steadiness of the bass notes through pertinent measures.

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/clementi-and-crickets-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/06/18/learning-and-memorizing-clementi-sonatina-in-c-op-36-no-1-mvt-1-video/

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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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Teaching Piano to Teenagers: Classical, Pop, Taylor Swift, Liz on Top of the World and more (Videos)

There’s always room for flexibility in choice of repertoire, especially when teaching teenagers. Alex, 18, had taken lessons during primary school, took a long break and returned to the piano as a senior in high school. His first request was to study “Liz on Top of the World,” by Dario Marianelli from the movie, “Pride and Prejudice.” I felt it was a bit above his head, but I realized it could be a terrific practicing motivator. Alex and I struck a deal. He promised to work on a Classical sonatina (Latour, in C Major), the “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach” and a regimen of scales and arpeggios going around the Circle of Fifths as the mainstay of his piano study. “Liz” would be his dessert piece. The plan worked.

Alex took the camera spotlight as he practiced “Liz on Top of the World” in a methodical way, chunking or grouping notes together in the first section using separate hands. He continued by playing the next part, a soaringly beautiful melodic section with his right hand only as I provided the bass.

The melody played out in such a way that chunking two notes at a time was helpful. (The student learned interval relationships through this approach: clumping harmonic 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths) The bass line in this second section is an ostinato, or repeated, pattern that is easily assimilated. It’s a sequence of redundant broken chords that creates a rolling effect.

Related:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/alex-breaks-the-choke-hold-on-his-scales-on-you-tube/

Allyse, 16, who is Alex’s sister, also returned to the piano after a long hiatus. A junior in high school, she had requested to play “100 Years” by John Ondrasik, and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always.” To balance out her repertoire, she had agreed to work on Menuet en Rondeau by Rameau and simultaneously practice scales/arpeggios in all Major and minor keys.

Here’s a snatch from a lesson with Allyse. This was the dessert following the main menu of classics.

Related:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/10/24/teens-popular-music-then-and-now-taylor-swift-throw-in-five-for-fighting-100-years/

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A Day in El Cerrito and my return to Fresno

An awesome view from my piano studio in the East Bay

At 6:50 a.m. Monday morning, I climbed aboard Amtrak 711, destination Richmond, on the way to my El Cerrito piano studio in the East Bay.

The weekly trip north was a welcome breather from the tedium of Fresno’s blazing hot sun, 90  degree plus temps into the fall season, and an insalubrious haze over the city.

The good news was that once comfortably seated on the train, I completely forgot the Central Valley and looked forward to a ride with my two traveling buddies, Jim and Jose.

Jim, nearing 60, had a cherubic face and an impish smile. A repository of information, he was a web consultant for a well known, top of the line retailer. Often, during the course of our trip, he excused himself for a couple of minutes to complete a status report, or to reply to his boss via instant message. A hearty fellow with an engineering background and flair for technology, he came equipped with an iPhone and a state of the art Toshiba lap top.

If you asked Jim any technical or scientific question, he was an amazing compendium of information, like a traveling Wikipedia.

One time, Jose asked Jim about microwave cooking and if the rays negatively affected a food’s nutritional value, to which Jim gave him a symposium on ionizing radiation and various levels from safe to unsafe, etc. It was equal to a Physics lecture given at an ivy league college.

Jim also liked to banter about the economy. He dispensed his meticulously detailed descriptions of the financial market, speckled with raw data that would add brain convolutions to novices like myself. If Jim got going on California’s economy, he’d advise residents to bail out and run like the dickens to another state.

Jose was a good listener. An economist in his 40s, originally from Venezuela, he worked for a spice company in Northern California. His stay on Amtrak was briefer than Jim’s since he departed at Stockton and took an awaiting bus to Sacramento.

I enjoyed Jose’s international political perspective and his analysis of countries that had stable as well as failing economies. He could be as convincing as Jim in his own area of expertise.

I sat comfortably beside my two traveling companions offering a totally different perspective on life and the cosmos. I imparted the artistic side of life: a universe of practicing, teaching, and recording.

Jose had informed us that he was going to Paris on business the following Monday and wouldn’t be back on Board Amtrak 711 for two weeks. I felt of a twinge of disappointment because our table would be whittled down to two.

I departed the train at the Richmond station where I hopped over to Bart, going one stop to El Cerrito Del Norte. My studio, within walking distance, was about half way up into the El Cerrito Hills. Homes at the very top overlooked the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. From my more modest studio, well below the peak, I still appreciated a breathtaking landscape as beautiful as a painting with hills and terraced homes.

Before I had officially started lessons in the early afternoon I always took a scenic, steep walk into these very same hills, and then wound my way down to the Ohlone walk way under Bart on my way to the El Cerrito Library. An hour later, after a stop at Subway for a veggie burger I would meander back to the studio for a lesson plan review.

My Bay area students were mostly kids at beginning and intermediate levels. The last lesson, ending at 9 p.m. was with a retired business professional who has an affinity for world wide travel. An eager learner she practiced intensely when she could, though her time at the piano was sparing.

The pieces I’d been teaching up north were Minuets and Sonatinas from the Classical era; a Baroque Rondeau, and some ragtime music by Scott Joplin. The beginners were journeying happily through their Primer Faber Piano Adventures learning the basic symbols and notation of music while the older students enjoyed the works of Bach, Rameau, Mozart, and Latour, a classical era composer.

When lessons were over well past 9 p.m. I had set my alarm clock for a Tuesday departure, regretting the trip back to Fresno where I would be greeted by stifling heat. The ride home would also feel longer without Jim and Jose, as companions. But there was always the chance I would run into someone to strike up a conversation with.

And it happened. As I sat in the dining car munching on a fruit and nut bar, I overheard a woman chatting about her self made “guitar” earrings. I soon learned that she had hand crafted her adornments from guitar picks, painted them and added some fancy attachments.

Before long, I began telling her about myself and the piano and she, in turn, shared her life story. The journey home was definitely quicker than expected.

Before I knew it, I was back in Fresno, with four students on the roster for the late afternoon. Since a few were preparing for an October 30th recital, I thought about you tubing performances as practice motivators. Kabalevky’s “Clowns,” would be a great shoot. A very colorful, short programmatic piece with a circus like backdrop, it had droll harmonies and appealing dissonances.

The next few weeks would be packed with rehearsals, which made life a nice, creative adventure.

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Musings of a Piano Teacher

I often think how blessed I am to live a life permeated with music and to make my living doing what I love. There’s no alarm clock set the night before a business day to catch a bus or subway to an official work site, except when I travel by Amtrak each Monday from Fresno to my El Cerrito piano studio.

Once aboard the 711 bound for Oakland, I sit at a table with two other travelers who are in the economics and engineering fields. The three of us slowly but surely bonded together after chance meetings and impromptu conversations on the train platform.  I was just thinking, if I were back in New York City where I was born and raised, a one way subway trip to mid Manhattan might produce a long-lasting friendship after a profoundly intimate conversation between strangers. That’s how I remembered the Big Apple.

I used to take the IRT train from West 225th Street in the Bronx to  the heart of Times Square where my high school was located. Imagine landing a few blocks from where the ball is dropped every year, with Broadway lit, glittering marquees guiding you from block to block. It was quite an experience but not as illuminating at 7:30 a.m. with the lights dimmed, about a half hour before classes began at the New York City High School of Performing Arts known as FAME . (My days at “P.A.” are worth a zillion blogs that I will create  in time)
***
So now it’s Sunday and I’m psychologically packing my bag for the Bay area trip. By the end of the day, I will have practiced the Chopin Black Key Etude, a Schubert Impromptu in Gb Major, “Butterfly,” a lyric piece by Grieg,  a set of Bach Inventions and then I’ll continue poring over Chopin’s Etude Op. 25 no. 9

If time permits, I might sandwich in a You Tube posting and become a slave to the camcorder and computer for a couple of hours. This singular, nerve grinding activity is tentatively planned, depending on neighborhood noise levels, and the flight plan in the infinite space above my Fresno townhouse.

When 8 p.m.  rolls around, I’ll tuck my lesson plans into my small luggage carrier, plus all the music I’m working on, not forgetting the colorful stickers my beginners anticipate and the Wright Way Note Finder that charmingly cranks notes up and down the staff. The kids love it!

And I, too, love my students, and this perpetual musical journey that takes off the moment I awake and is recorded in time, space, mp3, video and prose.  Just now I’m getting used to the world of cyber, its fancy technology and innovation. I would never have dreamed of this transformed, computerized universe as I trekked from the Marble Hill Projects in the Bronx to the subway station overlooking the Hudson. In those days, there were no cell phones, iPods, or iPads.

I’m open to new things. It makes life interesting.