"Tales of a Musical Journey", "Tales of a Musical Journey" by Irina Gorin, blog, blogger, blogging, blogs about piano, classissima, classissima.com, creative learning environment, cultivating the singing tone at the piano, how to help children compose, Irina Gorin, Irina Gorin piano studio, learning piano, mindful piano practicing, mindful practicing, MTAC, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, pianist, piano, piano addict, piano instruction, piano instructor, piano lesson, piano lessons, piano pedagogy, piano playing and relaxation, piano practicing, piano repertoire, Piano Street, piano teacher, piano teaching, piano teaching repertoire, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, studying piano, Teach Street, teaching piano, teaching piano to children, word press, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

Rina, 4, brings a toy piano to her lesson; creates her own rhythm; and learns A and B; (7th week of instruction using Tales of a Musical Journey) 5 videos

Rina surprised me by bringing her precious mini-purple plastic piano that played a salsa rhythm style piece with very fast notes. It was gratifying to watch her spontaneously point to the “big” and “little houses” on her tiny keyboard that comprise “neighborhoods” or “octaves” in Tales of a Musical Journey. This preceded her relaxation movements to Burgmuller’s “Harmony of the Angels.”

Part one:

Part 2:

We followed our opener with rhythmic activities using cardboard back and white circles. Rina clapped short and long sounds to verses, two of which were brought to me in Spanish and French.

Part 3:

Rina then created her own unique rhythm by arranging the black and white cardboard circles in a desired order on the music rack:

Part 4:

Rina learned “A” and tapped it to a melody:

Part 5:

Rina learned “B” and tapped it to a melody

These were videotaped excerpts from Rina’s 30-minute lesson. For all her tapping note experiences she played right and left hand separately in different registers of the piano.



"Tales of a Musical Journey", "Tales of a Musical Journey" by Irina Gorin, blog, blogger, blogging, Children's pieces, classissima, classissima.com, creative learning environment, ear training, piano lesson, piano lessons, Piano Street, piano student, piano teacher, piano teaching, piano teaching repertoire, pianoaddict.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, playing piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, slow mindful practicing, slow piano practicing, talkclassical.com, Teach Street, teaching piano, teaching piano to children, word press, wordpress.com

Thoughts about teaching a 4-year old with an innovative approach (Tales of a Musical Journey)

I would never have entertained the idea of teaching a 4-year old child. Over the years I had adhered to a rigid age boundary when accepting new piano students. Seven was the magic number.

When an opportunity arose to sample a new book created by Irina Gorin that focused on instruction for children in the 4-7 year old age range, I decided to embark on the journey with an open mind. It just so happened that my Amtrak traveling companion had a very young daughter who’d been enrolled in Music Together classes for about two years. The opportunity to harness some of these music appreciation experiences and expand upon them in a piano lesson framework was inviting.

With only four lessons now completed, I haven’t yet formed a conclusive opinion about the whole book and its merits, but so far I’m very pleased with its baby-step approach that would likely benefit students even older than 7 or 8.

And as far as measuring the attention span of a 4-year old coming for weekly lessons, I think two shorter ones spaced by a few days would be a better fit. It would permit goal-reaching without putting strain on a young child’s patience.

The Instruction:

Gorin presents her book as “a complete piano method that comprehensively introduces and reinforces the materials through technique training, theory practice, and performance repertoire.” One of her motivations for creating this instruction was a response to commercially circulated method books that separate out Lesson, Performance, Theory and Technique aspects of learning.

In my experience the more popular methods on the market tend to feed too much information with inadequate focus on the singing tone and how to physically produce it. Too many skills are expected to be mastered in short order as these books advance along.

Randall and Nancy Faber’s Primer Piano Adventures:

An enticing Lesson book opener like the “Pecking Hen” has the student hopping from middle C to the very highest note on the piano, using fingers 3 and 1 shaped like the animal image. Following this brief but charming keyboard escapade on white keys, two and three black-key groups are cleverly introduced with poetic verses underlying them. (Pictures of an attenuated keyboard are good reference points, and I like the word and music combination) But I have doubts that a fledgling is ready for this advance without a better physical foundation that requires rehearsing individual fingers over a relaxed space of time and practicing supple wrist movements and flowing arms. This visceral practicing phase bridges the distance between the player and the hammers inside the piano that hit the string.

By the time Faber’s method book exposure to black-note miniatures is exhausted in the very beginning pages, (and there are some lovely pieces, like “Shepherd’s Flute and “Wind in the Trees,”) it’s off to the white notes with a saturation of “Middle C” and “C positions.”

Through this crutch-burdened keyboard terrain, I often wonder how a beginning student of 7 or 8 can journey from point A, to B to C without a hands-on serving of the physical approach to tone, timbre, and rhythm parceled out in teaspoonfuls.

Tales of A Musical Journey, Book One, has a different premise. There’s no race to meet a goal on a fixed schedule. A teacher might spend lesson after lesson working on the flow of hands from lap to keyboard; making smooth, graceful “rainbow” movements between high and low areas of the piano, or eventually traveling from little houses to big ones (“neighborhoods” of two and three-black note rooftops with their white note rooms below) All these excursions occur in the Magical Kingdom of Sounds and Rhythm with King Meter, Fairy Musicalina, and Wizard Metronome presiding in a helpful way. These colorful characters stimulate a child’s imagination. If you add in movement exercises that invite a “weeping willow tree” and soaring eagle into the space of 4 or 5-year old, then you have built-in body relaxers.

For naming notes, the young student places animals inside one of two pictured houses: C for Cat, D for Deer, and E for Eagle go into smaller one, and F, G, A, and B, also named for animals are placed into the larger one. As the child finds these notes on the piano, he becomes aware of landing on keys without a forced poke or attack. (The “weeping willow tree” image softens impact)

Progress, therefore, is not measured by how quickly a student can sit down and pump out a collection of songs. To the contrary, a student’s developing consciousness of the piano as a singing instrument and his flowing wrist and arm motions are considered valued achievements.


These accouterments included in the instruction packet are very appealing.

What child would not like a fuzzy, purple monkey attached to his wrist to swing with the breezes, (teaching relaxed elbow movements) or two soft, happy face, soft and spongy balls that are inserted into tiny palms as reminders of a gentle, round hand position. Rina’s eyes always light up when she has contact with them.

In time, the Musical Journey student will embrace cardboard black notes and other teaching aids in readiness for notation. Yet, there’s no rush to “read” the notes on the staff until a student has a firm mastery of note letter names, C, D, E, F, G, A, B from his little/big house explorations, and lots of practice traversing the keyboard.

Limited goals, achieved over time, in baby steps, pace this “Journey” which aims to promote long-lasting effects.

About Rhythm

Irina Gorin enlists “Wizard the Metronome” to fine tune rhythmic consciousness, and in this pursuit, she includes an attached CD of recorded selections that have beat ticking reminders. While in the past I haven’t used the metronome in my teaching except as a tempo consultant, I plan to reserve a firm opinion about its more frequent use in Tales of a Musical Journey.

For now, Rina seems to enjoy tapping C’s to a ticking “Flute and Orchestra Selection.” It’s her first piece, so she’s very excited.

More to come!



creative learning environment, developing sight-reading skills as an aid to memorization, El Cerrito, El Cerrito California, El Cerrito piano studio, Fresno California, harmonic analysis, improving sight reading skills, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, keyboard technique, Lillian Freundlich, Major and minor scales, memorizing piano music, mental imagery, Mildred Portney Chase, mind body connection, MTAC, muscular memory, music, music and heart, music and the breath, music memorization, music teachers association of california, musical phrasing, New York City High School of Performing Arts, New York University, Oberlin, Oberlin Conservatory, Old Fig Garden in Fresno, phrasing at the piano, pianist, piano, piano instruction, piano instructor, piano lesson, piano lessons, piano pedagogy, piano practicing, piano student, piano teacher, piano teaching repertoire, piano technique, piano tutorial, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, playing piano, publishers marketplace, Rondo form, self-analysis, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway M grand piano, talkclassical.com, Teach Street, teaching piano, teaching piano scales, teaching scales, technique, Theory, Uncategorized, whole body music listening, word press, wordpress.com

Memorization at the piano: How to improve your skills

Memorization should be a natural outflow of consistent, thoughtful practicing. Thoughtful is underscored because it’s the most important ingredient in the process of playing a studied piece without music. It means having mental assists that relate to mapping out a particular composition without chance reliance on intuition or instinct. So if you suddenly find yourself lost in a piece without having your music propped up on the rack, your mapped sense of it, should re-orient you.

What do you map during practice sessions?

1) Start by knowing what key the piece is in. (this presupposes an understanding of how scales move on the Circle of Fifths, acquiring Sharps in Clock-wise motion, and Flats in Counter-clockwise motion)

But even if your knowledge of the Circle is scant, you can still “know” that your Sonatina, Prelude, or popular music are in individual keys with so many sharps or flats. (You would have to differentiate Major from minor, by “listening” to the piece, and noticing where it comes to rest in the last measure: final cadence) Having a deeper knowledge base related to Major and minor scales; various forms of the minor, and how they are constructed are even better organizers, but whatever level of key awareness you can muster, is better than none.

Go over the scale of the Major or minor key the piece is in. Play one octave up and down, feeling the physical terrain, with designated sharps and flats.

Do you notice that the piece changes key at any point(s) in the music? You might observe a NEW inserted key signature along the way. MAKE note of it, and play out the scale of the NEW key. Write the KEY name into your music.

If there are any scale passages in the music, make a written reference, and see if you can chunk or group the notes, through which the thumb passes or shifts. (Cluster the finger “tunnels” and move the thumb deftly through them) This should imprint how the passage “feels” along with your having a cognitive awareness of its name.

2) Map Phrases

Are there any that repeat exactly as they first appeared in the music?

If, yes, make a mental and written note of it. You might CIRCLE phrases that repeat.

What about those that are nearly the same but deviate in some way?

Tab these mentally, and circle the part of the phrase or phrases that are different. You should play the two phrases, side- by-side, to experience the change.

What about the interval content of a phrase or phrases? Do you see a pattern of skips or steps going up or down? Fourths, fifths, sixths?

Are there any broken chord figures in the melody? Arpeggios? Note and PLAY through these passages.

Do you observe melodic sequences, where a particular phrase sounds the same on a repeat except that it’s played higher or lower on a different key level? If so, insert the word SEQUENCE into your music and physically experience the change over and again with this simultaneous cognitive awareness. (Label the key transition)

3) Map out Fingerings. Use a practical fingering in your practicing. Hopefully, the editor will have provided a good one throughout the score.

For some players, their memory box assists are only based on retrieval of fingerings, so when push comes to shove, having a smooth, facile fingering may keep a piece from falling apart with or without music.

Sometimes fingerings that are designated in the music provide an occasional bonus for the player. Where 2’s might meet in both hands on the way to a cadence, it’s like a painting by numbers giveaway that holds the piece together where it would otherwise not make it to the final cadence. Look for these finger symmetries including instances of MIRROR or reciprocal fingerings between the hands, and practice pertinent phrases and passages.

4) Map Form
After you’ve read through your piece for the first or second time, getting a sense of its melodic landscape before delving into the vertical dimension, make note of its over-all form. Is there a big A section, followed by a different sounding Middle Section (B) followed by a return to the A? Is there anything else going on, like an added ending or Coda? Be sure to write in these section (Letter) designations within your music as these are important music organizers that aid learning and memory.

In addition, notice where the piece PEAKS or comes to a climax. Was there a KEY CHANGE? (How about a shift in dynamics?) Take note and insert in your score.

If your piece is in Rondo Form, it may follow the scheme: A B A C A D A etc.
Knowing what rondo form is, and applying it to your music, if pertinent, is another important organizer that aids memorization.

When it comes to Inventions, Fugues, etc. knowledge of form is critical to learning and memorization. Knowing subjects, counter-subjects, episodes, etc. requires an understanding of the musical period and compositional practices, etc. This is a level of memorization that belongs to the advanced realm of piano study.

Part of form is noting the movement of voices between treble and bass. Do these move in Parallel motion in parts pf the piece, or in Contrary motion?(opposite directions) Notate what you observe and play through these sections.

5) Map Harmonies
Here we get to a more sophisticated analysis of a piece of music that aids learning and memory. If you’re playing a pop piece, you might see guitar based identities of chords like C7, G, G min, A dim. etc above the treble staff, or there might be inserted Roman numerals.

These assists are only as valuable as your understanding of chord building, or better yet, the relationships between chords as they originate from Scales in all Keys. Otherwise, you might fall into a formula-based track, which is all well and good if you can learn how to grab these chords with a degree of fluency.

In the Classical repertoire, you won’t see these harmonic tabs, but you would do well to analyze the harmonic flow of your piece with the help of your teacher or a Theory workbook. (I recommend Keith Snell’s series)

The depth of your learning process will relate to the time and effort you spend studying theory/harmony alongside your daily practicing. It will enrich your learning, provide more valuable LANDMARKS, and give you a better map of what you are playing.

Under Map harmonies, you will note the MODULATIONS where the composition moves into different tonal centers or KEYS. Or you can become aware of Harmonic SEQUENCES with the same harmonic outline or progression on a different KEY Level.

This journey into various tonal realms should be notated in the music, and mentally absorbed. PLAYING and KNOWING what is transpiring on a tonal level, will firmly lay the foundation you need to learn on a deep level and to naturally memorize as the outcome of your thoughtful practicing.

Part and parcel of tracking harmonies, is observing the bass pattern, whether broken chords in sections, or ostinato ( a repeated bass pattern)

Ostinati, are great organizers because they repeat over and again throughout a composition. (You will find an Ostinato in Pachelbel’s Canon)

6) Map Dynamics. While dynamics may not help with note retrieval during a memory lapse, or give harmonic context to your piece, it will certainly be an ingredient in polishing your fully memorized performance. Circle any ECHO phrases–from Forte to piano, where they occur in your music, and make note of where the CLIMAX of the piece occurs. It may have an elevated dynamic. (Climax designation is also part of Mapping FORM)

The Climax may also have a poignant KEY CHANGE, so indicate it in your score.

In summary, any learning aids related to phrasing, fingering, form and harmonic analysis are valuable when it comes to memorizing your pieces.

But underlying this whole process, is a non-judgmental, self-accepting attitude. Getting tensed up, not breathing natural, relaxed deep breaths– grabbing notes like there’s no tomorrow will not advance learning or memorization. So reserve a part of the day for your practicing that is free from interruption. Enjoy the time spent with your music and savor its beauty.


Of special importance: Knowledge of Solfege and its application to learning, and subsequent memorization:


I will be posting videos that flesh out these aids to memorization.



"Of Foreign Lands and Peoples" by Schumann, California, classissima, classissima.com, Creative Fresno, creative learning environment, Fresno, Fresno California, mind body connection, MTAC, muscular memory, music and heart, music teachers association of california, music video, New York City High School of Performing Arts, New York University, Oberlin Conservatory, pianist, piano, piano addict, piano instruction, piano instructor, piano lesson, piano lessons, piano pedagogy, piano practicing, piano society, Piano Street, piano studio, piano teacher, piano tutorial, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, playing piano, publishers marketplace, publishersmarketplace, publishersmarketplace.com, Robert Schumann, Romantic era music, Romantic music, Schumann, Schumann Kinderszenen, self-analysis, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway and Sons, Steinway grand piano, Steinway M grand piano, talkclassical.com, Teach Street, teaching piano, uk-piano-forums, videotaped replay, whole body music listening, word press, you tube, you tube video

Piano Practicing: Re-doing and Refining

Studying piano, playing through the great piano literature, requires revisiting, re-doing and refining our work. This undertaking should not carry a value judgment that what preceded was poor or inadequate. Those adjectives do not belong to the process of learning. After all, we do not fault babies for crawling before walking because we realize it’s the natural flow of growth and development.

For me, revitalizing a piece with a fresh and enlightened perspective is what draws me back to the piano each and every day.

On this note, I sat down at my Steinway this morning and decided to re-record Robert Schumann’s first Scene from Childhood, “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples.” Promising myself to step back and listen attentively as well as objectively to each playback, I would discern as best I could what needed improvement.

After spending about 45 minutes playing so many consecutive 2:05 timed segments, (approx.) I realized that I was throwing a subtle accent on each quarter note following the dotted-eighth 16th figure that permeates this composition, and it was distorting the melodic line. The accent was not necessarily obtrusive but I quickly realized that I needed to shape down the quarter note to obtain what sounded better. To de-emphasize that bothersome note I used a subtle wrist dip, so I would enter the key more slowly, and that’s where the physical side of playing intertwined with the sound image. (what I had underscored in my blog on Weight Control and Voicing.)

The review process also involved self-analysis, muscle memory, and decisions about voicing.

The other plaguing part of the tableau, was a crescendo at part B that sounded premature and not swelled in the way I wanted. I heard a poke on the G in the treble clef that made me cringe.

But having at least defined what I thought needed revision, I proceeded to re-record and play back.

In truth, I was cutting myself some slack because of my piano’s regulation issues. The perception that some notes were not having good let-offs made me continuously compensate to an unreasonable degree in terms of weight application into these more unresponsive keys. The piano’s irregularities in the touch/feel universe required a personal psyching out process that posed challenges.
Finally, despite an individual piano’s quirks, re-playing and revising the interpretation of a piece as many times as needed, is part of the learning curve. Realizing its value and keeping a positive, self-nurturing attitude allows fresh ideas to filter in, enlarging one’s musical perspective.

authorsden, Bay area, blog, blogger, blogging, California, classissima, classissima.com, creative learning environment, El Cerrito, El Cerrito California, El Cerrito piano studio, Fresno, humor, keyboard technique, music, music teachers association of california, music theory, New York, New York City, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Oberlin, Oberlin Conservatory, piano, piano instruction, piano lesson, piano lessons, piano pedagogy, piano practicing, piano society, piano student, piano teacher, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, publishers marketplace, publishersmarketplace, publishersmarketplace.com, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, word press, wordpress.com

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.”

"Just Being At the Piano", Baroque music, creative learning environment, El Cerrito, El Cerrito California, El Cerrito piano studio, Faber Primer Piano Adventures, Facebook, Fresno California, fresno filmmakers alliance, harmonic analysis, Intermediate level piano repertoire, Internet, Keith Snell, keyboard technique, Lillian Freundlich, memoir, mind body connection, MTAC, MTAC Baroque Festival, music, music and heart, music teachers association, music teachers association of california, music theory, music video, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Nordiska, Northwest Fresno, Oberlin, Oberlin Conservatory, pianist, piano, piano addict, piano instruction, piano lesson, piano lessons, piano pedagogy, piano society, piano warm-ups, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, playing piano, publishers marketplace, publishersmarketplace, publishersmarketplace.com, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway grand piano, talkclassical.com, Teach Street, teaching piano to teenagers, technique, Theory, traditional piano teaching, Twenty five Progressive pieces by Burgmuller, video performances, whole body music listening, word press, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

The Art of Phrasing at the Piano: Starting the process with Beginners (Videos)

For some unexplained reason, my earliest piano studies never included the art of phrasing. My primer teacher stressed naming notes, finding them, affixing correct fingering and counting out robotic beats.

I knew nothing about feeling a melodic landscape; putting the vocal model center stage in my playing, and breathing through contoured musical lines. My pieces were flat-liners.

By the time a bass clef staff popped up on the pages of John Thompson’s Pixie platitudes, expanding my sketchy musical universe, I had no idea what to do with these new notes besides naming and locating them.

From my Beginner perspective, such unwelcome bass line strangers had no other role than being feebly attached to the right hand part. The black sheep of my musical cosmos, they owned a non grata status along with the black notes.

To say that I had no idea how to PHRASE these bass line notes, would have been an understatement. My awareness of shaping a musical line in either hand was non-existent until I met up with Lillian Freundlich, my piano teacher during years spent at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. During this period she turned my complacent universe upside down and transformed music making into a living, breathing experience with contours and shapes.

Lil Freundlich made me “sing” what I was studying, with parceled out treble and bass parts. (Often she would vocalize over my playing, nudging along phrases) When examining complex fugues, like those composed by Bach with multiple voices, she had me sing and shape all individual lines. Above and beyond contouring each voice, she taught me that the harmonic (vertical) dimension of a piece, offered insight about how to phrase the melodic line. “Resolutions” of Dominant to Tonic, for example underscored a tension/relaxation relationship that affected the total landscape of a composition from the top down.


In a previous blog with a companion video I had explored harmonic rhythm as applied to phrasing and interpreting Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 545.

Example, A Skype Lesson-in-Progress to Greece:

Andante movement:

Mozart sonata 545 Andante revised

In the posting below, I’ve turned the clock back to the Baroque period, using the two voice G Major Minuet from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook, BWV 116 as a springboard for examining phrasing and interpretation.

And a Skype Lesson in Progress on this Minuet (Notice the hand rotation in the arpeggiated figures)

A step-by-step approach

1) I start with the Right Hand and ROLL into the G Major arpeggio, not in any way accenting the first note. All arpeggios have this natural, out flowing organic shape. In the first measure, the Dominant also appears through the progression from A to F# in the right hand. (The Left Hand beneath provides the root “D” of the Dominant)

Dominant to Tonic relationships suggest LEAN to resolve or relax.

It takes a bit of finesse to cross over to measure two, and RESOLVE the leading tone F# to the downbeat G, since the beginning of a new measure often ushers in a strong impulse.

In this case, it’s best to tastefully shape down the G in the second measure as it is a resolution note from the dominant in the proceeding measure. This whole figure with the G arpeggio to its resolution is in fact the subject or MOTIF of the minuet. It will thread through the composition from beginning to end.

A note of reminder that phrasing is assisted by phrase marks and inserted dynamics. (Keith Snell edited the Anna Magdalena edition I chose for this instruction)

2) Putting the treble and bass lines together is the next stage of the phrasing process.

In the G Major Minuet, a conversation transpires between two voices, so this dialog should be fleshed out, along with echoes of it.

The Minuet’s harmonic dimension is revealed once the treble and bass interact. Dominant (V) to Tonic (I), and Sub-dominant (IV) to Tonic (I) relationships suggest resolutions: Lean on Dominant/relax to Tonic; Lean on Sub-Dominant/relax to Tonic. These progressions permeate the first page and assist melodic contouring.

For Beginners

On the Primer Level, take the very popular piece “Russian Sailor Dance,” in Faber’s Piano Adventures, Lesson Book, and map out the lean and resolve notes.(Insert slurs where necessary) A student doesn’t have to know Dominant from Tonic to shape down notes. In a supportive role, the teacher will play the accompaniment to this piece, and voice down the Tonic resolution chord after the Dominant. She can sing the melody alongside the student as the duet is played with conspicuously resolved or relaxed notes. The echo phrases can be similarly fleshed out.This form of modeling makes a significant musical impact on the student. Duet playing, in particular, gives a pupil an opportunity to be part of an ensemble, to balance his part alongside the teacher’s secondo and emulate the staccato notes that bounce along in both parts. All these phrasing ingredients that include observing dynamics, blend together to create a satisfying musical experience.

arpeggios, blog, blogger, blogging, California, Circle of Fifths, classissima, classissima.com, creative learning environment, El Cerrito California, El Cerrito piano studio, Fresno, Fresno California, fresno filmmakers alliance, great pianists of the past, Internet, keyboard technique, Major and minor scales, mind body connection, MTAC, music teachers association of california, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, piano, piano instruction, piano instructor, piano lesson, piano lessons, piano pedagogy, piano practicing, piano student, piano warm-ups, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, playing piano, publishers marketplace, publishersmarketplace.com, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway grand piano, Steinway M grand piano, talkclassical.com, Teach Street, whole body music listening, word press, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

Piano Technique: Thumb Shifts in Playing Scales and Arpeggios (Video)

The great pianist, Josef Hofmann, imparted words of wisdom when he answered the following question posed by a student that related to the thumb and piano technique:

“What is the matter with my scales? I cannot play them without a perceptible jerk when I use my thumb. How can I overcome the unevenness?”

The questioner expressed a universal concern among pianists regardless of proficiency. And it’s because the thumb is so unique. The shortest of five fingers, it has a tendency to be played prematurely and with a conspicuous accent when it passes under longer fingers in the course of a scale, arpeggio, or in any passage where it shifts.

Hofmann had responded with a similar opinion:

“The cause of the hand’s unrest in the passing of the thumb lies usually in transferring the thumb too late.”

He continued:

“The thumb usually waits until the very moment when it is needed and then quickly jumps upon the proper key, instead of moving toward it as soon as the last key it touched can be released. This belatedness causes a jerky motion to the arm and imparts it to the hand.”

In the video I produced on this very subject, I demonstrated ways to avoid the “belatedness” and “jerkiness” that Hofmann had referenced.

My discussion and demonstration focused on what I termed the “pocket” thumb and “swishy” thumb.

The “pocket” concept involves “preparation” for the shift under other fingers. The “swishy” adjective pertains to relaxing the rotating thumb when in motion and its making a soft, unobtrusive landing. Even when playing FORTE or loud, I believe the thumb should be relaxed, cushioned, if not underplayed.

If you have your own ideas about the thumb and the art of piano playing, please share them.

As a post script, I just discovered some thought provoking ideas about the thumb offered in the book, Conversations with Arrau by
Joseph Horowitz:

The pianist speaks: “I use a rotational movement with the thumb.” [Demonstrating for the author, Arrau makes his rubber-jointed right thumb crawl like a caterpillar from a white key to a black; the top joint ascends first while the bottom joint maintains contact with the white key.]

Another relevant point made by Arrau: “It is important never to feel the actions of the fingers as independent from the arm.”

Arrau thinks of “ten agile, individually weighted fingers, attached to rotating wrists. He says convincingly, that the pianist has to “develop a feeling for the arm as a unity, not divided into hand, wrist, forearm, elbow.”