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Approaching a brand new piece with spirit and emotion

When piano students first encounter a fresh page of music, they will often wade through the notes as best as they can, fumbling here and there without an adjusted framing pulse or investment of animated interest in what the notes are saying beyond their humble, accurate identity.

In this early stage “reading,” tempo is usually far too brisk (and erratic) for the new learner to experience any emotional response to a cascade of dizzying dots and beams. They are consumed with finding the right pitches and nailing them down.

For this reason, I insist that my pupils separate hands, and slow down the pulse to frame a “deep” in the keys, mood-matching connection to a new score because every playing registers a profound imprint in their consciousness. So throw away trials that breeze over the character of a given composition only divert the learner from the essence of the new composition.

By example, I’m working with a student who’s enraptured by the intensely rhythmic and bi-tonal energy of Kabalevsky’s “Clowns,” yet there’s the same propensity to overlook the character/mood of this piece in the initial hit or miss the notes, baby-step learning process.

A changed perspective:

In this video sample, the student takes the right approach, working assiduously on the first section, paying attention to spring forward staccato releases, and notated accents that he manages in a slow tempo framing. It allows him to capture the “feeling” and emotion imbued in this miniature. Naturally, his being “connected” to the circus atmosphere of “Clowns” from the very start makes his learning engagement deeper and more satisfying.

Since Kabalevsky’s two-page composition has notable harmonic patterns, symmetries, agogic accents, inverted motifs, ostinato bass, etc. these present an opportunity to examine theoretical context as an aid to interpretation, noting that no dimension of learning is a pedantic side bar.

Every examination of a piece becomes part of an integrated whole, of which the very first note ignites a rich emotional, cognitive and kinesthetic experience.

Clowns play through:

Early “Clowns” lesson with my student in London, England (first section)

Kabalevsky Clowns p. 1

Kabalevsky Clowns p. 2

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Kabalevsky’s “A Game” is a delightful way to practice staccato (Videos)

Dimitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987) composed a winner for late elementary and early intermediate level students. While playing “A GAME,” they learn a bouncy staccato with light interspersed accents on downbeats. How refreshing to weave technique into a musical romp that moves along with a “feeling of one main impulse per bar.”

According to notes found in Alfred’s An Introduction to Kabalevky’s Piano Music, “No modern composer has concerned himself with writing original compositions especially for the young piano student than Kabalevksy. His short pieces, composed almost invariably to deal with specific problems of piano pedagogy, are always spontaneous, full of fresh sounds and musical witticisms, rhythmically interesting and often surprising, and fun to play.”

“A Game,” Op. 39 No. 5 is no exception.

Kabalevsky advises the player to have a loose wrist, drop to the bottom of the key-bed for each note and release it instantly. Embedded accents should be “emphasized only slightly.”

My video tutorial fleshes out a step-wise approach to practicing “A Game” that includes blocking intervals and chords as part of a layered-learning process.

My two readings follow: (Why not enjoy a replay!)

Another Staccato romp by William Gillock that pairs nicely with Kabalevsky’s Op. 39 Children’s Pieces

Both composers wrote “Clowns” pieces


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Teaching Clowns by Kabalevsky, from the Op. 39 Children’s Pieces for piano

This is a tricky miniature packed with robust energy. The parallel Major/minor duality is fleshed out with a quick build-up to climax. The challenge is to sustain a Left Hand staccato ostinato, a repeated bass pattern, while observing separate articulation and phrasing in the right hand. Effective dynamic contrasts make a performance even more poignant.


Teaching “Galop” by Kabalevsky

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Piano Lesson: Teaching and playing “Galop” by Kabalevsky from the Op. 39 Children’s Pieces (Videos)

Don’t do a double take on the spelling of “Galop” because every edition I’ve seen up close and personal, does not have the expected double l.

If it were as simple to play this piece as spelling its name correctly or incorrectly, I wouldn’t have a problem. But in truth, a miniature like this is a mountain of a challenge. (Kabalevsky, a 20th Century composer, was Director of a music school in Russia and conceived his compositions with a particular technical goal in mind. His Children’s Pieces Op. 39, comprise a colorful collection with an assortment of moods)

From Kabalevsky an Introduction to his Piano Works, Willard Palmer, Editor:

“While teaching his young students, Kabalevsky came to realize that there was a great need for simple and interesting piano pieces that would maintain the student’s interest and at the same time introduce the various problems of technique and musicianship in such a way as to make them easily grasped and understood.”


Last night, my second year piano student, Sakura, who is left-handed, attentively practiced “Galop,” focusing on phrasing and articulation in each hand. That’s the rub–trying to play slurred groups of two 8ths in the left hand against a spin of 5 notes in the right. And what about the balance issue. The left hand must not scream and overshadow the right though the temptation is to pound away at those staccato chords where they come at the CLIMAX, from measures 9 through 16. There’s a melody to consider and just the same, you don’t want to sound like Rosie the Riveter. Keep your shock absorb wrists supple and spongy.

Basically, “Galop” is a high intensity piece regardless of its peak coming dead center. You’ll always need your energy reserves in high gear, but be sure not to spill your guts where you find yourself losing control.

Practice as slowly as possible with consciousness about the interaction of both hands at any given time, and then raise up your tempo in increments.

Above all, enjoy the ride and keep your cool.

Sakura’s lesson: