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Yevgeny Sudbin, another Russian Pianist topples my day!

I had my heart set on working out at the gym before noon, but as fate had it, I was stopped in my tracks by the breathtaking artistry of Yevgeny Sudbin. (only 32 years old) And it was merely 24 hours after I’d cried over Nikolai Lugansky’s Schumann Intermezzo from Faschingsschwank aus Wien.

Could these two synchronized angels of the Muse share a gene for impassioned piano playing?

Regardless, I would sing like a nightingale about Sudbin, spreading his immense gifts far and wide.

Let’s start with the artist’s Scarlatti, a composer so very dear to me.

Three exemplary performances sweep the listener into a universe of beauty from the first measure to final cadence. Nuance, dynamics, impeccable phrasing, just the right touch, and tone to please. It’s manifestly clear that one of the pianist’s teachers was Murray Perahia. I can tell by the way in which the Baroque repertoire is communicated. Not too loud, too soft or frivolous in any way. A nice range of dynamics are bundled into the playing.

These examples are heartfelt:

Finally, a mouse tap to Sudbin’s official website fills in the missing details that surround his remarkable life and musical accomplishments.

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Celebrating Christmas in the vocal tradition (Video)

When it comes right down to it, musicians “sing” through their instruments, and pianists with generous polyphonic resources (many voices) will find the melody and flesh it out as the tour de force of a composition.

On this special day of Christmas I therefore chose la creme de la creme of a vocal model performance.

A grand display of elegance.

Arleen Auger sings “Hallelujia” from Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate K. 165

If we can learn from the phrasing and nuance of this diva, we can play more expressively.

Merry Christmas! And may music always have a sacred place in our lives!

Baroque period music, Domenico Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in E Major K. 380, playing Domenico Scarlatti sonatas on the piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Vladimir Horowitz, word press,, you tube, you tube video

Scarlatti Sonata in E Major, K. 380, the one Vladimir Horowitz loved to play

The great Vladimir Horowitz made this sonata almost a household word among pianists. Back in the 1950s, Ben Grauer, host of NBC’s “Recital Hall” introduced students from Juilliard who played at least 3 Scarlatti sonatas, following Volodya’s example. These Baroque selections were a necessary entrée to the main course of Classical, Romantic and Contemporary works. Programs were conservative in those days, but Chopin’s wish that Scarlatti’s music would be part of a serious pianist’s repertoire came true.

Today, there still exists the lingering controversy over whether to play Scarlatti (as well as Bach) on the piano when it was originally meant to be performed on the harpsichord.

The issue has ramifications for a modern-day pianist, who uses the sustain pedal frequently to enrich sonorities, to “orchestrate” a work, and often to create special effects, as in the realm of impressionism (Debussy and Ravel)

When it comes to Scarlatti, however, some pianists feel tentative about using the pedal, or at least abusing it here and there. For the faster sonatas, it is hard to over pedal, so the matter draws little concern. ( In truth, there’s barely time to fuss with the pedal when playing presto, an extremely brisk tempo marking)

In Sonata in E Major, K. 380 there is probably a line to be drawn somewhere in the sand. The piece has a bell-like quality from the outset with the impossibly tricky trills that are immediately echoed. So perhaps a temptation to pedal lightly over the trills to make them shimmer is reasonable. The question remains, where to pedal in the rest of the composition without making it sound like it was born of the Romantic era.

Daniel Barenboim plays the Scarlatti Pastorale in D minor, with lots of pedal, and sometimes I like it that way, and at other times I want to hear the piece in a purer reading, without being bathed in sustain.

So having obsessed over the pedal for too many paragraphs, I decided that I would play the E Major with pedal, even though I’d been advised by a colleague in the know to stay off it.

In the universe of interpretation among pianists, there is always room for flexibility. Since Chopin’s prophecy has come true that Scarlatti’s music became part of the mainstream repertoire, it therefore has permission to have itself sized and fitted a pedal accoutrement.

The next challenge besides pedaling, is what tempo to take. That’s a gray area. If we use the harpsichord as reference, playing very fast on that instrument was a lot easier. The touch was considerably lighter making crossed hands, for example, in rapid tempo a lot less taxing on the fingers, wrists and arms.

For a more lilting, and tranquil sonata like the E Major, K. 380, it would seem inappropriate to rush it, or push it ardently forward. It has a spirit of calm reflection.

Finally, I agree with Mildred Portney Chase, author of Just Being at the Piano, that a performance rendered on one day, is just an ephemeral experience and may not be true for the next. (I don’t think she was referring to the You Tube medium, however, since the book predated its birth)

In the end, I have only to remind myself that Scarlatti’s music is joyful, regardless of what instrument is chosen to give voice to the composer spirit and intent.


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Trills and Domenico Scarlatti (Video)

In a separate writing about crossed hands, large leaps, and other keyboard acrobatics, I’d discussed trills which permeate Domenico Scarlatti’s music. Perhaps these precious ornaments evoked the gypsy wails in the surrounding Madrid countryside, or they were part of the performance practice of the Baroque period. I would hedge my bets that hunting horns, in K. 159 enter center stage as soon as the music begins and the trills decorate a progression of harmonic 3rds, 4ths and 6ths. The same applied to Scarlatti Sonata, K. 96, tagged “La Chasse.”

From having studied a small portion of Bach and Scarlatti’s works, I’ve come to the conclusion that Domenico liked trills more than J.S. In the Inventions, Bach had shorter decorations like mordants, and if he trilled, it was a slower, prolonged affair, not requiring the player to have a man size dose of adrenaline.

Most of my piano students avoid trills like the plague, particularly the long ones found in Mozart’s C Major “Drawing Room” sonata, first movement. They are confounded by how to precisely end them, and besides, it’s hard for these kids to coordinate the trill figure in the right hand with what’s happening in the left. I can commiserate.

I tend to believe that the ability to produce a very rapid, crystal clear trill is genetic, though that doesn’t mean it can’t be learned if a student commits to a form of trill related rehab. It takes, time, patience and dose of disciplined practicing.

Scarlatti probably handed players the most challenging trills in the Baroque literature by floridly decorating principle notes in short intervals as are found in his Sonata, K. 159 in C Major. For God sakes, every few notes, there’s a trill.

Perhaps a musicologist would refuse to categorize these quick splashes of color as bona fide trills since they may be brief and “ornamental,” but in the last analysis, a trill is a trill is a trill, and it’s a big order for the performer, regardless of label.

At the Oberlin Conservatory, Professor Freeman Koberstein, was obsessed with trills and various ornaments to the point of being POSSESSED. “Kobie,” (not to be confused with the basketball player) spent the whole class time lecturing about how to execute intricate figures with silly looking symbols. He’d even banter with students about performance practice as he turned red in the face if anyone disagreed with him.

In the universe of trills, there was always the question of whether to begin them on the primary note, or the note above. Add to the mix, the distance departure above or below what was being decorated. That issue could ignite a full-blown controversy about which way to turn. Oh and “turns” are another type of ornament, that differ from trills. Truly dizzying!

So depending on the composer, and historical era, trills, ornaments, turns, you name it, followed a certain set of rules, until someone came along in the musicology field with a revolutionary new theory.

In Scarlatti Sonata K. 159, the performer might be left to his own devices, having to make difficult choices that could offend a vast body of scholars who’d torn their hair out concerning the last find in a remote Spanish mission or castle.

But in the last analysis who cares? I say, just play the darn sonata as best you can, and dig deep down to your adrenaline reserves. There’s nothing worse than a trill dying on the vine before its time.

Post script: I discovered a Texas University professor, Stephen Slottow who published a paper on this very C Major sonata and I asked him a few pointed questions about the hunting horn entrance, no less.

His answer:

“I’m sure that Scarlatti was aware of the hunting horn motif, as it was in wide practice, but I don’t know if he personally added “Chasse.” I think that you would need to look at the earliest printed sources.” (More of the same?)


In conclusion, Sonata, K. 159 has a lot of substance, and I’ve only skimmed the surface by examining the trills. The middle or B section transitions to the minor key, with a brief exposure to sobbing gypsies. A stream of fiery 16th notes preceded by an ear catching dissonance embody the Spanish style along with its native flamenco elements. While Scarlatti may have been Italian, he had lived and worked in Madrid for most of his life so we can all feel lucky that he produced 550 sonatas to fuss over.

Couperin, Domenico Scarlatti, Dowd Harpsichord, Elaine Comparone, Harpsichord Unlimited, J.S. Bach, Jean Phillipe Rameau, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, word press,, you tube, you tube video

Aglow with creative fire: My NYC visit with harpsichordist, Elaine Comparone


The centerpiece of my trip back East this past weekend was meeting up with Elaine Comparone in her acoustically magnificent West Side apartment.

Two splendid harpsichords of incomparable beauty, a custom made Dowd and Hubbard, graced a divinely resonant space with a cathedral high ceiling. And with a snap of my fingers I ignited a bright and brilliant reverb that musicians lust after in the presence of responsive musical instruments such as these:

It was this same fire, that lit up another space and captured my attention a year before. A Facebook link had led me to Comparone’s “red-blooded” harpsichord playing as she stood, no less, in the musical spotlight. (Hubbard Harpsichords, Unlimited, designed a tall oak stand in consultation with Elaine, that elevates the instrument to required height) It had been “dubbed” the “Brooklyn Bridge” by technicians. Talk about innovation.

Comparone performing Scarlatti Sonata, K. 517 in D minor:

Gushing with enthusiasm, I found Elaine’s You Tube Channel and raced to “Subscribe,” be-“friend” and “like” just about anything she had uploaded including the works of J.S. Bach, Rameau, Couperin, Scarlatti, among other composers. Soon enough I found the Queen’s Chamber Band, her majesty’s ensemble of fine local musicians who perform early music and newly commissioned works as part of an ongoing concert series. Harpsichord Unlimited, the non-profit umbrella organization, in which Comparone serves as Director, is “dedicated to stimulating interest in the harpsichord and teaching audiences about the instrument.”

A ground breaker is a good description of Elaine Comparone and her efforts to lift the harpsichord out of obscurity and into light of day. Just soaking up an afternoon in the life of this towering artist has inspired me to learn a bunch more Scarlatti sonatas, side-stepping the desired medium, of course, until I can well afford to order a custom designed Hubbard or Dowd from Massachusetts.

Hey, who on earth is pretending to play the Hubbard? What a daunting task with those black notes subbing in for white ones. And the whites raised up where the blacks are normally found. A dizzying panoply of keys, closely spaced, with an unfamiliar touch. I’d need a ton of practicing to get things rolling.


For now I think I’ll defer to a pro……

Related Links:

Hubbard Harpsichords:

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Piano Technique: Using a spring forward wrist, and arc motions for hand crossovers in Scarlatti Sonata in A, K. 113 (three videos)

Every so often I revisit a composition I’ve previously studied applying a different perspective. In Scarlatti’s A Major Sonata, with its very demanding Allegrissimo tempo marking that makes the crossed hand sections seem impossibly difficult, I decided to parcel out pertinent measures in practice tempo. The goal was to inch up to a faster rendering as compared to my last. For the most part, a few months will pass before I set my mind to upping the tempo of a particularly challenging piece, and it’s because the ripening process has to be factored into all learning journeys. Arthur Rubinstein made it a point to underscore how a piece, mindfully practiced, will ripen in time.

Pianists of all levels eventually come to the realization that a composition patiently learned in layers will have the best chance of blossoming in the long term.

In two of three videos, I fleshed out what physical motions best helped me realize phrase shapes in the Scarlatti sonata so I could ultimately play the composition at the desired Allegrissimo. In exploring the physical aspect of piano playing, I found it best to tie everything together: phrasing, dynamics, and nuance– allowing for experimentation, self-analysis, and fine tuning along the way.

In the third video I raised the tempo.

Part 1: Spring forward wrist motion, and some crossed hand measures (with attention to shaping phrases)

Part 2: Isolating crossed hand measures toward the conclusion of the first section (arc motions)

Raising the Tempo:

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Pianists and Injuries

You can’t avoid it. Athletics are part of piano playing so if you abuse your hands, arms, wrists, let alone your fingers, you’ll end up benched, like an overused relief pitcher.

Yesterday, I pushed the envelope, practicing rapid fire repeated notes in Domenico Scarlatti’s Toccata in D minor, well into the night. Ample streams of adrenaline fueled my earliest efforts, but after three uninterrupted hours, my fingers felt like silly putty, while my arms ached. Like a well-primed hurler, I had gone too many extra innings.

Word of warning: Even if you have a big arm swing, and can mix up your stuff, repeating a particular motion over and again, like a set of Forte parallel octaves, can cause an overuse injury.

From the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, Summer 1999:

“Dr. Fred Hochberg, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, began treating instrumentalists’ injuries about 15 years ago, when a friend asked him to meet with Gary Graffman, a world-renowned pianist who was having difficulty with his right hand.

“He couldn’t lift his fourth finger,” Hochberg says. “And he wasn’t the only one—he had a list of friends with the same problem. These were pianists who played the same repertoire, or what are called the heroic pieces.”

Focal dystonias, involuntary movements of fingers, or an inability to freely move them, affected these pianists, that included Leon Fleisher and Byron Janis who routinely practiced the big warhorse repertoire.

Selective Movements

Still, about two-thirds of Hochberg’s musician patients presented with overuse injuries, not dystonias.

“They had a localized inflammation of the joint or tendon, probably due to microscopic tears of the tendon with hemorrhaging,” he said.

“Almost invariably, the problem related to the shoulder. Since the arm weighs between 15 and 20 pounds, and even though playing an instrument tends to involve selective movements of the fingers and wrists, the shoulder musculature takes most of the brunt of the movement. Most people can’t stabilize their shoulder while using their fingers.”

Teaching Perspectives

Since my private instruction has been slanted to avoid piano-related injuries, I favor enlistment of bigger energies beyond the fingers when practicing. Using larger, gross motor motions, minimizes redundant end-finger keyboard impact.

In the same vein, the use of a “spongy” wrist, delays entry into notes, thereby preventing pokey, percussive landings that could result in physical trauma.

For unusually big stretches in piece of music, a student can learn rotational movements to ease the flow of passages and create curvaceous phrases.


Irina Gorin, a Russian teacher based in Indiana and creator of beginning piano instructional materials, imbues her students with the image of a keyboard as a bowl of jello to prevent hard surface, key attacks. First, she will dip a pupil’s fingers into a jar of putty, purchased at the Dollar store, to provide the tactile “feel” desired, before a transfer is made to the keys. Lastly, a muscle memory of the experience helps the student play fluidly and produce a beautiful singing tone without exertion or strain.

In the following You Tube video, Gorin teaches a student the C Major scale using her “jello” model:


The Clinical Perspective

Dr. Hochberg recommends physical therapy and exercise to return an afflicted musician to a normal range of movement and to strengthen the muscles needed to stabilize the shoulder.

“Playing an instrument is not good exercise,” he said. “You would think the more you play, the stronger your arm would get, but that’s not true.”

Of the thousands of patients Hochberg has seen, fewer than 30 have undergone surgery, most commonly for carpal tunnel syndrome and ulnar nerve entrapments. And on average, patients take three months to recover. During that time, they may only play for ten to fifteen minutes at a time, two to three times a day.

“Michael Charness—director of the performing arts clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and a member of the Charness Family Quintet with his wife and three children—has a unique take on what it means to be a pianist with an injury.

“I started treating musicians because of my own injury,” he said. “I was starting to play some difficult pieces. The more I practiced, the more my fingers weren’t doing what they should. They were sluggish, less accurate, and less controlled. I had an electromyogram, which was normal. I had a fairly normal hand exam too, but I felt I had an enormous problem.”

Eventually, Charness underwent surgery to decompress his ulnar nerve on both sides. That was in 1984, and he slowly regained his strength and facility.

“I had a debilitating problem, yet my hand appeared normal to skilled clinicians.”

Charness sees focal dystonias as particularly vexing. “It’s a bizarre disorder,” he said. “People who have spent many years acquiring musical skills lose the ability to perform because their hands pull into a position that makes it impossible for them to play. Their ring finger, for example, may pull into their palm when they play a scale going up but not going down.”

When Charness meets with patients, he watches them play their instruments. “We’ve learned how to change people’s position to make it easier to sustain playing.”

How much practice is too much?

“That’s a difficult question,” Charness said. “I think most people ought to be able to get everything done in four to five hours or less. It has to be individualized, but there are some general principles that encompass, for example, not playing for more than 25 minutes without a break.”

I personally knew last evening, when it was time to stop, but it was well beyond Charness’s recommended time boundary.

Veda Kaplinsky, a Juilliard faculty member, and frequent judge at international competitions, insisted in a recorded interview, that after 5 or so hours of piano practicing, the blood supply to the muscles diminishes.

So true. The spurt of energy flowing down the arms into wrists, hands, and fingers maxes out and then begins to run dry. It’s the body’s warning to the player, to take a break, or call it a day.

Before my reserves were thoroughly depleted I managed to post an upped tempo performance of Scarlatti’s Toccata in D minor. This was a daredevil challenge to myself, notwithstanding the risk of overdoing it in one final recording session.


Since 1999, schools of thought have changed about performance-related injuries and how to prevent and/or treat them. The issue is not necessarily about over-practicing, but rather about how the player integrates relaxation techniques and mental imagery into all his playing.

Principle Players in The Performance Injury Field


Dr. Frank Wilson was an early contributor to the development of performing arts medicine in the United States and Europe in the 1980s. In 1986 he was a co-founder and neurologist for the Health Program for Performing Artists at the University of California, San Francisco, where his interest focused on impaired hand control in musicians. In this connection, he organized a research team studying focal dystonia as it affected performing artists.

In 1996, Wilson became the Medical Director of the Health Program for Performing Artists, and in 2001 accepted an appointment as clinical professor of neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine, joining a clinical research team that studied deep brain stimulation for patients with complex movement disorders.

The Golandsky Institute:

Edna Golandsky, a former student of former Juilliard faculty member, Dorothy Taubman, founded an Institute on the East Coast devoted to preventing performance-related injuries, as they apply to the piano. An archived collection of You Tubes fleshes out specific physical piano-related problems and how to remedy them.

My disagreement with Taubman/Golandsky circumscribes the wrist and its flexibility. Where Goldansky frowns upon “breaks” or dips of the wrist in piano playing, I join the ranks of many teachers, including Irina Gorin, who encourage the opposite. In fact one of the hallmark physical dimensions of producing a singing tone, is having a supple wrist that can spring up and down.

Finally, there are many schools of thought in the universe of teaching piano and injury control, so it’s best to research these, compare notes, and keep an open mind.