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A Performance I’ll Never Forget!

I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to provide keyboard music at a Fresno art supply store. It happened quite unexpectedly around the time I’d bumped into Ralph Cato, US Olympic Boxing Trainer at the neighboring Guitar Center. (“Cato, His Killer Keyboard and A Round of Piano Lessons”)

Because I liked the establishment’s acoustical environment, I volunteered to serenade customers with Christmas music on my PX110 digital.

The space, located in a busy shopping area right beside Trader Joe had a high, wood beamed ceiling that gave a shimmer to even the worst bell and whistle keyboard, so my more spiffy 88-key, “weighted” one, would surely soar with streams of electronically generated sounds.

With the permission of the owner, a perky, middle aged woman, I plopped myself down with my gear next to a neat row of easels and promptly served up a menu of popular holiday carols along with Handel’s “Messiah” excerpts. It was enough of an audience draw to land me a steady paid gig at the “Second Saturday Art Exhibition,” hosted by this very establishment.

Each month local artists displayed and sold their paintings, while one selected in advance, was given a well publicized teaching table to share techniques with interested customers. The location was conspicuously at the front of the store.

I was to arrive at 10 a.m. to set up my keyboard, stand and other accouterments, and once settled in, I had agreed to play a steady stream of classical music, setting a nice tone for the event.

The owner strategically placed me behind the featured artist, who, on this particular weekend, would display her rock and roll subject era paintings. At first glance, these hardly made an impression, but upon closer examination, I realized that she had produced thought-provoking works. One, titled, “Solitude,” with a Beatles theme, had an instant association to “All the Lonely People,” one of my favorite songs. Its moody grays, pinks–shadows and silhouettes were mesmerizing, and the more I gazed upon it, the more I hungered to acquire this treasure as a trade for doing a few dinner parties at the artist’s house. Maybe she’d consider it. “Give me your business card,” she had said, before things got underway. A few had separated from my wallet and were lying on the floor beside my Casio keyboard, at risk to be trampled, but I had decided to leave everything in place, without a second thought.

The artist, a plump, middle aged woman, with flaming dyed red hair and steel green eyes sat by her table alongside one of her flamboyant keyboard theme murals. Occasionally, she dabbed it with grays and yellows while her husband, who appeared to be in his late 60’s, registered a strong, protective instinct toward her. Intermittently, he chatted with visitors to the gallery and carried on prolonged, audible chats with them.

I had just about set up after having lugged my 27 pound portable from my van along with other accessories–pedals, music rack, double braced stand, and an electrical source, when to my astonishment, the A/C transformer that plugged into my keyboard, got caught in the van’s sliding door, becoming detached from its wire. It was instantly rendered useless! What a great segue way to my second banana appearance at the Second Saturday exhibition!

Luckily, the Fresno Guitar Center was within easy reach, so I raced over to borrow a substitute that was taken from one of the Casio digital floor models. “Guy,” the store Manager had already delivered a keyboard size bench since I’d inadvertently left mine at home.

With a working transformer the music would soon be up and running, but not before the art establishment’s proprietor raced over like clockwork to do a volume check on my keyboard. She’d decided on a half knob sound level because of her concern that “background” music could drown out conversations between the artist and a stream of visitors. While I believed that a 50% volume cut would significantly muffle the music I had selected, I went along with it. In a paid situation like this, aesthetics were often put aside in favor of pleasing an employer. We musicians were used to keeping our place.

Right on the button at 11 a.m. I sent dim electronic impulses into the universe to the accompaniment of nearby conversation that grew intolerably distracting. A group of visitors to the featured art table who leaned right up against me, were comparing plumbing disaster stories and bad home re-modeling adventures. The toilet bowl intrigues were particularly invasive to my concentration, so for tension relief, I found myself mumbling a private wish fulfillment. After the concentration shattering dribble ran its course, another flock of visitors replaced the first, talking at a higher volume level, and through all the dizzying banter not one person noticed Beethoven’s heavenly music trying to squeak out of an electronic box.

As I moved on to play Baroque period Scarlatti Sonatas with their shimmering ornaments and trills, I noticed the registered displeasure of the artist’s husband in his angry demeanor. He was sending an inaudible, though pervasive message, that my music was too loud.

The situation hearkened back to a party at which I was invited to play, located in the Huntington Lake neighborhood. At the time, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sample a 7 foot Bosendorfer grand that was hand-picked by my dermatologist at the Vienna factory. What an awesome instrument with a resounding bass and lyrical treble. The rehearsal was definitely memorable and should have been savored as a special moment because once I was seated at the piano at the glitzy event, the Bosie quickly dwindled to half its size. Hordes of noisy guests crowded in on me with cocktails in hand and within minutes I could no longer hear what I was playing. It could have been a selection by Bach, Mozart or even Stephen Foster.

***

The circumstance at the art store was comparable. No one had acknowledged the music through 90 minutes of playing and increasingly, I received alienating stares from the protective husband who I’d learned had been a long-time member of the Fresno Philharmonic horn section.

But I persevered and moved on to the Beethoven “Adagio” movement, from the Sonata “Pathetique,” with its doleful melody that instantly brought tears to my eyes.

Within moments of my musical immersion, I was distracted again by the leering husband who looked like he was about to approach the keyboard and turn down the volume himself. Instead, the store owner did it for him. She arrived just as I was playing through the agitated middle section of the Beethoven slow movement and with lightning speed, she threw her arm in front of me, nicked my cheeks, and zapped the volume knob, stopping my performance in its tracks! I felt the whole world crumbling around me, and I wanted to escape the whole nightmare right then and there. It had been the same with composer, Robert Schumann, who in his Neue Gezeitschrift fur Musik (New Journal of Music) wrote about purging the dilettantes from the face of the earth! He depicted the earnest war against them in his “Davidsbundler Tanze,” written at the height of the Romantic period. His self-made “League of David” was a proverbial collective of artists, composers and performers who upheld the intrinsic value of higher art in the face of destructive forces.

With the spirit of Schumann hovering, I gritted my teeth and played his “Arabesque” with its forlorn spindle of themes that reflected my countenance. Almost on cue, the store owner’s associate arrived on the scene. Sarcastically, she said, “Now why don’t you smile, honey, ‘cause you have such a pretty face.”

My tolerance threshold was waning and I realized that if I didn’t pack up my gear sooner than later I would emit a primal scream that might summon an ambulance. I would surely be carried away involuntarily.

Just as I was about to make my gallant departure in defense of higher art, my 83 year old friend, “Ruthie” neutralized everything. She sauntered in and greeted me in her usual chipper way. “Hi, there,” she said, “I’m sorry for being so late, but everything just went wrong today. The worst part of it was that my JC Penney card disappeared so I had to call them and cancel the account.” At that very moment, I looked down at the floor where my wallet was placed to see if it was still there. The business cards nearby had strangely disappeared, so I had reason to panic. My money and ID’s might have been taken as I was immersed in the works of Scarlatti, Schubert and Chopin.

Meanwhile, Ruth roamed around the gallery viewing paintings, and then warmly greeted the displaying artist whom she seemed to know. My senior citizen friend was a talented water colorist who had a small art studio within her home where she painted and taught. We had enjoyed a nice companionship over the years, and in the course of time, she had become the chief screener of my newly released CDs. I would bring the Master to her home, and she made comments about the order of my selections and the sound balance from one to another. She enjoyed the process of quality controlling my disks before their official release.

It was about 12:45 p.m. and I needed a well deserved time out, so I inserted one of my own recorded classical CDs into a Sony boom box that I had brought along. The owner had concerns about it when she saw me carrying the monstrosity into the store along with my keyboard and related gear. “It’s just for the breaks,” I had reassured her, “like for 15 minutes of each hour.” The artist’s husband had a frightening look as my CD resonated through the awesome space with its astonishingly high ceiling. In a matter of time, exploding emotions could cause a face off.

Just then, Ruth chimed in proudly, “Oh my gosh, you’re playing CD #3, one of my favorites.”

I had decided to let the disk run on perpetual “repeat” because I was not looking forward to playing “live” again, with all that was transpiring around me. Just in the nick of time, “Sharon Cooper” walked in with her husband and four year old daughter. She had been enjoying her Wurlitzer console piano that had settled into her Lemoore home. An instrument with wonderful resonance and personality, it had been acquired for all of $500, an irresistible bargain. The piano also had a delicate pecan cabinet that complemented its lovely voice.

Sharon had agreed to come to the art store after my performance so we could both dash over to the Guitar Center to select a keyboard. She needed a supplementary instrument with earphones so she could practice late into the night without disturbing her sleeping daughter. At the same time, I dropped off the transformer and bench that I had borrowed from Guy.

By late afternoon, at least Sharon was happy. She left the Guitar Center with a gem of a keyboard and then Ruth met me at “Whole Foods” for lunch. Another ray of sunshine appeared when one of my piano finder clients had sent me a $20 gift card in appreciation for my having steered her to the resonating PX110 Casio digital piano.

Ruth and I had a nice repast and shared a chocolate chip/oatmeal cookie that someone had left, completely wrapped, on our table. Finally by the very late afternoon, I drove home, crashed on my sofa, and woke up dazed and disoriented in the middle of the night. Ironically, I had dreamed that I was playing in Carnegie Hall to a pin drop silence. Gratefully, I went back to sleep with a pleasing smile on my face.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFBqDcVa1JA “Did Somebody Say Fresno?” Video Editor, Aviva Kirsten

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The very first Chopin Waltz that I teach: #19, Op. Posth. in A minor (Video instruction)

After decades of teaching the Chopin Waltzes, I’ve come to the conclusion that the A minor, No. 19, Op. Posthumous is the best student introduction to the form as the composer cultivated it. While many other Waltzes in Chopin’s collection are far more substantial and technically challenging, No. 19, is in my opinion, easiest to assimilate, study, and play. In part, it’s because the harmonic structure is very straightforward, leaning toward tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chord relationships. In addition, a frequent interchange occurs between the tonic A Minor in which the piece is written and its relative C Major. (Good material for introductory theory) Finally, there’s an abundance of thematic repetition.

The big climax of the piece, on the third page, (measures, 33-40) is a modulation to the Parallel A MAJOR, which makes a conspicuously audible impression. This section also has the most notes phrased at a Forte dynamic level.

Following the composition’s peak, the composer returns to the opening theme, which is in the home key of A minor.

Palmer Edition, Chopin Waltzes:

About the Composer, Frederic Chopin
(1810-1849)

Chopin lived during the height of the Romantic Period, and composed very expressive music that included free flowing phrases, ornamented notes, a colorful harmonic palette, and a tempo rubato (flexible, borrowed time that if taken too far, is a bit of a parody of itself) The pedaling for this music is rich, but tasteful. (The player should not over use the sustain)

The Way to Practice:

1) First, trace the path of melody through the opening section, (measures 1-16) in SLOW motion, following the phrasing very carefully. Chopin was very much a molto cantabile composer, who stressed the singing tone capability of the piano. In this first section, the composer offers the preponderance of material for the complete Waltz. Note that ornaments are played on the beat and with good directions in the editor’s annotations.

2) Continue by separately practicing the fundamental bass of the first section. (only the first beat of each measure, known as a “downbeat”) Draw each one out with a deep, resonant stroke.

3) Then play “after beat” chords only–the two sonorities following the downbeat. Isolate them from measure to measure and notice the voice leading. Knowing they are neighbor chords will make the jump from the downbeat bass notes seem less awesome. Lighten the third beat or chord in each measure. Approach with a flexible or spongy wrist. (The wrist is the great shock absorber)

4) Next play the downbeats followed by the after beat chords in each measure. Draw out the downbeats without poking at them. You want a rich bass, not an accented one.
The after beat chords should be lighter, as previously mentioned.

5) Finally, put hands together for the first section. The melody should be very singable and prominent. The fundamental bass gives the ground energy; the after beat chords fill in with colorful harmony. The balance between the melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords is very important.

Part II (Measures 16-24)
The same advice for part one applies here. Keep to the order of practicing separate hands, with an awareness of balance between right hand and left hand.
Notice that this part of the composition is more extemporaneous, and feels improvised. It begins in the Melodic form of A minor and lets go with a DOMINANT key arpeggio (E Major) If you’ve been conscientious about practicing arpeggios, this passage should not be too difficult to execute, but consider it a freely rendered figure and not meant to sound forced, regimented, or robotically played. Remember that the Romantic style is characterized by a sense of freedom and improvisation.

The next section is a return of the opening phrase in A Minor. (measures 25-32)
Follow the method of practicing separate hands, as introduced in the beginning of the work.

The Climax: Measures 33-40 The longest phrasing in the piece and in A MAJOR (The Parallel MAJOR) with a Forte dynamic.

Practice with the same parceled out approach as the beginning.

Finally the opening section returns in Measures 41 to 52 with a Codetta (small, modified ending) as the last line.

***

The Waltz played in tempo:

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Performance Anxiety and the Pianist

For too long performance anxiety was a taboo subject, always swept under the rug.

I remember grappling with paralyzing jitters during my years at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. My piano teacher at the time, a seasoned professional, would always say the same thing:

“Honey, the music is bigger than you or me.”

Of course it made me otherwise feel like an Egomaniac.

Her altruistic mantra never worked beyond the opening measure of a piece. I would fall apart quite instantly, and hardly remember if I had ever played a composition before an audience of anyone other than myself.

In a previous blog, I referred to going cold, like an ice cube when I was invited to play on “Music in the Schools,” a WNYC F.M. program that showcased talented youth in the city.

It was Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 311 that was for all intents and purposes on automatic pilot without a real “live” pilot at the controls. The final cadence was a crash landing with emotional consequence. I was miserable for weeks and months following the disaster and I never again wanted to play in front of a microphone!

REDUX: My teacher would say with even greater urgency, “The music is bigger than you or me.”

The problem with engulfing nerves, is that unless there’s a break in the cycle, it can perpetuate itself. You can go from one performance to another saddled with the same crisis with no end in sight.

And don’t believe the instruction: Learn your notes inside and out and all will be well.
Preparation is a given, but not God given when you need a life preserver in the middle of a piece.

I remember a nightmarish situation that played out at the Oberlin Conservatory when I was a student majoring in Piano, Performance. A very gifted young woman was publicly auditioning the Schumann “A” Minor Piano Concerto, when suddenly she had a massive memory lapse smack in the middle of the first movement. One phrase trapped her and she couldn’t get out of it. The same few measures were repeated 15 times to no avail which kept her from advancing to the final cadence. (I wondered if she would be signaled to go offstage, as happened recently to a participant in the Chopin International Piano Competition) I resisted jumping on stage with the music so the afflicted young Oberlin pianist could make it safely back to her dorm before nightfall.

As it happened, the player finally found her away out of the snag, and managed to play the next two movements impeccably well. She wasn’t chosen among the finalists but the following year she came back and won! Now that’s a story of fortitude and courage that should teach us all a lesson about not giving up.

I might add right here, that my own piano teacher had a significant memory lapse at her well publicized concert at the 92nd Street Y, so I began to make the connection between her son’s life’s work as a psychiatrist and her possible difficulty performing onstage. (though I’m not certain whether her memory lapse was self limiting or a symptom of a greater problem)

There’s hope!

To give others a twinge optimism about finding a cure for their paralyzing nerves, I will explain what I did, that not only helped me, but had been passed down to my students over the years.

1) Hypnosis: I became a confirmed Believer.

I had the courage to visit a hypno-therapist about 20 years ago who began by asking me about the piano; challenges to playing in public; what were my worst fears when performing or anticipating a performance (and inevitably these were related to fear of failure and its consequences, loss of love, loss of identity, etc.)

At that point, I reminded myself that my piano teacher’s son, Dr. David Freundlich, had published papers on Performance Anxiety that focused on masturbatory fantasies. I recall reading his Journal writings from the 1960’s that tied asphyxiating nerves on stage to fear of auto-erotic activity exposure. So if a player was crippled by anxiety, it was because playing piano was a self-gratifying, libidinal process best kept in a dark closet and not exhibited in public.

Well and good, for a beginning construct, but who could afford to lay on a psychiatrist’s couch and mull over the first five years of life, honing in on the psycho-sexual stage as a key to unraveling a Neurosis. It might take decades!

As reference, the late David Freundlich’s paper on the subject of “performance anxiety and musicians, American Journal of Psychiatry. 148:598-605. …. Freundlich, D. (1968) Narcissism and exhibitionism in the performance of classical …
http://www.analyticpractice.co.uk/…/Useful%20Reading%20on%20Performance.pdf”

For me, talking to my hypnotist who had her Certification posted up on the wall, was a more practical and direct approach to my problem.

With the information gathered from me at the first session, she put together an audiotape. And as I lay on the couch, not facing her, she soothingly repeated mantras that were more useful than “music was bigger than me.”

It was more like, “Imagine slowly descending a staircase to a beautiful room that looks out on a magnificent garden, with flowers of all varieties..” She led me to the garden where I contemplated nature and its bounty. I became more relaxed. She reminded me to breathe easily and deeply. She kept coming back to the breath. After 30 or more minutes, I was breathing without anxiety. She then placed me beside my piano which I “loved as a faithful friend.” The elegant, stately grand was not a threat, or something to avoid. She kept revisiting the garden, the relaxed contemplation and meditation. The tie-ins were natural, not contrived.

After 45 minutes, I was in a deep trance, needing to be brought back up the staircase by my hypnotist.

At the very end of the session, before I was in a completely conscious state, she transported me back stage as a rehearsal for my upcoming performance. (Incidentally, my own piano would be shipped to the location so that’s why she referred to it)

I was at the same time in the midst of the lush garden, very relaxed and at peace with myself. The people in the audience would “share” my music with me. They were “not judging” me or otherwise waiting for me to fail.

She planted many of these ideas as I was in my subliminal state, and it helped me on the day of my concert.

***

I can say with certainty that my performance following many re-playings of this audio-taped session was 90% improved over those I had ever previously given.

And in the course of 6 months, I continued my sessions with the hypnotist and acquired a sizable collection of cassettes.

Going Beyond Hypnosis

2) What I previously discussed would fall under Hypnosis and Self-Hypnosis strategies in dealing with performance jitters. After all, what I took from the hypnotist was the ability to go home, listen to the audiotapes and then make my own recordings with variations on the same theme.

But in the course of the 20 years since I visited this wise woman, I went further in exploring additional ways to handle performance anxiety. And these, again were allied to the breath and to Yoga in its many forms.

In the present, I advocate a healthy regimen of exercise, at the gym or otherwise. Yoga, again is a wonderful activity.

I tell my students to “breathe” through their playing.. through their scales, especially at the turnaround (the very end of the passage and the very beginning) And I use words like “roll in” into a scale or passage. “Play into the silence.”

I tell them to use MENTAL IMAGERY, and that again, is tied to self-hypnotic routines.

Elite athletes use mental imagery as a matter of course. Just imagine what floats through a diver’s mind as he prepares for an impossibly difficult maneuver— same for
gymnasts, skaters, runners, et al.

Pianists are part athletes, mastering great feats of coordination while simultaneously being artistic interpreters. They have a double challenge.

The mind/body connection applies, as always.

Examples of mental imagery for a pianist:

Playing staccato: Think of the piano as a playground, and in that association, you are a child. Use words “like bouncing a ball,” or for light staccato, imagine “ping pong balls.”

Piano can be child’s play.

For legato, “float, relax, play more effortlessly, don’t squeeze, or hold on.”

These prompts often relax the students, at least during their lessons.

For a more long lasting effect in dealing with upcoming piano recitals, I copy specific quotes from Just Being at the Piano, by Mildred Portney Chase, that I extract as mantras:

“To be a pianist, is to think that a daddy long legs on the window sill is dancing to your playing; it is to think that the breeze came through the window just to talk to your music…it is to feel that one phrase loves another….it is to think that the tree is a teacher of the tranquility you need in your playing.”

Important chapters: “Body Awareness and Movement,” “Tone,” “Listening,” “Slow Practice,” and “Performance.”

My other favorite book is The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey.

Treasured quotes:
“Listen to how D.T. Suzuki, the renowned Zen master, describes the effects of the ego mind on archery” (a metaphor for just about any endeavor, piano playing included)

“As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes.” DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR? Too many of my students talk about “losing concentration,” with tangential thoughts creeping in. Much of the time, they refer to a little voice telling them things are going too well and a “mistake” is about to happen, and as soon as the thought enters their mind, guess what happens?

“Calculation, which is miscalculation sets in……”

“Man is a thinking reed, but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored with long years of training in self-forgetfulness.”

Gallwey continues:

“Perhaps this is why it is said that great poetry is born in silence. Great music and art are said to arise from the quiet depths of the unconscious…”

I agree.

Performance anxiety doesn’t have to be crippling but it takes patience and a grain of optimism to move forward to a better place. Start where you are and go further, one baby step at a time.

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Music Comes from the Heart

Musical expression arises from the deepest part of ourselves so as we relax into the here and now, focused on the flow and shape of phrases, our arms, wrists and fingers work together as an ensemble to produce an artful outpouring. Mildred Portney Chase, author of Just Being at the Piano describes such an approach to music making that is central to my own philosophy. She explores the singing tone and its connection to the heart. She awakens pianists to deep breathing and experiencing the ebb and flow of music as it happens. Technique, phrasing, fingering, shaping, sculpting the musical line in slow motion, gradually nursed to tempo, make musicians out of pianists.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of listening through every stage of the learning process. Evelyn Glennie, a celebrated percussionist, puts great emphasis on “whole body listening” in her many presentations and forums, the most notable taking place in Monterey, California. Even a deaf, world-renowned performer such as Glennie gives testimony to listening from the tips of her fingers to her toes, not to mention every inch of her flesh and bones. You can experience her side-by-side expressions of phrases that arise from two different attitudes: one revealing an emotional and physical turn off to volumes, density, and musical shape– the other, open to the unfolding of a musical mosaic as it’s spun out.

Rather than drilling students to methodically find the right notes when they approach their pieces and technical studies, it’s best to lay emphasis on singing the musical line as a phrase would unfold. It can be done an octave or so lower in the range of the pupil’s voice. Another approach is to use the vitality of the dotted-eighth/16th rhythm to energize the flow of a scale as an example, allowing the student a built in timed delay to anticipate the next finger. The delay should not be a halt, but rather a spring forward motion of flexible wrists. There is always follow-through in all playing.

The most important ingredients of studying piano, are to be open and responsive to the heart, body, mind connection in music-making and to enjoy the experience as its own reward.

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Rekindling Marble Hill memories, and a remarkable twist of fate

I was deeply moved to have discovered the Marble Hill Reunion site which inspired my own cherished memories of the projects in the Bronx where I romped during my childhood and early adolescence.

My family moved from Featherbed Lane near Tremont Avenue to Marble Hill when I was about four. It was quite a notch up from a one room flat that had roaches, rats, and an ice box, barely containing enough food for a week. The iceman cometh. My parents needed the space, and rents were reduced for wartime veterans, so the projects were a perfect match.

During the early years we watched the construction of the Major Deegan Highway and P.S. 122, but having spent my first year of school at P.S. 95, I had a painful memory of being lost in the school yard with a dog tag around my neck. Fortunately, I managed to find my bearings with the help of a third grader who led me to my class line.

I played marbles in the projects and shot bottle caps around a designated square in the little playground near building 5. I bounced a ball off the logs and climbed the concrete fort. My big brother, Russ, hung out with “Joe-Joe” Gonzales who was the projects hell-raiser. They both spoke in whispers about rumbles that never happened, but I think Freddy S. went to prison.

We bounced our Spauldeens into the night, and jumped over the chain links into the grassy oval at the risk of being nabbed by the housing guards. I remember the bike rides around the periphery, making believe I was on the open road, in some fantasy place. The projects had secret hiding places, stairwells, back entrances, tender young bushes, and immature trees waiting to blossom.

Lost parakeets swirled through oaks and maples never to be recovered. I took walks from the projects to the Isaac Raboy Jewish school near the Amalgamated, and put those sticky, gummy tree fallen residues on my nose. I loved the brisk romp back to Marble Hill where I would look forward to the evening TV line up of Howdy Doody, Ozzie and Harriet and Lassie. I managed to be in Bob Smith’s radio studio peanut gallery, but missed my chance to be on the “Merry Mailman” show. I became sick with a head cold, and my mother never told me about the ticket that had arrived in the mail.

From our ninth floor apartment I could hear soap operas playing out through transparent, paper thin walls and bathroom pipes at the projects. I witnessed them if I put my ears to forbidden places– A nasty breakup with all the juicy detail of adultery and betrayal. I couldn’t stop straining my ears to listen. And one day, I had the audacity to string up a banana, and lower it in front of the neighbor’s window down below. Someone snatched it while the little rascal above us tossed a bowl full of chicken soup and noodles overboard that landed as a splattered mosaic on our window. The toddler’s mom never suspected that he dumped his dinner.

When I practiced on my Sohmer 1922 studio upright, my first dream piano, it would elicit nerve-racking thumps from the neighbor in apartment 8L. To my embarrassment, I would meet up with him from time to time in the elevator, and he would leer at me and shout “shad-up,” in a harsh tone of voice. His thick German accent made me cower, and thankfully his wife would put her hand over his mouth to spare me further embarrassment.

I remember some of the family tragedies and the postings about them in the lobby. A young father stricken with a heart attack; a mom who lived on the third floor died of cancer and left behind a 6-month old baby, and two school-age daughters.

Some names I didn’t see on the Marble Hill reunion roster from building #5: Gary Gindick, Michael Hershkowitz, Louise Chotras, Mona Koenig, Mark, Bob, and Lenore Wolin, Gertie Stamler, Susan Wolfskehl, Fran and husband who owned the Pizza place on Broadway.

And who cannot forget the elevators stalled on various floors spelling panic!!!

Nights were intolerably hot in summer. It was unbearable to be encapsulated in a project apartment with no air conditioning.

And what hankerings some of us had to own pets but couldn’t. Tanya Nickel who lived in 12L, building 5 had an illegal cat that jumped out the window and perished.

I had my very first pet, Terrance the turtle that I picked out at the circus. Most Marble Hill residents had fish. (guppies were very popular)

My mom threw ice cream money out the window from the 9th floor, and too many times the carefully wrapped dime and two cents landed in the bushes. I remember “John,” the wandering ice cream man who didn’t have many teeth and pushed a modest cart. I loved my favorite, a vanilla ice cream sandwich.

I went to PS 122 when it first opened, and took the sweet walk to Bailey Avenue. I was a tomboy who played stick ball with the kids from St. John’s in the school yard. (I located some memorable pics of the playground that are contained in Lehman College Archives)

Some of my classmates left school during released time, and when they came back, they talked about confession, the devil, heaven, hell and limbo in between scaring the likes of most of us, Jewish kids. (me, included)

The most pleasant project memory I hold dearest to my heart was of my parakeet, Tykie swirling about my bedroom landing from time to time on the Sohmer’s keyboard, leaving little bird droppings in his wake.

He and I spread our musical wings as I traveled through the piano repertoire as a beginner playing Diller-Quaille, next advancing to intermediate level pieces in Burgmuller’s collection of 25 Progressive Pieces. I was practicing “La Chasse” just before the little bird succumbed to pneumonia on a sultry afternoon.

Such was life in the projects, ephemeral but full of treasured reminiscences tucked way in a safe place, to be retrieved at the right moment.

Footnote: Less than a year ago, as I was traveling home by Amtrak from the Bay area, I overheard two women at the Richmond station, speaking with heavy Bronx accents. Being the extroverted ex-New Yorker that I am, I impolitely intruded upon their conversation, asking if they were from the Bronx. (Both spoke in the well recognized dialect.) Wouldn’t you know, by a twist of fate, they not only hailed from my neighborhood, but lived beside the old Music School off Kingsbridge Road where I took my first music lessons.

A sixth degree of separation? I discovered that they had known Mrs. Elston, the eccentric Director of the magical music haven that sat atop a hill.

What a small world!!!

LINK: Marble Hill Reunion Site


http://s411089181.initial-website.com/

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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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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/