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Ear Training and Transposing are intrinsic to piano lessons (examples from an Adult lesson in progress)

It’s not easy to plan a one hour piano lesson to include ear training, solfege and transposing. (They belong together, bundled with Theory, and enrich the learning environment)

At the Oberlin Conservatory, Theory, Keyboard Harmony, and Eurhythmics were taught separately. Our piano teachers (applied study) adhered to their rigid routine, rarely fitting solfege, sight-reading, improvising, composing etc. into the time-limited hour. Yet, the cross-fertilization of course work, expanded our musical horizons.

The New York City High School of Performing Arts, my alma mater, offered a valuable/mandatory Sight-singing course that continued from 10th grade through senior year. It was enormously relevant as the movable DO (solfeggio) helped me navigate complex scores, and peel away voices.

Piano students who just stick to the music without being exposed to theory, ear-training and other mind-enriching escapades, are basically short-changed. They often view their pieces as finger challenges only–easily becoming Treble clef fixated, tacking on bass lines without a second thought. Naturally, their sight-reading suffers because they’re not internalizing interval movement in various voices, or sensing harmonic flow.

In an effort to stem the tide of such top layer, tracing paper learning, I’ve made a concerted effort to delegate at least 15 minutes of my students’ lesson time to ear training and transposing. (One of my source materials is Fundamentals of Piano Theory by Snell and Ashleigh) Snell and Ashleigh

As an example, I videotaped an adult student transposing snatches from the Preparatory Level workbook, page 45.

for transposition using solfege


I’ve tossed in a spot-practicing segment where the ADULT student is smoothing out a tricky set of measures in the RONDO: Allegretto, Mozart Sonata, K. 545. (Repertoire should be a springboard for sight-singing, ear-training and theory adventures since they’re interwoven)

(I often slip into solfeggio in parceling voices)


Solfeggio and Transposing

The Importance of Sight-singing, Ear-training and Theory in piano study

Using Piano Repertoire and as a springboard for a theory lesson

How to Improve Sight-Reading

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Irina Morozova’s inspiring words flow through a lesson with an adult student (Beethoven’s Fur Elise-in-progress) Video

“From watching great pianists it is obvious that they incorporate quite different movements to achieve the same goals, because people do not play piano with fingers but rather with the mind and the ear. Again, it is the clear image of what kind of sound one wants to achieve, combined with the knowledge of how to get it….”

To frame a lesson with these ideas, helps to infuse it with the spiritual, analytical, and nonverbal elements of exchange.

Within this paradigm, one of my adult students continued her study of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” (C section, treble chord voicing with bass tremolo)


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Piano Instruction: Solfeggio and Transposing (Videos)

Using Solfeggio or Solfege to advance ear training and to transpose pieces into various tonal regions is very helpful for piano students of all levels.

If we set a goal of memorizing the first 8 notes of a scale using the syllables, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti (or Si) Do, we’re on our way to understanding musical lines in any key that will have a common point of reference. This presupposes that “Do” (or the first note of any scale) is MOVABLE.

In C Major, “Do” would be C. In G Major, it would be “G,” and so forth.

With MINOR tonalities, the first note of a scale in any form whether it be Natural, Harmonic, or Melodic would also be “Do,” but certain internal alterations of the minor scale according to its structure and content would have the following solfeggiated syllables:

For C minor Natural form: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C

Do Re Me (pronounced may) Fa Sol Le (pronounced lay) Te (pronounced tay) Do

If we are in any tonality and an accidental (sharp or flat) is inserted within a measure, then solfeggio accommodates the change.

In the key of C Major, if a composer inserts an F# in the score, then FA (F) become Fi. For an Eb accidental, Mi (E) becomes Me (“may”) If A is lowered to Ab, La (A) becomes Le (Lay)

Many piano teachers start students on solfeggio before they learn note names because it imbues a consciousness of RELATIONSHIPS/interval spacing between notes. Unfortunately the STANDARD method books on the market fixate on Middle C and “C position” making students think that C is the interminable, FIXED, “Do” in the “happy” Major. That’s why I grab any opportunity to insert an Eb (May) in the score, creating the parallel C minor as a tonal variation.

A pupil should begin to explore transposition of primer melodies into many different keys by using a movable DO. Otherwise, he will spend several months to a year in a time-warped C-centered universe until the next method book is introduced. At that point G-centered, “G position” plows along in the same predictable course.

To support tonal exploration, a teacher can start a pupil on a regimen of pentascales, or five-finger positions that travel through different keys. The student should sing these back in the Major and parallel minor using solfeggiated syllables. Note names are not abandoned just because SOLFEGGIO is added. Both learning modalities should exist side by side. After alll, the more psycho-neuro-musical-linguistic connections made, the better for overall musical development–Solfeggio being a syllabic lingo that frames music.

Five finger position examples:

C D E F G Do Re Mi Fa Sol

followed by,

C D Eb F G Do Re Me (May) Fa Sol

I make sure to journey around the CIRCLE of Fifths with a student well before beginning full scale study.

In truth, many teachers are shy about placing small hands on five-finger positions in multiple sharp and flat keys, but I’ve found that pupils relish the opportunity to explore something new and different. They will happily shuffle their pentascales, playing them in Major, minor, parallel and contrary motion in diverse geographies.

A few 8 and 9-year olds are now leaping like frogs with spring forward wrists through Dozen a Day, Book one, no. 3 “Hopping.” Parallel minors follow “Major” playings and I use Solfeggio to intone the top voice of the parallel thirds. Once solidly grounded in the first two keys of C and G, students play hopping in the keys of D, A, E, etc. (Major and minor)

A teacher can spring from Faber’s C-D-E-F-G March in Primer Lesson Book One to a self-created “sad” march using Eb–and as the student develops more dexterity, NEW keys can supplement the original. That’s where SOLFEGGIO can be introduced as a SECOND language of musical understanding. (A simultaneous translation, perhaps)

For SKIP and STEP discrimination, solfeggio is the perfect vehicle. If a teacher is motivated to nudge a student into more adventurous tonal realms, the transpositions will pay dividends by improving sight-READING and memorization.

SINGING, of course, is central to SOLFEGGIO as both are EAR-TRAINING activities.

Looking at an original melody in one key, and superimposing another’s key’s letter names during transposition would be very confusing. A rudimentary melody offered in G, will be more easily played in D, A, E, B etc. by using solfeggio.

One of my students, at the advanced Intermediate level, who had learned to read notes in the conventional way with her first teacher, recently embarked upon solfeggio using Keith Snell and Martha Ashleigh’s Fundamentals of Music Theory, Unit 12. She was asked to sight-sing the first melody on the page after I gave her the Do of the key which was C. After sight-singing the example a few times using solfeggio, she played the melody with her eyes fixed on the music drawing on the same solfeggiated syllables. Other tonal transpositions followed, and each line of music in the treble and bass clef was parceled out using solfeggio.

The videos below illustrate the activity:


Here are the Chromatic solfeggiated syllables: (Si or Ti can be used for the 7th note of a scale. Lowered by half-step, they would be say or tay)

Do Di Re Ri Me Fa Fi Sol Si (or Ti) La Li Si (or Ti) Do
Do Si (or Ti) Say (or Tay) La Lay Sol Say Fa Mi May Re Rah Do

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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!


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Should piano students listen to recorded performances of pieces they are first beginning to learn?

I was thinking of Palmer’s edition of Chopin, an Introduction to His Music, and when I first purchased it years ago there was no inserted CD of recorded selections contained in the album.

With subsequent published editions, a CD popped into an envelope, beckoning a player to sample another pianist’s interpretation of music he had just barely sight-read through.

I am here emphasizing the fledgling who is embarking upon a virgin learning process, finding correct notes, counting out beats, piecing out fingering, etc. with a guiding teacher at the helm.

In this regard, I remember telling Claudia, one of my ten-year old students who was feasting on a new journey into the Romantic period, about to study the Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous, NOT to listen to X pianist’s CD sample of the work, not because it might not have been a sterling interpretation, but because it could, in my opinion, stultify her individual, creative, developmental musical process.

An additional reason for my admonition was that I felt listening so quickly to a piece played at performance tempo by a competent pianist, might make the child feel intimidated by a composition she was just beginning to learn. Polished to a high level of performance, it would separate the student from the baby-step approach I would encourage and implement over weeks and months.

One might say, that jumping too quickly into trying to COPY another pianist’s performance, or benefit from exposure to various nuanced interpretations could prevent the pupil from trusting his/her own musical intuition, with the assistance of the piano teacher.

Now I’m sure that I will be barraged by opposing opinions which will have valid arguments at their foundation.

I, for one, can say, that I like to listen/watch performances on You Tube of compositions I have lived with over time, studied in-depth, struggled with on many levels, and put my autograph on as best I can, because after all, we’re all exposed to performances of our pieces through studies with our piano teachers, and on the Internet when we least expect to encounter them.

But I always hesitate to consult another artist’s performance until I’ve fully absorbed a piece on many intricate levels. At that point I feel open to other pianists’ interpretations and ideas. Let’s say that I feel that I can most benefit from these outside musical influences on You Tube, CD, whatever, after I’ve allowed myself an unassisted deep-sea dive into the composition.

Here are a few counter-arguments to my premise that are valid where it even applies to my particular music-learning journey.

1) I’m having difficulty with a passage because of meter complexity or rhythm, and I’m not near a teacher, or have one at the moment.

Why not find a You Tube of Perahia, Richter, et al, playing the piece, and use as the clarifying reference.

2) If I’m a beginning student, or one of intermediate or advanced level, I can resolve the problem with my teacher at lessons. But If I’m advanced enough to have the issue addressed by way of a sample recording in between lessons, why not use an outside resource.

Most of the time with beginners, however, they need the teacher to help them along with the basics of rhythm, articulation, fingering, etc. so You Tubes performances, CDs, DVDs, whatever will usually not do the job.

Therefore, my premise of not being CONDITIONED to another interpretation at the very BEGINNING of a learning experience still holds, though I open myself to this resonating opposition to my thesis:

Well, then, isn’t the piano TEACHER the biggest outside influence upon the student in the artistic shaping of a composition?

Okay, YES, I would have to admit that, but I would NOT sit down and keep playing the whole composition at a polished level, at every lesson while the student was struggling along. That would be the perfect antidote to the pupil’s engagement with the composition. She would feel discouraged before she began to piece out measures at a time.

If I was an empathetic teacher who wanted to advance a student along the path to fluency, I would put myself in the shoes of the pupil, and take the baby steps, one at a time, with her. Over weeks and months, where individual measures led to mastery of phrases, sections, and finally to an absorption of an entire piece, the teacher and student would have been on the same wave-length.

In addition, where interpretation was concerned, I would expect the teacher to have an understanding of performance practice, so that certain choices made by the student could be considered in the context of a musical historical period and the style of the time. (This opens the door to a long-winded polemic about tempos taken, and various turns of the phrase which will be deferred. Two hot topics in one blog are a NO NO!)

So, yes, the teacher’s spin on the piece would have to factor in and be considered in this discussion.

In this connection, one of my basic reservations with the Suzuki method of teaching piano is that at its core, the approach is based upon COPYING THE TEACHER along with ingesting the contents of a CD loaded into the program. A student must be on playback after the teacher delivers a “live” musical sample, supplemented by a recording that is supposed to saturate the student for days and weeks. That is, if the Suzuki method is applied in its purest form.

One could say that a standardized performance is the rule, with deviations at beginner level being discouraged.

On that score alone I am decisively opinionated but open to feedback from students, teachers, and all music lovers.

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Piano Instruction: Debussy Arabesque No. 1 (Video)–and playing through the whole composition

I first came to know this piece when a fifth grader at P.S. 122 in the Bronx was selected to play it at our student assembly. The ebb and flowing beauty of this work was so poignant, that I stored it away in my memory until I was able to personally experience this composition years later as a student.


The Debussy Arabesque no. 1 is a composition from the Impressionist era of musical composition. (late 19th Century following the Romantic period) Debussy and Ravel were the hallmark French composers of the time.

Apparently, the two Arabesques were the first works Debussy had ever composed for the piano, so they had immense historical significance.

The vocabulary of Debussy’s music is rich in harmonic dimension. The composer uses 7ths, 9ths, 11th and more, while he intersperses whole tone progressions that are so characteristic of his writing.

One can use more pedal when playing Debussy and not worry about perfectly pure sounding lines, though in this particular composition, special care must be taken to shape and contour phrases so they aren’t blurred and over-pedaled.

If density or volume ever applied to musical performance, this piece meets all requirements for a slow entry into notes, and a swimming motion through them.

The video below suggests ways to approach the composition, following the harmonic rhythm, bass line notes, and rolling broken-chord patterns. The player must have relaxed arms, a supple wrist, and be immersed in wave-like musical forms.

I have first played it through from beginning to end before discussing part 1:

First section:

Playing the triplets against 8ths:

Video Part Two:

RELATED for use of supple wrists and floating arms along with rotation:

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About the physical side of playing piano: What we need to teach at all levels (Videos)

I wish I could have waved a magic wand when I was six years old and produced a beginning teacher who would have artfully nursed me through my crawling stage to a graceful, phrase-loving adulthood at the piano. I needed to learn how to produce a singing tone, moving with agility from one note to another under the physical guidance of my mentor, but there was no one with such capability on the horizon.

Instead, I remember seven years of torment and frustration when what I knew as my tonal ideal deep within me never materialized. My tiny, but growing hands betrayed me time and again. I couldn’t put my imagination to work in a practical way without hands-on knowledge.

At the age of 13 or so, when I entered the New York City High School of Performing Arts, which was an easy entrance since I played the violin as well, and string players were always in short supply for school orchestras, I finally transferred to a piano teacher who brought me back to the basics which I desperately needed.

Like Irina Gorin (whose teaching videos I’ve shared), Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich took the time to step back, and work with me on a NOTE-to-NOTE basis, DROPPING my whole arm, with dead weight gravity into the keys– my fingers being cushioned by a supple wrist.

As she held my arm until I let go of all tension, I exercised repeated free falls as if I were tossed out of a plane with a parachute, experiencing the abandon of disarming flight. She would check my wrists and elbows for tension, and then together, we weeded out all the pokes, like pencil point jabs that disturbed the flow from one tone to the next. In the process, my ear sensitivity was stretched to a point where even a dog couldn’t compete with me if one of those high-frequencey whistles summoned him at an inopportune moment.

This introduction to my lessons transpired for weeks with little if any repertoire covered, and I was grateful to ingest what I hungered for in my formative piano learning years. Scales and arpeggios were next, putting principles of RELAXATION, attentive listening and tonal focus to work. And never once did I regret the necessary pause before I was given my very first Mozart Sonata, K. 311 where I put all the tonal awareness and physical knowledge into practice. Soon followed the Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Beethoven’s second Piano Concerto and Mozart’s K. 453 in G Major. It was icing on the cake to perform the Mozart with our High School Orchestra after I auditioned it for Nadia Reisenberg. I’m convinced that my singing tone earned me this memorable opportunity.

So now that I’ve grown up to be a piano teacher following in the footsteps of Lillian Freundlich whom I dearly miss since her death many years ago, I’ve continued her legacy by spending inordinate time with my students on tone production, relaxation and riveting note-to-note listening–all ingredients of fluid playing.

As example, here are two videos that impart practical knowledge about the physical side of playing when teaching students from the earliest to most advanced levels.

(Snatched from a piano lesson given by Irina Gorin, creator, Tales of a Musical Journey)

A gem produced by Barbara Lister-Sink

Finally, what I’ve learned from Mrs. Freundlich and Irina Gorin (by Internet exposure) is that it takes a patient teacher with undying passion to go back to the very physical fundamentals of tone production, teaching the singing tone legato as the underpinning of piano playing, regardless of style or genre. Such meticulous work will produce limitless dividends as students enjoy a life-long connection to the piano that brings them closer to the very soul of music-making.


An example of whole body listening, relaxation, and pianistic fluency: