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What can you do with a Performance-Piano Degree?

Face the music! Most new Conservatory grads with fancy Bachelor of Music, Performance-Piano Degrees bound in leather must improvise when catapulted into the competitive job market. With only a tiny space on the world stage reserved for budding soloists, many aspiring concert pianists will teach privately, wait tables, babysit, or become high school choir accompanists.

In my case, upon Oberlin graduation, I spent nearly ten years working at the New York State Department of Labor, starting out as an Employment Interviewer in the Household Division. In my spare time, I schlepped around the city giving piano lessons.

My first students, Annie, 7 and Naomi, 5, who lived in an upscale apartment complex off Washington Square in the West Village, benefited from my idealism and determination to be uniquely creative.

Instead of relying on John Thompson’s pixie popular primer series with its middle C fixation, I decided to have my fledglings create their own compositions from scratch. They would write short poems with simple rhyme schemes and we would scan them as iambics or trochees, and from there pick out five-finger positions and create melodies. Before long, I had composed a book of enriched accompaniments that kept our creative juices flowing.

Eventually, I experimented with Robert Pace’s materials that continued to invite sound explorations as it encouraged transpositions, but my job at the State, reigned in my teaching, and I was pressured to become a weekend private teacher in my tight quarters on West 74th and Amsterdam.

The daily stint at the Household Office, though energy draining, afforded a colorful work backdrop. Each day I sent mostly African American and Latina maids into hostile work environments on the East and West Side of Manhattan and then fielded follow-up calls from angry employers about missing booze in liquor cabinets, scratched furniture tops, over-polished, gummy piano racks, shattered kitchen tiles and mysterious bathroom puddles.

These complaints forced my involvement in a fact-finding investigation, not my favorite undertaking.

With Form ES.2 in hand, I called the accused applicant to my desk from the peanut gallery that was stacked with myriads of maids, some literally smelling like Ajax (We had several complaints about one particular worker whom I ardently defended) Who cared whether she over-used scouring powder? Other people layered themselves with perfume or the latest deodorant on the market.

In fact, “Jane” still had a contingent of fans who always requested her.

Inevitably, she got off, was put on an ES3.22, watch hold, a form of probation, and continued to saturate homes with her occupational odors.

In the meantime, I was trying to complete my Master’s Degree in Music Therapy and to this end, invented a cardboard “scanner” decorated with an assortment of Employment Service forms. I cut a horizontal opening measured to a book line of print that allowed me to roll it up and down over my course work text so I could surreptitiously read large chunks of material.

With an understanding supervisor/budding Romance novelist who had me proof read her unedited chapters on the sly, I was able to arrange time off the job to complete a Music Therapy related Internship at St. Vincent’s Hospital on W. 14th Street.

For three afternoons a week I would design musical activities for short-term alcoholic and psychiatric patients enlisting the musical philosophy of Karl Orff, and at the end of my service I had published a paper in Hospital and Community Psychiatry, a Journal of the American Psychiatric Association that summarized the techniques used to improve social interaction skills. These included the use body percussion (clapping, snapping fingers, tapping knees), singing activities and individualized, private piano lessons, etc.

Psychiatric Services — Table of Contents (26 [7])
Shirley M. Smith. USING MUSIC THERAPY WITH SHORT-TERM ALCOHOLIC AND PSYCHIATRIC PATIENTS. Hosp Community Psychiatry 1975 26: 420-421 [PDF] …psychservices.psychiatryonline.org/content/vol26/issue7/

Naturally, with a publication to my credit and a new Degree in hand that was shipped to my office in a hollow tube resembling a toilet paper holder, I thought I was destined to acquire a music-related full-time job.

But like most others holding the same piece of parchment with Gothic lettering, there was no work out there for me. Music Therapy was not regarded with as much respect in those days as it is today. Art Therapy had far more clinical standing.

My relocation to California definitely advanced my private teaching career, though it was not enough to put food on the table. For supplementary income, I subbed for the Fresno Unified School District in every subject known to mankind, and as a side bar, I helped organize substitutes into a union because of dirt-low wages spanning ten years. This effort succeeded and carved out a new legacy for those of us who toiled in the trenches, and spurred much needed change in the work environment. Teacher Magazine and Education Week put Fresno subs on the map in articles about their victory against all odds. (“Substitutes Unite!” October, 1999 by David Hill) Among these fighting back subs, were a few piano teachers, most likely with performance degrees.

So what does a music major do in the long term with such a prize-less piece of paper?

On this final note, I can’t overlook my high school choir accompanying experience that stole precious practice time otherwise devoted to the works of Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart and the other masters.

I won’t forget the day a pile of Christmas music with five endings, “da capo al fine,” and an added repeat inserted by the conductor was handed to me by the District’s Music Administrator. It was an overnight assignment with a medley of super-fast paced Christmas carols to be performed at the Big Winter Concert! While it went well, I swore I would never again be enslaved to such a pressure deadline to the tune of $12 per hour!

After that whole episode, I quit accompanying choirs and decided that teaching privately was my niche.

Coming back home was nice as it’s always been. Throw in some blogging and You tubing, and I was content.

Finally, with a sweet El Cerrito Hills piano sanctuary, I was, without a doubt, in seventh heaven!

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More trills, but bucolic and serene: Scarlatti’s d minor “pastorale” K. 9 (VIDEO)

Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata K. 9 in d minor (the “pastorale”)

The trills in K. 9 are far different than those permeating Scarlatti’s sonata K. 159 in C Major. The latter has a robust horn call opening with a lavish assortment of ornaments. The bright sounding Major tonality creates a dazzling brilliance:

By contrast the d minor Pastorale is wistfully beautiful with its very lovely theme weaving through the sonata, drawing the listener into a bucolic scene. The trills are tapestries not displays of technical prowess.

In the second half of the work, Scarlatti develops material in the opening section, preserving the mood, but darkening the theme before the piece gracefully winds to a close with its final resonating trill.

The d minor sonata, K. 9 is written in 6/8 time, but is felt in lilting two’s, providing an undulating rhythm that matches the mood created.

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/trills/

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Adult piano students say and do the darndest things.

I remember Art Linkletter’s show, “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” which made me think of a few adult piano students and their hauntingly memorable words.

Yesterday, for example, I was forewarned by a 70-year old pupil, that I should expect a call from her during the night about the key of “F# minor.” What impending crisis was she talking about? Did it have to do with the Melodic form of the scale and its raised notes going up, but not coming down? Was it the temporary shift in fingering or the modal turnaround? I’d concede that the “melodic” was a cliff-hanger on the ascent with its “raised” 6th and 7th notes, but definitely a descending blow-out in its restored “natural” form. Would this duality catapult a student into full-blown despair?

F# G# A B C# D# E# F#
E D C# B A G# F#

The Circle of Fifths for Major and Minor Scales

Wait a minute, my 70-year old, wasn’t assigned the more complicated Melodic minor this week. She was supposed to practice the NATURAL FORM with mirror fingers, 4, 3, and 3,4 on F# and G# in every progressive octave, with 3’s meeting on C# in both hands. We’d spent a few lessons on these reciprocal relationships and symmetries, though she’d planted her 4th finger on two different notes in the same octave, hoping I wouldn’t see the guilty left hand from my vantage point at the second piano. But my peripheral vision had been fine-tuned from hunting down crossed-hand notes with rolling eyeballs.

All humor aside, it’s always difficult to navigate scales that are not strict patterns of two and three-black key groups with thumbs meeting like those of B, F# and C# Major and their “enharmonics” spelled in flats: Cb, Gb and Db. But just about every scale has an internal symmetry that can be explored to best advantage regardless of its location on the Circle of Fifths.

The scales of C, G, D, A and E fall under one heading where the bridge between the octaves has a reciprocal fingering or mirror.

In the case of C Major, the 7th note B crossing over C to D, uses finger numbers 4, 1, 2 in the Right Hand while the left plays 2,1, 4. The anchor finger over which 4 passes in either direction, holds things together.

In previous writings and videos, I also pinpointed where finger number 3 met in both hands, providing another internal organizer.

For the student who was rattled by F# minor, a scale that had a novel identity, we found a different location for mirror fingers, but still a helpful aid.

Another pupil, a US Attorney who’d been chasing robber barons in South Carolina, was worried that he didn’t get to the piano this past week, so he let me know in no uncertain terms by telephone and text message, fax, email, registered mail, certified mail, and just plain 3rd class snail mail, that his upcoming lesson would “just be a practice.” I wondered to myself, had he otherwise feared a public flogging in front of Starbucks?

He had done very well over the years, reconciling the relationship of scale study with his desire to improve his understanding of the Beethoven sonatas and other repertoire.

I’d previously mentioned Ralph Cato, the US Olympic boxing trainer who was my sparring partner for ten minutes following his lessons. Every week he’d use my staircase for athletic training and balance routines. Was I dreaming? Because his coaching was pert and perfect, I’d wished his precise directions were recorded for posterity, though they remain a lingering memory.

Up in the Bay area, a retired lawyer, used her iPhone to capture angles of her hand and fingers that were used as learning reminders between lessons.

I had started to believe these technology based aids were helping her and I had to get with it without resisting change.

She’d admitted that her first piano teacher, a nun in a rural Texas parochial school, had used a ruler to beat her hand into a rigid, arched position.

Oops, maybe I’d mixed her up with my paternal grandpa who ran away from the Cheder in Latvia after his knuckles were skinned with a cat o’ nine tails by the head Rabbi. He’d ditched his Torah lessons.

Oh well, some teachers over generations used this same dastardly approach.

In a few years, none of us would be collecting colorful stories about our piano students. We’d be replaced by micro robots who’d comb the keyboard, electronically marking fingerings for every major and minor scale.

An exaggeration, perhaps.

In retrospect, I should have appreciated middle-of-the-night calls from my 70-year old student. At least I could log them for a growing anthology of pianorama.

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/piano-instruction-learning-the-f-minor-scale-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/31/piano-technique-related-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/the-iphone-invades-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/cato-his-killer-keyboard-and-a-round-of-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/a-piano-teachers-worst-nightmare/

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Piano Technique: Big Leaps, Crossed Hands, and shifty eyeballs (with slow motion video replay)

up tempo:

Be prepared to exercise your eyeballs minus head movements when tackling large leaps, especially those hand-over-hand acrobatics that are intrinsic to many of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas.

In the first video I’ve isolated a few of these jumps from Sonata K. 113 in A Major, demonstrating what I’ve found to be the best approach.

While I’ve crashed and burned on more than one occasion, a new consciousness emerged through trial and error.

Recommendations

1) No bobbing head back and forth when playing crossed hands.

Use your shifty eyeballs, if necessary, to target the destination notes going back and forth over your right hand.

There are two places that stand out in this sonata. The first involves two octave, crossed-hand jumps. The Left travels back and forth over the right multiple times.

In the second instance, there are jumps of four octaves, and these can be suicide trips, unless mediated by shifty eyeballs.

2) Use an arc-like motion back and forth, but not too high, or you’ll lose contact with the keys.

3) Block out the broken chord progressions in the right hand as they move in sequence. Then unblock them before adding in the left hand.

Be calm, relaxed, and breathe deeply but not anxiously.

Finally, say a prayer..

CLICK to enlarge (page 1 and 2, Sonata, K. 113 by Scarlatti)

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Domenico Scarlatti Sonata (Toccata) in D minor, K. 141 with reams of repeated notes (VIDEO)

Domenico Scarlatti never fails to come up with a flashy pyrotechnical escapade that can make or break a player in progress. I know, because I’ve walked the plank with this piece until I was able to reverse my fortune and run with it happily into the horizon. Any number of times those repeated notes, cross hands, whatever, ruled me like a slave, and I had to earn my freedom with a commitment to slow and steady practice. Still, I would never be satisfied with the end result. That’s the way it is with an art form. You really never arrive, but just approach a goal with more success than expected.

How to stack the odds in your favor:

FIRST PRACTICE SEPARATE hands, very slowly. (use RH fingers 3,2,1, 3, 2, 1) except in measure 10: 1,3,2,1,2,1 Know the Harmonic progressions in the BASS.. Label all the secondary dominants, and notice their sequential pattern.

When played in tempo, the repeated notes should be executed in groups of ONE and not THREE. It goes so fast at Presto speed, that anyone daring to take it on better think in circles and not squares. And I mean that literally. Don’t forget to breathe and think slowly through fast paced 16th notes. Opposites attract.

Think flamenco guitar, vibrant Spanish rhythms and you’re off to a flying start. Most of all, ENJOY the passion of this masterpiece and let it SOAR!!

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/trills/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/domenico-scarlatti-sonata-in-a-k-113-i-found-another-pair-of-hands-video/

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The Big Baroque Festival!

I cleared most of my Saturday morning lessons so I could be on time for a special rehearsal at Fresno State. I took no chances given the steady rain these past few days that caused dangerously deep puddles along Shaw Avenue. The inevitable flow of traffic to crowd-jamming Bulldog games would also be a time delayer. (What season were we in?) My ignorance reminded me of the time I inadvertently scheduled a student recital on Superbowl Sunday. I had booked Northwest Chapel well in advance for a particular weekend afternoon, and naturally a specific Sunday in February was the only one available. Not a mystery with all the sports hoopla engulfing the city of Fresno. Since a pile of tailgate parties had to be canceled on account of my recital, the inconvenience cost me 4 students. And by coincidence, these kids all lived on the BLUFFS, a pseudo wealthy northwest enclave where homes overlooked a custom contrived pasture. (I noticed similar landscapes along my weekly train route to the Bay) It appeared that almost every city had set aside acres for panoramic views of a deep, expansive ditch decorated with trees, a few roaming horses, and some wild dogs chasing a few rodents that needed easy disposal) Here in Fresno there had been a fever pitch rush to buy such properties on the newly fabricated hills back in the late 80’s. (But I often wondered if the people hawking these houses, realized that a chugging, whistle blowing train would whiz by at frequent intervals, turning their dream homes into railroad flats)

***

Despite the fact that these Bluffs parents were put off by my recital scheduling on the day of a mega sports event, they still managed to show up for their kiddies’ concert with a variety of television hook-ups. Since iPhones had not yet arrived, I wished I had brought my camcorder to videotape some of the instant replay videotaping going on. No joke. The unpleasant distractions virtually ruined all of my students’ performances.

***

Flash forward: Thank God, today’s musical event at the university didn’t compete with football mania. (I happily reminded myself that the Superbowl came and went)

A high brow Baroque Festival sponsored by the Music Teachers Association of California had been planned in the afternoon, and one of my ten-year old students eagerly participated. The event had a competitive edge because only 1/3 of the entrants would be selected to go on to the Regional recital. In simple terms, those who were picked in this round by two esteemed out of town judges, would play in March at an Honors performance. It came with a Certificate of recognition and a handsome medallion. Not exactly an Olympic event, but for some keyed up students, it was a good comparison.

For starters, at 11:30 a.m. my student and I met at the concert hall to test out the stage piano.

Just last week, I had nearly died, thinking I missed my student’s run through, because a mistake was made in the announcement put out by the local music teachers association. Or maybe it was last year’s flier that got sandwiched into my branch’s Yearbook with an erroneous date of 2011 instead of 2010. Naturally, with the old dating, the February Festival would have been past history along with me.

What a relief to have come back from hell this week with another shot at being this kid’s teacher. Close call.

Today this very talented youngster performed two Bach Inventions weeks after she had appeared faceless on You Tube demonstrating her technical prowess. With only her HANDS on camera, she was put through grueling technical paces, playing every scale and arpeggio known to mankind. A bit of an exaggeration, but used to give her credit for hanging in there with a camcorder gaping over her shoulder.

Here’s a snatch of her anonymously rendered keyboard agility:

(Note that one of the pianos on video was waiting for a tuning, while the other had just received one. Hence, the warbling between them.)

In any event, the formerly invisible student, finally emerged with a face attached to her name, along with an assigned number that followed her to the Walberg concert hall stage that was equipped with a 9 foot size Yamaha.

Incidentally, last year I had learned a mighty lesson about Festival pianos and warming up. Mistakenly, I permitted a student to practice on a small upright piano in one of the university’s cubicles after she had tried out the concert hall’s concert grand. The diminutive practice size instrument had a very light action by comparison to the house piano’s resistant touch, so when my pupil played the first few notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata on stage, they totally disappeared. Naturally, she was caught by surprise and remembered the most recent piano she had tried. Live and learn.

The atmosphere at today’s Festival, or COMPETITION, was superficially low keyed. Everyone was supposed to be celebrating the age of the Baroque without a second thought, and I guess I should have joined in the fireworks, or the candle lighting ceremony but neither took place.

In preparation for the ordeal, or golden opportunity, however one wanted to spin it, I gave my student a copy of Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase and told her to meditate over several selected, underlined passages.

I made sure to recommend my favorite mantra:
“To be a pianist, in one sense of the word, 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. It is to know a loneliness crowded with the beautiful as you play.”

These words had worked like magic with another student who had made it to the Regional recital two years ago. In honor of her sterling playing, I had framed a picture of her holding a Certificate and wearing the medallion. But by far the truest memento of her 2009 Baroque Festival appearance, was a DVD that captured a portion of her “live” performance.

Here’s the c minor fugue from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Book I coming from Fresno State University’s concert hall. (excuse the raw footage with some sound irregularities)

PS An in depth documentary is in progress about what transpired at the MTAC sponsored Baroque Festival. In the meantime, winners will be alerted by email on Sunday Feb. 20, 2011 so the suspense is killing most of the participants.

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Music, life, and memories (Video)

I’m in a Scarlatti phase of music making that hearkens back to my days as a student at the New York City High School of Performing Arts (“Fame I wanna live forever”) when I was studying with Lillian Freundlich at her townhouse off Riverside Drive. The sonata I posted above, was her first musical recommendation to me. She insisted that I purchase the Friskin edition, and start by learning one of the effervescent essercizi in G Major, L. 387.  (K. 14) The rest is history as decades later, I recorded 28 of them for two cd albums.

My lessons with Mrs. Freundlich were an eternal awakening. She would sing over my playing, prod me to shape musical phrases, and encourage my search for oneness with the instrument. Before I met Lillian, I always knew what I wanted to hear inside of me, but, frustrated by technical barriers, I couldn’t play many notes without feeling tight and fatigued. The music I produced was boxed in, wanting desperately to flower.

As fate would have it, my studies with Lillian were all too short. Within two years I was bound for the Oberlin Conservatory, where I felt boxed in again. Practice rooms were stacked high, and Performance Majors seemed assembly line processed. I missed the West Side townhouse, and my lessons in an enormous living room with a cathedral ceiling and the love of music permeating every bit of space.

For the four years I was away at Oberlin, I yearned to return to a welcoming environment that made music spiritual. It was very frustrating to hear my pieces echoed through the walls of conservatory practice rooms. And even more disconcerting to sit through eons of student recitals, where attendance was mandatory. All over again my repertoire was regurgitated to the exponential, and not with the freedom of musical expression that would appeal to me.  Mechanical players abounded, who were happy to get through a composition with the right notes.

Lil’s living room haunted me night and day. It held a gorgeous Mason and Hamlin grand beside a Steinway. And upstairs, there was still another Steinway grand that was used when both Lillian and her husband were teaching private students. Irwin, was at the time Chair of the Piano Department at Juilliard and he had a fine reputation for nursing some very talented performers along. One, named Joseph Schwartz, became a faculty member at Oberlin during the years I attended. What a coincidence to meet him there!

Freundlich’s Sanctuary:

Like it was yesterday, I remember seeing my reflection in a big decorative mirror overshadowing a florid mahogany table that displayed programs of students like Stephen Manes, who were making their Carnegie Recital Hall debuts. They were wide eyed, young musicians, who wanted to make performing their life’s work, and their launch was special to the Freundlichs who made their home a concert hall.

I remember how excited I was to be invited to hear Stephen play, in the midst of so many older Juilliard students. I had just started with Lillian, and felt at the time like a beginner who needed lots of training and encouragement. I would dream that some day I might have a glossy photo attached to a brochure about my forthcoming public concert. That would surely mean, I had arrived.

Christina Petrovsky, one of my classmates at the High School of Performing Arts, just happened to be a student of Irwin, and turned up at one of the Hauskonzerts. She had come down from Canada to study piano.

Performing Arts High or “P.A.” as it was commonly called, was a home to a number of well known musicians, dancers, and actors. Murray Perahia, was a year ahead of me, and was probably the most pervasive musical influence of my life, besides Lillian Freundlich.

He had such a big presence at our high school that I can’t think of my years there, without his name inscribed in my memory forever.

Murray would be invited to play a Continuo part (bass) at the piano as we sat in the orchestra playing a Corelli Concerto Grosso. Since I had been studying violin along with piano, I was embedded in the ensemble drawing long bows, listening attentively to what Murray was doing over at the grand.

Perahia’s continuo just dominated the whole musical experience. He drew a gorgeous tone from the piano, and from my perspective, I saw him turn red in the face with each sonorous bass note.

Other memorable performances were his Beethoven second piano concerto, Chopin E minor,  and Mendelssohn trio in D minor. His chamber music was particularly divine. He drew a crowd of students when he decided to stay after school and read through some scores. During one afternoon, he played a Brahms symphony  accounting for every instrument, and its transposition. I was just bowled over with amazement.

I will always remember the day he ascended the podium to conduct our school orchestra. Perahia was one of a handful of students taking conducting classes with Julius Grossman, our chamber music director and he was scheduled to have his performance exam.

Until Perahia took the baton, most of us were playing as if we suffered with anemia. There was very little spark, and we were ragged out from our long commute to school very early in the morning, compounded by the volume of music and academic classes. These included Sight-singing and Dictation; Music Theory, Music History, Applied Study, Geometry, English, Science, American History, and Economics.

Perahia tweaked our energy levels in no time. He conducted a late Haydn Symphony, and drew every last drop of blood out of us in pursuit of beauty.  We never sounded better as we were drawn out of our malaise.  But then it was back to the mundane and our normal class schedules.

To be truthful, the emphasis at “P.A.” the “Fame” School,  was not on academics, and some students like myself, were ostracized for excelling in English or Math. One afternoon, my books were stolen after I aced an exam that most students failed. It was not my happiest time of life, though the school had wonderful teachers like Shirley Katz and Florence Schwager (Math) as well as Madame Gregg and Stone, (French) who encouraged me along.

The best part of “P.A.” was being in proximity to Perahia, and some other outstanding musicians such as Gerard Schwarz, Ellen Zoe Hassman, Kun-Woo Paik, and Marian Heller. These students were awe inspiring, along with other classmates and faculty members in the Drama and Dance Department: Robin Strasser, Bel Kaufman, and Norman Walker.

Now that I am years removed from Performing Arts High School as well as the Oberlin Conservatory, I still live and breathe music. Picking up a Scarlatti score just now, and recording sonatas that Lillian assigned me as a fledgling rekindles memories that are drawn from a diverse, rich and uncommonly fascinating life.

Post script: I discovered these tributes to my beloved teacher, the late, Lillian Freundlich, at a Peabody Conservatory Internet site:

http://www.peabody.jhu.edu/3817