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Great Piano Teaching Moments

This remarkable piece of film footage inspired a stream of others.

Nadia Boulanger (b.1887-d.1979) the esteemed teacher, composer, theoretician, organist, pianist, taught and influenced so many great musical creators such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston and Philip Glass.

From Wikipedia:

“Boulanger’s teaching methods included traditional harmony, score reading at the piano, species counterpoint, analysis, and sight singing (using fixed-Do solfège). She disapproved of innovation for innovation’s sake: “When you are writing music of your own, never strain to avoid the obvious.”[7] “You need an established language and then, within that established language, the liberty to be yourself. It’s always necessary to be yourself – that is a mark of genius in itself.”

In this brief teaching encounter with a 10 year old student, Boulanger identifies a change of key or “modulation” in a Mozart Fantasy as a moment of poignancy. She illuminates a harmonic transition from the somber B minor tonality to the brighter D Major as the student draws closer to the composer and his intention.

Madame Boulanger’s teaching, albeit just a snatch, puts into perspective why a total musician cannot just read notes, learn proper fingering, and perhaps identify a few rudimentary chord progressions.

Layers of learning over years foster an in depth exploration of the musical art form.

Rosina Lhevinne

I turn to another influential teacher with a video sample from her studio. The wife of esteemed concert pianist, Joseph Lhevinne, Rosina came into her own after her husband’s death and subsequently joined the esteemed Juilliard faculty. Van Cliburn, John Browning, Misha Dichter, John Williams, and Edward Auer were among her well known students.

By way of anecdote, I heard Madame Lhevinne play at the old Juilliard School at W. 125th Street in Manhattan on the occasion of her 80th birthday. She divinely performed the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 21 in C Major under the able baton of Jean Morel. It was a historic performance, surpassed only by her appearance at age 82, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, playing the Chopin E minor Piano Concerto.

In the course of this film, Lhevinne helps the young Misha Dichter by singing phrases herself while artfully shaping them. She also demonstrates weight transfer between fingers in fostering a legato, or smooth and connected touch. In the introduction preceding the masterclass, Artur Rubinstein, John Williams, John Browning, Robert Mann, and Misha Dichter make compelling comments about Lhevinne’s approach to teaching.

Here are a few other snatches from classes of inspiring teachers:

Richard Goode shares his ideas about Chopin and Beethoven.

Murray Perahia: Words of wisdom about the music of Bach and mood setting.

Alfred Brendel presents a Masterclass at the New England Conservatory:

I was fortunate to have observed one of Brendel’s classes at the Oberlin Conservatory and he, like Rosina Lhevinne sang phrases to communicate shape, and stroked the keys rather than attacked them. He played with an immaculate singing tone, and encouraged the participating students to do the same. It was very inspiring, to say the least. The masterclass given by Georgy Sebok was as illuminating for the same reasons.

Finally, Lang, Lang, mentors young Derek Wang, who plays a Liszt Rhapsody. (The teacher fleshes out the color dimension of the composer’s work and demonstrates hands on, expressive possibilities)

If you have your own favorite teaching moments, please feel free to share them.

Footnote: I participated in two masterclasses that took place in Fresno, Calfornia with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. The first was more lengthy, and very memorable. Murray worked with me on the first movement of Beethoven’s d minor, “Tempest Sonata” and fleshed out the structural dimension. Yablonskaya did a lot of demonstrating herself, but was more focused on the singing tone as it applied to a Chopin Nocturne.

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Why Play Scales?

Scale practicing examples:

***
The Backdrop:

As a young piano student living in New York City, I remember my reluctance to prepare a mandatory scale each week for my lesson. In fact my first teacher had so many students, she always seemed to forget the scale she had assigned to me, so I remained happily in the key of C for most of the year. (Played on all white keys) Little did I know that C Major was a lot more challenging to practice than the keys of B, F# and C# Major that had nice, regular patterns of double and triple black notes that fit the longer fingers perfectly, with the thumbs meeting in between.

Frederic Chopin was known to teach these three black-key scales before all others. Think about how much easier it would have been for a sightless person to play these step-wise passages with braille-like elevated black notes in regular patterns, as opposed to a sea of white notes without reference points.

Now that I’ve grown up to be a piano teacher and you tube poster, I realize the importance of scale study in the growth and development of musicianship.

Scales are about the “feel” and geography of the keyboard. They are about shaping, phrasing, sculpting. Sometimes they’re practiced with catchy rhythms, crisp and detached (staccato) or as smooth and connected, freely spun out, rolling triplets. You can even reverse the direction of the fingers when practicing scales, having them lightheartedly dance together and apart, in shades of loud, soft, and in between. And you might bring out one voice over another, by drawing more intensity from the left hand, then reversing the process, giving the right hand its place in the sun.

Most importantly, scales help us understand where we are in a piece of music because they define the TONAL CENTER of a composition or a section of it.

I wish I had known about the famous Circle of Fifths when I was beginning my piano studies. The Circle maps out the progression of scales (Major and minor) in an orderly fashion with sharps acquired going clockwise, and flats in reverse. As a student moves from the Key of C, to G, to D, to A, etc. he/she learns not only the new sharp that is picked up in the clockwise journey but comes face to face with fingering adjustments that make the smooth playing of various scales more attainable.

Scales, in summary, are part and parcel of piano study and they feed in and out of the piano repertoire. What could be a better entree to the pieces we most cherish than to find the key they’re in, and dance through a few preliminaries.

Example of a Classical era Sonata by Mozart (first movement) permeated by a series of scales.

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Mozart Rondo: Allegretto K. 545, Performance and Analysis

Performance:

Analysis:

The Rondo, more often than not, is the form used in the last movement of a Classical era Sonata. (The Classical period roughly encompasses the years between 1750 and 1830) The Rondo is usually a brisk, lively and energetic movement that brings a sonata to a definitive conclusion. It is in the home key of the piece.

In the Sonata, K. 545, Mozart composes a light-hearted final (third) movement evocative of the Opera Buffa, or comic opera.

Form: A B A C A Coda

The “A” section, or Rondo in the bright C Major tonality, with a two eighth note short upbeat to a slightly more prolonged 8th note downbeat is the basic motif of the movement, and will come back interspersed with a B and a C section. The “B” section is in the Dominant key of G Major, while the “C” section goes into the Relative minor ( A minor) This A minor section has a Development-like character, and is more prolonged as it delightfully meanders and then winds its way back to the Rondo “A” section that is in the home key of C Major.

In the A minor or “C” section, Mozart uses an inversion of thirds to 6ths, and dances from one hand to the other, with inverted counterpoint. (He flips over the voices, so that the listener experiences the motif or Rondo idea in the bass range, with a 16th decoration in the Treble and in reverse) The devices of inverted intervals and inverted counterpoint are significant characteristics of this “C” section of the final movement.

Through a pivot chord, using A minor, as a double identity Vi chord in C Major going to its Dominant, G B D, the movement weaves its way back to the “A” section Rondo in C Major followed by a Coda (added concluding section) using Dominant and Tonic progressions in broken chord fashion to the very last splash of articulated, unisons that bring the movement to a resounding, and definitive ending. At the end of this work, I feel like I’m in the orchestra pit, conducting those last measures as the curtain goes down in the opera.

Feedback is always appreciated. If you have ideas to share about this effervescent movement, please post.

Links to Piano Instruction first movement (in three parts)

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/piano-instruction-harmonic-rhythm-and-phrasing-part-1-mozart-sonata-in-c-k-545/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/piano-instruction-part-two-harmonic-rhythm-and-phrasing-mozart-sonata-in-c-k-545/

Second movement, Analysis and Instruction:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/piano-instruction-second-movement-mozart-sonata-in-c-major-k-545-video/

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DREAM PIANO: Overview and Acknowledgments

My two-year long romp on the piano finding trail with York as my professional companion and consultant had been worth all the time spent in, around and under pianos. How else would I have acquired knowledge about the piano’s harp, or cast iron plate were it not for his having the bravado to dismantle it from the Proskch 1905 grand and haul it out to the College of the Sequoia’s welding department. In the face of technicians and others who mocked him for his efforts, he persevered; soda blasted the ugly looking frame and dragged it home for a second wind. Rebecca McGregor, a victim of her impulsive sight unseen Internet piano purchase and an unprincipled seller, had written me a thought provoking e-mail after she had hovered over the plate on full view in York’s driveway. It was a funereal scene.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/funeral-for-a-cracked-plate-piano-caveat-emptor/

She wrote, “I actually learned something at York’s, and I think you captured the essence of our meeting and the somber mood. Were we paying for his having tried to mend the plate, I would have stopped him, but with York’s willingness to take it on without payment, we’d have been fools not to let him proceed.” (This was before the plate cracked in two other places as York hauled it to his pick-up truck)

Rebecca had linked hands with Terry Barrett and York’s wife in a prayer vigil over the plate and then helped to flip it on its back to survey its underbelly.

The underside of inanimate things always sparked York’s curiosity and it invariably sent him nose diving under pianos to investigate anything from mice, moths and moisture to the storage of $$$ assets in the crannies of a Kawai.

To my educational advantage, he found it necessary to drag me along on his adventures to prove without a doubt that he had the lowdown on each and very piano he tuned, moth proofed and treated for rats.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/me-york-and-our-great-piano-adventure/

And I can personally attest that his tattered, age worn diaries were evidence of his meticulous record keeping since 1948. These should someday be enshrined in the Smithsonian or at least in the PTG (Piano Technician’s Guild) Hall of Fame.

While Terry Barrett, RPT (Registered Piano Technician) argued that bridle straps had no importance in the assembly of uprights, and moths were basically harmless to pianos because they would die eating cyanide based hammer felts, York produced incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. He marched valiantly on his truth finding crusade and produced a Kimball made “Whitney” spinet without bridle straps that had a basic action defect, and he plucked a hammer from his pick-up truck that had the most perfect, moth drilled hole I had ever seen! Such was Mother Nature at work.

As an unofficial “apprentice” to the city’s senior piano tuner, I had acquired trade secrets that no piano technology school or correspondence course would ever impart. Would most “registered technicians” anywhere in the universe know to battle moths with a bottle of cloves? York was always far ahead of his time banishing moth balls from his tool box. “They cause cancer,” he said repeatedly when we stumbled upon pianos that were victims of merciless moth attacks. While I hadn’t yet seen examples of chewed up bridle straps from nest seeking rats, York had promised to phone me immediately if he had a scheduled DECON call at a church or elsewhere.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/samick-york-tofujie-and-me-on-the-piano-chasing-trail/

The master tuner without his formal “registration” in the Piano Technician’s Guild showed those who had somehow obtained it that he deserved at least the honorary title because of his decades long association with pianos. Thankfully, the local Fresno chapter honored York by giving him a podium to demonstrate piano restringing, and when he turned up at monthly PTG meetings as a devoted “associate member,” his colleagues always greeted him with a hearty slap on the back.

On the day I had shown up to interview “Laroy Edwards” retired Yamaha senior piano technician, and emissary for the company all over the world, York made his presence known by telling his full length account about the cat that had been trapped under a grand piano lid and miraculously, emerged alive and well, though hairless. York fleshed out, colorful new details each time he spun a piano related tale, though he sometimes forgot that he’d told the story one too many times.

Besides being York’s companion through our two year-long piano adventure, my having compiled these stories was a natural outcome of all the trips made to many homes containing used pianos of an infinite variety–some sold in estate sales and auctions.


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/the-great-piano-auction/


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/used-pianos-estate-sales-and-mr-york-the-tuner/

And in the course of this learning driven journey, I had hoped that readers would willingly share their own piano memorabilia since a keyboard culture may be dying on the vine if not preserved.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/is-the-piano-a-dying-breed/

The old upright stories should be written down and treasured. The genealogy of older pianos should be a relentless source of research. Piano owners should learn how to discover the age of their pianos by seeking out the serial numbers on the cast iron plate, and by consulting the Pierce Piano Atlas or the Bluebook of Pianos.com. While it’s common for piano owners to throw up their hands and say,”I know virtually nothing about my piano,” it’s time for a new attitude to replace the old. Even “Alice” was exhilarated to know more about her “player piano without a name” when I enlisted her in the fact finding adventure. While the piano had been virtually un-played for 4 years since its purchase from an antique store for $125, she quickly became my “Dr. Watson” beaming a flash light on its cast iron plate; screaming in delight when she discovered the digits that might help date it. In the case of her particular piano, supplementary information acquired from Robert Furst’s Bluebook of Pianos.com led to its more conclusive identity.

Sharing a systemic approach to the whole research undertaking with Alice, I was able to enlist a new partisan in the preservation of old pianos. In fact, she became very reluctant to part with her stately upright once I had breathed life into it as a performing pianist. But at long last, it finally found a worthy owner who had promised to take good care of it and give it a new home.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/a-player-piano-without-a-name/

Another piano, a table style Aeolian with three leaves underwent an equally intense identity crisis as its true birth date was pursued. I couldn’t thank Mr. York enough for his A-1 guesstimate and Terry Barrett for pulling the piano’s action and stumbling upon a note with the date “APR 1936” engraved in the wood. What a miraculous discovery!!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/a-table-style-piano-with-three-leaves-the-whole-story-in-lurid-detail/

DREAM PIANO had been all about the exciting adventure of pursuing and finding pianos, primarily in the private party, used piano market and how these travels of mine had changed the hearts and minds of the many piano owners that I’d encountered. Just making a routine house call to check on a piano up for sale, I’d invited myself into the lives of so my people who possessed the kindness and generosity to share their piano stories. “Ralph Cato,” whom I’d met at the Guitar Center looking for a keyboard to give his daughter for Christmas shared a heart rending story about his first piano and how he stole into the night to pick the lock and play it. Even a US Olympic Team boxing trainer with the exterior of a lion, softened up to share a tender memoir.

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

“Caroline Scheer” opened her heart to me and finally imparted the reason she wanted to sell her beloved Knight piano. This had been a mystery all along, but when the truth spilled out one day during a taped phone interview, all the puzzle pieces fit together. I had learned that her father never kept his promise to buy her a grand piano, like the one she had seen at Delaware University, if she obtained all “A’s” on her report card. How many others would want a grand size piano in their home just because they had been deprived of one early in life.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/the-little-knightingale/

In my travels, I had learned that pianos had a wide variety of meanings for different owners. For some, they were not musical instruments at all, but beautiful pieces of furniture to behold. But that might have been because the buyer or seller didn’t know where to begin in assessing the value of something that at one time had a playing life. And from the countless visits I’d made to homes with old pianos, just by playing them, they acquired a new value and meaning for their owners. Maybe there was an important message to heed. Why not bring a performing musician and piano technician to an establishment or home that housed a piano for sale. Why rely on a visual assessment of something that was meant to elicit tones, harmonics, and chords of beauty?

Perhaps the late Anne Meux, whose esteemed Fresno family had been memorialized in a landmark home preservation, experienced an awakening when her pianos came to life the afternoon I had played them. Prior to my impromptu visit, these musical treasures might well have been regarded as decorative furnishings, appreciated only for their external beauty.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/anne-meux-her-pianos-and-my-visit/

Pianos I’d encountered that were pretty but without musical value:

So many piano owners found themselves with antiques of the square or parlor grand variety that were quite ornate looking but could not play worth a dime. And when it was time to sell them, they confronted the hard reality that as play-less instruments and artifacts of the past, that no one wanted them in the present or future. So what was purchased for $5,000 some years back would sell for $200 or less in the private party marketplace. Some of these age worn and ill maintained pianos might have had to be donated out to a favorite charity. As Terry Barrett poignantly said, “An antique piano was just a different animal.”

“Sam” Torcaso, owner of Chesterfield’s in Fresno, brought it home that the older uprights were just not selling and the whole marketplace of antique pianos was abysmal. She pointed to the bleak housing situation with foreclosures abounding and the dearth of interior decorators that would be consulted to design the insides of newly acquired homes as reflecting part of the problem. But despite her registered cynicism about the universe of antique pianos, she had always known to advise her customers to bring in a technician before they made any kind of “all sales final,” piano purchase at her establishment. This recommendation showed her respect and concern for those who would buy a piano from Chesterfields and then pass it to their children to learn on.

***
More stories from Dream Piano:

FUJIE had the patience to await the arrival of her dream Kawai K 15 studio upright model piano housed at California Piano,


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/fujie-finds-her-dream-piano-but-buyer-beware/

and “Sharon Cooper” allowed me to include our clandestine tryst in the seedy parking lot beside Ag Hardware where a cash drop was made for a dream piano.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/a-high-stakes-piano-finding-adventure-or-was-it-a-sopranos-tv-episode/

Not to forget Dan Bates, who stole off and bought a Petrof piano, while in the grip of his obsession over the Steinway 1968. May the best piano win!!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/a-battle-of-two-steinways-a-yamaha-and-a-spoiler-petrof/

And who could forget the Dream Piano I fought for and won, a French Provincial Baldwin Artist Grand.
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/fighting-for-a-dream-piano-hopefully-it-should-not-come-to-this/

On the last lap of my journey, I also stumbled upon “Victor Thasia” who was the first person I had ever met who changed his mind about selling his piano, and was ready to love and cherish it forever. Thanks for sharing your epiphany!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/5007/

And what an opportunity came my way to record on a Dream Piano compliments of the Visalia Piano Gallery:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/recording-on-a-sleeper-dream-piano/</a

To “Patricia Frederick,” of the Fredericks collection in Ashburnham, Mass., and Thomas Winter, early piano restorer, San Francisco, my sincere appreciation to you for having provided scholarly words of wisdom about period pianos. What a rare opportunity came my way to play a 19th Century Dream Piano that turned up at the American Cancer Society Discovery Shop.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/the-fritz-of-vienna-chopin-reincarnated/

And another period piece that was beautiful on the outside but proved to be a pathetic tonal disaster!


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/28/the-ghost-of-fritz-was-i-dreaming/

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/dos-and-donts-for-piano-buyers-and-sellers-dream-pianos-last-chapter/

Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/06/yorks-wwii-story-in-writing-and-on-video/

More People to Thank:

Terry Barrett, RPT, Fresno gave countless hours detailing pianos for me and helped me write about them from a more technical perspective. While he sometimes disagreed with York about the significance of moth damage and the value bridle straps, he contributed loads of piano related information that enhanced my stories and also assisted sellers in learning more about their pianos.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge all those piano students who gave me my first opportunity to help them find their first real, 88 note, playing pianos. “Michelle” now happily practices on a lovely Baldwin, 1970’s console that had its first tuning, and tweaking by YORK, and my youngest pupil, “Claudia” enjoys her resonating Yamaha studio upright 1992 that I found in the former, Old Hilton Hotel in Fresno where a salvaging company was selling it. I remember how I had managed to get there just at the right time before word got out that two practically new pianos were accumulating dust in a second floor banquet room. Oddly, the Yamaha sat for too long after it was purchased and couldn’t get down the elevator to the ground floor until inspections were made and certification papers filed with the County. In the end, when the piano descended to the first floor level for transport, it was shipped gratis to the base of steps leading to the new owner’s second floor apartment. That’s when a challenge arose! “Elaine,” Claudia’s mother could either pay a whopping $400 to move the piano up two flights of stairs or enlist the help of able bodied neighbors. I wish I could have been there to see how they managed to turn the corner on the landings and push the 700 plus pound piano into the apartment. It must have been quite a sight to behold!

Some piano owners had been luckier than others in moving their pianos. York had told me that the Salvaging company owner, who sold Elaine the Yamaha, tipped over a Kawai piano while he was steering it into another banquet room. “The whole thing just came crashin’ down all at once,” he said. I had dispatched him to give the Yamaha a once over appraisal before it was purchased, and according to YORK, “it passed with flyin’ colors.” While he was at the hotel, he happened to look at the action assembly of the neighboring Kawai console and discovered that the hammers were over-sized and not fitting right. York always knew his stuff when it came to pianos and their interiors. He was also an ace evaluator of piano finishes and could rub the tips of his thickly padded fingers against the grain and ascertain what percentage was veneer.

The old man had done just about everything where it came to pianos. He tuned, repaired, refinished, and moved them. He was quite the master of all trades and he allowed me a share of his knowledge under careful supervision!

Finally, thank you to those who might not have gotten into the pages of this book but who added to my knowledge about pianos of all shapes, sizes, and vintage. I am beholden to “Martin Sigley,” a brilliant player piano restorer who loves what he does like a poet who crafts every word as a jewel. I was so impressed by his little shop that housed an old Behr Player and an “Angelus Orchestral,” and how intensely he worked. The world should regard him as a heaven sent angel. In a universe that values big cars, and expansive, designer homes, there is sadly little room to think about old world type restorers who will someday vanish without the appreciation they deserved in life.

In conclusion, a warm and grateful hug for my 96 year old mother, Jessie Taft Smith who sat relentlessly on the phone in the wee hours of the morning and listened to each Dream Piano chapter as it unfolded and voiced hard fought criticism that drove some periodic changes in my writing. I couldn’t have done it without her.

PS Additional acknowledgments: Peter Wolf, recording engineer, Wolf Sound, Fresno, CA
Bill Sayre, owner, Fasttraxx recording studio, Fresno, CA Heyner Oviedo, Fresno Piano,
The late Anne Meux, Fresno, CA

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From Chords to Gym and Back: You Tube Video

This video tells all. It was one of my hair brained ideas to embed a trip to Bally’s Gym in my piano tutorial on the subject of playing blocks of robust chords using upper body weight transfer — energy streaming down the arms, through supple wrists into the fingers.

Naturally, warming up on the Gravitron had to be included at the proper time and sequence. It couldn’t be a cheap media devised trick.

My main points:

The whole arm and a supple wrist are invested in the playing the piano.

To produce a smooth set of rolled out, broken chords (arpeggios) that generate from a sequence of blocked out chords in various inversions or positions, the student should have free flowing arms. The elbows never stay stationery or fixed against the body. They move away and toward the body in a contrary motion relationship to each other. The right elbow creates circular counter-clock-wise motions going up, and the reverse, going down. The left elbow has a reciprocal relationship to the right.

To gather speed or velocity, lighten the overall weight coming down the arms. Always use gravity to its best advantage, not pushing into the notes, or squeezing them.

Don’t forget to breathe and relax!!!

Finally, this tutorial feeds directly into preparing the last movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata which is extremely fast paced and contains an opening section of rolled, inverted chords that repeat at various intervals during the movement.

Final advice from the coach:

Get into the zone!

Roll it!