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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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Piano Lesson: Fritz, Age 7, performs his composed piece, “FINDING GOLD” (Video)

Over a period of three weeks, seven year old Fritz, who’d been taking piano lessons for about 7 months, composed a piece that he titled, “Finding Gold.”

The student has been using Faber Primer Piano Adventures, with my inserted modifications. He warmed up this past Monday with Lesson Book p. 24, C-D-E-F-G March transposed to A Major followed by A minor, in Parallel and then Contrary Motion. The consciousness of “minor” occurred way back at the very beginning of study when he played “Balloons” (floating notes) with a the black key Eb inserted. Ever since he has been playing Major and minor when any opportunity presents. (He is reading music proficiently for his level of study, and has reached p. 59 in the Lesson Book)

Fritz is a very imaginative child who was enthusiastic about creating his own music.

On 3/21 I asked him to compose a four-measure treble melody in C Position, in 4/4 time using any combination of quarter notes, half notes, dotted quarter notes, and whole notes.

He was then asked to play the second phrase in the PARALLEL minor.
(He is familiar with this vocabulary as it has been used redundantly when he plays his Primer pieces in Major followed by minor)

His melody was completed on 3/21 at his lesson, and I helped with notation.

As part of Fritz’s assignment for the following week, I asked him to compose a bass line, placing his hand in C position. He could use single notes, chords, ties, whatever he chose. (He was aware of the parallel minor in the second phrase)

3/28: Fritz played his piece with an added bass line, which I helped him notate on manuscript paper. He surprised me by ending his second phrase with a C MAJOR chord. For the following week I asked him to title his piece, add dynamics, words, and an illustration.

4/4/11: Fritz brought his composition with dynamics and words inserted.
He had also included an illustration. His words matched the emotional content of the music. The second phrase in minor had a sad lyric, but the final measure with the C Major Chord reflected the celebration of FINDING GOLD.

I made the connection to the great composers, such as Handel who carefully realized the text in his Messiah!

Fritz’s words:
I like walking in the woods, It feels nice to me (first phrase)
Sometimes I feel lost and scared, but I find GOLD! (second phrase)

Fritz recorded his piece for You Tube on 4/4/11

Composing activities can be integrated into lessons periodically, and over the long term a student can produce a bound collection of pieces with accompanying illustrations if desired.

It’s not only a creative exploration but it advances knowledge of notation, form, and harmony. (A theory lesson is built into the activity)

Location: El Cerrito, California


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Music Theory and Piano Study: It doesn’t have to be drudgery

Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery

If I turn the clock back to my early days as a piano student, I can say without a doubt that I absolutely HATED “Music Theory” or anything remotely related to it. And I can clearly thank my very pedantic teacher, Mrs. Schwed for this aversion. She made the hefty German army look like a bunch of weaklings when she hammered out the names of chords and keys. I didn’t know what hit me!

A complex vocabulary of “triads,” “inversions,” and “modulations” was like pig Latin, and such dizzying labels seemed completely removed from my pieces.

That’s not the way it should be.

The elements of music theory should be woven into the music we assign our students from day one.

For example, a Primer like Faber’s Piano Adventures, offers the opportunity to teach the PARALLEL minor by replacing E with an Eb in Lesson Book, p.24. Why wait for Red colored Book, Level 1 to expose young pupils to the “sad sounding” minor, as compared to the bright and “happy” Major. The word PARALLEL doesn’t have to attach to this discovery until a later time, but an awareness of bi-tonality can be imbued a lot sooner than most teachers would plan.

And how about having beginning students transpose the “C-D-E-F-G March” into different keys, exploring C Major/minor, through E Major/minor as a start.

What’s wrong with introducing a flat in the early phase of study. It works with “Hot Cross Buns,” for example, p. 6, Primer Performance Book.

Faber begins Primer Piano Adventures with unlabeled black notes but abandons them by page 19, deferring to a sea of favored white notes. Why postpone an early sharp or flat among the whites? Insert it when opportunity knocks!

Theory is Wedded to Music-making

Middle C fixation has already been regarded in many progressive quarters as stultifying, so why not similarly reject theory isolation from the nuts and bolts of PLAYING.

Let’s open our eyes to a wider universe that INTEGRATES theory into the pieces we assign our pupils, making the DOING, BEING, FEELING, of music-making allied to a deeper understanding of its form and content.

Fast forward the clock to the Intermediate stage of learning. By this time, the student should have had decent exposure to scales and arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths. A Fundamentals of Theory series, such as the one produced by Keith Snell and Martha Ashleigh is a valuable companion if tied to repertoire-based study.

Kabalevsky’s “Clowns,” for example, sets up a perfect illumination of the Major/minor bi-tonality, and has a crisp and catchy staccato frame that engages students. Why not run with it and make annotations directly into in the music.

In one or two pages, (depending on the edition) a teacher can map out A Major and A minor in a close temporal relationship (two bars at a time) and compare a middle section that has the theme INVERTED or notated “upside down.” It’s not a stretch to perceive a change in tonality. The ostinato or repeated bass line fleshes out a transition to F, with its Major/minor duality reflected in the treble.

This engaging composition, tightly packed with harmonic duality, is a wonderful vehicle to teach an aspect of theory that would otherwise be spoon fed in an unappetizing way. (In worksheet form)

In this vein, I can say with perfect honesty, that the assignment most ignored or forgotten, relates to THEORY. Examples of student responses: “Ugh, Did I have to do it?” OR “I was too busy to remember.” More often: “I forgot that I had a theory assignment.” Sometimes a pet is used as an excuse in an insalubrious way. By then the student has used up the usual time-worn pretexts for forgetfulness.

Composing can be a motivator:

Finally, a word about composing as a vehicle for learning THEORY, especially in the formative stages of piano study. Right now I have a 7-year old student with 6 months of study under his belt who has been nursed along on Piano Adventures, and transposes most of his MAJOR sounding pieces to the Parallel minor by lowering the third. He thinks nothing of it and enjoys the tonal/emotional contrast. As a follow-up to bi-tonality exploration, he’s composed a phrase in C Major (five-finger position) followed by the same in the parallel minor.

Why not enrich his treble melody with a bass line? (That’s where the teacher’s assistance comes in) Inserting a bass part is a great springboard to understanding how a melodic outline fuels the choice of bass. Filling in voices as the process continues, creates an awareness of chords and later amplifies their function in a particular key or keys.

For certain, “Piano Students as Composers” is worth another blog, but I will defer that discussion to a later time. For now, I think of composing as an additional creative activity embedded into lessons.

For the Advancing Student

For an advanced player, theory should be interwoven into the fabric of learning so that it becomes second nature. (Add in a hands-on knowledge of scales, arpeggios and chords in every key and the joy of music is deepened)

Unfortunately, too many students who are technically proficient, lack an adequate understanding of how their pieces are composed. It’s like residing in a house with a shaky foundation.

For teachers who acquire transfer students with little if any theory knowledge, they’re faced with a huge ground-up endeavor to make up for lost time. But it’s worth the effort.

In summary, music theory shouldn’t be considered as archaic as Latin. It’s a living, breathing part of piano study that widens a student’s musical horizons and makes practicing more meaningful.


Supplementary video:

I sent an adult SKYPE student in Anchorage Alaska, a tutorial on “Major,” “minor,” and “diminished” chords that fed directly into her study of the J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor, p.2. Such an infusion of theory advanced and solidified her learning.

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Scouting a Piano Teacher

I have to thank “Lisa” for generating this idea for a new blog. Sometimes, the fountain runs dry until a student experience, teacher-related crisis, or musical event renew the supply.

Let me think about this whole issue of picking and choosing the “right” piano teacher. (Applies to adult student-seekers as well)

Hmm… I probably covered the emotion-packed farewells, but gave short shrift to the preliminaries of finding these instructors in the first place so perhaps I should amplify my journey and what I learned from it.

My very first piano teacher, already critiqued in another blog, was on faculty at the “progressive” music school in the Bronx, off Kingsbridge Road. So there was little if any choice in the selection. She came with the program.

Mrs. Vinagradov was kind, caring, encouraging, and knew how to play the Diller-Quaille accompaniments to my two-note melodies without missing a beat. That was what I needed as a primer level, six-year old student.

If I had to advise a mom about picking out the very important FIRST teacher for a child, I would say, look for the right “chemistry” as well as musical competency and sensitivity. One would not expect the initial beginning instructor to be a virtuoso, or even one approximating. COMMUNICATION skills should stand out as the clincher decision maker along with knowledge of beginning materials. The teacher should lay out her philosophy, course of teaching including theory, and a schedule of student recitals. I would hope she has a Bachelor’s Degree in Music or the equivalent in teaching experience/ professional study. (By the way, If a JAZZ teacher is sought, be clear about the skills of a particular instructor as it applies to a desired course of instruction. Better to know the teacher’s leanings, abilities in this direction before you go further)

My second mentor, also part and parcel of house faculty at the Bronx location, was a strict Classicist, holy terror and rhythmic foot-pounder. Needless to say, I had to run like the plague and find a more civilized replacement.

The next stop on W. 103 St. off-Broadway, didn’t produce anything much better, though this prospect was a nicer human being all the way around and played quite well. As previously mentioned in another writing, she couldn’t figure out a systematic, step-wise way to impart musical knowledge and gave me pieces way over my head that nearly triggered a nervous breakdown! Kaput, finished!

For the advancing student, a teacher who knows the piano literature, can play the great works with skill, nuance, sensitivity, and be able to communicate the many dimensions of the music including structural/theoretical, is one who should be in the running.

But these criteria may not be enough. The first reality check involves finding out if this individual will live up to his or her printed resume. It could be crowded with every public performance he or she has ever given, dating back to age 6. Or the CV may list a horde of Degrees, Masterclass appearances, and students who went on to world-renowned competitions. It could be a drop in the bucket if the one-to-one interaction between a prospective teacher and student doesn’t make the grade.

This speaks to the necessity of having the in-person appointment scheduled to try out the teacher as with any “product.” Oops I didn’t mean to say that, or to demean the entire community of bespectacled piano teachers. (I wear glasses, too) And none of us are products or commodities.

Finally, it would be wonderful if the very first teacher was the ONE who stayed on as the permanent musical fixture in our lives. But such rarely happens in the scheme of things due to life transitions, relocation, divorce, death and the rest, though there have been exceptions.

The great pianist, Murray Perahia, a musical poet of his generation studied with Jeannette Haien from age 3 to 18, which brings up the subject of when a youngster should begin individualized piano lessons, covered in another blog. But just a passing word. If you want a Suzuki teacher, who teaches by rote and not by written notes on the staff, you can consider observing this approach as compared to more traditional ones. But at least you should know your options. In that arena, read up on instructional philosophies by going to the library, checking the Internet, etc. (Be aware that most Suzuki teachers require the parent(s) to be very involved in assisting their children with learning and practicing from week to week) In most cases they sit beside their children while lessons are conducted and must thoroughly absorb the material. (cross reference,

To summarize, try out any number of teachers for size and see how the relationship “feels” and goes. Look for substance, an organized curriculum, (having room for elasticity) and a love of teaching.

If your community has a Music Teachers Association like MTAC in California or MTNA (a national group) shorten the list of prospects by reading through any number of bios that might draw your attention.

Talk to other parents in your local school, church, recreation center, etc. and ask about what piano teachers they have engaged for lessons. See if the same name turns up over and again. If so, make it your business to attend one or more of these individual’s planned recitals and listen carefully to the quality of the performances. Observe the overall mood at the gathering and take note of the teacher’s presence; how he/she relates to performing students before and after their appearances.

If there’s a conservatory, university or community college with a music department in your city, scope out the chairperson, or write to him/her for a possible teacher recommendation. While in-house faculty may or may not give private lessons, an administrator might provide referrals to other teachers. In this regard, keep an eye out for public performances of musicians who live in your area and may be teaching privately. Internet and newspaper listings might assist your search.

Finally, if your child or teenager is very advanced and needs a top of the line teacher who can notch him up a rung on the musical ladder, attend the local competitions sponsored by the music teacher association in your area and see what instructors have students who were finalists and won prizes.

Listen for the interwoven musical sensitivity and technical skills of the performers.

Dare I mention business practices in the same breath with instructional competency? Obtain a copy of the teacher’s studio policies that should include the payment schedule, lesson cancellations and make-up practices. Be clear about what is expected on the $$ end of the deal. You don’t want any surprises late into the instructional phase.

Recommended Websites:

Music Teachers National Association:

Music Teachers Association of California:

Facebook: Piano Teachers Directory


The Neighborhood Piano Teacher Lives On:

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Letting my hair down with a snatch of “Let It Be!” (VIDEO)

The piano room was a mess yesterday with music strewn about. Two ’60-’70’s era Beatles albums were excavated from a pile of sheet music, hard bound theory texts, and Urtext editions of Beethoven’s sonatas.

Foraging a big carton of stuff like this was a trip down memory lane. My very old Yamaha guitar, a prized possession, was off to the side, propped against a book shelf. A 1974 model with magnificent resonance, it evoked memories of my one and only group classical guitar lesson at New York University with a South American virtuoso. On the very first day of class, he tried to teach one of the more difficult pieces in the flamenco repertoire. It was Rubira’s “Estudio,” later renamed “Spanish Romance.” (The performer in this video was not related to the instructor)

Within a few weeks, class enrollment had dwindled to three and quickly, I made it two. It reminded me of several Oberlin Senior Recitals at Kulas where one audience member was seated in the front row holding a musical score. (I recalled a New Yorker cartoon with the same theme)

The NYU guitar teacher like many other music instructors I’d encountered needed a reality check. Half the students in his class had never read a note, but they expected to play guitar “in a flash.” Generations that followed were tapping iPhones and game boys with guitar tab charts and animated keyboards. It was an espresso learning revolution!

My sixteen year old student, Allyse was an anachronism in her approach to piano study. A fledgling, she went with the program, played scales and arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths, and studied the Baroque Masters as an entree to sampling Classical and Romantic literature. No short cuts for her.

Just the same, she drove a hard bargain, insisting the Beatles went with the territory somewhere along the time line.(Allyse had already niftily tackled Five for Fighting, “100 Years,” and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always”) She had me enslaved to these pieces, as I sifted through practical fingerings and labeled harmonic progressions. But the prep work jump started a two way roller coaster ride through the contemporary pop music landscape.

With bristling enthusiasm, I indulged Allyse’s Beatles’ request. In truth, I had a vicarious interest in reading through reams of my favorite songs besides pumping out Scarlatti sonatas on You Tube. I loved “Eight Days a Week,” “Hey Jude,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Michelle,” “Yesterday” and the tour de force, Gospel style, “Let it Be!” Ralph Cato, US Olympic Boxing coach and former student, could have put me through the paces on that one. (*”Cato, His Killer Keyboard and a Round of Piano Lessons”) No one could pound the piano the way he did.

Allyse had lobbied to study “Let it Be!” with her new found confidence flying high. Just one week into our practicing, we had divided the parts at two pianos and did some public jamming–at least a snatch.

Our musical encounter was a peak experience!

This Saturday Allyse will come back down to earth playing her Baroque Rondeau at the Music Teachers Association’s Celebration Festival. An assigned adjudicator will evaluate each student’s performance and send them off, in any case, with a handsome medallion and Certificate.

Those who earn a Superior rating will play in one of the marathon Honors recitals taking place over two days.

If Allyse is not a marathoner, she’ll still race home to practice the right hand part of “Let it Be!” We have a re-run scheduled for next week. It should be a blast!


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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] …

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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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.