Chopin, Frederic Chopin, phrasing at the piano, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano lessons, Shirley Kirsten

Phrasing at the Piano: Direction and Destination

Often I query my students about the “destination” and “direction” of phrases within a particular composition. Naturally, my questions are a reflection of a need to clarify what arrivals are significant in the transit of notes.

Part of this exploration encompasses the awareness of sub-destinations that are on the way to the peak or climax of a phrase. In addition, bundled into the journey is a framing singing tone, that requires a supple wrist, with a natural, unencumbered flow of energy through relaxed arms into the hands and fingers. (Needless to say, attentive listening is at the heart of sensitive playing, and “singing” helps to clarify shape and contour of lines)


Today, two pupils were grappling with essential elements of beautiful, well-shaped and directed phrasing as they respectively rendered a Chopin Waltz and Nocturne.

The Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, no.2 and the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 were both noteworthy for challenging the individual player to examine phrase relationships and the influence of harmonic rhythm, voicing, melodic contour, innate rhythmic flow, dynamic variation, nuance and more.

Mood-setting and changes that occurred in various sections of these compositions were also pivotal to fluid renderings.

In both these examples below, “destination” was a particular lesson focus.

Chopin Waltz in B minor

Chopin Nocturne in E minor

(Videos are edited for teacher demonstrations)

Chopin, Frederic Chopin, Irina Morozova, piano, piano instruction, The Special Music School

Music and Words Revisited in Chopin’s compositions

In a lifetime, a few flashing moments of inspiration may guide our musical journey, deepening our understanding of a composer and his music.

In this nostalgic universe of enlightenment, I treasure a precious parcel of wisdom imparted by gifted pianist/teacher Irina Morozova at the Special Music School in Manhattan, 2014. In a private sitting with an icon in the world of mellifluous phrasing and heaven-on-earth renderings, I absorbed her convincing, poetic alliance of words and music in the Chopin literature. The initial introduction that encompassed the Rondo No.2, Op. 16, was a desired segue way to a phrase-centered discussion of the composer’s ethereal Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, No.2.

At this juncture in the Fall, 2014, I’d been studying the “nocturnal” composition, having struggled with various phrase marks, that if literally obeyed, would seem to impede a long musical line, with sub-gestured lifts of the hand.

Morozova’s ideas and demonstrations that were pertinent to my introspective process, became embedded in my consciousness, growing over time in a memory bank, to be drawn upon in a re-learning sequence of Chopin Nocturnes, Mazurkas, and Preludes.

Knowing the challenges my adult students face in their individualized creative journeys through Romantic era piano literature, I thought a timely revisit of the pianist’s treasured epiphanies in the attached video would be a valuable source of learning and inspiration.

NOTE: Morozova’s understanding of words and the breath in alliance with tasteful rubato, requires supple wrists relaxed arms, and a natural application of weight transfer.


A sample of Irina Morozova’s Chopin-rendered musical poetry.(The composer was wedded to the opera in his embrace of Bellini)

Chopin Mazurka, Op. 63, No.3


My own growth spurts in interpreting Chopin have been nursed along by my long-time, East Coast friend whose playing and mentoring are powerful influences upon the greater community of students and teachers.

Chopin Mazurka in G minor, Op. 67, No. 2

Chopin Nocturne in Eb Major, Op. 9, No. 2


Chopin, Chopin Nocturnes, Frederic Chopin, piano, piano blog

Don’t Choke through peak sections of a Chopin Nocturne

Many adult students get bent out of shape when a piece of “night music” blooms with “improvised,” decorative passagework at peak expressive levels. Add in prolonged trills with lower notes tied (held down) leading to a decisive crescendo through a tricky chromatic scale, and many players will shrink from the challenge. They’ll prefer to skip over what appears to be never-ending land mines.

I’m very sympathetic, because I’ve been in the thick of Chopin’s impassioned outpourings trapped by a frenzy that inevitably interrupts a smooth journey to full blown expression. As remedy, I’ve learned how to stay centered, relaxed, and in touch with my breath as my primary musical underpinning while I try to create an effortless “improvisation” that intensifies without a struggle.

This is why I selected Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No. 1 as my point of departure in the Keeping Your Cool universe of playing.

Measures 31 to 38 meander in improvised fashion to a resonating chromatic ascent to B minor. And while there are many Forte level measures in this section, one NEVER stays at a fixed dynamic given the ebb and flow of harmonic rhythm. The player has to poetically shape the ornaments, trills, and fancy filigreed passages with an understanding of harmonic dissonances and resolutions, and how various melodic meanderings invite nuanced, dips in phrases.

Chopin Nocturne, 31-

In particular, one of my pertinent epiphanies surrounds the lengthy trill spanning measures 36 and 37 in the E minor Nocturne. The first part of the trill is a suspension (Harmonic 2nd) that relaxes into a Harmonic third, even as the repercussions spill into a heightened chromatic ascent. By “relaxing” into the trill as it has resolved into a minor third, the player can take a new breath to impede CHOKING into the decisive B minor CADENCE.

Chopin, Cyprien Katsaris, Fantasie-Impromptu, Frederic Chopin, piano instruction, piano teaching

Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu rises above Facebook etiquette

This morning I was greeted by a Timeline addition to my Facebook page that was worrisome. The header was, “Is this your student?” It framed a precociously youthful performance of the Fantasie-Impromptu that was at best hammered out and musically insensitive. Yet one could peel away layers of fast and furious, disorganized playing and find a talented youngster who was sadly denied a good mentor to take raw material and refine/develop it to satisfying artistic levels. (And this would require significant time and patience– it would not be an overnight mega-learning phenomenon. Years would transpire as fundamentals of the singing tone and how to produce it would be the most elementary exposure needed.)

Yet, I meant to tread lightly in my criticism of the child, also refusing to delete the posting for fear of offending a Facebook friend who meant well showcasing the impetuous player pounding the piano without knowing better. Instead, I hunted down a beautiful in-progress performance of the same work under the mentorship of pianist, Cyprien Katsaris.

No words need justify what we perceive as a beautiful fusion of touch and tone. The child makes further advances during the lesson due to her preceding, solid technical/musical foundation. Katsaris builds upon it and infuses inspiration, imagery, blocking techniques and other prompts to grow her playing. And it all comes together in pleasing increments. By the end of the instruction, the youngster is producing more beautiful lines, in a remarkable ONENESS with the piano.

Finally, if we go back to the bare essentials of early piano learning, we can see what it takes to plant the seeds that grow to full musical maturity, where no shortcuts exist.

Right from the start the essence of beauty blossoms from bud to bloom with tender, meticulous, and patient, loving care.

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Two San Francisco musical attractions: Pianist, Trifonov and a Chinese Harpist

Within 48 hours, high-level music-making was heard in vastly different venues.

Louise Davies Hall with its golden hue of lights and balconies provided a stunning backdrop for Daniil Trifonov’s heart-throbbing performance of Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Trifonov poster crop

balcony of Davies

Big hall gold

trifonov facing concertmaster

Respighi’s Roman Festivals that concluded the concert, pierced the sound barrier in percussive outbursts, while the featured pianist, to the contrary, had taken explicit care to melt his lyrical phrases with a pervasive singing tone.

Following his mellifluous Chopin, Trifonov rippled through an encore demonstrating his unconstrained virtuosity.

As if this was not enough of a musical banquet, I found myself the following day, at an opposite polarity when I encountered a Chinese harpist at the BART Powell station.

Chinese harp and player

According to the player, the instrument is notably ancient:
“The Guzheng musical instrument originated during the Warring states period (475—211B.C) in China and its tones sound like high mountain waves and continuous water flowing. It has been played over 2500 years.”

The harpist’s supple wrist was as graceful as Trifonov’s fluid approach to the pianoforte and to be sure, both understood the singing tone and how to produce it.

I noted the Chinese musician’s Internet Channel and her charming rendition of a song about a horse which simultaneously evoked a duet that Lang Lang had performed with his father, mid-point in the pianist’s Carnegie Hall debut recital. These offered a nice comparison of instrumental timbres.

“Horse Racing”!videos/c9qb

Here’s Lang Lang and his dad playing “Competing Horses” which displays an ancient Chinese string instrument known as the erhu.

Without doubt China has a rich and diverse culture of musical expression that takes many ancient and modern instrumental forms.

Finally, it was a pleasure to experience a street musician and one inhabiting a concert hall in the course of two well spent journeys to San Francisco.

adult piano instruction, Chopin, Frederic Chopin, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, Shirley Kirsten

Good phrasing: listen for the decay, and psyche out your piano

The theme of today’s Online lesson beamed from North Carolina was following the decay of a note from the end of a phrase into the next measure with a thread of continuity. To have good conjunction between phrases one has to listen in two directions: from the before to the after, without forgetting the BEFORE. (Most students will pay more attention to the start of a new phrase,–clunking the downbeat–ignoring the influence of crossover harmonic rhythm and resolution, or dynamic relationships between measures.) So listening attentively draws awareness of how harmony affects melodic inflection and shaping, and what “colors” various rhythms offer as clues to phrasing beautifully in an ongoing BEFORE and AFTER strand of measures.

Part TWO:

Psyching out one’s piano has to do with whether a particular instrument is brashly bright, or sounding like cotton balls (It might also be an undesirable combination of the two). Nonetheless, the aforementioned requires that the player figure out a way to outsmart the instrument with its foibles, and create beautiful phrasing by adjusting entry into keys with various physically transferred weights, always realizing the pre-imagined sound. (In short, the pianist must hear notes before they’re played and adjust touch and tone to match the internal sound ideal)

The following lesson excerpt brought home both referenced dimensions of phrasing and auditory awareness:


In this sample the student is working on smoothing out E minor scale transitions that require attentive listening from the conclusion of one form into another. (i.e. focused conjunction of scales without sharp accents on the downbeat initiation of each new one)

adult piano instruction, Chopin, Frederic Chopin, piano blog, piano instruction, piano lesson, piano lesson by Face Time, piano lessons by Face Time, piano lessons by Skype, piano technique, Uncategorized

Piano technique lesson segments flow nicely into repertoire

Today, the technique portion of a Face Time lesson to North Carolina complemented the main musical course, Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, Op. Posthumous.

It was a harmonious streaming with thumbs swinging; arms floating; and scale contouring that fed well-shaped Romantic era phrases.

It played out as follows:

The A minor scale was parceled out by thumb shift “swings” in rhythms; Rolling motions into a 4-otave spread ensued.

And then a diversion to a D Major arpeggio emphasized the same “swing” throughs from thumb to thumb to prevent impact and obtrusive accents.

The thumb is a nemesis for most students, having its frozen, isolated, annoying effect during transit unless freed of its propensity to interrupt and intrude.

That’s why specific focus on relaxing the thumb and LIGHTENING its effect, took up a good deal of lesson time, though it was worth the effort.

Finally, the layered learning approach to technique in small increments improved the student’s phrasing once she settled into playing the Chopin Waltz.