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Piano Instruction: Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18-Using a supple wrist follow through motion, and parceling out voices (Video)

The Schumann Arabesque is a heartfelt character piece from the Romantic era. It requires the player to have a very supple wrist to realize the lilt of buoyant, legato dotted eighth/16th figures that permeate the music.

Though the composition is in C Major, it has interludes in the minor, that are somber and impassioned.

I chose to flesh out the opening section of the Arabesque for my current instruction. And in keeping with my assertion that learning should begin with baby steps, I isolated each of 4 voices, individually playing and contouring them.

Starting with the soprano (uppermost voice) I used my spongy, supple wrist to shape redundant rhythmic figures that would otherwise have sounded typed out and monotonous with a stiff wrist. (Breathing natural, full breaths were part of the process)

When I next identified the tenor, then alto voice, I gave myself the opportunity to combine the alto (and tenor, which was double stemmed) with the soprano. I then played bass and soprano lines together. This specific undertaking was a challenge because the alto figure along with tenor doubled notes could not overshadow the soprano line. The thumb also needed to be subdued so it wouldn’t intrude upon the uppermost voice that contained a very fluid melody.

The bass provided the underpinning for the composition, and was learned as thoroughly as the other voices.

Combining the bass with the tenor/alto voices, or separately playing this line with the soprano was an important ingredient of thoughtful practicing.

Putting all voices together with sensitivity to the balance between them, provided the necessary foundation for the piece to grow and develop.

Adding pedal was the final touch giving the composition nuance and polish.

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/06/about-the-physical-side-of-playing-what-we-need-to-teach-at-all-levels-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/05/29/piano-technique-and-weight-control-bringing-out-and-balancing-voices-video-teacher-shirley-kirsten/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/piano-instruction-avoiding-injuries-using-butterfly-by-edvard-grieg-as-a-slow-practicing-example-video/

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Piano Technique and Weight Control: Bringing out and balancing voices (Video) Teacher, Shirley Kirsten

When students do routine scales and arpeggios as warm-ups to their tour de force pieces, I like to spice things up a bit by playing around with voicing and weight control. (Yes, you heard me right) I’ll surprise them by asking for the Left hand notes to be fleshed out, while the Right ones are subdued. Initially, my request throws everyone for a loop, eliciting quizzical looks that could be freeze framed and imported to You Tube–a collage of raised eyebrows, and collective chagrin. The whole spectacle would definitely be worth a million hits past Nora the Cat pawing the keys of a Yamaha grand.

As a heads up helper and student stress reliever, I take a hard cover book and hold it palms up in my Left hand, while I have a flimsy soft covered one in my Right. While it’s a flip-side teaching model, the basic concept comes across: heavier in one hand and lighter in the other. (There’s no doubt that muscle memory kicks in)

In driving my points across, I might also allude to feeling an upper body fullness filtering down the arms, through the elbows, wrists, fingers, into the keys vs. an opposite, easing up sensation. (That’s where weight control comes in) In truth, most students can stand to gain a few pounds of pressure when weighing into the keys versus tickling the ivories).

Weight measuring at the piano is pivotal to voicing and students will observe me doing weight bearing maneuvers as living, breathing examples.

Sometimes I will do a push-up of sorts, finding my dead weight upper body core, and leveraging myself against the keyboard with embracing hands. That’s when the wooden key slip starts making a racket (tennis anyone?)

This basic gravitational connection to the instrument is the impetus for modified weigh-ins. No, not the type associated with boxing: Heavy weight, Light weight and Feather weight divisions? Sports analogies save the day when standard piano teaching lingo does not adequately serve me. Tennis again? with that power-packed serve requiring weight transfer from the back foot springing forward to the front with dead center gravity at play.

Bottom line, when you want to bring out the left hand in a scale, think “heavier” or deeper into the keys. But know that “deeper” may not be enough if concurrent, relaxed, dead weight is not the back-up. Connection into the keys whether light or heavy remains a constant while skimming the surface of keys is not an option.

The attached video demonstrates various weight applications used in drawing out voices using scales and arpeggios as the vehicle.

Here are some routines:

1) Play a four-octave scale in 16ths in parallel motion–Legato–smooth and connected Forte singing tone (Allegretto tempo, or in a slower frame if you choose)

Start by voicing deeper into the Right Hand. Use the dead weight application I mentioned. The left hand should feel “lighter” reduced to medium soft (mp) or soft (p), if possible.

2) Do the same, fleshing out the Left hand notes, subduing the Right. Keep the Forte singing tone in the bass, and go way down to piano. in the treble

3) Finally evenly balance the voices.

Steps one, two and three can enlist STACCATO for variety.

Students can also explore Contrary motion scales with thumbs at the starting note, going out for three octaves and returning to the beginning point.

Bring out the Left hand in one playing, then the Right in the next, or in reverse order.

Finally evenly balance the voices.

Do the same overall routine with a four octave arpeggio in Parallel motion, then play in contrary motion. You’ll be using legato and staccato approaches. Mix it up for variety.

***

So why take the trouble to turn your keyboard world upside down like those pilots who do aeronautical gymnastics?

Well, because to play the piano repertoire from Classical to Pop, requires “voicing.” All music requires a balance of voices in one form or another. Schumann, for example, often intentionally slips inner voices into his compositions, making the pianist take notice. Fleshing these out, reveals the full blossomed beauty of his works. Beethoven’s Adagio from the “Pathetique” Sonata begins with three voices and progresses at some places to four. The quartet scoring must have a resonating melody, a rolling alto, subdued tenor and framing bass. The player must decide what he must draw out in the course of a composition, and how the fabric of lines is woven. Such decisions about voicing are synthesized into a kinetic/aural/ and affective(emotional) frame.

Jazz pianists who are part of a larger or smaller ensemble, where blending and interaction of voices is intrinsic to a performance, may want to flesh out a theme that’s jumped from the treble into the bass or alto voice. So knowing what it takes to draw out a line is pivotal to a jam session or performance.

“Voicing” then, is universal to the piano repertoire in its various forms and media and should be cultivated artfully with an awareness of weight applications and sound images.

RELATED:
Thumb shifts in playing scales and arpeggios

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/piano-technique-thumb-shifts-in-playing-scales-and-arpeggios-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/sports-and-piano-technique-how-about-chunking-on-you-tube/

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Piano Instruction: The Virtues of Slow Motion Practicing and Attentive Listening

It takes patience to approach a piece well behind tempo, tuning in to every nuance and turn of phrase. With ears alert and sensitive, the player tries to create a feeling state where he’s submerged in sound to the exclusion of all else. At the pinnacle of concentration, he’s “in the zone,” attaining Maslow’s “peak experience.”

A practicing Utopia, for sure.

In reality, most piano students, especially the younger ones, race to the instrument when they can–sandwiching in twenty or so minutes between sports practice and homework time. (Don’t forget the quick snack on the run) And when they finally sit down in front of an assigned page of music, they’re stressed, hurried, and far from having presence of mind.

In a frenzied state, the pupil races through a scale or piece, gets trapped in a note, stops, and immediately lunges to play everything over. The results are predictable. The same crashes and new problems.

Adult students, equally stressed out by their busy and crowded work schedules, might come to a lesson so wired, that it takes the first twenty minutes of lesson time to slow them down. And the key word is slow.

In our technological age with high speed connections encompassing all communications, to think below the radar screen at a more relaxed pace is not considered a virtue. Everyone wants to depress a key and move on to the next image or application.

In the practicing environment this fast and furious rate of transition will not apply because piano study demands a parceled, step-wise approach to each piece that has its own unique learning curve. You can’t bundle it, stamp it and send it off perfectly packaged with an overnight deadline. Operating in the Beat the Clock mode is counter-productive.

SLOWING DOWN and savoring each note is true gratification, not delayed or postponed, unless the player believes that rushing achieves something better, and I can guarantee that in most instances, it doesn’t. In this “connection,” students will insist that they can play a piece well very fast but not slowly. Having heard the results of a briskly played piece that hadn’t had a step-wise, graduated preliminary approach in slow motion, I found that phrases were not shaped, depth into keys was lacking, and the music whizzed by without making an emotional impression. That’s not to mention, starts and stops caused by slap dash fingerings.

So what does slow motion, attentive practicing involve and accomplish?

1) It requires relaxation, and a calm, patient, non-judgmental frame of mind.

2) It presumes an acceptance of where the player is, without a value attached. Not knowing a piece as yet with a firm knowledge should usher in a period of wide-eyed exploration, ear opening, and full body awareness. Evelyn Glennie, percussionist, said it well. “Whole body listening” is the desired paradigm for music learning and expression.

3) An attentive listener molds phrases in slow motion with an underlying beat that is steady but sized down. He gets “in touch” with shapes and contours that would otherwise elude him. The finger tips, wrist, elbows and arms form a continuum of uninterrupted motion. The player tunes in to what it “feels” like to achieve a comfortable depth into the keys, sensing his connection to each and every note while dynamics are explored with weight transfer and a supple wrist. “Muscular memory,” a concept I will explore in another writing, has its best chance to take hold and permeate each and every practice session in a relaxed tempo environment.

4) Slow motion practicing gives ample space and time to assign fingerings that realize what is notated in the music. Experimentation with different fingerings gives a clearer idea of what best realizes a smooth, legato line, a crisp staccato section or a combination of both.

5) In a relaxed time frame, a student can study individual voices, shape and balance them, and be aware of their melodic and harmonic dimensions.

6) Playing well behind tempo means that time is suspended, and there are no deadlines to meet. This should reinforce a presence of mind that allows for information to flow into consciousness, be processed and then synthesized with the affective way of knowing. (emotional expression)

7) Achieving “oneness” with the piano, is part of the slowing-down process. Breathing long breaths as phrases unfold, and experimenting with breath control at cadences help nudge a student into the “zone,” at the peak of musical gratification.

Slow, whole body, attentive listening lays down the foundation for advancing tempo when the right time comes, not one note too soon. It should be a joyous and pleasurable journey when it begins and as it progresses along.

Recommended: Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase

Video: Evelyn Glennie on “Whole Body Listening”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU3V6zNER4g

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Can Piano Lessons be Skyped?

The very title of this blog might send readers feverishly rushing off to other sites. I would have had the same fight/flight response before I heard from two happy Skyping students, one of whom was so pan-allergic that any semblance of a cat or dog hair coming through a vent would have placed him in medical jeopardy. Naturally, in self-defense, he bluntly asked me in a private lesson inquiry, if the neighbors to my right or left had any pets–or if they walked the canines anywhere near the property. I replied that I remembered a dog barking occasionally during my lessons along with the accompanying drone of BART, no less cooing pigeons coming from cages over the fence. That was the final straw–minus a barn. He was back to SKYPING with his East Coast-based teacher, and ingesting music through long distance Internet-driven transmission. One-to-one, in-person lessons in the vicinity were out of the question unless a mobile bubble could be ordered from the nearest University medical center to keep him out of harm’s way. (going to and from lessons)

All kidding aside, since I’ve been You Tubing various tutorials exploring piano technique as well as the Baroque, Classical and Romantic piano repertoire, I had begun to think that I was just a few steps away from coming flesh and blood into a student’s living room. But I hadn’t yet seen or heard blog readers practicing at their individual pianos as important feedback in the two-way learning process. For all intents and purposes, I was “teaching” an invisible audience, if not myself.

One of my Bay area students admitted that she would place an iPad on her music rack in the days between her lessons to refresh and reinforce the content of her Monday session. According to this feisty adult pupil, it was follow-up conveniently transmitted by You Tube, keeping her on track.

With my student’s admission of delight in having this resource at her easy disposal, I started to think about the possibility of SKYPING lessons where a student who lived beyond reasonable travel distance could tune in and have a supplemental lesson. In situations where distance was intercontinental, a pupil might be SKYPED on a more consistent basis. Another option: Arranging for a private You Tube communication between teacher and student only? (not in real time) Surely this would be a tip-toe approach short of going All the Way by SKYPE mobile?

I still felt hesitant about not being close enough to a student to adjust his elbows or wrists to improve singing tone or nurture fluidity of technique, etc. Would my hands be completely tied, aside from placing them squarely on the keyboard. My cheescake smile might be SKYPIFIED, and warehoused to a floating archive without a reciprocal smile of recognition within an acceptable range of inter-personal communication.

The clincher came after I watched a virtuoso pianist in the US teach a student in Asia. It was an artful communication with an advanced student that brought visible and audible improvement in the playing. And the way I “read” it, the teacher’s talent for imparting musical/technical wisdom rose above any media related mode of transmission. (That said, if the SKYPE connection died, or if there was lack of audio synchronicity between the two individuals, or DSL speeds didn’t match up, I could see one great big Internet-triggered Tsunami zigzagging across the screen taking the student and teacher under the waves)

Would that catastrophic possibility discourage me?

Despite real or exaggerated pitfalls, I still launched my journey to learn more. And in this nit-picking process I e-mailed SKYPING You Tubers for advice.

***
Post-script:

Currently, at the peak of my information gathering expedition, I would gladly welcome input from SKYPERS who have taken piano lessons, or from teachers who have availed themselves of this technology–especially those who’ve used the Music Reader software that allows an instructor to mark up the music before the student’s very eyes) The Magic and marvel of technology!

In an internet-compressed, high-speed delivered set of comments, what are the advantages, disadvantages of this SKYPING activity, and how can it be improved? What student age groups benefit the most? the least?

How did you set up your lesson Skyping and what computer and web cam did you use? Was there a need for a supplemental web cam such as a Logitech for better keyboard viewing angles? (I’m told Macs are incompatible with these, so you have to buy Rocketfish) Good thing the allergic student opted out, in any case. Oops, I forgot that a Rocketfish would not be swishing around my living room tank.

I must be behind the times, or not yet tuned in to SKYPE, HYPE, PADS, PODS or SMARTS.

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The Art of Phrasing at the Piano: Starting the process with Beginners (Videos)

For some unexplained reason, my earliest piano studies never included the art of phrasing. My primer teacher stressed naming notes, finding them, affixing correct fingering and counting out robotic beats.

I knew nothing about feeling a melodic landscape; putting the vocal model center stage in my playing, and breathing through contoured musical lines. My pieces were flat-liners.

By the time a bass clef staff popped up on the pages of John Thompson’s Pixie platitudes, expanding my sketchy musical universe, I had no idea what to do with these new notes besides naming and locating them.

From my Beginner perspective, such unwelcome bass line strangers had no other role than being feebly attached to the right hand part. The black sheep of my musical cosmos, they owned a non grata status along with the black notes.

To say that I had no idea how to PHRASE these bass line notes, would have been an understatement. My awareness of shaping a musical line in either hand was non-existent until I met up with Lillian Freundlich, my piano teacher during years spent at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. During this period she turned my complacent universe upside down and transformed music making into a living, breathing experience with contours and shapes.

Lil Freundlich made me “sing” what I was studying, with parceled out treble and bass parts. (Often she would vocalize over my playing, nudging along phrases) When examining complex fugues, like those composed by Bach with multiple voices, she had me sing and shape all individual lines. Above and beyond contouring each voice, she taught me that the harmonic (vertical) dimension of a piece, offered insight about how to phrase the melodic line. “Resolutions” of Dominant to Tonic, for example underscored a tension/relaxation relationship that affected the total landscape of a composition from the top down.

Examples:

In a previous blog with a companion video I had explored harmonic rhythm as applied to phrasing and interpreting Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 545.

Example, A Skype Lesson-in-Progress to Greece:

Andante movement:

Mozart sonata 545 Andante revised

In the posting below, I’ve turned the clock back to the Baroque period, using the two voice G Major Minuet from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook, BWV 116 as a springboard for examining phrasing and interpretation.

And a Skype Lesson in Progress on this Minuet (Notice the hand rotation in the arpeggiated figures)

A step-by-step approach

1) I start with the Right Hand and ROLL into the G Major arpeggio, not in any way accenting the first note. All arpeggios have this natural, out flowing organic shape. In the first measure, the Dominant also appears through the progression from A to F# in the right hand. (The Left Hand beneath provides the root “D” of the Dominant)

Dominant to Tonic relationships suggest LEAN to resolve or relax.

It takes a bit of finesse to cross over to measure two, and RESOLVE the leading tone F# to the downbeat G, since the beginning of a new measure often ushers in a strong impulse.

In this case, it’s best to tastefully shape down the G in the second measure as it is a resolution note from the dominant in the proceeding measure. This whole figure with the G arpeggio to its resolution is in fact the subject or MOTIF of the minuet. It will thread through the composition from beginning to end.

A note of reminder that phrasing is assisted by phrase marks and inserted dynamics. (Keith Snell edited the Anna Magdalena edition I chose for this instruction)

2) Putting the treble and bass lines together is the next stage of the phrasing process.

In the G Major Minuet, a conversation transpires between two voices, so this dialog should be fleshed out, along with echoes of it.

The Minuet’s harmonic dimension is revealed once the treble and bass interact. Dominant (V) to Tonic (I), and Sub-dominant (IV) to Tonic (I) relationships suggest resolutions: Lean on Dominant/relax to Tonic; Lean on Sub-Dominant/relax to Tonic. These progressions permeate the first page and assist melodic contouring.

For Beginners

On the Primer Level, take the very popular piece “Russian Sailor Dance,” in Faber’s Piano Adventures, Lesson Book, and map out the lean and resolve notes.(Insert slurs where necessary) A student doesn’t have to know Dominant from Tonic to shape down notes. In a supportive role, the teacher will play the accompaniment to this piece, and voice down the Tonic resolution chord after the Dominant. She can sing the melody alongside the student as the duet is played with conspicuously resolved or relaxed notes. The echo phrases can be similarly fleshed out.This form of modeling makes a significant musical impact on the student. Duet playing, in particular, gives a pupil an opportunity to be part of an ensemble, to balance his part alongside the teacher’s secondo and emulate the staccato notes that bounce along in both parts. All these phrasing ingredients that include observing dynamics, blend together to create a satisfying musical experience.

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Piano Technique: Thumb Shifts in Playing Scales and Arpeggios (Video)

The great pianist, Josef Hofmann, imparted words of wisdom when he answered the following question posed by a student that related to the thumb and piano technique:

“What is the matter with my scales? I cannot play them without a perceptible jerk when I use my thumb. How can I overcome the unevenness?”

The questioner expressed a universal concern among pianists regardless of proficiency. And it’s because the thumb is so unique. The shortest of five fingers, it has a tendency to be played prematurely and with a conspicuous accent when it passes under longer fingers in the course of a scale, arpeggio, or in any passage where it shifts.

Hofmann had responded with a similar opinion:

“The cause of the hand’s unrest in the passing of the thumb lies usually in transferring the thumb too late.”

He continued:

“The thumb usually waits until the very moment when it is needed and then quickly jumps upon the proper key, instead of moving toward it as soon as the last key it touched can be released. This belatedness causes a jerky motion to the arm and imparts it to the hand.”

In the video I produced on this very subject, I demonstrated ways to avoid the “belatedness” and “jerkiness” that Hofmann had referenced.

My discussion and demonstration focused on what I termed the “pocket” thumb and “swishy” thumb.

The “pocket” concept involves “preparation” for the shift under other fingers. The “swishy” adjective pertains to relaxing the rotating thumb when in motion and its making a soft, unobtrusive landing. Even when playing FORTE or loud, I believe the thumb should be relaxed, cushioned, if not underplayed.

If you have your own ideas about the thumb and the art of piano playing, please share them.

As a post script, I just discovered some thought provoking ideas about the thumb offered in the book, Conversations with Arrau by
Joseph Horowitz:

The pianist speaks: “I use a rotational movement with the thumb.” [Demonstrating for the author, Arrau makes his rubber-jointed right thumb crawl like a caterpillar from a white key to a black; the top joint ascends first while the bottom joint maintains contact with the white key.]

Another relevant point made by Arrau: “It is important never to feel the actions of the fingers as independent from the arm.”

Arrau thinks of “ten agile, individually weighted fingers, attached to rotating wrists. He says convincingly, that the pianist has to “develop a feeling for the arm as a unity, not divided into hand, wrist, forearm, elbow.”

***

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

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The Piano Teacher as Composer: Using my MOONBEAMS collection as an example (Video)

Why not give composing a try? I did. For the most part, you don’t need a degree in composition, but a Theory background helps things along with voice leading in the bass part and understanding the rules of notation. Above all, intuition and inspiration are the main ingredients in any creative undertaking.

In 1985 I tried my hand at composing as my six children were falling off to sleep in their bedrooms. This exploration synchronized with my students having inspired Piano Duets By and For Children with my Introduction, “How to Help Children Compose.”

The Making of Moonbeams and other Musical Sketches

Seated at the piano with manuscript paper set on the music rack alongside a pencil with eraser, I let my imagination run free. Improvising and dancing across the keys, I created “Moonbeams,” a bi-chordal wash, using two basic sonorities submerged in one sustain pedal.

Animated creations followed: “March of the Elves,” “Fingers on the Run,” “Merry-Go-Round,” “Mosquito Dance,” and “Catch Me!”

Interspersed among these fast paced selections were more lyrical pieces: “Hebrew Melody and Variations,” “Ballerina,” and “Gliding on Ice.”

Perhaps it was an accident of fate that each of these character pieces had a teaching dimension.

The icing on the cake, of course, was my uncle David’s accompanying art work. I had sent him an audio cassette of the titled pieces, making the whole process a cross-country exchange. (from California to New York and back)

Here are a few samples from the album that can be used as Intermediate Level repertoire. I hope these pieces will encourage piano teachers to experiment with composing, and pass this creative activity down to their students.



JUGGLING CLOWNS

CATCH ME!


ADDITIONAL ILLUSTRATIONS

BALLERINA

HEBREW MELODY and VARIATIONS

MOONBEAMS COLLECTION

*The pieces were not composed in this particular order. Considerations related to key and mood were paramount in organizing the collection.

Moonbeams was reviewed favorably in Clavier Magazine and found its way to the Music Teachers Association of California Convention held in Los Angeles. A student from the area performed “Hebrew Melody and Variations” at the New Materials session.