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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.








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The iPhone Invades Piano Lessons

Monday, Jan. 24th, was a first! Esmeralda, a retired attorney, who’d been taking lessons from me for a year, entered my El Cerrito piano studio with a bright red iPhone as a sign of the times. A dangling rectangular prism packed with limitless software had replaced her simple gold cross. This latest “look” included a top-heavy accoutrement of questionable value in the piano learning environment.

No sooner than Esmeralda began to play her five-finger warm-ups in parallel and contrary motion, she had requested that I borrow her iPhone to “record” the tricky staccato phase of the exercise (crisp and short articulation) She wanted to take the digital sample home and use it as a crutch. By re-playing it a zillion times, she believed that she would master scales at break-neck speed!

If unsuccessful, she could simply tap the iPhone metronome and watch an animated pendulum, turning herself into a piano-playing robot. If nothing else, she could induce a hypnotic state and toss aside the beat counter.

Esmeralda requested a second sample from me a week later, but not the blood type. She had already done her good deed earlier in the day and was racked with upper back pain from the lengthy drawing at the local Red Cross. I was sure the baggy, top-heavy iPhone draped around her neck had probably made things worse. Nonetheless she took a brief lesson break and did some body gyrations on my J.C. Penney, wine colored, tufted bench. This was another first!

After she reluctantly trudged back to the piano bench, I agreed to dish out a performance of Alexander Tansman’s “Arabia” only if she promised to internalize my phrasing, and not upload the recording for profit. While this was the farthest thing from her mind, she realized as an attorney that my TOS had to be met.

All this technology was dizzying.

I was born of another generation. Growing up listening to great opera singers, violinists and pianists on 33 LPs and occasionally on 78s, I knew nothing of analogs, MIDIS, DATs and the rest, and as a student at the New York City High School of Performing Arts, I was sent off one morning to the WNYC F.M. studios to record one selection for broadcast. A reel to reel tape recorder grabbed the lion share of space behind the glass as engineers tweaked it.

All I can remember was having played like an ice-cube. Stricken with performance anxiety, my Chopin Nocturne died on the vine without even a whimper. Perhaps a modern-day note splicer would have eradicated the occasional clunkers, but what about the emotionless reading. Was there a 21st Century remedy? I would e-mail “support@…” for an answer, or text message on the ride home from El Cerrito.

Decades earlier, before I had entered the Oberlin Conservatory as a Freshman, my piano teacher, Lillian Freundlich, had helped me put together my audition tape using her reel to reel that captured the Schubert Sonata in A minor with gorgeous definition. Who could ask for more?

In 1992, KVPR, our local PBS radio station brought the double cylinder monsters to Northwest Church where they recorded soloists who had performed on the esteemed Keyboard Concerts Series. From my standpoint the results were crystal clear, though the sworn techie groupies would argue that digital, mp3, MIDI, and DAT were the winds of the present and future.

I recalled an ancient New Yorker Magazine cartoon depicting a classroom with 25 tape recorders of the old variety and one lonely teacher gazing upon these from behind her desk. George Orwell couldn’t have illustrated it better in 1984. Now well into the Millennium, technology had taken over, and learning by iPhone, import, plug-in, or download had displaced the well schooled, hard-working instructor at the head of the class.

Sometimes I felt like a teacher put out to pasture. My students could log onto You Tube and watch an amateur type out Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on a 61-key bell and whistle type keyboard, with a blown up graph showing how many times “E” was played in the course of a musical page. Or better yet, they could download an animated piano that hummed along at programmed frequencies. You could tap your way to pianistic perfection with a “PLAYING The PIANO in a FLASH” DVD.

I decided to go with the flow, and allow my students their iPadian idiosyncrasies. If they wanted me to record a few snatches on the iPhone, or transmit whole pieces of music to them as zip files I would get with the times.

Otherwise, I would stick to my principles and lead a monastic life of pianistic purity. I’d never even allow myself to steal an iPhone, or sneak it into the concert hall to record a full length recital of my favorite pianist, no matter how great the temptation!