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Irina Gorin, creator of Tales of a Musical Journey, shares her thoughts about braving a new piano teaching universe

From Irina Gorin:

“An expert is a person who makes all mistakes possible in a very specific field and learns from those mistakes. So I could probably consider myself getting close to being an expert in teaching children. But I hope there are many more mistakes and learning experiences ahead.”

This riveting quote set in motion a series of thoughtful answers to questions I posed to Irina Gorin, creator of Tales of a Musical Journey.

A master teacher with decades of experience, she’s been riding a crest of success with two self-published volumes that have earned acclaim from piano instructors around the world. Satisfied parents, too, are chiming in with their testimonials, forming a choir of praise. All are inspired by two volumes that introduce beginners as young as 4-years old to the “Magical Kingdom of Sounds.” Immersed in a fairy-tale universe, they encounter characters such as King Meter, Fairy Musicalina, Princess Melody, and Prince Rhythm who lead the way with enchantment and imagination.

A child’s progress will be nursed along in carefully conceived baby steps with a fundamental goal of teaching the singing tone and how to physically produce it. Learning in this environment with absorption of musical concepts comes quite naturally. I know, first-hand, because of my experience using Gorin’s Book I with Rina, who began piano lessons at age 4.

(P.S. My review of this material will be published in the Fall 2012 Convention issue of the California Music Teacher Magazine)

***

To widen our understanding of Irina’s motivation to pave a new pedagogical path for beginning piano students, she agreed to answer the following questions.

1) Tell us about your own training in Russia and how it influenced your approach to teaching?

I graduated from a music school, college and conservatory in the Ukraine. (It took more than 20 years of intensive training in total). Teaching was a favorite interest of mine from a very young age. And while performing never was my goal, I did well with those opportunities during my student years. In particular, I enjoyed accompanying and chamber music; playing duets and performing in ensembles. To this day I relish duet-playing with my students, and accompanying them when they study concertos.

I took intensive teaching courses (a total of 8 semesters) in college and conservatory and started working as a teacher at the age of 17. My first teaching experience was at college, where I observed my instructor mentoring the same student every week. The second lesson of the week I would teach this student on my own while my instructor would evaluate progress and move on to the next step in the learning process. In this way, I worked with the same pupil in coordination with my instructor for a total of 2 years, following the child’s progress from a late beginner level to early advanced.

In summary, living in the Ukraine afforded a vast opportunity to observe many master teachers in the lesson environment while it also exposed me to a variety of master classes, concerts, lectures, workshops, not to mention hundreds of books on piano pedagogy.

Eventually, I worked for years in a children’s music school beside 60 piano teachers who were of different ages, backgrounds and experiences. In this stimulating environment, there were joint recitals, discussions, and classes that continued to feed my growing interest in teaching.

2) What prompted you to create your own creative learning materials, given the vast array of popular method books out on the market?

As piano teachers, we always strive to help students make the most progress possible.

We want them to read notes fluently, develop good technical skills, perform confidently and expressively, and above all, we want them to enjoy playing piano and classical music.

These goals are realistic ones if we have the right tools to approach our students in the very early stages of piano study. One tool is a good method book that can size down the presentation of complicated musical ideas, and make them digestible, interesting, logically connected, as well as visually and musically attractive. At the same time, teacher satisfaction with the materials is a high priority.

For more than 30 years of teaching, I had been in search of such an ideal set of method books.

I should backtrack a bit by saying that in the Ukraine where I studied and taught, there were no method books at all. All the materials the teachers had were selected books with no pictures or words to the songs.

The typical first lesson would start like this:

This is the keyboard with white and black keys. Here are the notes ABCDEFG–so let’s play them. Then the teacher would take a student’s hand in her hand and play and name the notes in the middle octave. Following this introduction, the teacher and student played an easy tune on one note with finger # 3, then two notes, and moved on to songs with more fingers and more notes. (A creative teacher could vary this approach)

When I moved to USA in 1993, I was thrilled to discover method books such as as Alfred, Thompson, Bastien, Faber and Faber.

They had pictures; they had words to the songs, and moreover, CD’s with accompaniments. I was amazed by how easy it was to teach students starting with 5-finger positions. It seemed logical and convenient.

So I started teaching all my students with Faber and Faber’s Piano Adventures which soon became my favorite. For certain, these books made my work as a teacher less burdensome. (especially with my lack of an adequate English vocabulary)

But in a short time, I started seeing some big obstacles associated with these materials.

1. Students could not read or play music that was not in a 5-finger position.

With such patterns the five fingers are strictly fixed to certain notes in each position. Very quickly the students realize that they only need to pay attention to the fingerings so there’s no point in “reading” the notes because the same fingers are always “glued” to the same keys.

Sooner or later, however, the students and teachers will have to abandon these playing patterns, at a point when the pupil will suddenly realize that he has not acquired enough skills to read the notes. (The old trick of identifying the notes by fingering will not work when the student proceeds to learn the classical repertoire)

2. Another method-book related weakness was in the realm of technique, despite the existence of an entire album devoted it. Students who were exposed only to this material, had not developed a good hand position.

With fingers being constantly fixed in 5-finger positions for months and sometimes years at a time, young hands became immobile which led to a permanently strained, stiff and clumsy physical approach to playing–along with collapsing fingers and sterile tone.

3. While mentoring young children who had been submerged in these method books for too long, I had the challenge of teaching them to play expressively.

Students exposed to the five-finger positions, could care less about artistry, expression, and tone production.

In addition, the existing piano books did not explore feelings, or different approaches to tone production.

I must admit that part of the problem was tied to the prevalence of digital pianos, where touch could not affect tone.

Nevertheless, method books, likewise didn’t flesh out aspects of tone production. They emphasized loud and soft sounds (p and f) which hadn’t much to do with playing expressively.

So I was concerned with what had happened to feelings of sadness or happiness–being cheerful or gloomy. These were emotions children felt and understood by the age of 4.

4. Another difficulty with the standard method materials, was my having to use 4 or 5 different books in one short 30-minute lesson. These included SEPARATE Theory, Technique, Performance, Rhythm, Popular collections, etc.

Unfortunately, with the arsenal of method books required, many parents refused to buy the Theory, Technique or Performance book. They complained that it was too expensive, or that one or two books were enough. (By the way, I still can’t comprehend how technique and artistry can be separated out from the Lesson or Performance volumes)

As a result, as soon as students transitioned to the classical repertoire, they quit piano lessons, because the learning challenge became overwhelming!

It was devastating! I couldn’t return to the Russian teaching approach with its dry, visually unattractive materials. And besides the Russian selected books moved along too briskly. But I also couldn’t continue using American method books, having experienced unsuccessful results.

So that’s when I started thinking about creating my own method book using a combination of both Russian and American pedagogical approaches, bringing out the best in both.

My goal was to combine learning good technical habits with entertaining and fun musical material, using pictures, stories, and lyrics to the songs that would help students absorb complicated musical concepts. But I knew what a huge undertaking lay before me, and to that point I never had the time for it.

Two years ago, four siblings of my existing students asked to begin piano lessons and all of them were 4-years old. Because I had never taught such young children before (usually starting students at 6 or 7 years old) I couldn’t even imagine teaching them with the existing methods on the market.

So it seemed to be my calling, to make my dream come true.

I started writing several chapters for every lesson, and by the end of the school year I had written two books that make up Tales of a Musical Journey. I also created a supplemental kit for Book 1 and videotaped all my lessons with beginners. With the help of a media professional, I created a DVD with 3.5 hours of lesson excerpts that corresponded to each chapter of Book 1.

3) How are your materials uniquely different?

As pianists and teachers, we know that the main principle of acquiring technical skills is having freedom and flexibility in all the parts of our upper body: arms, fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Not a a single note can be played well on the piano if joints are stiff and muscles are tense.

Following the Russian pedagogic approach, I start teaching kids to play only one key at a time using finger #3, because this finger is in the middle of the hand, (the longest and the strongest), and when kids master the balancing of their hand by playing with this finger, it becomes much easier to use other fingers without tensing up unnecessary muscles.

Playing with only one finger also makes it easier to control and relax the shoulders, wrists, etc. which are extremely important in playing the piano.

In this endeavor, I focus on nurturing musical expression and creating a singing tone from the very beginning.

At the same time, a gradual process of learning notes ensures development of good sight-reading skills.

Intrinsic to my teaching, is using ONE book for technique, theory, etc. which saves lesson time and coordinates the materials so they are logically connected and well balanced.

4) I notice that you start children as young as 4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of teaching very young children before they can read or write?

I approach teaching 4-year old students in the same way as I do with the 6-7 or older beginners. Some kids develop earlier and are ready to start piano lessons at a young age (the same applies to reading or math readiness). And while some need to wait until they’re more mature, say by 6 or 8, for others, it might be never, for that matter.

If young students are ready and progress well, and if families are seriously involved in lessons with follow-up home practice, then those kids will have the advantage of reaching certain milestones sooner then other kids their age.

I personally love working with this young age group, but it can sometimes be very emotionally draining. In the end, however, the joys of teaching children outweigh any negatives, so that’s why I continue to seed beginners and develop them to their full potential. It’s a unique privilege I cannot refuse.

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/when-great-piano-teaching-must-be-recognized/

Gorin’s You Tube Channel:

http://www.youtube.com/user/pianoteaching?ob=0&feature=results_main

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Piano Instruction: How to practice Variation 2, Mozart Sonata No. 11 in A, K. 331 (Videos)

The biggest challenge in this particular variation is the fast-paced tempo and ornament execution–not to mention the fleeting 4 against 3 relationship of treble 32nds above 16ths in the bass. But the latter, should not be a big concern considering how quickly everything spins by.

In the video instruction I suggest a step-wise practicing routine where the left hand is blocked in groups of three, tracking common tones and those that move.

Fingering is very critical in playing Variation 2 smoothly, so I have attached my recommendations, subject to modification depending on what is easiest for the player. I don’t think finger choices are set in stone.

As to character, this variant has the droll dimension due to the dissonant 1/2-steps rolling through it in the bass, (the D#, E redundancy, for example) and the prominent 8th note half-step bass line grace notes which are fleshed out in Forte measures.

Variation 2 definitely reflects Mozart’s lighthearted personality.

REMINDER: Slow practicing is the gateway to a happy long-range result. (Re: the ornaments, practice them slowly, and start on the upper neighbor of principal note)
For some players, depending on level and ability, a turn will be adequate. For others, try for more repercussions.

Close-up view– no repeats–for supple wrist motion and relaxed elbow swing out…

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Bias against Black Notes stopped me in my tracks! (Video)

I would have been leg pressing at the gym but for my detour to Nancy Williams’s Facebook Page.

Here’s what I found:

“Those bloody sharps and flats–those endless calamities of the personal past. Bah! I disown them from the rest of my life, in which I mean to rest.” From “Grass” by Mary Oliver.

My inserted comment

Shirley Smith Kirsten: “I wish it were not that way. If our teachers had made us friends with black notes from the very beginning, there wouldn’t be such avoidance.”

“For example, my little 5-year old student whom I mentor, loves her new FLAT as much as the whites.”

***

Nancy strongly interjected when a prior poster had voiced surprise that the blacks were stigmatized:

Nancy Williams: “Adult students sometimes” have a “bias” about “black notes” and perhaps they’re not white notes “gone wrong.”

To me, this attitude hearkened back to 1960’s Montgomery, Alabama with its apologia about desegregation.

Such double talk as it applied to keyboard inequality was nipped in the bud by an African American piano student/retired postal worker:

“Gosh darn, I see only 36 Blacks, and 52 Whites? That’s a sure-fire case of discrimination.”

I could relate.

Lyrics from South Pacific suddenly popped into my head.

“You’ve Got to Be Taught before it’s too late,
“Before you are six or seven or eight,
“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Such riveting words were applicable to piano learning in “traditional” teaching environments around the country.

The cold-hearted truth was, beginning piano students were TAUGHT that BLACK NOTES DIDN’T EXIST as EQUALS among whites.

As a case in point VICTIM of BLACK-NOTE AVOIDANCE SYNDROME, I believed:

1) That too many of us were glued to the WHITES with our THUMBS stuck on middle C until it hurt. We were so primordially ENSLAVED by the 52s that our DEEP SOUTH-indoctrinated prejudice deterred us from making friends with our NORTHern neighbors.

To wit:
2) Our Southern-biased teachers, may they rest in peace, refused to introduce us to the stigmatized blacks until we had advanced so far along in our primers that we would rather eat spinach than make friends with the dark-colored outcasts.

Sad but true.

I was fed on John Thompson RED books and he, too, furthered the cause of Whites as a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee from Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell.

John S. Thompson Bio

“For thousands of people who taught or studied piano in the 1930s and later, the name of John Thompson brought immediately to mind the shiny red covers of his “Teaching Little Fingers to Play;” his six-volume series, “Modern Piano Course;” and his three-volume series, “Adult Piano Course.” Using his own original compositions, simplified transcriptions of familiar classics, and actual works by famous composers, Thompson crafted a graded series of piano pieces that allowed students to begin with an introduction to the keyboard and music reading and to progress to a fairly sophisticated performance level. These publications had a profound influence on the teaching of piano…..”

****

Time marched on with little progress made since Thompson churned out Pixie plus publications.

Lisa Corcoran, an adult piano student residing in Oregon, seconded the stone age view of “blacks.”

“They always called them ‘accidentals’ because they were accidents waiting to happen.”

Likewise, a candidate for admission to a major East Coast music Conservatory flew in from Mississippi and played a Beethoven sonata, avoiding all black keys. In response, a shocked panel of teachers queried him about his new arrangement. His reply: “I’m not going to touch those blacks.”

Seymour Bernstein, pianist and author, added his own black-key anecdote:

“When I performed the Bach F minor Concerto with orchestra during my one year at the Mannes School, the late Leopold Mannes, who was present at the rehearsal, said to me, ‘Isn’t it odd that when we get nervous before a performance, the black notes seem so much higher than the whites?!!’

“I did a double-take because I never considered these keys to be ‘higher.'”

***

In the Millennium, enter the Faber Piano Adventures Generation, with a peep-through, veiled relief of black-key associated anxiety.

At least for the first few pages of Primer Performance Purple, the little ones pleasingly dance on the blacks without a hint of displeasure–an ebony-realized dream that should be FOREVER, according to fairy tales.

But like Cinderella’s fate at the stroke of midnight, Primer page 6, sent the blacks packing– banished from their privileged KINGDOM, restoring WHITE-note supremacy!

The story line might have been changed:

“Wind in the Trees,” and “The Shepherd’s Flute,” such sweet black-key melodies, wooed newbies, keeping them in the throes of love-sickness through page 5. They could have stayed in variation form but were mercilessly bumped by “Hot Cross Buns” on the Whites, (p. 6) dashing the hopes of blacks for keyboard EQUALITY.

Oh No!!!!.. “HOT CROSS buns” and the DEEP South. The pairing smacked of unabashed black-note bigotry!

The clock had been turned back..

More of the same:

“Lil’ Liza Jane,” Level I, RED FABER, Piano Adventures, (Revised?)

It was time to bring on the Black Notes for a rousing rebellion!

I’d say, Give beginning students early exposure to sharps and flats,

“before it’s too late.

“Before they are six or seven or eight,

“They’ve got to be carefully taught….”

REPEAT refrain as needed….in chorus

***

Curtain drawn

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Irina Morozova, pianist, shines playing Gershwin Virtuoso Transcriptions on CD!

Irina Morozova, a name that drew my attention amidst a flood of star-studded “Irina’s” in the teaching and performing realm, came through with shining colors in her nuanced readings of George Gershwin Improvisations. The CD title, “Gershwin Virtuoso Transcriptions” encompasses “improvisations” originally delivered by the composer himself on piano rolls, later transcribed by Artis Wodehouse, (7 of 8 attributable to her), with a set of virtuoso Etudes arranged by Earl Wild.

Yeol Eum Son, delivered a riveting performance of an embellished “Embraceable You,” heard far and wide on the Internet, but not played as well as Morozova who reveals a broader palette of color and tasteful rubato perfectly crafted to the jazz era.

Morozova’s peak performances of “Man I Love,” “I’ve Got Rhythm,” to name a few, are engaging because of their rhythmic vitality and melodic intensity. Add in technical mastery that’s jaw-dropping and you have a sizzling CD that demands instant replays.

The icing on the cake for me was the artist’s show-stopping reading of the composer’s Concerto in F transcribed by Grace Castegnetto that left me breathless and panting for more!

On the CD menu were some of the following tantalizing treats:

From the Solo Improvisations

“Someone to Watch Over Me,”
“S’Wonderful/Funny Face”

Earl Wild Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs

A few snatches besides those songs already noted:

“Oh Lady Be Good”
“Fascinating Rhythm”
“Somebody Loves Me”

http://www.amazon.com/Irina-Morozova-Plays-Gershwin-Concerto/dp/B001FOC3HS/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1326918501&sr=8-1-fkmr1

The back story:

Irina Morozova, a Mannes College of Music faculty member, first captured my interest when a friend shot off an e-mail that mentioned still another Irina in framed superlatives. To that point I’d been blogged out, waxing rhapsodic about Irina Gorin, piano pedagogue supérieure, and Irena Orlov, (with an E separating her from the pack) an icon among master teachers. Could I make a space for still another IRINA of star caliber?

Just then, Morozova popped up on my screen in a heavenly Romantic ambiance, out-playing herself on You Tube with a set of mesmerizing Chopin selections. Such listening enticements begged for more, adding to my list of Favorites.

This particular Chopin Impromptu performance stole my heart with its divine molto cantabile (singing tone) from first measure to final cadence!

***

BIO:

“Irina Morozova made her New York debut with a solo recital at Carnegie Hall in 1996 after winning Artists International Auditions. Critics raved, “Morozova possesses an astonishing beauty of sound and power of ideas…she is the sort of pianist who can turn a simple phrase into magic….”

“Born to a musical family, Irina Morozova began her musical studies at the Leningrad Special Music School for Gifted Children and graduated with honors from the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music where her major teacher was Galina Orlovskaya. Studying with Vladimir Shakin at the Saint-Petersburg Conservatory, she performed in the concert halls of Saint-Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, and many other cities in the former Soviet Union. She also toured former East Germany and appeared with the Berlin Radio Symphony in the famed Schauspielhaus.

(A list of performance credits is too long to tabulate, though they encompass a variety of international venues.)

“Ms. Morozova received her Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music where she studied with Dr. Arkady Aronov. Since 1997 she has been on the faculties of Mannes College of Music and the Special Music School at Kaufman Center.”

RELATED LINKS:

Irina Morozova

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/ethereal-piano-playing-another-irina-with-an-i-in-the-middle-brings-heaven-to-earth/

Irena Orlov


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/26/reaching-beyond-a-documentary-about-an-inspiring-piano-teacher/

Irina Gorin


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/when-great-piano-teaching-must-be-recognized/