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The most popular blog explores piano teacher/student relationships

I’ve been aware that this particular writing seems to touch a nerve, or strikes a chord of recognition among piano teachers, parents and students: https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/pulls-and-tugs-two-sides-to-the-studentteacher-piano-lesson-relationship/

It’s only rival in popularity on my roster has been “Funeral for a Cracked Plate,” a real life soap opera about a piano buyer who slipped up by ordering a piano off the Internet without having requested an inspection by a registered piano technician.


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/funeral-for-a-cracked-plate-piano-caveat-emptor/

Regardless of whom should have been blamed for a vintage Proksch (a lesser known Czechoslovakian grand piano) ending up with a cracked plate (or harp) the buyer was at least redeemed when the lucrative owner of a piano exporting business was nailed by the feds for illegally smuggling ivory into the country. (There are laws on the books against it)

The appeal of this writing was probably tied to old man York, a homespun Fresno piano tuner who was schlepped cross-country by the buyer to tiny-town Georgia to testify about the plate and its mishap. When the pair arrived at the courthouse, the judge thought York, at least, was “no expert” due to a legal technicality, and basically closed the case, sending the two home packing.

York thought it was a case of redneck justice.

The flashback scenes of a bare plate sitting on one of those wooden horses used at parades, was surreal. For me it evoked a rotunda in the Capitol without an honor guard. The post-mortem gathering in York’s Northwest Fresno driveway included a piano tuner hunched over the thing like he was praying, York, his wife, the buyer, her husband, and myself, the photographer.

The whole plot and its aftermath was grist for a movie.

***

Back to piano teachers and their often shaky vocation as fleshed out in the numero Uno Blog.

It’s hard to gauge exactly who would identify with the adventures of a piano teacher in any town USA– preferably a less cosmopolitan area like Fresno as compared to New York City.

I’m not sure the Big Apple contingent of piano instructors would run into students whose music landed in a pick-up truck headed for Texas. More than likely, an album might be left on a subway train bound for Queens or Brooklyn–a less appealing journey to write about.

Back in my early days, when I was a traveling piano teacher in New York City, I never encountered students without music because they didn’t budge from their apartments for lessons. Yet there were time old excuses for not practicing. Among them, HOMEWORK absorbed most of the blame.

Adult students

A 50ish lady who lived in an apartment a few floors above my mother in the Inwood section of Manhattan, was a hard-working, Irish civil servant who thought taking piano in her later years, would be a piece of cake. She figured it was, at best, a transfer of her typing skills.

With that impression intact, she lasted for 6 months, and then moved on to crocheting. A no drama momma, she barely registered any emotion upon her departure.

I didn’t endure any power struggles with parents during my years teaching back East. It was probably because New Yorkers were riveted to TV and other news media for the latest bulletin about a serial killer–either Son of Sam, or another lunatic let loose in Central Park to attack joggers.

Little energy was left to fight with the piano teacher over repertoire choices or time switches.

I don’t recall any beefs about fees in those days either. Parents would neatly tuck cash into my palm, and sometimes send me home with a bell jar of chicken soup, or freshly made Borscht. It felt good.

I must admit that one of my Korean parents here in Fresno, rushed over to my place after I e-mailed her tragic news that my treasured blog, “After the Fall” had bitten the dust.

And to make matters worse, tech support was at a loss to help.

So what!

Who could care less about a silly, old blog, when the economy was rapidly tanking?

Still the Korean pastry arrived like clock work, and the sugar high gave me energy and motivation to re-write the blog from scratch. It came back miraculously, paragraph by paragraph.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/10/20/after-the-fall/

In all candor, my personal blog favorite is usually the newest one I’m writing, though I have to confess that “Pulls and Tugs” still tickles my fancy, and makes me laugh like crazy, especially when I get to the part about the missing music and the Lone Star State, along with a choir of parents screaming for changed lesson times.

To preserve our unique piano teaching culture, I believe we should ardently gather stories like these from around the country and publish them in an anthology.

Let’s begin…

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Why Play Scales?

Scale practicing examples:

***
The Backdrop:

As a young piano student living in New York City, I remember my reluctance to prepare a mandatory scale each week for my lesson. In fact my first teacher had so many students, she always seemed to forget the scale she had assigned to me, so I remained happily in the key of C for most of the year. (Played on all white keys) Little did I know that C Major was a lot more challenging to practice than the keys of B, F# and C# Major that had nice, regular patterns of double and triple black notes that fit the longer fingers perfectly, with the thumbs meeting in between.

Frederic Chopin was known to teach these three black-key scales before all others. Think about how much easier it would have been for a sightless person to play these step-wise passages with braille-like elevated black notes in regular patterns, as opposed to a sea of white notes without reference points.

Now that I’ve grown up to be a piano teacher and you tube poster, I realize the importance of scale study in the growth and development of musicianship.

Scales are about the “feel” and geography of the keyboard. They are about shaping, phrasing, sculpting. Sometimes they’re practiced with catchy rhythms, crisp and detached (staccato) or as smooth and connected, freely spun out, rolling triplets. You can even reverse the direction of the fingers when practicing scales, having them lightheartedly dance together and apart, in shades of loud, soft, and in between. And you might bring out one voice over another, by drawing more intensity from the left hand, then reversing the process, giving the right hand its place in the sun.

Most importantly, scales help us understand where we are in a piece of music because they define the TONAL CENTER of a composition or a section of it.

I wish I had known about the famous Circle of Fifths when I was beginning my piano studies. The Circle maps out the progression of scales (Major and minor) in an orderly fashion with sharps acquired going clockwise, and flats in reverse. As a student moves from the Key of C, to G, to D, to A, etc. he/she learns not only the new sharp that is picked up in the clockwise journey but comes face to face with fingering adjustments that make the smooth playing of various scales more attainable.

Scales, in summary, are part and parcel of piano study and they feed in and out of the piano repertoire. What could be a better entree to the pieces we most cherish than to find the key they’re in, and dance through a few preliminaries.

Example of a Classical era Sonata by Mozart (first movement) permeated by a series of scales.

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Teaching Piano to Teenagers: Classical, Pop, Taylor Swift, Liz on Top of the World and more (Videos)

There’s always room for flexibility in choice of repertoire, especially when teaching teenagers. Alex, 18, had taken lessons during primary school, took a long break and returned to the piano as a senior in high school. His first request was to study “Liz on Top of the World,” by Dario Marianelli from the movie, “Pride and Prejudice.” I felt it was a bit above his head, but I realized it could be a terrific practicing motivator. Alex and I struck a deal. He promised to work on a Classical sonatina (Latour, in C Major), the “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach” and a regimen of scales and arpeggios going around the Circle of Fifths as the mainstay of his piano study. “Liz” would be his dessert piece. The plan worked.

Alex took the camera spotlight as he practiced “Liz on Top of the World” in a methodical way, chunking or grouping notes together in the first section using separate hands. He continued by playing the next part, a soaringly beautiful melodic section with his right hand only as I provided the bass.

The melody played out in such a way that chunking two notes at a time was helpful. (The student learned interval relationships through this approach: clumping harmonic 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths) The bass line in this second section is an ostinato, or repeated, pattern that is easily assimilated. It’s a sequence of redundant broken chords that creates a rolling effect.

Related:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/alex-breaks-the-choke-hold-on-his-scales-on-you-tube/

Allyse, 16, who is Alex’s sister, also returned to the piano after a long hiatus. A junior in high school, she had requested to play “100 Years” by John Ondrasik, and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always.” To balance out her repertoire, she had agreed to work on Menuet en Rondeau by Rameau and simultaneously practice scales/arpeggios in all Major and minor keys.

Here’s a snatch from a lesson with Allyse. This was the dessert following the main menu of classics.

Related:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/10/24/teens-popular-music-then-and-now-taylor-swift-throw-in-five-for-fighting-100-years/

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A Day in El Cerrito and my return to Fresno

An awesome view from my piano studio in the East Bay

At 6:50 a.m. Monday morning, I climbed aboard Amtrak 711, destination Richmond, on the way to my El Cerrito piano studio in the East Bay.

The weekly trip north was a welcome breather from the tedium of Fresno’s blazing hot sun, 90  degree plus temps into the fall season, and an insalubrious haze over the city.

The good news was that once comfortably seated on the train, I completely forgot the Central Valley and looked forward to a ride with my two traveling buddies, Jim and Jose.

Jim, nearing 60, had a cherubic face and an impish smile. A repository of information, he was a web consultant for a well known, top of the line retailer. Often, during the course of our trip, he excused himself for a couple of minutes to complete a status report, or to reply to his boss via instant message. A hearty fellow with an engineering background and flair for technology, he came equipped with an iPhone and a state of the art Toshiba lap top.

If you asked Jim any technical or scientific question, he was an amazing compendium of information, like a traveling Wikipedia.

One time, Jose asked Jim about microwave cooking and if the rays negatively affected a food’s nutritional value, to which Jim gave him a symposium on ionizing radiation and various levels from safe to unsafe, etc. It was equal to a Physics lecture given at an ivy league college.

Jim also liked to banter about the economy. He dispensed his meticulously detailed descriptions of the financial market, speckled with raw data that would add brain convolutions to novices like myself. If Jim got going on California’s economy, he’d advise residents to bail out and run like the dickens to another state.

Jose was a good listener. An economist in his 40s, originally from Venezuela, he worked for a spice company in Northern California. His stay on Amtrak was briefer than Jim’s since he departed at Stockton and took an awaiting bus to Sacramento.

I enjoyed Jose’s international political perspective and his analysis of countries that had stable as well as failing economies. He could be as convincing as Jim in his own area of expertise.

I sat comfortably beside my two traveling companions offering a totally different perspective on life and the cosmos. I imparted the artistic side of life: a universe of practicing, teaching, and recording.

Jose had informed us that he was going to Paris on business the following Monday and wouldn’t be back on Board Amtrak 711 for two weeks. I felt of a twinge of disappointment because our table would be whittled down to two.

I departed the train at the Richmond station where I hopped over to Bart, going one stop to El Cerrito Del Norte. My studio, within walking distance, was about half way up into the El Cerrito Hills. Homes at the very top overlooked the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. From my more modest studio, well below the peak, I still appreciated a breathtaking landscape as beautiful as a painting with hills and terraced homes.

Before I had officially started lessons in the early afternoon I always took a scenic, steep walk into these very same hills, and then wound my way down to the Ohlone walk way under Bart on my way to the El Cerrito Library. An hour later, after a stop at Subway for a veggie burger I would meander back to the studio for a lesson plan review.

My Bay area students were mostly kids at beginning and intermediate levels. The last lesson, ending at 9 p.m. was with a retired business professional who has an affinity for world wide travel. An eager learner she practiced intensely when she could, though her time at the piano was sparing.

The pieces I’d been teaching up north were Minuets and Sonatinas from the Classical era; a Baroque Rondeau, and some ragtime music by Scott Joplin. The beginners were journeying happily through their Primer Faber Piano Adventures learning the basic symbols and notation of music while the older students enjoyed the works of Bach, Rameau, Mozart, and Latour, a classical era composer.

When lessons were over well past 9 p.m. I had set my alarm clock for a Tuesday departure, regretting the trip back to Fresno where I would be greeted by stifling heat. The ride home would also feel longer without Jim and Jose, as companions. But there was always the chance I would run into someone to strike up a conversation with.

And it happened. As I sat in the dining car munching on a fruit and nut bar, I overheard a woman chatting about her self made “guitar” earrings. I soon learned that she had hand crafted her adornments from guitar picks, painted them and added some fancy attachments.

Before long, I began telling her about myself and the piano and she, in turn, shared her life story. The journey home was definitely quicker than expected.

Before I knew it, I was back in Fresno, with four students on the roster for the late afternoon. Since a few were preparing for an October 30th recital, I thought about you tubing performances as practice motivators. Kabalevky’s “Clowns,” would be a great shoot. A very colorful, short programmatic piece with a circus like backdrop, it had droll harmonies and appealing dissonances.

The next few weeks would be packed with rehearsals, which made life a nice, creative adventure.