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Early stage learning, and ways of knowing a new piano piece

One of my adult students has embarked upon studying Tchaikovsky’s “German Song,” Op. 39, and in her initial baby-step exposure to the composition, she has already explored multiple ways of “knowing” the work.

German Song, Tchaikovsky

1) Setting a fingering for each hand, and counting beats through each measure in a sub-divided way (within a slow tempo frame) is a good start. (KNOWING THE SCALE of the piece and practicing it, is a vital part of its framing)

Noticing the articulation, slurs, groupings of notes is part of the exploration. Once security or connection into notes is established, dynamic shifts and how to make them are part and parcel of the early learning stage that grows by increments over time. (Patience is a desirable mantra to frame all practicing.)

In any approach to the keyboard, the arms and wrists should be relaxed. Elasticity, flexibility, pliancy are all important physical framings. A singing line supported by supple wrist, spongy chords in the bass are part of the hands-on knowledge pursuit.

2) Defining harmonic structure and flow (Harmonic “rhythm”) of the composition enrich an understanding of how to phrase and “shape” the treble line. In “German Song,” the Tonic and Dominant chords alternate. There are NO modulations, but resolutions from Dominant to Tonic are pivotal to phrasing.

For a student who needs more theory exposure to navigate a piece like this, practicing Tonic and Dominant chords and their inversions is a good route. First it’s essential to build chords on the first and fifth degree of a scale (in this instance G Major) before inverting them.

Demonstrating elements of voice leading between chords is of course, equally valuable.
Block practice helps map out chord relationships and voice movement between them.

3) An awareness of the fundamental bass line in “German Song” is invaluable. Practicing the singular bass line without the after beat chords is recommended. Or practicing the after beat chords without the fundamental notes (downbeats) is another way of “knowing.” Understanding the relationship between fundamental bass notes and after beat chords is invaluable. Will the chords be played louder than the first beat notes?

Eventually the distance between the downbeat notes and after beat chords shrink because the floating arm has a good perception of voice leading between chords. The jumps, or fear of them, therefore will not be an impediment to smooth playing.

4) Playing hands together evolves and develops from first “knowing” treble and bass parts separately. Coordination of hands together is another dimension of knowing the piece.

The PERIOD of Composition is worth KNOWING–What is its STRUCTURE? Do sections REPEAT–Are there SYMMETRIES between phrases? or differences that should be noted? What was the practice in regard to rubato? (flexibility of time) For tempo choice, that’s an allied consideration as the piece develops along to fluency. Same for pedaling choices, etc.

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Learning a new piano piece quickly and thoroughly (Videos)

I challenged myself to quickly learn the shortest Scarlatti sonata on record (K. 431 in G) and share the principles of developing this piece to a level of fluidity with interested students. Perhaps it would help them navigate a new musical landscape.


Looking over the two-page Scarlatti score, we notice a preponderance of broken-chord figures in the right hand and these offer the perfect opportunity for blocking before unraveling them. Naturally, having a bit of theory under our belt, helps give context to these progressions. It provides another way of “knowing” them, and this “cognitive” mapping deepens our learning process as long as it doesn’t become an exclusive END in itself.

Same for fingering-driven learning. (Remember the paint by finger number kits?)

The musical side of knowing has to underlie the creative process, regardless of rational “assists” we devise along the way. That’s why the cognitive and AFFECTIVE ways of understanding a new piece should fuse together from the start.

In the video instruction below, I offer guidance about fingering, harmonic outline, phrasing, shape, form, nuance and mood.

When these ingredients are in harmony and balance, then the playing outcome will be satisfying sooner than later.


Play through in tempo: