arioso7, Bach D minor piano concerto, Beethoven Violin Concerto, Berkshire Music Festival, Boston Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, chamber ensemble, Charles Munch, classissima,, Isaac Stern, James Stagliano, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Lenox, Lukas Foss, Massachusetts, memoir, Merrywood Music Camp, pianist, piano, Pierre Monteux, playing the piano, playing the violin, Ruth Hurwitz, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Tanglewood, Tanglewood Music Festival, violin, violinist, word press,

A Long Lost Concert Program turns up on a dusty grand piano

One of the fringe benefits of tidying up a piano room filled with unsorted piles of music and the rest, is finding a gold mine of goodies that have been missing for months, if not years.

Have you ever experienced lost this, found that–found that, lost this?

It’s embarrassing, but as we age, more of the latter occurs. (found/lost, found/lost, ad nauseum)

At least one happy hunting ground experience, however, produced a recovered memento of a Tanglewood concert. The embracing story surrounded the late Isaac Stern who stole my heart playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony. It was during a music camp summer spent in Lenox, Massachusetts.


Tracking my 6 or so years as a violinist, I found myself in the throes of two music camp experiences. The one at Merrywood acquired a memory bank of richly woven anecdotes.

Its unique proximity to the Tanglewood Festival afforded weekly trips to Sunday morning BSO rehearsals, and interspersed jaunts to chamber music and orchestra concerts. These were the bread and butter of our musical lives.

The singular concert carved into my memory, besides one where Lukas Foss played the Bach d minor concerto, was Isaac Stern’s appearance under Charles Munch. (During the summer, 1961 there were a host of guest conductors ascending the podium.) A uniquely compact maestro, Pierre Monteux, climbed up a solid oak stool, looking like an elf, though he conducted like a giant.

After Stern’s riveting performance under the stars with a shell embracing soloist and orchestra, I should have had consideration for my fellow campers who were squeezed into carbon-emission fuming buses awaiting a missing teen. Who could that have been? (Was I a runaway- in-progress or just a love-sick adolescent hounding an autograph?)

I was off and running from the brood of Merrywooders who were bound for Ruth Hurwitz’s quaint camp-site bordering the property of French Hornist, James Stagliano. A well-known imbiber, it was a well-circulated legend that BSO Jim took a swig from his horn right smack in his orchestra seat. Was it NOT saliva he was shaking from his mouthpiece?

Stagliano’s early-morning horn calls started our day following a blaring Bach “Brandenburg” 5, piped into the second floor where we campers slept in tightly-squeezed cots.

Our daily schedule included practice periods, ensemble rehearsals, private and group music lessons, choir singing by the fireplace, and campfires. But these activities were no match for our tour de force trips to the Berkshire Festival concerts.


The night of one sweltering July, Isaac Stern outplayed himself igniting my immediate impulse to race after him for a morsel of human contact plus a time-honored autograph.

I found him standing regally in the Green room wearing his signature silk scarf. An adoring mom was beside him. He looked worn by fatigue, but signed my program in a gesture of kindness. I will always remember his generosity.

Tears had flowed down his cheeks during his performance making it even more emotionally poignant. Or might those droplets have been beads of sweat contoured by sizzling hot lights? It’s fascinating how the memory creates its own staging. A tender pouring would have added a nice effect.

The aftermath:

Following my autograph-seeking coup with Stern, I was hunted down by camp authorities and grounded for a week. Punishment was meted out: no s’mores at the Saturday campfire. (chocolate-covered marshmallows) and a suspension of attendance at chamber music concerts in the shed. (not a venue for paddling)

That’s not all that happened at Merrywood.

An August camp concert provided a breath-taking finale!

Read more!

Cantata 78 by J.S. Bach performed at the First Moravian Church in New York City, classissima,, Elaine Comparone, emotion in music, First Moravian Church in New York City, Fresno, Fresno California, Kol Nidre, memoir, Mozart, music and heart, music in churches, music in Jewish temples, music in religious services, music in synagogues, musical inspiration, New York City High School of Performing Arts,, pianoworld,, publishers marketplace, publishersmarketplace,, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway M grand piano, the Crystal Cathdral, the Crystal cathedral, W.A. Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, word press,, Yom Kippur, you tube, You Tube Cantata no. 78 performed at the First Moravian Church in New York City, you tube video

What’s happened to music in churches, temples and other religious sanctuaries? (2013 update)

On a rainy Sunday morning I was surfing You Tube in search of a spiritually poignant musical offering. One particular posting had been so inspiring that my index finger ached from so many mouse-clicked replays.

It was ? “Verum”–The one word lingered in my foggy memory, amply retrieved to reap a reward. Out popped Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” sung by the Vienna Boys Choir– a to-die-for performance.

A musician friend used the word “kill” when she described the effect of this music. I agreed that it killed in a way that seared the heart with longing for more…

According to Wiki..
“The hymn’s title means ‘Hail, true body,’ and is based on a poem derived from a 14th-century manuscript found in the Abbey of Reichenau, Lake Constance. The poem is a meditation on the Catholic belief in Jesus’s Real Presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and ties it to the Catholic conception of the redemptive meaning of suffering in the life of all believers.”

From Mozart’s imagination, sprang ethereal music– channeled through boys’ choirs in international venues.


What had changed about music chosen for religious services in sanctuaries around this country?

At the start of my inquiry, I had accepted invitations from a few of my Christian friends to sample worship services in varied denominational venues.

In one church, three electric guitarists ascended the stage and stood beside two saxophonists. A mobile white screen descended with verses that rolled by as congregants watched the lead instrumentalist for prompts. It was rock-style music in the main, though a few humble ballads managed to squeak through.

For me, something more was needed to cloak a powerful sermon. Certainly, this was not a Crystal Cathedral setting with a shimmering orchestra and special lighting effects. By contrast, it was a much smaller Evangelical church that could ill afford to engage high caliber vocalists to woo congregants toward the Lord.

Every year I’d always looked forward to the Christmas-time Messiah “Sing-Along” in an old established, downtown church. We’d sing “Hallelujia!” from the rafters as the culmination of a memorable musical afternoon.

This excerpt was a favorite:


A Jewish Temple located beside this well-established Protestant church had a domed ceiling; acoustically desirable plaster walls, and lots of wooden seats to enhance resonance, but congregants bowed to pressure to relocate up north. The move to a pricey suburb came with a California ranch-style construction that was no match for the previous Carnegie Hall-like space. Even the Torah that had been encased behind velvet-draped curtains, endured a painful transformation. It was enclosed behind what appeared to be plastic-coated sliders, like those seen in showers.

I ruminated about Temple Beth Israel before its relocation, having performed a few concerts right on the Bima, a narrow “stage” that barely accommodated my exported Steinway “M” model grand. (I nearly fell into the arms of my audience after playing Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata.)

At least the Torah beside me was an unrelenting source of comfort. It was red-velvet encased with the Hebrew Commandments above.

I recalled the good old times, when the temple imported a community of Christian singers to drape the somber Yom Kippur Day of Atonement in gorgeous music. The service was florid and penetrating, but I was puzzled why the Rabbi and Board of Directors couldn’t secure a minion of Jewish Congregants to intone the musically riveting “Kol Nidre.”

What about the Hammond organ sitting up in the balcony?

Temple Emanuel in New York City, had one of these in its sanctuary, giving it a Unitarian flavor.

Back in the days when I attended the NYC HS of Performing Arts, one of my close Russian friends, Olga Dolsky, a fine pianist, took me by the arm in the biting cold, and escorted me to her Russian Orthodox Church near the Bowery. There, the most awe-inspired music swirled around an acoustically divine space.

A world-renowned choir sang inspired works of Russian composers amidst icons, stained glass, and a Bishop sprinkling incense down the aisle. It was intoxicating! (The choir had produced hot-selling, internationally celebrated recordings.)

Those were the days!

From the East Coast:

A Choir Director and resident pianist/organist at the First Moravian Church in New York City directed an exalted performance of Bach’s Cantata no. 78:

Cantata no. 78 by J.S. Bach

Elaine Comparone not only conducts this ensemble and plays magnificent harpsichord, but she is the musical mainstay of this church, keeping great music alive in the sanctuary each Sunday.

Her comments about the Moravian church and its musical activity were riveting:

“Actually, I have quite a wonderful choir which I direct from the piano. I start the service upstairs in the loft with the organ, which is an advanced stage of restoration. But for more complicated pieces, like the one by Bach we did today, I can more easily direct from the piano (a nice Baldwin)..

“The organ is set into the wall so they are in effect standing behind me and facing out. So they sing the Introit up there, and I do the liturgy and a few hymns before going down to the piano for the rest of the service. This church likes lots of hymns. They range from 15th and 16th Century gems (my favorites) to 18th century chestnuts, most of which have march-like rhythmic patterns not unlike the Battle Hymn of the Republic—Christians on the march. These are not my favorites. I constantly make fun of them even though I play them with gusto. But they are more suited for the piano.

“I can lead the singing of the congregation better with the percussive power of the piano than the continuous tones of the organ. Large groups of people tend to drag
when they sing.

“Our choir members are an intelligent bunch and not averse to working hard on music. (I write out phonetically the German of the Bach cantatas.) We only do first rate pieces. It’s a lot of fun.”


Food For Thought

A reader who posted a comment to one of my blogs, spoke forthrightly about the type of music she deemed inspiring for a religious service:

“It really has nothing to do with denomination but more, I believe, to do with the philosophy within the church as to how music might enhance the worship.

“The ‘old’ hymns have their place, and many of them are quite beautiful. But if only I could hear some Bach, Handel or Haydn’s “Consolation” by Liszt or even MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose”…perhaps, Massenet’s “Elegie”…

“When I go to my Lutheran-pastor’s-wife piano teacher’s home, she has a wide variety of reverential classical (and other) music and discusses what she plays for a prelude to the service, etc. etc.

“However in my church, with its accomplished music director, the only ‘prelude’ is whatever 90’s hymn might have been selected for that day’s service. The only music is that which has words and only rarely more than 20 or 30 years old. It’s rarely reverential or even beautiful…. Maybe I need to get involved and express my feelings about this rather than the internal grumbling!”

I had to agree with her. Perhaps the voices of congregants like hers could make a world of difference.

Another poster had more to say:

“What you’re observing here is also a direct result of the pay that churches offer their musicians. I happen to be paid more than most church pianists these days, but it’s still nothing near a full salary like it was in the days of Bach, when the church job was absolutely the most respectable and well-paying job any musician could hope to have. But they also earned their full-time pay with full-time work. There wasn’t such an elaborate network and huge quantity of music already written for churches to draw upon like there is today. Consequently, today’s church musicians do not need to be composers. Requiring less skill/work of church musicians also means not having to pay as much. And some churches (Catholic, Mormon) don’t even pay their musicians at all – there are so many who want to be honored and recognized as the musicians they are that they’re willing to do it for free. This doesn’t mean there are no good church musicians out there – it just means it’s much harder to find them.

“Your quoted reader is correct: what musicians play in church is a direct result of what the congregation demands to hear. I’ve found it necessary to play a wide variety of music as preludes and postludes since my congregation ranges from the very traditional to the very liberal. It ranges from Bach and Beethoven to Ken Medema and Fred Bock arrangements (and sometimes my own compositions). As for offertory, at my church it lasts so little time – maybe 45-60 seconds each time – that it’s just not practical to get into anything profound, so I usually just play 2 verses of a hymn and put in various embellishments the second time (octaves, passing/neighbor tones, etc.). Sometimes I even use intermediate repertoire for preludes/postludes and for offertory once in a while since intermediate music is shorter in length – I find myself once in a while playing music of Martha Mier, Eugene Rocherolle, William Gillock, Burgmuller, and even Clementi. I am really picky about hymn arrangements that I play because so many of them are so cheap. They just slap octaves in each hand on a traditional hymn and call it an “arrangement.” That’s why I like Ken Medema’s arrangements so much – he actually goes off in his own direction in his arrangements – enough to qualify as “new music” beyond the arrangement.

“My frustration with today’s worship music is that it gives me a “lots of work for little reward” feeling. Luckily, I no longer play for the contemporary service at my church, so this is no longer an issue (once in a while we do this type of music in the traditional service, which isn’t a big deal to me). These points are not secrets to those I work with at my church – luckily we all recognize that one must really enjoy contemporary worship music to do it, and there’s nothing inherently wrong if one doesn’t connect well to this type of music. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with those who connect to it. But here is my perspective of contemporary worship music:

“You’re given 5 or 6 photocopies [licensed photocopies, I should clarify!] for one song, and some of them are a dizzying nightmare of dal segnos, bridges, 2nd/3rd/4th endings, and “repeat this ending until the leader signals to finally end” instructions.
Unlike hymns, they don’t sound good without an ensemble, and ensembles require rehearsal. (Item #1 also adds to the need to rehearse so everyone knows where to go.)
Required tempos for this music are extremely rigid – if you miss the tempo by just 1 notch on the metronome, you start getting complaints by those who have infallible karaoke recordings of these songs in their head. This is in stark contrast to hymns, which allow me to “calculate” a good tempo based on the time signature and pacing of the lyrics, even for a hymn that I’ve never seen before and play on one of those “request your favorite hymn” Sundays during August each year. There is a wide range of acceptable tempos for most hymns. I don’t listen to contemporary worship music on the radio while other church musicians listen to these songs a zillion times before they ever perform it the first time, so I have to work a lot harder to get tempos right.

“Personally, I just don’t connect at all with “happy clappy” music (or “7/11″ songs – songs that have 7 words repeated 11 times). From a purely harmonic/pianistic point of view, the length-to-complexity ratio of this music far exceeds the same ratio for a lot of hymns, especially ones such as “Now Thank We All Our God” (Crueger-Mendelssohn) or “All Creatures Of Our God And King” (Vaughan Williams). So, I have to put all this extra work into music that is difficult/complex only on levels that annoy me (dal segnos, syncopation, rigid tempos) rather than on levels that please me (harmonic and melodic interest).
I get to use artistic musical skills to lead the congregation on a hymn effectively (anticipating places to breathe, shaping phrases dynamically), but so much contemporary worship music requires the pianist to metronomically bang all the way through to be heard in the drum/vocalist/guitar ensemble and to provide rhythmic support (the piano almost takes on a percussion role, as in a lot of jazz, for this type of music). I feel more like a MIDI computer than an actual musician when I’m doing that type of music – there is almost never any place for rubato/phrasing/shaping.”

My response: AMEN!

Post Script: 2/11/2013

I’m now an official Berkeley resident, having attended my first service at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists on Bonita/Cedar.

Not knowing what to expect in the spiritual music realm, I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of a magnificent Steinway grand, 1909–well- maintained, even to the touch, with a divinely beautiful voice.


To add to the feast, a wonderful pianist, Aline, played Chopin’s “Etude Op. 10, No. 3” at the Offertory, and Debussy’s “Reverie” after Meditation and Sharing. It was an inspiring setting with music-making at peak performance level.

pianist Aline Prentice

Fully sated by memorialized servings of music that complemented the LOVE theme, I left the sanctuary in karma.

side view fellowship hall

And this Update from Elaine Comparone at NYC’s First Moravian Church: “It’s Black History month so lots of spirituals. That and a Haydn ‘Sanctus’ plus a movement from Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah.’

“During Black History month I pull out arrangements of spirituals and some contemporary pieces like”Order Your Steps”. I think that particular arranger/composer(?) is Glen Burleigh. Moses Hogan is the arranger of most of the others. Some are simpler arrangements found in the hymnal–not only the Moravian hymnal but the United Methodist one. I played an Offertory yesterday from that. The title was something like “He never said a mumblin’ word”, and the choir sang “Oh Lord what a mornin'”—gorgeous piece.

“Most of the spirituals follow a standard form: chorus; verse(3 or 4); da capo after each verse to chorus. Arrangement-wise, the choruses are harmonized in four parts and the verses are monophonic, very often on a pentagonal scale (is that the right word or am I dredging up geometric terms?), which comes from the African roots of the music. The spirituals are moving and gorgeous, many of them.

“As for my own offerings: for preludes I play Bach on the piano, or on organ I favor Frescobaldi—love this stuff!—and some 17th century Spanish pieces from a collection I picked up in the now defunct Patelson’s. Since these guys were church musicians (Bach, Frescobaldi,), whatever they composed sounds good in church. That is true for most of the early guys (Sweelinck, Handel), because even when they’re composing dance music it sounds spiritual and church-appropriate. Can’t say the same for Scarlatti (altho I very occasionally play one of his for a postlude) or CPE Bach, who sounds way too much of this world. Slow movements from Haydn or Mozart would work for prelude, but they’re too long for offertory.

“These decisions are totally mine and don’t reflect any directions from anybody else. I have a sense of the flow of the service and don’t like to interrupt it with too long a piece for offertory…..”

No doubt Comparone prepares a full plate of delicious, time-honored music! And who’s to complain? The Moravian Church is lucky to have her!

Links: First Moravian Church of NYC

Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists  BFUU


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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.


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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Music Theory and Piano Study: It doesn’t have to be drudgery

Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery

If I turn the clock back to my early days as a piano student, I can say without a doubt that I absolutely HATED “Music Theory” or anything remotely related to it. And I can clearly thank my very pedantic teacher, Mrs. Schwed for this aversion. She made the hefty German army look like a bunch of weaklings when she hammered out the names of chords and keys. I didn’t know what hit me!

A complex vocabulary of “triads,” “inversions,” and “modulations” was like pig Latin, and such dizzying labels seemed completely removed from my pieces.

That’s not the way it should be.

The elements of music theory should be woven into the music we assign our students from day one.

For example, a Primer like Faber’s Piano Adventures, offers the opportunity to teach the PARALLEL minor by replacing E with an Eb in Lesson Book, p.24. Why wait for Red colored Book, Level 1 to expose young pupils to the “sad sounding” minor, as compared to the bright and “happy” Major. The word PARALLEL doesn’t have to attach to this discovery until a later time, but an awareness of bi-tonality can be imbued a lot sooner than most teachers would plan.

And how about having beginning students transpose the “C-D-E-F-G March” into different keys, exploring C Major/minor, through E Major/minor as a start.

What’s wrong with introducing a flat in the early phase of study. It works with “Hot Cross Buns,” for example, p. 6, Primer Performance Book.

Faber begins Primer Piano Adventures with unlabeled black notes but abandons them by page 19, deferring to a sea of favored white notes. Why postpone an early sharp or flat among the whites? Insert it when opportunity knocks!

Theory is Wedded to Music-making

Middle C fixation has already been regarded in many progressive quarters as stultifying, so why not similarly reject theory isolation from the nuts and bolts of PLAYING.

Let’s open our eyes to a wider universe that INTEGRATES theory into the pieces we assign our pupils, making the DOING, BEING, FEELING, of music-making allied to a deeper understanding of its form and content.

Fast forward the clock to the Intermediate stage of learning. By this time, the student should have had decent exposure to scales and arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths. A Fundamentals of Theory series, such as the one produced by Keith Snell and Martha Ashleigh is a valuable companion if tied to repertoire-based study.

Kabalevsky’s “Clowns,” for example, sets up a perfect illumination of the Major/minor bi-tonality, and has a crisp and catchy staccato frame that engages students. Why not run with it and make annotations directly into in the music.

In one or two pages, (depending on the edition) a teacher can map out A Major and A minor in a close temporal relationship (two bars at a time) and compare a middle section that has the theme INVERTED or notated “upside down.” It’s not a stretch to perceive a change in tonality. The ostinato or repeated bass line fleshes out a transition to F, with its Major/minor duality reflected in the treble.

This engaging composition, tightly packed with harmonic duality, is a wonderful vehicle to teach an aspect of theory that would otherwise be spoon fed in an unappetizing way. (In worksheet form)

In this vein, I can say with perfect honesty, that the assignment most ignored or forgotten, relates to THEORY. Examples of student responses: “Ugh, Did I have to do it?” OR “I was too busy to remember.” More often: “I forgot that I had a theory assignment.” Sometimes a pet is used as an excuse in an insalubrious way. By then the student has used up the usual time-worn pretexts for forgetfulness.

Composing can be a motivator:

Finally, a word about composing as a vehicle for learning THEORY, especially in the formative stages of piano study. Right now I have a 7-year old student with 6 months of study under his belt who has been nursed along on Piano Adventures, and transposes most of his MAJOR sounding pieces to the Parallel minor by lowering the third. He thinks nothing of it and enjoys the tonal/emotional contrast. As a follow-up to bi-tonality exploration, he’s composed a phrase in C Major (five-finger position) followed by the same in the parallel minor.

Why not enrich his treble melody with a bass line? (That’s where the teacher’s assistance comes in) Inserting a bass part is a great springboard to understanding how a melodic outline fuels the choice of bass. Filling in voices as the process continues, creates an awareness of chords and later amplifies their function in a particular key or keys.

For certain, “Piano Students as Composers” is worth another blog, but I will defer that discussion to a later time. For now, I think of composing as an additional creative activity embedded into lessons.

For the Advancing Student

For an advanced player, theory should be interwoven into the fabric of learning so that it becomes second nature. (Add in a hands-on knowledge of scales, arpeggios and chords in every key and the joy of music is deepened)

Unfortunately, too many students who are technically proficient, lack an adequate understanding of how their pieces are composed. It’s like residing in a house with a shaky foundation.

For teachers who acquire transfer students with little if any theory knowledge, they’re faced with a huge ground-up endeavor to make up for lost time. But it’s worth the effort.

In summary, music theory shouldn’t be considered as archaic as Latin. It’s a living, breathing part of piano study that widens a student’s musical horizons and makes practicing more meaningful.


Supplementary video:

I sent an adult SKYPE student in Anchorage Alaska, a tutorial on “Major,” “minor,” and “diminished” chords that fed directly into her study of the J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor, p.2. Such an infusion of theory advanced and solidified her learning.

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Appel Farm Music Camp and the Chicken Coops

Was I dreaming? Did I wake up in a chicken coop on a hot and humid July morning? The summer before I was a Merrywood camper, encapsulated in a forest of pines bordering Lenox, Massachusetts. A short journey to Tanglewood for a Sunday morning BSO rehearsal, was followed by a breakfast of sizzling waffles and maple syrup. It was a thoroughly New England experience.

Twelve months later, I was sweating bullets in south Jersey, not too far from Philly. A town called Elmer had a rusty sign pointing to a music camp down a bumpy road.

How did my mother manage to find this place owned by Albert and Claire Appel? Was it a real farm with goats, cows, horses, hens, etc. or a dignified place to make music?

Flashback to Age 6:

Mother loaded me on a train bound for Camp Northover, located in this same God forsaken state of New Joisey. It felt like a punishment for being bad, answering back, wolfing down a dozen Dugan’s muffins on the sly before dinner. Or all of the foregoing.

Joanna, my best friend, who’d coined me “shrimpy” because she enjoyed an extra two inches of height, was my traveling companion and bunk mate-to-be. Together, we boarded a New York Central passenger train feeling like orphans, clutching our pink metal lunch boxes, packed with Super Coolers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and two hostess cupcakes. It would be our last decent meal before treacherous Northover grub was spooned out in a musty recreation hall. I nearly gagged when something resembling vomit passed off as creamed pork rinds with mushrooms.

For three tormenting weeks, I muffled my nocturnal cries of loneliness in my pillow without a friend nearby to cushion my sorrow. Joanna was placed in another bunk, sobbing the night away, I was told. Then came an onslaught of termites that landed on my cot in a curious fall from the wood beams– followed by a full blown lice infestation that produced rows of kids, tortured with metal combs pulled through their knotted hair in front of our bunk. I was at the head of the line. More screaming, sadness, homesickness all bundled into one unique camp experience.

The total summer was well described in a particular field artillery song, verse 3, that we sang on hikes to nearby swamps where we stopped for picnic lunches.

From, “As the Caissons Go Rolling Along” by Major Edmund Grubs:

Was it high, was it low, Where the hell did that one go?
As those Caissons go rolling along!
Was it left, was it right, Now we won’t get home tonight
And those Caissons go rolling along!
Then it’s hi, hi, hee, In the field artillery
Shout out your numbers loud and strong,
Where’er you go, You will always know
That those Caissons go rolling along!

Appel Farm, 8 years later.

While the chicken coop accommodations were a close match to living in Northover’s godawful bunks, there were redeeming features of the Farm experience. First off, as introduction, I hardly recall a big display of animals on the vast spread of sparsely treed acres. Perhaps one pig, a handful of goats, a small parade of ducks, and a few strutting roosters sauntered the property. The conspicuous chicks were incubated by the “coops,” where we resided.

Faculty from Temple University’s Music Department (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) lived on the grounds, a considerable distance from the chicks, and nurtured young chamber musicians along.

Since pianists were not overflowing, I felt predictably outside the mainstream. What else was new? We piano players had to fend for ourselves and scope out our own chamber music to study. Otherwise we were doomed to be loners.

Being creative, I found the score to Mozart’s G minor piano Quintet which I learned to performance standard, and foraged around for a few campers to fill in the missing string parts. Among the players, was Toby Appel, the camp Director’s son, who eventually became an esteemed concert violist with many performance credits and recordings.

The late pianist Natalie Hinderas, an Oberlin grad, strolled by one afternoon and performed the rip roaring Chopin “Revolutionary” Etude that opened my ears to a remarkable display of shimmering sonorities interspersed with clearly defined passage work. This extraordinary musician played in the camp’s one ultra modern space, custom designed by the Appels for concert appearances of this kind. The abstract, angular structure with a touch of Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence, was an architectural departure from the chicken coop quarters and other barn-like structures on the property.

My shining light of summer was dance instructor, Audrey Bookspan.
(Our musical study was enriched with allied arts activities)

A remarkable performer, once married to the late Micky Bookspan, principal percussionist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, she nursed along campers enrolled in modern dance classes, imbuing them with the Eastern, Zen way of “being,” and a good dose of Jung’s Yin and Yang. Her movement was so impeccably fluid, that I could watch her rehearse alone in a second floor barn space for hours at a time. What an inspiration! I remember how Ravel’s string quartet in F Major wedded with Audrey’s mellifluous movements

The Bookspan name also carried an association to Martin Bookspan, the resonant radio voice of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who provided a more pleasant listening experience than Milton Cross’s squeaked out commentaries from the Metropolitan Opera each Saturday afternoon on WQXR F.M. (Texaco sponsored)

Not to forget, the many rumored love affairs that spiced up life at Appel Farm. I won’t go further, except to say, that an extremely thin, eccentric Arts and Crafts teacher who wore a goatee disappeared with an attractive faculty member, both having gone AWOL. The biggest mini-crisis of the summer, it was still no match for the day I got grounded in a chicken coop for hounding a concert violinist’s autograph during a field trip. The buses were backed up for over an hour.

The Memorable End of Camp

A concluding concert was scheduled as the culmination of our 6 weeks of music making, but an intruding epidemic of food poisoning zapped the event.

Laid up in the infirmary with the runs and high fever beside rows of cots with ailing camp mates, I fainted just as my parents arrived to pick me up.

It had to be one of my most unique summers with its stunning highs and lows, but nothing compared to “Camp Nowhere,” and “American Pie, Band Camp.”

Finally, here’s a riveting quote from the Appel Farm Alum Facebook Page that amply enriches my narrative.

“This is the group for those crazy people who made art in a fire-trap barn, made theater in a sinking building, lived in a chicken coop, and survived the vagaries of the fastest gossip chain known to man. By that, I mean those who attended Appel Farm. It takes a special kind of person to subject themselves to that, and only Farmers can truly understand it.”

By the way, if you are out there, Audrey, Warren, Gloria, and Marvin, please get in touch.


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Scouting a Piano Teacher

I have to thank “Lisa” for generating this idea for a new blog. Sometimes, the fountain runs dry until a student experience, teacher-related crisis, or musical event renew the supply.

Let me think about this whole issue of picking and choosing the “right” piano teacher. (Applies to adult student-seekers as well)

Hmm… I probably covered the emotion-packed farewells, but gave short shrift to the preliminaries of finding these instructors in the first place so perhaps I should amplify my journey and what I learned from it.

My very first piano teacher, already critiqued in another blog, was on faculty at the “progressive” music school in the Bronx, off Kingsbridge Road. So there was little if any choice in the selection. She came with the program.

Mrs. Vinagradov was kind, caring, encouraging, and knew how to play the Diller-Quaille accompaniments to my two-note melodies without missing a beat. That was what I needed as a primer level, six-year old student.

If I had to advise a mom about picking out the very important FIRST teacher for a child, I would say, look for the right “chemistry” as well as musical competency and sensitivity. One would not expect the initial beginning instructor to be a virtuoso, or even one approximating. COMMUNICATION skills should stand out as the clincher decision maker along with knowledge of beginning materials. The teacher should lay out her philosophy, course of teaching including theory, and a schedule of student recitals. I would hope she has a Bachelor’s Degree in Music or the equivalent in teaching experience/ professional study. (By the way, If a JAZZ teacher is sought, be clear about the skills of a particular instructor as it applies to a desired course of instruction. Better to know the teacher’s leanings, abilities in this direction before you go further)

My second mentor, also part and parcel of house faculty at the Bronx location, was a strict Classicist, holy terror and rhythmic foot-pounder. Needless to say, I had to run like the plague and find a more civilized replacement.

The next stop on W. 103 St. off-Broadway, didn’t produce anything much better, though this prospect was a nicer human being all the way around and played quite well. As previously mentioned in another writing, she couldn’t figure out a systematic, step-wise way to impart musical knowledge and gave me pieces way over my head that nearly triggered a nervous breakdown! Kaput, finished!

For the advancing student, a teacher who knows the piano literature, can play the great works with skill, nuance, sensitivity, and be able to communicate the many dimensions of the music including structural/theoretical, is one who should be in the running.

But these criteria may not be enough. The first reality check involves finding out if this individual will live up to his or her printed resume. It could be crowded with every public performance he or she has ever given, dating back to age 6. Or the CV may list a horde of Degrees, Masterclass appearances, and students who went on to world-renowned competitions. It could be a drop in the bucket if the one-to-one interaction between a prospective teacher and student doesn’t make the grade.

This speaks to the necessity of having the in-person appointment scheduled to try out the teacher as with any “product.” Oops I didn’t mean to say that, or to demean the entire community of bespectacled piano teachers. (I wear glasses, too) And none of us are products or commodities.

Finally, it would be wonderful if the very first teacher was the ONE who stayed on as the permanent musical fixture in our lives. But such rarely happens in the scheme of things due to life transitions, relocation, divorce, death and the rest, though there have been exceptions.

The great pianist, Murray Perahia, a musical poet of his generation studied with Jeannette Haien from age 3 to 18, which brings up the subject of when a youngster should begin individualized piano lessons, covered in another blog. But just a passing word. If you want a Suzuki teacher, who teaches by rote and not by written notes on the staff, you can consider observing this approach as compared to more traditional ones. But at least you should know your options. In that arena, read up on instructional philosophies by going to the library, checking the Internet, etc. (Be aware that most Suzuki teachers require the parent(s) to be very involved in assisting their children with learning and practicing from week to week) In most cases they sit beside their children while lessons are conducted and must thoroughly absorb the material. (cross reference,

To summarize, try out any number of teachers for size and see how the relationship “feels” and goes. Look for substance, an organized curriculum, (having room for elasticity) and a love of teaching.

If your community has a Music Teachers Association like MTAC in California or MTNA (a national group) shorten the list of prospects by reading through any number of bios that might draw your attention.

Talk to other parents in your local school, church, recreation center, etc. and ask about what piano teachers they have engaged for lessons. See if the same name turns up over and again. If so, make it your business to attend one or more of these individual’s planned recitals and listen carefully to the quality of the performances. Observe the overall mood at the gathering and take note of the teacher’s presence; how he/she relates to performing students before and after their appearances.

If there’s a conservatory, university or community college with a music department in your city, scope out the chairperson, or write to him/her for a possible teacher recommendation. While in-house faculty may or may not give private lessons, an administrator might provide referrals to other teachers. In this regard, keep an eye out for public performances of musicians who live in your area and may be teaching privately. Internet and newspaper listings might assist your search.

Finally, if your child or teenager is very advanced and needs a top of the line teacher who can notch him up a rung on the musical ladder, attend the local competitions sponsored by the music teacher association in your area and see what instructors have students who were finalists and won prizes.

Listen for the interwoven musical sensitivity and technical skills of the performers.

Dare I mention business practices in the same breath with instructional competency? Obtain a copy of the teacher’s studio policies that should include the payment schedule, lesson cancellations and make-up practices. Be clear about what is expected on the $$ end of the deal. You don’t want any surprises late into the instructional phase.

Recommended Websites:

Music Teachers National Association:

Music Teachers Association of California:

Facebook: Piano Teachers Directory


The Neighborhood Piano Teacher Lives On:

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Letting my hair down with a snatch of “Let It Be!” (VIDEO)

The piano room was a mess yesterday with music strewn about. Two ’60-’70’s era Beatles albums were excavated from a pile of sheet music, hard bound theory texts, and Urtext editions of Beethoven’s sonatas.

Foraging a big carton of stuff like this was a trip down memory lane. My very old Yamaha guitar, a prized possession, was off to the side, propped against a book shelf. A 1974 model with magnificent resonance, it evoked memories of my one and only group classical guitar lesson at New York University with a South American virtuoso. On the very first day of class, he tried to teach one of the more difficult pieces in the flamenco repertoire. It was Rubira’s “Estudio,” later renamed “Spanish Romance.” (The performer in this video was not related to the instructor)

Within a few weeks, class enrollment had dwindled to three and quickly, I made it two. It reminded me of several Oberlin Senior Recitals at Kulas where one audience member was seated in the front row holding a musical score. (I recalled a New Yorker cartoon with the same theme)

The NYU guitar teacher like many other music instructors I’d encountered needed a reality check. Half the students in his class had never read a note, but they expected to play guitar “in a flash.” Generations that followed were tapping iPhones and game boys with guitar tab charts and animated keyboards. It was an espresso learning revolution!

My sixteen year old student, Allyse was an anachronism in her approach to piano study. A fledgling, she went with the program, played scales and arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths, and studied the Baroque Masters as an entree to sampling Classical and Romantic literature. No short cuts for her.

Just the same, she drove a hard bargain, insisting the Beatles went with the territory somewhere along the time line.(Allyse had already niftily tackled Five for Fighting, “100 Years,” and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always”) She had me enslaved to these pieces, as I sifted through practical fingerings and labeled harmonic progressions. But the prep work jump started a two way roller coaster ride through the contemporary pop music landscape.

With bristling enthusiasm, I indulged Allyse’s Beatles’ request. In truth, I had a vicarious interest in reading through reams of my favorite songs besides pumping out Scarlatti sonatas on You Tube. I loved “Eight Days a Week,” “Hey Jude,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Michelle,” “Yesterday” and the tour de force, Gospel style, “Let it Be!” Ralph Cato, US Olympic Boxing coach and former student, could have put me through the paces on that one. (*”Cato, His Killer Keyboard and a Round of Piano Lessons”) No one could pound the piano the way he did.

Allyse had lobbied to study “Let it Be!” with her new found confidence flying high. Just one week into our practicing, we had divided the parts at two pianos and did some public jamming–at least a snatch.

Our musical encounter was a peak experience!

This Saturday Allyse will come back down to earth playing her Baroque Rondeau at the Music Teachers Association’s Celebration Festival. An assigned adjudicator will evaluate each student’s performance and send them off, in any case, with a handsome medallion and Certificate.

Those who earn a Superior rating will play in one of the marathon Honors recitals taking place over two days.

If Allyse is not a marathoner, she’ll still race home to practice the right hand part of “Let it Be!” We have a re-run scheduled for next week. It should be a blast!