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A Music Packed Saturday and Sunday! (Video) and NEW PHOTOS!

The MTAC Baroque Festival and Daniil Trifonov’s recital at Fresno State cap this weekend’s events, giving our city a warm cultural embrace amidst its Bulldog-driven sports fever!

First on the line-up, Claudia, 11, will play the Yamaha concert grand piano at the University’s recital hall today.(The Steinway is sequestered) She’ll offer two Bach selections: Invention 13 in A minor, and the Prelude in C minor, BWV 847.

A competitive gathering where about a third of the participants will be selected to perform at the Regional concert, it required a final-lap lesson pep rally:

As an extra inning warm-up, Claudia will have FIVE-minutes of GETTING TO KNOW THE STAGE PIANO at 11 a.m. this morning when I’m a last-ditch effort, side-liner coach.

From then on, it’s an interminable wait until kick-off at 2 p.m. (Too many students on the roster in a triple-header spilling into the late afternoon)

Scoreboard results “to be e-mailed in a day or two.”

Since CAMERAS are banned from this year’s real time proceedings, here’s a photo from Festival 2011 where Claudia performed Bach Inventions 1 and 4.

P.S. Here are a few pics I managed to snap just now during Claudia’s rehearsal:

Update: Claudia played her pieces exceeding well, and made a big leap in musical growth since last year’s Festival appearance.

The latest photos:


Tomorrow, Sunday, Daniil Trifonov, will sweep into Fresno, performing the works of Schubert/Liszt, Schubert, Debussy and Chopin on the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series.

From the flyer:

“Gold Medalist, 2011 Tschaikovsky International Piano Competition and winner of the 2011 Rubenstein International Piano Competition, this twenty-year-old Russian artist has already appeared in major venues in Europe, Asia, and the United States including New York’s Carnegie Hall.”

Stay tuned for post-concert coverage.

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Down to the wire: An 11-year old piano student prepares for a competitive Baroque event (VIDEO) with a tender flashback

Claudia has made significant gains this year. She’s shaping her phrases more, and becoming ear-attentive and physically responsive to the music she plays.

Today, she made additional headway with J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C minor, BWV 847.

Coming into her lesson with two introductory readings, she was bobbing her head up and down, reinforcing beats which impeded the bigger flow of phrases above and beyond these metronomic impulses. (The playing was initially VERTICAL and without direction)

In the video attached, Claudia had a bigger conception of the work, playing it more HORIZONTALLY, with an ear toward melodic contouring AND harmonic rhythm. To play this composition requires at least a two-tier understanding of their interaction, not to mention an absorption of form or structure.

The interluding ad lib sections, are in marked contrast to what unfolds in between, requiring sensitive tempo shifts.

In this arena, Claudia is developing her sense of a Baroque rubato without going overboard.


It’s always valuable for a teacher to sing various sections of a composition while the student plays, and to conduct, or use body language to help shape phrases along.

The big challenge on the day of the big event is for the student to have the presence of mind to communicate all that she has learned along the way.

Videotaping allows examination of what needs improvement, while simulating performance conditions as best as possible.

Flashback: Claudia, age 6, playing at her very first recital in my home.


Claudia’s musical time-line

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A piano student’s milestones and memories in photos and video

Today, September 5th, is Claudia’s 11th Birthday! She started lessons with me in 2006 when she had just turned 6 after coming to California from Hawaii. I remember her as a shy but wide-eyed child who had studied piano for a year or so.

Students who begin piano lessons at a tender age and stay the journey well into their teens, become part of a teacher’s family, blooming as musicians beside their passage through elementary, middle and high school. They will sometimes come back to visit years after they’ve finished college bringing the next generation of children to embark upon lessons. The cycle of life also plays out in the musical universe.


It’s now five birthdays later and Claudia has grown up before my very eyes, creating her own album of audible milestones from her first recital in my home at age 6, to numerous playing opportunities at MTAC Festivals and on the stage of Fresno Piano’s lovely concert hall.

On this special day honoring her eleventh year, I couldn’t help but mark the occasion by recapturing a few of Claudia’s musical rites of passage through photos and video. The first image on the left shows her at age 6 rehearsing a duet with me in preparation for her first recital here at my home studio. The picture to the right was taken following her second recital appearance when she was 7 years old and wearing a light blue top.

The picture below shows Claudia, age 6, dressed in purple velvet, playing my Steinway grand in her very first recital appearance.

Above: Claudia, age 9, rehearsed for a student musical gathering at the Fresno Piano Recital Hall.

Below, Claudia, 10, displayed her medallion awarded for a Superior rating received at last year’s MTAC’s “Celebration” Festival:

Age 10: At the last Baroque Festival held in February, 2011, Claudia played two Bach Inventions.

The first offering was J.S. Bach’s Invention No. 4 in D minor:

Age 11: Claudia participated in the MTAC Fall Festival at Valley Music Center where she played Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” and the Chopin Waltz no. 19 in A minor.

For the Baroque scheduled in February, 2012 at Fresno State University, she will perform J.S. Bach’s C minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV 847 from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I.

Here’s a preview:

Claudia has come a long way since her first recital when she played the James Hook “Minuet,” J. S. Bach’s “Bouree,” Noona’s “The Red Drum,” and an assortment of duets.

How time flies!


The Joy and Value of Teaching a Piano Student Over Years

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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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Piano Instruction: Teaching Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, Movement 1 (VIDEO)

Beethoven didn’t attach “Moonlight” to this first movement of his very popular C# minor Sonata. (Music critics often invented these tags that stuck over centuries) The composer, himself, said his opening was like a fantasy, “quasi una fantasia,” and he took particular care to compose his Adagio Sustenuto movement in alla breve, which meant that each measure should be played in two, not four. (Think of two groups of triplets, as taking up the space of one beat, and then another pair of triplets comprising the second beat)

How I approach the composition when learning it from the ground up:

Start by playing every chord in the key of C# minor using the Harmonic Form (raise B to B#)

Listen for the quality of each chord: Major, Minor, Augmented, Diminished

Identify the Neapolitan chord in this Key:
Lower the second degree by a half step to D, and build a Major Chord on it. (D Major, D F# A)

Practice playing the Neapolitan (D F# A) to the Dominant (G# B# D#) to tonic, (C# E G#)

Invert these chords for smoother, easier voice leading between them. A characteristic of Beethoven’s first movement, is the smooth passage of broken chords from one to another though chord inversions.

Layered Learning: (There are more practice steps indicated here than in the video)

1)Isolate and block out chords for each triplet from the beginning to the end of piece. You can use pedal. (GOOD FINGERING IS A MUST!) Use a supple wrist, and play with a nice flow from chord to chord. Think in big groups of TWO right from the start.

Try to name the chords and their function, whether Major, minor, or diminished, etc. and if, tonic, Sub Dominant, Dominant etc.

Look for SECONDARY DOMINANTS where there are MODULATIONS to other keys besides C# minor. Identify the KEY CHANGES and how they occurred. (Notice the voice leading between chords–what notes remain the same–which ones move away–and then come back or not, etc)

2) Isolate the Bass line, and think again of underlying groups of TWO beats to each measure.

3) Play the bass line (Left Hand) and the block chords above (Right Hand)

4) Isolate the Melody (This can be tricky since fingering has to synchronize well with the alto voice below with the broken chords)

6) Play the soprano line with the bass line.

7) Play the soprano line with block chords in the alto voice (Create a nice balance–with melody resonating over chords)

8) Play the bass, alto chords, soprano line all together (Be aware of voice balance–ring out the melody)

8) Finally Play All Parts as written. Think again in groups of TWO for each measure. (Balance awareness, once again, between soprano, alto and bass)

BACK TEMPO is always a good idea. Gradually bring the movement into tempo when ready. A piece ripens with time.


Various esteemed pianists, perform this movement at different tempi.
Check Murray Perahia, Wilhelm Kempff, Vladimir Horowitz, Daniel Barenboim as reference on You Tube.

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Adult piano students say and do the darndest things.

I remember Art Linkletter’s show, “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” which made me think of a few adult piano students and their hauntingly memorable words.

Yesterday, for example, I was forewarned by a 70-year old pupil, that I should expect a call from her during the night about the key of “F# minor.” What impending crisis was she talking about? Did it have to do with the Melodic form of the scale and its raised notes going up, but not coming down? Was it the temporary shift in fingering or the modal turnaround? I’d concede that the “melodic” was a cliff-hanger on the ascent with its “raised” 6th and 7th notes, but definitely a descending blow-out in its restored “natural” form. Would this duality catapult a student into full-blown despair?

F# G# A B C# D# E# F#
E D C# B A G# F#

The Circle of Fifths for Major and Minor Scales

Wait a minute, my 70-year old, wasn’t assigned the more complicated Melodic minor this week. She was supposed to practice the NATURAL FORM with mirror fingers, 4, 3, and 3,4 on F# and G# in every progressive octave, with 3’s meeting on C# in both hands. We’d spent a few lessons on these reciprocal relationships and symmetries, though she’d planted her 4th finger on two different notes in the same octave, hoping I wouldn’t see the guilty left hand from my vantage point at the second piano. But my peripheral vision had been fine-tuned from hunting down crossed-hand notes with rolling eyeballs.

All humor aside, it’s always difficult to navigate scales that are not strict patterns of two and three-black key groups with thumbs meeting like those of B, F# and C# Major and their “enharmonics” spelled in flats: Cb, Gb and Db. But just about every scale has an internal symmetry that can be explored to best advantage regardless of its location on the Circle of Fifths.

The scales of C, G, D, A and E fall under one heading where the bridge between the octaves has a reciprocal fingering or mirror.

In the case of C Major, the 7th note B crossing over C to D, uses finger numbers 4, 1, 2 in the Right Hand while the left plays 2,1, 4. The anchor finger over which 4 passes in either direction, holds things together.

In previous writings and videos, I also pinpointed where finger number 3 met in both hands, providing another internal organizer.

For the student who was rattled by F# minor, a scale that had a novel identity, we found a different location for mirror fingers, but still a helpful aid.

Another pupil, a US Attorney who’d been chasing robber barons in South Carolina, was worried that he didn’t get to the piano this past week, so he let me know in no uncertain terms by telephone and text message, fax, email, registered mail, certified mail, and just plain 3rd class snail mail, that his upcoming lesson would “just be a practice.” I wondered to myself, had he otherwise feared a public flogging in front of Starbucks?

He had done very well over the years, reconciling the relationship of scale study with his desire to improve his understanding of the Beethoven sonatas and other repertoire.

I’d previously mentioned Ralph Cato, the US Olympic boxing trainer who was my sparring partner for ten minutes following his lessons. Every week he’d use my staircase for athletic training and balance routines. Was I dreaming? Because his coaching was pert and perfect, I’d wished his precise directions were recorded for posterity, though they remain a lingering memory.

Up in the Bay area, a retired lawyer, used her iPhone to capture angles of her hand and fingers that were used as learning reminders between lessons.

I had started to believe these technology based aids were helping her and I had to get with it without resisting change.

She’d admitted that her first piano teacher, a nun in a rural Texas parochial school, had used a ruler to beat her hand into a rigid, arched position.

Oops, maybe I’d mixed her up with my paternal grandpa who ran away from the Cheder in Latvia after his knuckles were skinned with a cat o’ nine tails by the head Rabbi. He’d ditched his Torah lessons.

Oh well, some teachers over generations used this same dastardly approach.

In a few years, none of us would be collecting colorful stories about our piano students. We’d be replaced by micro robots who’d comb the keyboard, electronically marking fingerings for every major and minor scale.

An exaggeration, perhaps.

In retrospect, I should have appreciated middle-of-the-night calls from my 70-year old student. At least I could log them for a growing anthology of pianorama.



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Piano Technique: Big Leaps, Crossed Hands, and shifty eyeballs (with slow motion video replay)

up tempo:

Be prepared to exercise your eyeballs minus head movements when tackling large leaps, especially those hand-over-hand acrobatics that are intrinsic to many of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas.

In the first video I’ve isolated a few of these jumps from Sonata K. 113 in A Major, demonstrating what I’ve found to be the best approach.

While I’ve crashed and burned on more than one occasion, a new consciousness emerged through trial and error.


1) No bobbing head back and forth when playing crossed hands.

Use your shifty eyeballs, if necessary, to target the destination notes going back and forth over your right hand.

There are two places that stand out in this sonata. The first involves two octave, crossed-hand jumps. The Left travels back and forth over the right multiple times.

In the second instance, there are jumps of four octaves, and these can be suicide trips, unless mediated by shifty eyeballs.

2) Use an arc-like motion back and forth, but not too high, or you’ll lose contact with the keys.

3) Block out the broken chord progressions in the right hand as they move in sequence. Then unblock them before adding in the left hand.

Be calm, relaxed, and breathe deeply but not anxiously.

Finally, say a prayer..

CLICK to enlarge (page 1 and 2, Sonata, K. 113 by Scarlatti)