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Should piano students listen to recorded performances of pieces they are first beginning to learn?

I was thinking of Palmer’s edition of Chopin, an Introduction to His Music, and when I first purchased it years ago there was no inserted CD of recorded selections contained in the album.

With subsequent published editions, a CD popped into an envelope, beckoning a player to sample another pianist’s interpretation of music he had just barely sight-read through.

I am here emphasizing the fledgling who is embarking upon a virgin learning process, finding correct notes, counting out beats, piecing out fingering, etc. with a guiding teacher at the helm.

In this regard, I remember telling Claudia, one of my ten-year old students who was feasting on a new journey into the Romantic period, about to study the Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous, NOT to listen to X pianist’s CD sample of the work, not because it might not have been a sterling interpretation, but because it could, in my opinion, stultify her individual, creative, developmental musical process.

An additional reason for my admonition was that I felt listening so quickly to a piece played at performance tempo by a competent pianist, might make the child feel intimidated by a composition she was just beginning to learn. Polished to a high level of performance, it would separate the student from the baby-step approach I would encourage and implement over weeks and months.

One might say, that jumping too quickly into trying to COPY another pianist’s performance, or benefit from exposure to various nuanced interpretations could prevent the pupil from trusting his/her own musical intuition, with the assistance of the piano teacher.

Now I’m sure that I will be barraged by opposing opinions which will have valid arguments at their foundation.

I, for one, can say, that I like to listen/watch performances on You Tube of compositions I have lived with over time, studied in-depth, struggled with on many levels, and put my autograph on as best I can, because after all, we’re all exposed to performances of our pieces through studies with our piano teachers, and on the Internet when we least expect to encounter them.

But I always hesitate to consult another artist’s performance until I’ve fully absorbed a piece on many intricate levels. At that point I feel open to other pianists’ interpretations and ideas. Let’s say that I feel that I can most benefit from these outside musical influences on You Tube, CD, whatever, after I’ve allowed myself an unassisted deep-sea dive into the composition.

Here are a few counter-arguments to my premise that are valid where it even applies to my particular music-learning journey.

1) I’m having difficulty with a passage because of meter complexity or rhythm, and I’m not near a teacher, or have one at the moment.

Why not find a You Tube of Perahia, Richter, et al, playing the piece, and use as the clarifying reference.

2) If I’m a beginning student, or one of intermediate or advanced level, I can resolve the problem with my teacher at lessons. But If I’m advanced enough to have the issue addressed by way of a sample recording in between lessons, why not use an outside resource.

Most of the time with beginners, however, they need the teacher to help them along with the basics of rhythm, articulation, fingering, etc. so You Tubes performances, CDs, DVDs, whatever will usually not do the job.

Therefore, my premise of not being CONDITIONED to another interpretation at the very BEGINNING of a learning experience still holds, though I open myself to this resonating opposition to my thesis:

Well, then, isn’t the piano TEACHER the biggest outside influence upon the student in the artistic shaping of a composition?

Okay, YES, I would have to admit that, but I would NOT sit down and keep playing the whole composition at a polished level, at every lesson while the student was struggling along. That would be the perfect antidote to the pupil’s engagement with the composition. She would feel discouraged before she began to piece out measures at a time.

If I was an empathetic teacher who wanted to advance a student along the path to fluency, I would put myself in the shoes of the pupil, and take the baby steps, one at a time, with her. Over weeks and months, where individual measures led to mastery of phrases, sections, and finally to an absorption of an entire piece, the teacher and student would have been on the same wave-length.

In addition, where interpretation was concerned, I would expect the teacher to have an understanding of performance practice, so that certain choices made by the student could be considered in the context of a musical historical period and the style of the time. (This opens the door to a long-winded polemic about tempos taken, and various turns of the phrase which will be deferred. Two hot topics in one blog are a NO NO!)

So, yes, the teacher’s spin on the piece would have to factor in and be considered in this discussion.

In this connection, one of my basic reservations with the Suzuki method of teaching piano is that at its core, the approach is based upon COPYING THE TEACHER along with ingesting the contents of a CD loaded into the program. A student must be on playback after the teacher delivers a “live” musical sample, supplemented by a recording that is supposed to saturate the student for days and weeks. That is, if the Suzuki method is applied in its purest form.

One could say that a standardized performance is the rule, with deviations at beginner level being discouraged.

On that score alone I am decisively opinionated but open to feedback from students, teachers, and all music lovers.

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Piano Instruction: Debussy Arabesque No. 1 (Video)–and playing through the whole composition

I first came to know this piece when a fifth grader at P.S. 122 in the Bronx was selected to play it at our student assembly. The ebb and flowing beauty of this work was so poignant, that I stored it away in my memory until I was able to personally experience this composition years later as a student.

***

The Debussy Arabesque no. 1 is a composition from the Impressionist era of musical composition. (late 19th Century following the Romantic period) Debussy and Ravel were the hallmark French composers of the time.

Apparently, the two Arabesques were the first works Debussy had ever composed for the piano, so they had immense historical significance.

The vocabulary of Debussy’s music is rich in harmonic dimension. The composer uses 7ths, 9ths, 11th and more, while he intersperses whole tone progressions that are so characteristic of his writing.

One can use more pedal when playing Debussy and not worry about perfectly pure sounding lines, though in this particular composition, special care must be taken to shape and contour phrases so they aren’t blurred and over-pedaled.

If density or volume ever applied to musical performance, this piece meets all requirements for a slow entry into notes, and a swimming motion through them.

The video below suggests ways to approach the composition, following the harmonic rhythm, bass line notes, and rolling broken-chord patterns. The player must have relaxed arms, a supple wrist, and be immersed in wave-like musical forms.

I have first played it through from beginning to end before discussing part 1:

First section:

Playing the triplets against 8ths:

Video Part Two:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/20/piano-instruction-part-two-debussy-arabesque-no-1-teacher-shirley-kirsten-video-2/


RELATED for use of supple wrists and floating arms along with rotation:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/piano-instruction-schumann-arabesque-op-18-using-a-supple-wrist-follow-through-motion-and-parceling-out-voices-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/piano-instruction-avoiding-injuries-using-butterfly-by-edvard-grieg-as-a-slow-practicing-example-video/

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Piano Technique and Weight Control: Bringing out and balancing voices (Video) Teacher, Shirley Kirsten

When students do routine scales and arpeggios as warm-ups to their tour de force pieces, I like to spice things up a bit by playing around with voicing and weight control. (Yes, you heard me right) I’ll surprise them by asking for the Left hand notes to be fleshed out, while the Right ones are subdued. Initially, my request throws everyone for a loop, eliciting quizzical looks that could be freeze framed and imported to You Tube–a collage of raised eyebrows, and collective chagrin. The whole spectacle would definitely be worth a million hits past Nora the Cat pawing the keys of a Yamaha grand.

As a heads up helper and student stress reliever, I take a hard cover book and hold it palms up in my Left hand, while I have a flimsy soft covered one in my Right. While it’s a flip-side teaching model, the basic concept comes across: heavier in one hand and lighter in the other. (There’s no doubt that muscle memory kicks in)

In driving my points across, I might also allude to feeling an upper body fullness filtering down the arms, through the elbows, wrists, fingers, into the keys vs. an opposite, easing up sensation. (That’s where weight control comes in) In truth, most students can stand to gain a few pounds of pressure when weighing into the keys versus tickling the ivories).

Weight measuring at the piano is pivotal to voicing and students will observe me doing weight bearing maneuvers as living, breathing examples.

Sometimes I will do a push-up of sorts, finding my dead weight upper body core, and leveraging myself against the keyboard with embracing hands. That’s when the wooden key slip starts making a racket (tennis anyone?)

This basic gravitational connection to the instrument is the impetus for modified weigh-ins. No, not the type associated with boxing: Heavy weight, Light weight and Feather weight divisions? Sports analogies save the day when standard piano teaching lingo does not adequately serve me. Tennis again? with that power-packed serve requiring weight transfer from the back foot springing forward to the front with dead center gravity at play.

Bottom line, when you want to bring out the left hand in a scale, think “heavier” or deeper into the keys. But know that “deeper” may not be enough if concurrent, relaxed, dead weight is not the back-up. Connection into the keys whether light or heavy remains a constant while skimming the surface of keys is not an option.

The attached video demonstrates various weight applications used in drawing out voices using scales and arpeggios as the vehicle.

Here are some routines:

1) Play a four-octave scale in 16ths in parallel motion–Legato–smooth and connected Forte singing tone (Allegretto tempo, or in a slower frame if you choose)

Start by voicing deeper into the Right Hand. Use the dead weight application I mentioned. The left hand should feel “lighter” reduced to medium soft (mp) or soft (p), if possible.

2) Do the same, fleshing out the Left hand notes, subduing the Right. Keep the Forte singing tone in the bass, and go way down to piano. in the treble

3) Finally evenly balance the voices.

Steps one, two and three can enlist STACCATO for variety.

Students can also explore Contrary motion scales with thumbs at the starting note, going out for three octaves and returning to the beginning point.

Bring out the Left hand in one playing, then the Right in the next, or in reverse order.

Finally evenly balance the voices.

Do the same overall routine with a four octave arpeggio in Parallel motion, then play in contrary motion. You’ll be using legato and staccato approaches. Mix it up for variety.

***

So why take the trouble to turn your keyboard world upside down like those pilots who do aeronautical gymnastics?

Well, because to play the piano repertoire from Classical to Pop, requires “voicing.” All music requires a balance of voices in one form or another. Schumann, for example, often intentionally slips inner voices into his compositions, making the pianist take notice. Fleshing these out, reveals the full blossomed beauty of his works. Beethoven’s Adagio from the “Pathetique” Sonata begins with three voices and progresses at some places to four. The quartet scoring must have a resonating melody, a rolling alto, subdued tenor and framing bass. The player must decide what he must draw out in the course of a composition, and how the fabric of lines is woven. Such decisions about voicing are synthesized into a kinetic/aural/ and affective(emotional) frame.

Jazz pianists who are part of a larger or smaller ensemble, where blending and interaction of voices is intrinsic to a performance, may want to flesh out a theme that’s jumped from the treble into the bass or alto voice. So knowing what it takes to draw out a line is pivotal to a jam session or performance.

“Voicing” then, is universal to the piano repertoire in its various forms and media and should be cultivated artfully with an awareness of weight applications and sound images.

RELATED:
Thumb shifts in playing scales and arpeggios

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/piano-technique-thumb-shifts-in-playing-scales-and-arpeggios-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/sports-and-piano-technique-how-about-chunking-on-you-tube/

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Piano Instruction: Flexible wrist, rolling forward motion for shaping groups of notes in Burgmuller’s “Inquietude” (VIDEO)

I’ve chosen Burgmuller’s E minor “Inquietude” (Restlessness) from the composer’s Twenty-Five Progressive Pieces, to demonstrate a spring forward movement of the wrist used with groupings of three slurred 16th notes that permeate the selection.

I also enlist syllables, “da-lee-dle” to assist with shaping the 3-note figures.

The Schirmer edition is below. I use Palmer/Alfred which doesn’t have accented notes in the bass, just staccato entries.

(Note that the Left Hand plays through the treble rests on the first and second beats) “da-lee-dle” refers to the three note right hand, slurred figures that occur between beats.

TREBLE LINE: rest da-lee-dle, rest da-lee-dle rest da-lee-dle rest daleedle, etc

There’s a slight leaning on the second syllable (lee)

Practicing should begin in slow motion.

(When all is said and done the piece will fly by rapidly, but just the same, in the fast tempo, there must be phrase shaping, an understanding of harmonic rhythm, and a supple wrist motion propelling the music along)

The Left hand triads are springboards into the three note 16th figures so the interdependency is evident. Chordal resolutions from Sub-dominant to Tonic, or from Dominant to Tonic suggest a shaping down. Think LEAN/resolve in these measures.

In the video I demonstrate the need for a supple wrist that should move forward through the three note 16th groupings. It should start its motion from a lower position in order to move forward. (but not too low) If the wrist is too high, there’s no room to go forward. That’s why self analysis is an important component of practicing.

I often recommend starting with the Bass (left hand), being aware of the flow and resolution of chords. The tonic “e” minor chord followed by the sub-dominant “a” minor (in second inversion) suggest a LEAN on the sub-dominant and a relaxation to the tonic (e minor)

In the G Major middle section, a G Major chord is followed by a G diminished chord, which suggests a slight leaning on the diminished and a relaxation to the G Major triad.

After concerted slow practicing, a faster tempo should be approached GRADUALLY.

Even up to tempo, wrist pliancy is always needed and the forward motion remains, though attenuated.

Intertwined with the technical demands of this piece, is the requirement to play expressively in the Romantic genre.

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Piano Lesson: Fritz, Age 7, performs his composed piece, “FINDING GOLD” (Video)

Over a period of three weeks, seven year old Fritz, who’d been taking piano lessons for about 7 months, composed a piece that he titled, “Finding Gold.”

The student has been using Faber Primer Piano Adventures, with my inserted modifications. He warmed up this past Monday with Lesson Book p. 24, C-D-E-F-G March transposed to A Major followed by A minor, in Parallel and then Contrary Motion. The consciousness of “minor” occurred way back at the very beginning of study when he played “Balloons” (floating notes) with a the black key Eb inserted. Ever since he has been playing Major and minor when any opportunity presents. (He is reading music proficiently for his level of study, and has reached p. 59 in the Lesson Book)

Fritz is a very imaginative child who was enthusiastic about creating his own music.

On 3/21 I asked him to compose a four-measure treble melody in C Position, in 4/4 time using any combination of quarter notes, half notes, dotted quarter notes, and whole notes.

He was then asked to play the second phrase in the PARALLEL minor.
(He is familiar with this vocabulary as it has been used redundantly when he plays his Primer pieces in Major followed by minor)

His melody was completed on 3/21 at his lesson, and I helped with notation.

As part of Fritz’s assignment for the following week, I asked him to compose a bass line, placing his hand in C position. He could use single notes, chords, ties, whatever he chose. (He was aware of the parallel minor in the second phrase)

3/28: Fritz played his piece with an added bass line, which I helped him notate on manuscript paper. He surprised me by ending his second phrase with a C MAJOR chord. For the following week I asked him to title his piece, add dynamics, words, and an illustration.

4/4/11: Fritz brought his composition with dynamics and words inserted.
He had also included an illustration. His words matched the emotional content of the music. The second phrase in minor had a sad lyric, but the final measure with the C Major Chord reflected the celebration of FINDING GOLD.

I made the connection to the great composers, such as Handel who carefully realized the text in his Messiah!

Fritz’s words:
I like walking in the woods, It feels nice to me (first phrase)
Sometimes I feel lost and scared, but I find GOLD! (second phrase)

Fritz recorded his piece for You Tube on 4/4/11

Composing activities can be integrated into lessons periodically, and over the long term a student can produce a bound collection of pieces with accompanying illustrations if desired.

It’s not only a creative exploration but it advances knowledge of notation, form, and harmony. (A theory lesson is built into the activity)

Location: El Cerrito, California

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/piano-students-as-composers-stimulating-a-creative-teaching-environment/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/30/individualizing-piano-study-how-to-avoid-method-book-dependency/

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More trills, but bucolic and serene: Scarlatti’s d minor “pastorale” K. 9 (VIDEO)

Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata K. 9 in d minor (the “pastorale”)

The trills in K. 9 are far different than those permeating Scarlatti’s sonata K. 159 in C Major. The latter has a robust horn call opening with a lavish assortment of ornaments. The bright sounding Major tonality creates a dazzling brilliance:

By contrast the d minor Pastorale is wistfully beautiful with its very lovely theme weaving through the sonata, drawing the listener into a bucolic scene. The trills are tapestries not displays of technical prowess.

In the second half of the work, Scarlatti develops material in the opening section, preserving the mood, but darkening the theme before the piece gracefully winds to a close with its final resonating trill.

The d minor sonata, K. 9 is written in 6/8 time, but is felt in lilting two’s, providing an undulating rhythm that matches the mood created.

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/trills/

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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.

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/piano-instruction-learning-the-f-minor-scale-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/31/piano-technique-related-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/the-iphone-invades-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/cato-his-killer-keyboard-and-a-round-of-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/a-piano-teachers-worst-nightmare/

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