Bach Two Part Inventions, blog metrics, harmonic analysis, J.S. Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, music theory, piano blog, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

Theory embedded in phrasing/musical expression

What am I doing up at 2 a.m.? To put it simply, answering an adult student’s inquiry about the theoretical analysis of J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor. At our last lesson, I had tweaked her curiosity about the harmonic dimension of the last two pages where modulations abound (especially measures 9-18) Yet as I spoke a form of Greek to her, since her Theory background was scant, she knew enough to ask the right questions about 7th chords and their meandering instability.

In response, I could have produced a mini-thesis on the harmonic landscape through broken chord sequences, but instead, I grabbed an extra post midnight cup of Folger’s and created a video with all the spoon fed information she needed. (’twas a mighty leap from pablum to a meat and potatoes main course.)

Nonetheless, my analysis flowed into the universe of artistic expression: how to phrase, shape, and dip in deference to harmonic rhythm.

To this extent, we were on the same page….

J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor p. 2

Bach A minor Invention p. 3

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Ear Training and Transposing are intrinsic to piano lessons (examples from an Adult lesson in progress)

It’s not easy to plan a one hour piano lesson to include ear training, solfege and transposing. (They belong together, bundled with Theory, and enrich the learning environment)

At the Oberlin Conservatory, Theory, Keyboard Harmony, and Eurhythmics were taught separately. Our piano teachers (applied study) adhered to their rigid routine, rarely fitting solfege, sight-reading, improvising, composing etc. into the time-limited hour. Yet, the cross-fertilization of course work, expanded our musical horizons.

The New York City High School of Performing Arts, my alma mater, offered a valuable/mandatory Sight-singing course that continued from 10th grade through senior year. It was enormously relevant as the movable DO (solfeggio) helped me navigate complex scores, and peel away voices.

Piano students who just stick to the music without being exposed to theory, ear-training and other mind-enriching escapades, are basically short-changed. They often view their pieces as finger challenges only–easily becoming Treble clef fixated, tacking on bass lines without a second thought. Naturally, their sight-reading suffers because they’re not internalizing interval movement in various voices, or sensing harmonic flow.

In an effort to stem the tide of such top layer, tracing paper learning, I’ve made a concerted effort to delegate at least 15 minutes of my students’ lesson time to ear training and transposing. (One of my source materials is Fundamentals of Piano Theory by Snell and Ashleigh) Snell and Ashleigh

As an example, I videotaped an adult student transposing snatches from the Preparatory Level workbook, page 45.

for transposition using solfege

***

I’ve tossed in a spot-practicing segment where the ADULT student is smoothing out a tricky set of measures in the RONDO: Allegretto, Mozart Sonata, K. 545. (Repertoire should be a springboard for sight-singing, ear-training and theory adventures since they’re interwoven)

(I often slip into solfeggio in parceling voices)

***
LINKS:

Solfeggio and Transposing

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/piano-instruction-solfeggio-and-transposing-video/

The Importance of Sight-singing, Ear-training and Theory in piano study
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/the-importance-of-sight-singing-ear-training-and-theory-in-piano-study/

Using Piano Repertoire and as a springboard for a theory lesson

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/using-piano-repertoire-as-a-springboard-for-a-theory-lesson-major-minor-and-diminished-chords-videos/

How to Improve Sight-Reading

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/how-to-improve-sight-reading-at-the-piano/

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Skyped Piano Lessons: Using video supplements as reinforcement (Video sent to an 8-year old student)

Today I Skyped a third piano lesson between California and Oregon, and learned that the student I was mentoring was not 10-years old as I had thought all along, but only 8!

Dad told me she had 10 months of lessons altogether, wherein I became involved only weeks ago at the father’s invitation. But the first phase of my musical relationship to the child involved a video exchange through a common private You Tube channel.

That process remained in place after I purchased and set up my iMac 21 for SKYPE.

In the past few weeks, many videos have been uploaded and sent back and forth, which in my opinion have significantly advanced the student’s progress. The participation of the father has also been pivotal to gains the child has made. He is very involved in the real-time lessons, and in the video exchange.

When his daughter practices between lessons, I am sent a video(s) of her session, and will comment on various phrases, measures. I then shoot back a responsive video underscoring my points.

So far I have found Skyped lessons to be valuable in fostering progress in conjunction with video supplementation.

Today I sent the video below to dad as reinforcement of the five-finger technical work we commenced today. It is no.1 of Dozen a Day, Bk. 1 “Walking and Running.” (Edna Mae Burnham) I expanded the exercise to include 32nds legato followed by Staccato Forte/Staccato piano.

In general I use these Pentascales to advance the singing tone and a supple wrist, and I take the student through all keys, “Parallel” Majors and minors. (Not the “relative” minors for this routine) At today’s lesson we embarked upon C Major and minor in parallel and contrary motion.

The balance of the Skyped lesson focused on the Chopin Waltz in A minor, No. 17 and the Clementi Sonatina, Op. 36 no. 3, first movement, Spiritoso.

Down the line I plan to introduce TWO octave scales through the FJH Classic Scale Book (McArthur and McLean) alongside the pentascale warm-ups. These pursuits will be videotaped and shared.

This 8-year old is not typical of students I have in this age category. She is very focused, physically adept, and musically inclined. The lesson plan is therefore adapted to her specific strengths and weaknesses and not standardized.

Teaching that is standardized does not make adjustments for individual needs.

RELATED:
Correction needed below: student is 8 years old!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/29/an-8-year-olds-playing-before-and-after-skype-lessons-plus-video-supplementation-chopin-waltz-in-a-minor-no-19-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/between-california-and-oregon-skyping-chopin-with-a-ten-year-old-student-video-of-lesson-in-progress/

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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 Instruction: Common student problems related to playing Clementi Sonatina, Op. 36, No. 3, Spiritoso (Video)

The student I’m currently teaching by Skype has received a number of supplemental videos from me that target problems universal to those learning Clementi Sonatina, Op. 36, No. 3.

In this video, geared for teachers as well as students, I define areas in the first movement, Spiritoso, that need particular focus for improvement:

As a preliminary, the Classical era Sonatina Form should be explored, fleshing out the EXPOSITION (first and second themes); DEVELOPMENT (devices used that relate to rhythm, and modulation to various keys) RECAPITULATION (return of Theme I and related material in the home key)

In summary:

1) The left hand broken chords that open the composition are usually played vertically and far too loud, detracting from the melody or THEME I (The same issue presents where Theme I is inverted in the Development section, and returns in the Recapitulation)

Remediation: Have the student first “block” out these two-note Left Hand figures with a “spongy” wrist, and then unblock, playing softly with a rocking motion, being attentive to the notes that move. (a flexible wrist is needed)

2) Piece lacks a steady, underlying, cohesive beat. Tempo changes are frequent.

Remediation: DON’T use a metronome. Instead instill a rhythmic consciousness by lifting beats as a conductor beside the student. Sing beats, so they have a phrase context. Subdivide counting using ANDS between beats as necessary.

3) Dynamic range is not wide enough throughout the composition, and Theme II needs a contrast and change in character. Underlying broken chords played in the bass under Theme 2 are too ponderous.

Remediation: Encourage Attentive listening for changes in dynamics; requires deeper in the key weight transfer to lighter application having a relaxed arm, wrist, and elbow. For the broken chord figures in the bass, block with a spongy wrist, and unblock with a rotation of the left hand.

4) Notes are played without awareness of a singing tone. Phrases lack shape.

Remediation: Sing phrases with student, and apply weight transfer to create swells of a line, as well as crescendo and diminuendo, enlisting a supple wrist.

5) Where music has measures of imitation, student overlooks.

Remediation: Focus on these and practice feeding the imitative lines between the hands, framing as a “conversation.”

6) Note values are not observed, giving short shrift to quarter notes, in particular while rests are ignored.

Remediation: Focus on measures where these figures need attention, and count beats aloud with student. Where quarter notes are dropped too early in relation to eighths running through them, single out those measures for extra practice.

7) Articulation and phrasing as noted by the composer are not observed (slurs, legato to staccato figures, etc)

Remediation: Remind student of the composer’s markings in the music and separately practice measures that need clarity.

8) Detached notes, such as those indicated with a staccato marking are clipped too short or come out sounding too heavy with unwanted accents.

Remediation: Work with student on lengthening these, keeping the wrist pliant to avoid crash landings on the keys.

9) Fingering is frequently not observed which impacts phrasing, articulation, etc.

Remediation: Single out measures that need fingering adjustments and practice behind tempo.

10) Trills bog down the flow of the composition, mostly played too slow, and in a tempo that is markedly different from the rest of the piece.

Remediation: Practice a measured trill and have the student focus on the steadiness of the bass notes through pertinent measures.

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/clementi-and-crickets-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/06/18/learning-and-memorizing-clementi-sonatina-in-c-op-36-no-1-mvt-1-video/

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Inspiration and the Piano Student

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Thomas Edison

Blood, sweat and tears and all that invested energy are supposed to produce extraordinary results.

We marvel at geniuses in musical, literary, artistic and scientific fields wondering about the ingredients of their individual journeys. How much was hard work, the rest divinely inspired? What about “mood?” Did they have an innate feel for capturing a panoply of emotions and effects universal to mankind?

How about applying this discussion to piano study. Does a player need a touch of inspiration to charge him up to practice? Should he rely on it as the core of a work session or should he wait until he is onstage at a student recital, praying that some form of inspiration will touch him in lieu of the daily practicing that was absent along the way?

Today, upon my return trip from the Bay area, I sat scrunched in the last single seat of Amtrak San Joaquin 712, scribbling my related thoughts on a napkin secured from the dining car.

I had planned to copy them, verbatim for this blog because a parent had “inspired” me to write about the subject.

So after the train progressed to the Stockton station, I had enough material on one napkin divided into three parts to post at WordPress.

My ideas:

First, when selecting a piece of music for a student, I think it’s essential that the teacher gets him/her charged up to the newest learning experience, igniting an enthusiasm springing from a basic love for the composition. That love will quickly filter down to a receptive pupil.

But falling in love and being inspired may not carry the weight of work that’s needed for a new piece to grow and fully blossom. In truth it’s the daily, baby step, patient practicing that holds the best chance for an inspiring performance to evolve over time.

If you attend a recital where five pianists from a particular teaching studio play the same piece, maybe one particular performance will grab the audience and draw listeners into a sacred space where time is suspended and music has an all-encompassing hypnotic effect. On stage, the pianist is not struggling with the technical side of execution; he is floating on a cloud above it, at ONE with the music, producing a continuous, uninterrupted flow of tone and nuanced playing. His “peak” experience is shared with an awe-inspired audience.

Flashback to the piano practicing workplace:

The student has begun the artistic process with a sense of commitment, patience and discipline. As Edison said rightfully said, Genius is more hard work than anything else. But in my mind, it doesn’t have to be a blood, sweat and tears journey. To the contrary:

The message to the student as communicated by the teacher should be,

1) Practice your new music slowly and thoughtfully, as a joyful experience.

2) Shape phrases and feel the depth of your physical involvement with the piano. Above all cultivate the idea of RELAXATION and weight transfer, being attuned to producing a beautiful singing tone. BREATHE deeply and effortlessly through your music.

3)Invest your whole body in the playing experience not cutting off energy as it flows down your arms, elbows, wrists into your fingers. Keep your wrists spongy and supple.

4) Patiently study fingerings knowing that laying down good choices impacts the growth and development of your piece to where you will feel “inspired” playing it with all you had planned, but going one step further in the process, surrendering to your spiritual side, that elevates you to a supremely higher level of ecstasy.

In conclusion, while inspiration may be the springboard for enthusiasm to learn, it must be followed up with thoughtful, step-wise practicing that is ear attentive and aware of the body/mind connection. An examination of form and architecture with the assistance of a teacher, will also mind expand, and open up a universe of musical understanding that can deepen the playing experience.

My final paragraph scrawled on a paper napkin that came with my vegetarian burrito read:

“Inspiration springs from dedicated, introspective practicing. It is in full bloom when the notes on a page of music swirl about the player as fluid forms in a poetry of motion.”