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Piano Instruction: Learning from our colleagues (Videos)

Since we are very isolated as piano teachers, nurturing one-to-one relationships with our students for months and years at a time, we sometimes forget that there are other teaching universes beyond our own with repositories of ideas that may enrich the learning environment. One example, is the cosmos of Irina Gorin’s studio in Indiana. I’ve been following her You Tube videos and was specifically drawn to these teaching examples that resonated with appeal:

Hand Position:

My comment: While this basic hand position is an essential for the beginning student, I tend to teach more flexibility, particularly when an advancing student is playing a combination of black and white keys with large leaps that require hand/finger adjustments, for example broader, longer feeling fingers, not restricted by the ball paradigm. I teach finding a center of gravity, and patterning groups of notes. Nonetheless, when you have a true beginner, the ball, or ripe plum analogy works well.

***

The dead weight arm, supple wrist drop:

I love Irina’s use of the hair band as a perfect way to teach the total, relaxed arm drop with flexible wrist. I had to wait 6 years into my own piano study to acquire a teacher who worked with me in this way, minus the hair accessory, though her points were well taken. In the area of tone production, alone, this dead weight arm drop with supple wrist goes a long way to imbue the singing tone approach to the piano. Bravo, Irina! And much gratitude goes to the late Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich, my beloved New York City teacher. If this is the Russian school of piano playing/teaching, may it continue to thrive and produce more generations of music loving pianists.

****

Swinging arm from side to side:

Irina aced it here, teaching the relaxed arm swing from side to side, and not hugging the body. This going with the flow motion nurses beautiful phrasing, and in concert with the arm drop and supple wrist produces a gorgeous singing tone, molto cantabile.

***

Teaching Staccato to a Beginner:

This is a riveting approach that imbues the follow through wrist motion that is so pivotal to beautiful phrasing. I love how Irina’s uses the “frog” as a picturesque example for motivating the spirit of short, crisp, detached notes.

Later today, I will use the hair band and arm swing teaching tools with Nayelli, age 10, and put up on you tube.

In a few weeks, if not before, I will start teaching Rina, only 4, who has had considerable Music Together classes. We will use Irina’s materials, (Tales of a Musical Journey) and I will videotape parts of each lesson as we move along. (Teaching students under 6 or 7 is not my usual preference, though I’ve been impressed watching Irina work sensitively and effectively with this younger age group)

Thanks again to Irina for sharing her dynamic and creative teaching strategies with students, parents, and teachers throughout the world!

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Piano Students as Composers: Stimulating a Creative Teaching and Learning Environment

This morning, as I foraged through piles of folders, I stumbled upon one of my articles that was published in the California Music Teacher (MTAC Magazine) in 1985. At the time, I had just released my music book, “Piano Duets and Solos by and for Children,” which included a lengthy introduction titled, “How to Help Children Compose.” My uncle, the late David Smiton, a gifted fine artist, provided the cover art work and added graphics/pics, but the piano student composers illustrated their own pieces.

In the interests of sharing ideas about creativity and composing in the piano studio, I have reprinted the Preface and some student produced musical selections alongside their artistic creations. My added accompaniments, indicated as “teacher” parts are included. You can see details of the composing process by the prompts inserted at the top (side) of various pages. I hope, above all, that you will enjoy the music and its creative development.

Please feel free to impart your own experiences with composing.









***

About David Smiton (book cover artist)

A graduate of the Parsons School of Design, David Smiton worked simultaneously as a commercial and fine artist. The highlights of his career reflected the refinement of his talents in both areas. As testimony to his artistic ability, he won the prestigious Grumbacher Award, and he published articles with his illustrations in the American Artist and the Artist’s Market.

While working in New York City as an advertising art director, he was commissioned to sketch events for the nationally televised trial of Lt. Calley. Other trial work followed including the highly publicized Clifford Irving and Jean Harris cases.

An example of David Smiton’s impeccable art work:

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The very first Chopin Waltz that I teach: #19, Op. Posth. in A minor (Video instruction)

After decades of teaching the Chopin Waltzes, I’ve come to the conclusion that the A minor, No. 19, Op. Posthumous is the best student introduction to the form as the composer cultivated it. While many other Waltzes in Chopin’s collection are far more substantial and technically challenging, No. 19, is in my opinion, easiest to assimilate, study, and play. In part, it’s because the harmonic structure is very straightforward, leaning toward tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chord relationships. In addition, a frequent interchange occurs between the tonic A Minor in which the piece is written and its relative C Major. (Good material for introductory theory) Finally, there’s an abundance of thematic repetition.

The big climax of the piece, on the third page, (measures, 33-40) is a modulation to the Parallel A MAJOR, which makes a conspicuously audible impression. This section also has the most notes phrased at a Forte dynamic level.

Following the composition’s peak, the composer returns to the opening theme, which is in the home key of A minor.

Palmer Edition, Chopin Waltzes:

About the Composer, Frederic Chopin
(1810-1849)

Chopin lived during the height of the Romantic Period, and composed very expressive music that included free flowing phrases, ornamented notes, a colorful harmonic palette, and a tempo rubato (flexible, borrowed time that if taken too far, is a bit of a parody of itself) The pedaling for this music is rich, but tasteful. (The player should not over use the sustain)

The Way to Practice:

1) First, trace the path of melody through the opening section, (measures 1-16) in SLOW motion, following the phrasing very carefully. Chopin was very much a molto cantabile composer, who stressed the singing tone capability of the piano. In this first section, the composer offers the preponderance of material for the complete Waltz. Note that ornaments are played on the beat and with good directions in the editor’s annotations.

2) Continue by separately practicing the fundamental bass of the first section. (only the first beat of each measure, known as a “downbeat”) Draw each one out with a deep, resonant stroke.

3) Then play “after beat” chords only–the two sonorities following the downbeat. Isolate them from measure to measure and notice the voice leading. Knowing they are neighbor chords will make the jump from the downbeat bass notes seem less awesome. Lighten the third beat or chord in each measure. Approach with a flexible or spongy wrist. (The wrist is the great shock absorber)

4) Next play the downbeats followed by the after beat chords in each measure. Draw out the downbeats without poking at them. You want a rich bass, not an accented one.
The after beat chords should be lighter, as previously mentioned.

5) Finally, put hands together for the first section. The melody should be very singable and prominent. The fundamental bass gives the ground energy; the after beat chords fill in with colorful harmony. The balance between the melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords is very important.

Part II (Measures 16-24)
The same advice for part one applies here. Keep to the order of practicing separate hands, with an awareness of balance between right hand and left hand.
Notice that this part of the composition is more extemporaneous, and feels improvised. It begins in the Melodic form of A minor and lets go with a DOMINANT key arpeggio (E Major) If you’ve been conscientious about practicing arpeggios, this passage should not be too difficult to execute, but consider it a freely rendered figure and not meant to sound forced, regimented, or robotically played. Remember that the Romantic style is characterized by a sense of freedom and improvisation.

The next section is a return of the opening phrase in A Minor. (measures 25-32)
Follow the method of practicing separate hands, as introduced in the beginning of the work.

The Climax: Measures 33-40 The longest phrasing in the piece and in A MAJOR (The Parallel MAJOR) with a Forte dynamic.

Practice with the same parceled out approach as the beginning.

Finally the opening section returns in Measures 41 to 52 with a Codetta (small, modified ending) as the last line.

***

The Waltz played in tempo:

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/butterfly-by-edvard-grieg/

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Why Play Scales?

Scale practicing examples:

***
The Backdrop:

As a young piano student living in New York City, I remember my reluctance to prepare a mandatory scale each week for my lesson. In fact my first teacher had so many students, she always seemed to forget the scale she had assigned to me, so I remained happily in the key of C for most of the year. (Played on all white keys) Little did I know that C Major was a lot more challenging to practice than the keys of B, F# and C# Major that had nice, regular patterns of double and triple black notes that fit the longer fingers perfectly, with the thumbs meeting in between.

Frederic Chopin was known to teach these three black-key scales before all others. Think about how much easier it would have been for a sightless person to play these step-wise passages with braille-like elevated black notes in regular patterns, as opposed to a sea of white notes without reference points.

Now that I’ve grown up to be a piano teacher and you tube poster, I realize the importance of scale study in the growth and development of musicianship.

Scales are about the “feel” and geography of the keyboard. They are about shaping, phrasing, sculpting. Sometimes they’re practiced with catchy rhythms, crisp and detached (staccato) or as smooth and connected, freely spun out, rolling triplets. You can even reverse the direction of the fingers when practicing scales, having them lightheartedly dance together and apart, in shades of loud, soft, and in between. And you might bring out one voice over another, by drawing more intensity from the left hand, then reversing the process, giving the right hand its place in the sun.

Most importantly, scales help us understand where we are in a piece of music because they define the TONAL CENTER of a composition or a section of it.

I wish I had known about the famous Circle of Fifths when I was beginning my piano studies. The Circle maps out the progression of scales (Major and minor) in an orderly fashion with sharps acquired going clockwise, and flats in reverse. As a student moves from the Key of C, to G, to D, to A, etc. he/she learns not only the new sharp that is picked up in the clockwise journey but comes face to face with fingering adjustments that make the smooth playing of various scales more attainable.

Scales, in summary, are part and parcel of piano study and they feed in and out of the piano repertoire. What could be a better entree to the pieces we most cherish than to find the key they’re in, and dance through a few preliminaries.

Example of a Classical era Sonata by Mozart (first movement) permeated by a series of scales.

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Piano Lessons: The Two-Way Learning Process, Teaching Albertina, and her sister, Ilyana

First Lesson: “Flamenco” by Gillock (Early Intermediate Level)


Student: Albertina, age 10

This is a teacher/student musical exploration with the use of the second piano at the studio

The second piano provides a unique opportunity to share back and forth, provide rhythmic reinforcement when needed, and remind the student about what dynamics, phrase markings, legato, staccato articulations, etc. are noted in the music. As this particular lesson progressed over a 45 minute time span, the student had more opportunities to play the piece on her own and then to improve specific measures and phrases. She gained insights about the overall structure of the composition, its peak, contrasting middle section, and the requirement for an energetic and convincing accelerando (getting faster) with increased dynamic intensity to the end. The Latin flavor of the piece and its mood character, were important frames in the development of its interpretation.

With any teaching videos that have instructional footage of students, I require a parental signed release.

This piece is being prepared for an MTAC Festival recital planned for March 2011.

The Two Way Learning Process

I’m always grateful to my students for providing a lens into the music making process, and for creating mirror like images that benefit the teacher and pupil alike. From my perspective, sitting at the second piano, I can easily observe the movements, phrasing, articulation, comportment of the student as he or she plays, and then carefully examine what can be fine tuned and improved.

When I demonstrate a phrase for a student, the process is reversed, and he/she revisits a composition with some of my suggestions, but by no means is there a finality of interpretation. (Which doesn’t exist in the world of musical art) Learning is incremental and there are a diversity of ideas to be exchanged back and forth. These are the two way mirrors of learning and development.

Second Lesson: Ilyana plays Bastien’s “Taco Joe” (Level 1)

Ilyana, age 8, is a second year piano student and her older sister, Albertina has been studying with me for about two years longer. She is the student in the video, “Flamenco” by Gillock.

“Taco Joe” was a great treat piece for Ilyana. It was used to supplement Faber Piano Adventures. I liked the catchy Latin dance rhythm and the changes of register with contrasting dynamics. This particular sheet music solo turned out to be a real practicing motivator.

As learning played out in stages, Ilyana planned to perform “Taco Joe” at the Celebration Music Festival sponsored by MTAC in March. She had already played the piece at the Fall MTAC event, 2010, that was held at Fresno Piano.

Ilyana was very excited about making this videotape and her parents were also thrilled.

The use of the You Tube medium can advance teaching, reinforce learning, and help set learning goals.

Related blogs/videos
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/23/the-joy-of-teaching-piano-to-young-children-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/22/the-right-age-to-start-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/piano-instruction-five-finger-warm-ups-in-major-and-minor-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/more-piano-teaching-favorites-burgmullers-25-progressive-pieces-op-100/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/piano-instruction-tarentelle-by-burgmuller-video/

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

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The Joy of Teaching Piano to Young Children (Videos)

Starting a very young child on a musical journey is joyful, exciting and challenging. The first baby steps taken at the piano will be memorable for both teacher and student, so careful thought and preparation are needed.

At the very outset, I believe in nurturing an awareness of the singing tone and how it is created. In the most fortunate circumstance a child has a real acoustic piano to practice on at home in order to experiment with various tonal shades, timbres, “colors” that we explore at our lesson. This consciousness of what the instrument can elicit as we tap into the imagination and inhabit a universe of sound exploration, requires attentive and sensitive listening. This is where the teacher can be the magical guide. At this crucial point of engagement, lessons can take off in positive directions and bond the student to the whole creative musical process.

Singing is an activity universal to childhood and a teacher who taps into this celebration of musical expression, will go a long way toward imbuing what the singing tone is about as it applies to the piano. The goal will be to teach a child to “sing” through his fingers and shape a phrase as he or she would vocalize it.

Learning hand position formation is important at the beginning of study, and it is not rigid but gently round, with curved, not curled fingers. The teacher can gently nudge the student in a relaxed physical direction by suggesting the light embrace of a ripe plum in his palm. The consequences of squeezing it too tightly will be amusing to the child, but well taken.

While materials such as Faber Piano Adventures provide great launching pads for formal piano study, it is the teacher who has to translate all the notes and symbols in these primer method books into a language comprehensible to a child and his universe of play. The playground as music teacher is certainly a concept that applies to the piano lesson and its content for very young children.

Staccato notes suggest lighthearted images: students often imagine that they are bouncing on a trampoline, or listening to popcorn pop. They will spontaneously share an activity that is suggestive of crisp, detached, staccato notes. Run with it and enjoy!

When teaching the legato, (smooth and connected) singing tone, images of gliding on ice, floating clouds, rolling waves, inspire children to play expressively and not hammer out notes in a mechanical way. The flexible, “spongy” wrist is the great shock absorber, and it should be demonstrated as well as modeled.

To imbue a sense of a steady beat, the teacher can guide the student along with a very buoyant motion of her hands and arms, and NOT refer to a clock, or metronome. After all, the beat is a frame for the music which can bend with the breeze as phrases taper to their conclusion. It is never static and stultifying. Animated clapping exercises shared back and forth between teacher and student are always helpful.

There is a joy to teaching very young children, because imaginations can happily run wild and create a very exciting, inspiring space that both teacher and student can inhabit.

Kirsten Productions: Aviva Kirsten, video editor

http://www.teachstreet.com/teacher/shirley-kirsten

Cat related:
Aiden makes another appearance in this video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5MLPxKFl2c

Other Related:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/piano-instruction-five-finger-warm-ups-in-major-and-minor-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/piano-instruction-favorite-childrens-pieces-video/

For Toddlers and pre-schoolers before piano study is undertaken:

http://www.musictogether.com

American Orff-Schulwerk Association - Music and Movement Education
Music and movement teachers find in the Orff Schulwerk a total approach to fostering creativity and conveying musical knowledge and skills.

http://www.aosa.org/

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Teens, popular music then and now, Taylor Swift, throw in Five for Fighting “100 Years”

Today was by no means a first for me, a long-haired musician raised on Bach, Beethoven and Brahms teaching a teen some pop tunes by John Ondrasik and Taylor Swift while I sailed through the universe of “Liz on Top of the World” with another student. Videotaping portions of piano lessons was the natural result of these explorations. If nothing else, it had historical value.

I’d been born into the cosmos of popular music, a member of the Rock n’ Roll generation and my big brother Russ, four years older, plugged me into Alan Freed at the Paradise, Bill Haley and the Comets, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, and the Everly Brothers, among others. The music of this era could be movingly Romantic, especially the ballads. Presley singing, “Love Me Tender,” a tear jerker, and the Penguins crooning “Earth Angel,” a lilting, bittersweet melody, filled with heartfelt emotion.

Melody permeated the most rhythmically driven songs, like “Rock Around the Clock!” And “Little Darlin,'” another ear grabber, drew me instantly into its harmonically engaging universe beside its catchy banjo strumming beat.

Many of these “pop” favorites intermingled with the great Classical works of the piano literature, making me quite a well-rounded listener. It was well before my musical preferences were set in stone. Throw in Peter Seeger, Marais and Miranda, Edie Piaf (“The Street Singer”), Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and all the marvelous musical theater selections from Brigadoon, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, and I was in seventh heaven!

In the late 50’s, Van Cliburn was riding the crest of his victory in Moscow, performing his winning selection, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in Bb minor, a victory that inspired a ticker tape parade down Wall Street. I was in the throes of a full-fledged crush on him. Meanwhile, my teenage peers were exchanging “Kookie, Lend me Your Comb” pics, casting me out of their inner circle. They wanted their real friends to conform, sharing the initiation rite of fainting in the presence of heart-throb, Fabian. Or later, it was the Beatles.

I loved the Beatles, but not in the same way my peers did. “Yesterday” was for me a melancholy, heart stopper. “Hey Jude,” rocked in the Gospel style. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” had the surreal, contemporary sound with amazing, lush, sometimes dissonant sonority. I knew nothing of the LSD connection, and it didn’t matter because my love for the music prevailed. In truth, I tuned out the words of a song in my personal listening experience, but I was amazed me by how my brother and his friends memorized all the lyrics of a particular favorite, regarding words at the focus of their appreciation. I wanted to feel the melodic and harmonic contour to the exclusion of all else.

My brother had also been exploring Classical, Romantic and Expressionist music during his intense Rock ‘n Roll phase. For hours he would blast LPs of Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Rimsky Korsakov’s the “Easter Overture,” Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played on our modest phonograph. These works were his obsessions alongside Alan Freed’s rambling radio commentary.

So it was not surprising that I would emerge from my childhood and adolescence with a propensity to love a diverse menu of music that included popular, ballad, folk, symphonic, and anything that communicated a memorable melody and compelling harmonic mosaic.

Flash forward: Today, Allyse, a 16 year old high school junior at Clovis North, practiced “100 Years” by John Ondrasik, and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always” in a slow and steady tempo at my home studio.

She had brought both these favorite pieces to me a few months ago, desperately wanting to learn them. Her older brother, Alex, likewise dropped off “Liz On Top of the World” from Pride and Prejudice which I had to finger and practice in short order.

Both of these endearing piano students were members of the NOW generation, separated from me by decades. Yet despite our age difference, we were on the same page, practicing music that had meaning and evoked emotion. That’s what brought us together.

Roll the video!