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Piano Instruction: The Virtues of Slow Motion Practicing and Attentive Listening

It takes patience to approach a piece well behind tempo, tuning in to every nuance and turn of phrase. With ears alert and sensitive, the player tries to create a feeling state where he’s submerged in sound to the exclusion of all else. At the pinnacle of concentration, he’s “in the zone,” attaining Maslow’s “peak experience.”

A practicing Utopia, for sure.

In reality, most piano students, especially the younger ones, race to the instrument when they can–sandwiching in twenty or so minutes between sports practice and homework time. (Don’t forget the quick snack on the run) And when they finally sit down in front of an assigned page of music, they’re stressed, hurried, and far from having presence of mind.

In a frenzied state, the pupil races through a scale or piece, gets trapped in a note, stops, and immediately lunges to play everything over. The results are predictable. The same crashes and new problems.

Adult students, equally stressed out by their busy and crowded work schedules, might come to a lesson so wired, that it takes the first twenty minutes of lesson time to slow them down. And the key word is slow.

In our technological age with high speed connections encompassing all communications, to think below the radar screen at a more relaxed pace is not considered a virtue. Everyone wants to depress a key and move on to the next image or application.

In the practicing environment this fast and furious rate of transition will not apply because piano study demands a parceled, step-wise approach to each piece that has its own unique learning curve. You can’t bundle it, stamp it and send it off perfectly packaged with an overnight deadline. Operating in the Beat the Clock mode is counter-productive.

SLOWING DOWN and savoring each note is true gratification, not delayed or postponed, unless the player believes that rushing achieves something better, and I can guarantee that in most instances, it doesn’t. In this “connection,” students will insist that they can play a piece well very fast but not slowly. Having heard the results of a briskly played piece that hadn’t had a step-wise, graduated preliminary approach in slow motion, I found that phrases were not shaped, depth into keys was lacking, and the music whizzed by without making an emotional impression. That’s not to mention, starts and stops caused by slap dash fingerings.

So what does slow motion, attentive practicing involve and accomplish?

1) It requires relaxation, and a calm, patient, non-judgmental frame of mind.

2) It presumes an acceptance of where the player is, without a value attached. Not knowing a piece as yet with a firm knowledge should usher in a period of wide-eyed exploration, ear opening, and full body awareness. Evelyn Glennie, percussionist, said it well. “Whole body listening” is the desired paradigm for music learning and expression.

3) An attentive listener molds phrases in slow motion with an underlying beat that is steady but sized down. He gets “in touch” with shapes and contours that would otherwise elude him. The finger tips, wrist, elbows and arms form a continuum of uninterrupted motion. The player tunes in to what it “feels” like to achieve a comfortable depth into the keys, sensing his connection to each and every note while dynamics are explored with weight transfer and a supple wrist. “Muscular memory,” a concept I will explore in another writing, has its best chance to take hold and permeate each and every practice session in a relaxed tempo environment.

4) Slow motion practicing gives ample space and time to assign fingerings that realize what is notated in the music. Experimentation with different fingerings gives a clearer idea of what best realizes a smooth, legato line, a crisp staccato section or a combination of both.

5) In a relaxed time frame, a student can study individual voices, shape and balance them, and be aware of their melodic and harmonic dimensions.

6) Playing well behind tempo means that time is suspended, and there are no deadlines to meet. This should reinforce a presence of mind that allows for information to flow into consciousness, be processed and then synthesized with the affective way of knowing. (emotional expression)

7) Achieving “oneness” with the piano, is part of the slowing-down process. Breathing long breaths as phrases unfold, and experimenting with breath control at cadences help nudge a student into the “zone,” at the peak of musical gratification.

Slow, whole body, attentive listening lays down the foundation for advancing tempo when the right time comes, not one note too soon. It should be a joyous and pleasurable journey when it begins and as it progresses along.

Recommended: Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase

Video: Evelyn Glennie on “Whole Body Listening”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU3V6zNER4g

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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.

Examples:

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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The MTAC Celebration Festival, Anna Magdalena Bach, and Meeting Keith Snell (VIDEO)

Last weekend I journeyed to the Fresno State University Music Building to monitor Room 1 for the Celebration Festival sponsored by the Fresno branch of the Music Teachers Association of California.

Every February students from our city and surrounding areas are invited to play one or two pieces in a selected cubicle, (basically a music department practice room) that serves as a mini stage beside an audience of one. A branch teacher sits nearby with a simple evaluation form, jots down notes about each performance, and renders an overall rating of “Fair” to “Superior.” Each category has assigned points.

“Excellent” and “Superior” ratings bestow a handsome engraved Medallion, while only those earning “Superiors” play on one of many ongoing Honors recitals that are scheduled over the course of two weekend days. No one goes home empty handed. Lovely grand piano pins are more than a booby prize.

This year I had ten participating students, and most received the coveted Medallion that was tightly embraced like an Oscar, minus the heart-wrenching acceptance speech.

Nayelli, age 10, managed to eek out a “Superior” for her dazzling Performance of “The Juggler” by Faber, Lesson Book One. And with her honor came the hot news that rippled through my studio like lightning. First thing I heard from Sakura and Mai, two sisters who’d performed selections by J.S. and J.C. Bach at the Festival, was that “Nayelli” had scored a victory at the mini musical Olympiad. While all three students proudly wore their colorful ribbons with attached medals, the HONORS recital appearance seemed to carry the most prestige.

While I enjoyed swishing down the hallway from time to time with envelopes delivered to the front registration desk from an adjudicating teacher, I was most excited by a serendipitous event that occurred in the break room where mounds of croissants and bowls of fruit awaited Festival helpers.

Who should turn up but Keith Snell, composer, performer, and editor of the very prestigious Fundamentals of Theory course, not to mention a host of other publications including Selections from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook.

Snell’s Anna Magdalena edition was definitely a significant improvement over Schirmer’s, the mainstay of most piano teachers back in the 50’s and 60’s.


http://www.keithsnellpianist.com/bio.html

By a quirk of fate, I’d been practicing a few Minuets and Marches from the collection, and appreciated Snell’s thoughtful editing. Teaching these pieces to fledgling students was made easier by having enlightened phrase marks, intelligent fingerings, and a dynamic landscape that conformed with the style of the Baroque era.

But I wondered what this renowned individual was doing in Fresno? I would have tied his visit to judging a local solo competition.

I quickly learned that Keith had moved to the Valley and was actively involved in our Branch’s diverse musical activities. On the side, he flew out of the area to his sanctuary in England with stop-offs in other European venues–the life of a jet setting musician.

Following our convivial conversation, I paused to hear Nayelli play “The Juggler” in the big university recital hall before returning to my monitor post in Room 1.

The Festival ended at 4:30 p.m. while students trickled home with their awards.

By Thursday following Celebration 2011, I had already received a thick manila envelop with Certificates, and detailed performance reviews to share with my students. All but one had received an Excellent or Superior rating, which showed a curve of improvement since last February’s MTAC Celebration.

In any case, my pupils plan to be back next year, each one hoping to earn a coveted gold cup worth a minimum of 15 points. It may not be an Oscar to most, but for these kids, it comes pretty close.

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Domenico Scarlatti Sonata (Toccata) in D minor, K. 141 with reams of repeated notes (VIDEO)

Domenico Scarlatti never fails to come up with a flashy pyrotechnical escapade that can make or break a player in progress. I know, because I’ve walked the plank with this piece until I was able to reverse my fortune and run with it happily into the horizon. Any number of times those repeated notes, cross hands, whatever, ruled me like a slave, and I had to earn my freedom with a commitment to slow and steady practice. Still, I would never be satisfied with the end result. That’s the way it is with an art form. You really never arrive, but just approach a goal with more success than expected.

How to stack the odds in your favor:

FIRST PRACTICE SEPARATE hands, very slowly. (use RH fingers 3,2,1, 3, 2, 1) except in measure 10: 1,3,2,1,2,1 Know the Harmonic progressions in the BASS.. Label all the secondary dominants, and notice their sequential pattern.

When played in tempo, the repeated notes should be executed in groups of ONE and not THREE. It goes so fast at Presto speed, that anyone daring to take it on better think in circles and not squares. And I mean that literally. Don’t forget to breathe and think slowly through fast paced 16th notes. Opposites attract.

Think flamenco guitar, vibrant Spanish rhythms and you’re off to a flying start. Most of all, ENJOY the passion of this masterpiece and let it SOAR!!

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

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/domenico-scarlatti-sonata-in-a-k-113-i-found-another-pair-of-hands-video/

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The Big Baroque Festival!

I cleared most of my Saturday morning lessons so I could be on time for a special rehearsal at Fresno State. I took no chances given the steady rain these past few days that caused dangerously deep puddles along Shaw Avenue. The inevitable flow of traffic to crowd-jamming Bulldog games would also be a time delayer. (What season were we in?) My ignorance reminded me of the time I inadvertently scheduled a student recital on Superbowl Sunday. I had booked Northwest Chapel well in advance for a particular weekend afternoon, and naturally a specific Sunday in February was the only one available. Not a mystery with all the sports hoopla engulfing the city of Fresno. Since a pile of tailgate parties had to be canceled on account of my recital, the inconvenience cost me 4 students. And by coincidence, these kids all lived on the BLUFFS, a pseudo wealthy northwest enclave where homes overlooked a custom contrived pasture. (I noticed similar landscapes along my weekly train route to the Bay) It appeared that almost every city had set aside acres for panoramic views of a deep, expansive ditch decorated with trees, a few roaming horses, and some wild dogs chasing a few rodents that needed easy disposal) Here in Fresno there had been a fever pitch rush to buy such properties on the newly fabricated hills back in the late 80’s. (But I often wondered if the people hawking these houses, realized that a chugging, whistle blowing train would whiz by at frequent intervals, turning their dream homes into railroad flats)

***

Despite the fact that these Bluffs parents were put off by my recital scheduling on the day of a mega sports event, they still managed to show up for their kiddies’ concert with a variety of television hook-ups. Since iPhones had not yet arrived, I wished I had brought my camcorder to videotape some of the instant replay videotaping going on. No joke. The unpleasant distractions virtually ruined all of my students’ performances.

***

Flash forward: Thank God, today’s musical event at the university didn’t compete with football mania. (I happily reminded myself that the Superbowl came and went)

A high brow Baroque Festival sponsored by the Music Teachers Association of California had been planned in the afternoon, and one of my ten-year old students eagerly participated. The event had a competitive edge because only 1/3 of the entrants would be selected to go on to the Regional recital. In simple terms, those who were picked in this round by two esteemed out of town judges, would play in March at an Honors performance. It came with a Certificate of recognition and a handsome medallion. Not exactly an Olympic event, but for some keyed up students, it was a good comparison.

For starters, at 11:30 a.m. my student and I met at the concert hall to test out the stage piano.

Just last week, I had nearly died, thinking I missed my student’s run through, because a mistake was made in the announcement put out by the local music teachers association. Or maybe it was last year’s flier that got sandwiched into my branch’s Yearbook with an erroneous date of 2011 instead of 2010. Naturally, with the old dating, the February Festival would have been past history along with me.

What a relief to have come back from hell this week with another shot at being this kid’s teacher. Close call.

Today this very talented youngster performed two Bach Inventions weeks after she had appeared faceless on You Tube demonstrating her technical prowess. With only her HANDS on camera, she was put through grueling technical paces, playing every scale and arpeggio known to mankind. A bit of an exaggeration, but used to give her credit for hanging in there with a camcorder gaping over her shoulder.

Here’s a snatch of her anonymously rendered keyboard agility:

(Note that one of the pianos on video was waiting for a tuning, while the other had just received one. Hence, the warbling between them.)

In any event, the formerly invisible student, finally emerged with a face attached to her name, along with an assigned number that followed her to the Walberg concert hall stage that was equipped with a 9 foot size Yamaha.

Incidentally, last year I had learned a mighty lesson about Festival pianos and warming up. Mistakenly, I permitted a student to practice on a small upright piano in one of the university’s cubicles after she had tried out the concert hall’s concert grand. The diminutive practice size instrument had a very light action by comparison to the house piano’s resistant touch, so when my pupil played the first few notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata on stage, they totally disappeared. Naturally, she was caught by surprise and remembered the most recent piano she had tried. Live and learn.

The atmosphere at today’s Festival, or COMPETITION, was superficially low keyed. Everyone was supposed to be celebrating the age of the Baroque without a second thought, and I guess I should have joined in the fireworks, or the candle lighting ceremony but neither took place.

In preparation for the ordeal, or golden opportunity, however one wanted to spin it, I gave my student a copy of Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase and told her to meditate over several selected, underlined passages.

I made sure to recommend my favorite mantra:
“To be a pianist, in one sense of the word, is to think that a daddy long legs on the window sill is dancing to your playing; it is to think that the breeze came through the window just to talk to your music; it is to feel that one phrase loves another; it is to think that the tree is a teacher of the tranquility you need in your playing. It is to know a loneliness crowded with the beautiful as you play.”

These words had worked like magic with another student who had made it to the Regional recital two years ago. In honor of her sterling playing, I had framed a picture of her holding a Certificate and wearing the medallion. But by far the truest memento of her 2009 Baroque Festival appearance, was a DVD that captured a portion of her “live” performance.

Here’s the c minor fugue from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Book I coming from Fresno State University’s concert hall. (excuse the raw footage with some sound irregularities)

PS An in depth documentary is in progress about what transpired at the MTAC sponsored Baroque Festival. In the meantime, winners will be alerted by email on Sunday Feb. 20, 2011 so the suspense is killing most of the participants.

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Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in A, K. 113–in leaps and bounds

I can always use an extra pair of hands to navigate the Baroque composer’s technically challenging sonata

It’s a real workout playing Domenico Scarlatti’s essercizi or sonatas. The impossible leaps, crossed hands, trills and syncopation that permeate the composer’s music require a daredevil to take on the challenge.

Scarlatti will sometimes defy a player to jump over 4 octaves (32 notes) with one finger in the left hand landing safely over the right, and in reverse, in rapid sequence. Safely, means, managing to find the correct note and not fumble. (A sports related spectacle)

But it’s not just a single note that has to zing in. A steady stream of 8 or more measures of hand over hand means the fingers have to reach their intended target at break neck speed. Try Allegrissimo, one of the fastest tempos in music, with Prestissimo being a close rival. In this time zone, you’re hearing your heart fibrillate.

Being a fool and chance taker all in one, I decided to go into the acrobatic arena and throw fate to wind.
It was late evening, almost time to surrender to the ghost of Scarlatti, paying homage to his virtuoso school of keyboard playing.

Putting aside all the technical demands the composer made on the player, he produced music that was pure joy with its gypsy laments, echoes of castanets, tambourines, flamenco guitars, and folkloric melodies.

Born in Naples, Domenico Scarlatti had relocated to Spain and became an employ in the Court of Madrid. In this capacity, he absorbed Spanish cultural elements that filtered directly into his compositions that were originally written for harpsichord.

Sonata in A Major, K. 113 is one of approximately 550, composed in two part binary form.

The great virtuoso pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, who championed the music of Domenico Scarlatti, talked about “fire and ice” dualities in approaching technically challenging war horse pieces.

He more than hinted that Scarlatti was a giant in his own time who produced monumental compositions.

In fact, Horowitz owned a copy of a book, whose author quoted Chopin on the subject of Scarlatti. (From Stephen P. Mizwa’s bio of Chopin)

“My colleagues, the piano teachers, are dissatisfied that I am teaching Scarlatti to my pupils. But I am surprised that they are so blind. In his music there are exercises in plenty for the fingers and a good deal of lofty spiritual food. If I were not afraid of incurring disfavor of many fools, I would play Scarlatti in my concerts. I maintain there will come a time when Scarlatti will often be played in concerts, and people will appreciate and enjoy him.”

Horowitz held up the book with a smile, believing that Chopin’s prophecy had been fulfilled.

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Grieg’s music survived a failing lithium battery!

I was about to throw my camcorder across the room as the supposedly fully charged battery was flickering and about to shut down! There was no reason for the cam to go on strike, especially within minutes of Evan’s arrival. He was the last piano student of the day, and had just entered my studio while I awkwardly fumbled with the power button hoping for a miraculous recharge.

Evan had been very excited about making a You Tube after a stream of my students had made their screen debuts, calling all their friends to watch. It was getting contagious. Even the primer level kids wanted to pump out a few simple melodies while smiling at the camera.

Thank God, I noticed the cam coming back to life with a steady flow of electrical current, all set to give Evan his 800 megabytes of fame!

The video had to be planned carefully. Evan would play Grieg’s “Elfin Dance” twice: once behind tempo and then in speed. Any other haphazard approach would not produce good results.

I always told Evan and other students that piano playing was about control, how to pace yourself, breathe through your phrases, and stay emotionally connected. Vladimir Horowitz, the great pianist referred frequently to “fire and ice” emotional states when performing the big virtuoso war horse compositions of Liszt and Rachmaninoff.

The Grieg piece that Evan had prepared, was  suggestive of elves prancing around in dark caves, so I advised him to  preserve the motion of buoyant staccato notes throughout this work by playing all measures rhythmically in ONE instead of counting out three distinct beats per measure. This would keep the piece bristling with energy and shaped nicely.

After an initial fumble, Evan got grooved and settled in. In the end, he turned out a fine performance without hesitation. Trouble was, after I shouted “FANTASTIC” in response to his playing, I discovered through a re-wind and replay that my fat head had been blocking out Evan for most of his performance!  What a price to pay for not checking the camera angle before we had started recording.

Alas it had been one of those unlucky days when a failing lithium battery was an omen of things to come.

The blow by blow video journey:

Evan’s performance was uploaded to You Tube at 9:15 p.m. and would be posted if it didn’t suffer any pangs of misfortune overnight.

zzzzzzzzzzzz…..

At 6:01 a.m. “Elfin Dance” was safely posted on my channel, but it was touch and go. For some reason the video processing lagged significantly behind the upload, so Grieg’s elves were frozen in time.

What brought these impish characters suddenly back to life was not within my ability to explain.

Despite the dim lighting and obstructive camera views, Grieg’s music managed to squeak through! Bravo, Evan!!

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