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To use or not to use a Metronome in the piano studio

There’s no doubt that one of the biggest challenges in teaching piano students of all ages is imbuing a rhythmic or metrical consciousness.

In my experience, younger students, especially, at the primer level of study, want to race off like there’s no tomorrow. They might begin a piece in a steady rhythmic frame but succumb to a certain impetuousness at any point in their playing, finishing more quickly than they had started. The beat has gone out the window before it had a chance to stick around and make a friendly impact on the music.

Many adult students as well as pupils of all ages, seem to have a universal resistance to sustaining a unifying beat in their scales, arpeggios, and pieces, and as a teacher, I’ve grappled time and again with how to fix the problem.

First off, I’m opposed to using a metronome to treat any student with rhythmic issues. It’s because the device produces robotic pulses that have little relationship to the organic flow of musical phrases. Perhaps the metronome would keep good company with a generator like the one I’d seen onstage during a Milton Babbitt concert at the Oberlin Conservatory. I recall the little old ladies turning down their hearing aids, and individually filing out of rows during the contemporary festival, nick-named the “contemptible” festival because of the droning, impersonal music of that particular era. A synthesized beat went along with it.

To catch up with a metronome every measure or so requires that all energy be directed in that pursuit, rather than permitting the music, with its natural ebb and flow, to permeate the consciousness. (Think about what the metronome would do to a Chopin Nocturne where tempo rubato–a form of relaxed time, is intrinsic to the composer’s style)

As one remedy for rhythmic uncertainty, a teacher can conduct as a student plays, but without instilling a “metronomic” beat. She can help to shape a line and its underlying pulse with her voice intoning beats while assisting with her hands and arms. She can enlist a student to sing “beats” with her, as he plays. If she can help frame music without stultifying its flow, she has gone a long way to liberate it from the shackles of any stringent time calculator.

For pieces with a combination of quarters and eighths, for instance, a teacher can sub-divide the larger note value by inserting ands following the principle beats. But the same rhythmic ambivalence can occur, unless the expanded beats are spaced, breathed through, and not crowded into a tiny space. A metronome will not remedy faulty sub-divided beat counting any more than it did when ticking off primary pulses.

I’ve watched some of the greatest teachers in filmed sequences, working with advanced students, and on a rhythmic level they not only demonstrated phrases vocally, but they conducted, and simultaneously intoned syllables.

Conductors steer orchestras in desired directions with all kinds of syllabic babbling. I tend to fall into this vernacular when I teach, and I’m convinced that it’s helpful.

In an initial warm-up of the five fingers, where a pupil plays up and down in steps from quarters, to 8ths, to 16ths, I start with sub-divided counting, but inevitably when arriving at 16ths, I sing, double-eedle twodeleedle, threedeleedle, fourdeleedle and it holds the music together.

In a scale of four octaves in rapid 32nd notes, I might encourage a student to think in larger groupings of notes, perhaps in a sequence of 8s, so as not to encourage TYPED out playing. In this instance I would also intone syllables rather than numeric beats.

If I do this enough times over the course of weeks and months, the student naturally absorbs the routine by osmosis. He internalizes a rhythmic frame.

Since children, in particular, learn language by this very same process of mimicry and assimilation, it’s probable that rhythmic cohesiveness can be conditioned by an adult early in the learning process.

When I think of tribes in Africa, where complex rhythms and meters produced by native percussion instruments are transmitted from generation to generation without metronomes, I have my answer.

In general, students who have difficulty with rhythmic unity can benefit from teaching that encourages relaxation; focuses on the flow of notes in a melodic and harmonic context, and reinforces resilient beats. Each of these pulses must of necessity blend with the form and content of music.

Where a teacher sings and conducts through an adagio (a very slow movement) of a composition, she may encourage a flowing pulse, that would not apply to a brisk and cheerful Rondo. The character of a movement or composition would also dictate the type of beat that would underlie it.

I’m sure there are many fine piano teachers who use metronomes and believe in their efficacy. Though I might not be a proponent of its use in the studio except when needed to consult on the overall tempo of a piece, I’m all ears when it comes to receiving other opinions.

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/the-metronome-a-blessing-or-curse/

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Piano Instruction: Learning the F# minor scale (video)

I made this video after plunking the “devil” beside Bb Major in my previous blog, so if you review the basic approach in that post, you’ll get my sway about scales in general. It’s always better to think in GROUPS rather than individual notes.

For F# minor in its Natural or PURE form, let’s cut to the chase:

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

It’s related to its daddy or mommy, “A” Major (depending on your gender classification preference) so it contains THREE SHARPS: F#, C# and G#

In all Natural Minors, there are half steps between scale degrees 2 and 3, and 5 and 6.

Note the fingering adjustment at the very beginning in the Right Hand only.

Play the first two notes F# and G# with RH fingers 2 and 3
(In the video, I explain why)

The Left Hand uses fingers 4 and 3 on the same notes (F# and G#)

In every subsequent octave, the sequence of F# to G# will be played as MIRROR fingers (LH: 4,3 RH: 3,4) so it’s a great idea to chunk these groups across the piano, remembering to cap the scale at the top with fingers 3 in both hands on F#.

The chunking should be UP and DOWN to four octaves.

These notes should also be chunked across the keyboard (4 octave model) A, B (LH 2,1 RH 1,2) MIRROR Fingerings

AND

D, E (LH 2,1 RH 1,2 ) MIRROR Fingerings

3’s meet on C# in both hands after the initial intro into the scale with the adjustment fingering previously mentioned.

Pinpoint these 3’s on C# and travel across the keyboard up and down.

The last step is chunking all pertinent note groups with the inserted finger no. 3 points on C#.. Just make sure to cap the scale with 3’s in both hands and to end the scale coming down with the adjusted fingering (RH..3 to 2, G# to F#)

Above and beyond the groupings enumerated, I tend to focus my attention on the F#, G# portions of the scale as these are raised notes in pairs, so I pivot toward them as the
core of this 4-octave step-wise progression.

Finally practice the scale with a Legato touch–smooth, connected at a MF dynamic (Medium Loud)

quarters 2 octaves
8ths 2 octaves
triplets 3 octaves
16ths 4 octaves
Follow with a pair of staccato 16ths to 4 octaves (medium loud MF/mp)

For more advanced students, add 32nd notes, legato/staccato

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/why-play-scales/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/the-most-reviled-scale-for-piano-players/

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

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/from-chords-to-gym-and-back-you-tube-video/

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

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The most reviled scale for piano players!! (Video)

Bb C D Eb F G A Bb C D Eb F G A Bb

***

Last night I had a rap session with a student on the subject of his favorite scale. And it quickly dawned on me that this whole area of discussion, while definitely out of the mainstream and not a life or death issue, might be worth a survey.

Did I hear myself right?

If, for example, I asked myself what scale was the most difficult to teach, it would be a no brainer: Bb Major, resoundingly!!

In talking with myriads of pupils that have come through my studio over the years, the overwhelming consensus was that Bb Major had been a finger tripper, if not a confidence crusher.

But why? It only contains TWO FLats, Bb and Eb!

One student called it the “daddy long legs” scale because of its many strands, ins and outs, with a glaring absence of black key patterns to hold it together.

Well said: B, F#, and C# Major and their “enharmonic” equivalents in FLATS (Cb, Gb and Db) are a piece of cake by comparison despite their generous content of black notes. At least the thumbs meet between the double and triple black keys which use mirror fingers. (Easy to “chunk” or block out during practice routines)

Bb Major is another story

In fact when playing Bb Major with two hands, the only place the same fingers land on a common note is on G, the sixth tone into the scale, hardly the CORE of this step-wise progression. So when the 2’s land on G, one hardly notices it. In fact that very spot can be a finger-trapper because of what precedes and follows. A student might consider himself lucky to make it to G in the first place, let alone with the correct fingers along the way, in sequence.

Because the internal “organizers” of this scale are few and far between, and on the surface non-existent except for the G already mentioned, the brain has to come up with a different way to piece it together.

Suggestions:

First think of this scale as having a symmetry in its asymmetry?

(Would Shakespeare have been amused with this play on words?)

In Twelfth Night, He nobly said, “If music be the Food of Love, play on..”
(But would he have known in the 17th Century, that Bb Major might have ruined his love banquet)

To salvage the ruins and restore a modicum of love for the Bb scale, consider the following:

Begin the scale on Bb using finger no. 3 in both hands. (At least you think this scale will be a piece of cake with an easy start like this, and having the right frame of mind is half the battle)

Next, notice the second and third notes into the scale which are C and D..
Between the hands, there are MIRROR images of the fingers that play these notes.

In the Right Hand C has finger number 1 (thumb) and D, finger 2
In the Left Hand C has finger number 2 and D finger 1

Everyone loves a MIRROR when prepared to look at it.
(Think 1,2/2,1)

Just wait, it gets better:

Eb is the fourth note into the scale:
In the Right hand, use finger 3
In the Left hand, use finger 4

If you say, 3 over 4 enough times you realize there’s a happy reconciliation between the two numbers–at least they’re chronological.

The good news is we have just accounted for the second black note or flat in this scale, but we had deceived ourselves into believing the very first flat (Bb) would always have common 3’s in each hand.

When Bb comes back again, right at the scale PEAK as the 8th note, before it goes into the second octave,

the Right hand uses finger 4
the Left hand uses finger 3

A REVERSAL OF FORTUNE–oops, I meant the opposite of what happened with Eb

Reminder, Eb uses 3 in the Right hand
Eb uses 4 in the Left hand

Bb uses 4 in the Right Hand
Bb uses 3 in the Left Hand

In every subsequent octave, the player just needs to keep track of Bb and Eb, thinking chronological number reversals in both places.

The numbers 3 and 4, therefore are the biggies
If one hand has 3 on a black note, the other must have 4

So keeping track of just TWO BLACK NOTE FLATS is not too big a serving for most who are willing to give the scale a second chance.

Finally there are THREE notes, unaccounted for in the GROUP context.
And they are F, G, A

We already tagged G as having common finger number 2 between the hands, but that’s not enough to pull this scale together.

The brain prefers to think in groups or chunks:

So think of F,G,A, which are the remaining notes, as having a MIRROR fingering between the hands

In the Right hand F uses 1; G uses 2 and A uses 3
In the Left hand F uses 3; G uses 2 and A uses 1

Summary for F, G, A
1, 2, 3 over 3, 2, 1

Practice routines:
1) Isolate all the Bbs after the first introductory one, and play with both hands (RH 4 over LH 3) Use the 4 octave model.

2) Isolate all the Ebs across the keyboard with both hands
(RH 3 over LH 4)

3) Chunk or BLOCK all the C, Ds (RH 1,2, LH 2,1) Reminder: 4 octave model

4) Chunk all the F, G, A’s (RH 1,2, 3 LH 3,2,1)

5) Finally Play the flats, followed by the chunks until you reach the last note (Bb)

6) Note the 4 finger roll-out in the Right Hand at the conclusion of the scale, going up: F G A Bb (1,2,3,4)
Get used to ending the scale on 4 in the RH.

Time to play it straight (in Legato-smooth and connected) with the following rhythms with MF dynamic (medium loud)

Two Octaves: quarters
Two Octaves: 8ths
Three Octaves: Triplets
Four Octaves: 16ths
Four Octaves: staccato 16ths (medium loud/medium soft)

For more advanced students, add 32nds Legato/staccato MF/mp

While mathematical strategies assist in navigating a scale in the course of learning process, above and beyond these numerical twists and turns, the rendering of a scale must be musical, with a permeating singing tone, and internal shaping.

It’s the teacher’s job to illuminate the dimensions or properties of a scale, and subsequently integrate them into a whole.

Please share your favorite or most challenging scale.

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/why-play-scales/

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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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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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Practicing Bach Inventions 4 and 13 with my 10 year old piano student

We had fun videotaping part of a lesson from a different camera angle. My student and I sat in front of our separate pianos, collaborating on two Bach Inventions. (Number 4 in D minor and number 13 in A minor)

In the first segment, my pupil is playing through the d minor Invention, mostly on her own, with some teacher input and demonstration.

The second part offers a slow rendering of the A minor Invention as a duet between student and teacher–the playing is intentionally behind tempo to flesh out the main subject as it weaves between the right hand and left.
***
I’ve included my separate performance of this composition that is in tempo.

All the two-part Inventions have a dialog or counterpoint between voices that require the performer’s attention to detail.

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Mozart Rondo: Allegretto K. 545, Performance and Analysis

Performance:

Analysis:

The Rondo, more often than not, is the form used in the last movement of a Classical era Sonata. (The Classical period roughly encompasses the years between 1750 and 1830) The Rondo is usually a brisk, lively and energetic movement that brings a sonata to a definitive conclusion. It is in the home key of the piece.

In the Sonata, K. 545, Mozart composes a light-hearted final (third) movement evocative of the Opera Buffa, or comic opera.

Form: A B A C A Coda

The “A” section, or Rondo in the bright C Major tonality, with a two eighth note short upbeat to a slightly more prolonged 8th note downbeat is the basic motif of the movement, and will come back interspersed with a B and a C section. The “B” section is in the Dominant key of G Major, while the “C” section goes into the Relative minor ( A minor) This A minor section has a Development-like character, and is more prolonged as it delightfully meanders and then winds its way back to the Rondo “A” section that is in the home key of C Major.

In the A minor or “C” section, Mozart uses an inversion of thirds to 6ths, and dances from one hand to the other, with inverted counterpoint. (He flips over the voices, so that the listener experiences the motif or Rondo idea in the bass range, with a 16th decoration in the Treble and in reverse) The devices of inverted intervals and inverted counterpoint are significant characteristics of this “C” section of the final movement.

Through a pivot chord, using A minor, as a double identity Vi chord in C Major going to its Dominant, G B D, the movement weaves its way back to the “A” section Rondo in C Major followed by a Coda (added concluding section) using Dominant and Tonic progressions in broken chord fashion to the very last splash of articulated, unisons that bring the movement to a resounding, and definitive ending. At the end of this work, I feel like I’m in the orchestra pit, conducting those last measures as the curtain goes down in the opera.

Feedback is always appreciated. If you have ideas to share about this effervescent movement, please post.

Links to Piano Instruction first movement (in three parts)

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/piano-instruction-harmonic-rhythm-and-phrasing-part-1-mozart-sonata-in-c-k-545/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/piano-instruction-part-two-harmonic-rhythm-and-phrasing-mozart-sonata-in-c-k-545/

Second movement, Analysis and Instruction:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/piano-instruction-second-movement-mozart-sonata-in-c-major-k-545-video/