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Revisiting an old piano piece learned years earlier

I find my current musical journey down memory lane to be joyful and challenging–especially as I cut and paste the Mozart Rondo: Allegro, K. 311 pages to fit comfortably on the piano rack. (Deja Vu, Haydn C Major Hoboken XVI35–Haydn pinned and unpinned)

I wrote to a musician friend during the height of my frustration. “This undertaking is far more complex than the former because my Mozart Sonata Urtext edition, Breitkopf and Hartel, has enormously big pages. Therefore, I must figure out a way, to fraction them, ply them, add parts of measures on my printer/copier, then attach, and re-attach.”

My shabby efforts produced the following:

Mozart Rondo K. 311 2

As comic relief I summarized the process:

“This is the most flagrant cut and paste job to date—the Urtext oversize led to one hour of fidgeting, fumbling, frantic fastening, failing, flailing, faltering, framing—piecing, plying, pairing, pressing, taping, tying and crying. What a waste of time!

“Now I have to memorize the first 2 pages–because even with the taping, tying, plying and sighing, there’s just no room to read across.”

Despite this tangential escapade, I’m drawn back down to earth, believing, if you lay a solid foundation in your earliest learning effort, then a revisit will tap into familiar landmarks, making your review more smooth sailing than you might expect.

Case in point.. Mozart K. 311, the very first sonata my teacher, Lillian Freundlich gave me to study–and one I’d waxed poetic about in my “Sentimental Journey” posting.

What I had learned about learning in my first sonata encounter, aided my re-connection.

1) Phrasing–first movement–Allegro con moto
Freundlich parceled out one or two measures–drawing 16ths back to quarters.. deep in the keys approach
Then moved to 8ths in doublets or pairs, finally extending out to 16ths..it was rhythmic groupings in synch a singing tone moved the piece into an artistic rendering, rather than a typewritten framing.

Incidentally, the singing tone, not surface, key skimming was my teacher’s conception of the Mozartean voice.

AND SLOW MOTION PRACTICE was at the core of developing and shaping all passage work.

2) FINGERING–good decisions were made way back–NO guessing in the dark, or dice throws– No fly by night accidents of fate..
The fingering was set down, like good housekeeping– A table prepared to specification.

3) Harmonic Analysis–The KEY signature was well imprinted. Flow of harmony, the same..
How did certain chords or modulations affect interpretation? (Part of phrasing/harmonic rhythm exploration)

4)Form and Structure–First Theme, second theme, Development, Recapitulation
What key for second theme?.. What happened in the Development section–what keys explored, (modulations), rhythmic devices?

Sequences? Melodic symmetries and asymmetries. We circled what remained the same, and what changed.

All of the above fast forwarded on a consciously unconscious level into the present easily tapped out of a sub layer of knowing.

Last week I’d recorded K. 311, Allegro con brio– And after a few days of revisiting, I had mildly adjusted fingerings to conform with the brisk tempo.

Then moving on to movement 2, I remembered the importance of Mozart’s vocal line, the need for a lush, deep in the keys singing tone so well imbued by Lillian Freundlich. (NO to a frilly, top-layered, superficial approach)

Awareness of harmonic flow/rhythm, marked out in my score from years before, helped me retrieve the long lost movement and bring it back to life in short order.

The Journey continues

Rondo: Allegro, K. 311

Currently, I’m face-to-face with this rapid movement which seems easier to navigate the second time around, but for what I consider a particularly tricky section:

A set of trills in the Left Hand set against a rapid flow of 16ths begs for a crossed hands adjustment but it’s just not feasible.

Mozart rondo k 311

Seymour Bernstein, pianist, teacher and composer, points out that pianists have been known to heist sections of music.. reconfiguring passages, that cannot be easily executed as written.

Emanuel Ax, concert pianist, fleshes out this very issue in a Beethoven documentary. He demonstrates how the composer made it nearly impossible to play a section of his second sonata, first movement, with the right hand only fingering indicated in the score.

Ax posited that perhaps Beethoven considered his personal fingering to be a “cosmic joke” contrived “to annoy everybody!”

Nonetheless Ax, demonstrated how most pianists will divide the passage between hands.

Did I veer off topic?

Not exactly as this side excursion related to my tackling difficult passages with an innovative approach, if applicable.

In the Rondo section attached, the trill in the left hand will be a potential finger-jammer, so post video, I made the choice to play GAGF#, followed by F#GF#E, EF#ED etc.

(In the instruction below I navigate the section through a set of steps and practicing routines:)

Decisions like these made in the course of primary learning experiences, tend to surface again in composition revisits. They certainly further musical development.

Finally, the old, reliable, baby-step, ground up work, done during an original exposure to a composition, is the best gift a student can bestow upon himself as he reconnects with a former love.



The Value of Practicing behind tempo, in slow motion

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Piano Instruction: How to practice Variation 2, Mozart Sonata No. 11 in A, K. 331 (Videos)

The biggest challenge in this particular variation is the fast-paced tempo and ornament execution–not to mention the fleeting 4 against 3 relationship of treble 32nds above 16ths in the bass. But the latter, should not be a big concern considering how quickly everything spins by.

In the video instruction I suggest a step-wise practicing routine where the left hand is blocked in groups of three, tracking common tones and those that move.

Fingering is very critical in playing Variation 2 smoothly, so I have attached my recommendations, subject to modification depending on what is easiest for the player. I don’t think finger choices are set in stone.

As to character, this variant has the droll dimension due to the dissonant 1/2-steps rolling through it in the bass, (the D#, E redundancy, for example) and the prominent 8th note half-step bass line grace notes which are fleshed out in Forte measures.

Variation 2 definitely reflects Mozart’s lighthearted personality.

REMINDER: Slow practicing is the gateway to a happy long-range result. (Re: the ornaments, practice them slowly, and start on the upper neighbor of principal note)
For some players, depending on level and ability, a turn will be adequate. For others, try for more repercussions.

Close-up view– no repeats–for supple wrist motion and relaxed elbow swing out…

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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!!



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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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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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The Ghost of Fritz? Was I Dreaming?

I had to pinch myself when I discovered a Craig’s List ad that featured “an antique baby grand piano selling for $1500.”

Staring at me was a larger-than-life “Johann Fritz” that seemed to closely resemble the heart-breaker with the same surname formerly housed at a local American Cancer Society Discovery thrift store! It looked like the one I had sadly let go and lost forever.

Now deep down, I knew that the original Fritz Sohn (son) with a florid rack and scrolled legs, probably had second thoughts about being placed with a City College Assistant Chief of Police who would probably never play it. And as proof of the pudding, the buyer was supposed to call me for piano lessons but never did. Was this beautifully sculptured beauty only a display case, exploited purely for its good looks?

I was staring at a photo of a generation two Fritz that was embedded in a Craig’s List posting. Its fall board revealed an impressive array of calligraphic German proper nouns: “Johann Fritz in Gratz-Auszeichnung aus Munchen, 1854,” a fancier identity than my beloved Fritz Sohn had. But if this builder was the real deal “Johann Fritz,” a famous maker of Forte pianos, then there was cause to celebrate.

In that event, I’d be cell-phoning Pat Frederick of the famous Frederick Early Instrument Collection to tell her the news. We’d be shouting from the rafters, “For unto us a Fritz is given!”

I stared at the Fritz look-alike, re-incarnation of itself, admiring the magnificent contours of an ornate piano that could spark my impulsive middle-of-the-night journey to the location where the exotic instrument was housed. If I wasn’t careful, I might act impetuously against my own best interests.

How many times had I warned my students and others not to fall prey to these seductive, period pianos, worst of all on the Internet where they could suck the juices out of a salivating impulse buyer. It happened to Rebecca McGregor during her out-of-control Online spree. Her Proksch 1905 grand bore the consequences, ending up a skeleton of itself: (See “Funeral of a Cracked Plate”)


At least the ad for the Ghost Fritz, blown up on my computer screen wasn’t hyped. It delivered bare-bones information from the seller:

“I have a beautiful baby grand piano that needs to be tuned. Front of piano says, “Johann Fritz in Gratz- Auszeichnung aus Munchen 1854 Please Pick-up only. If interested please call—or email at —–@comcast.net”

It was 4 o’clock on a Thursday morning, when I felt the effects of sleep deprivation from a long night of Googling, but I managed to squeeze out an extra grain of energy to research this “new” Fritz that had entered my life.

I started the day by planning to phone the seller about her advertised piano. From a Google telephone, name-link search, I ascertained her to be “Roanne Biglione,” an individual supposedly tied to a national ice hockey organization with a network of youth programs. Upon re-examination, I realized that the name was properly spelled “Roann Biglion” without the inserted “e’s” and when I did further Googling, I discovered the woman was an interior decorator.

After rounds of telephone tag, busy signals, and call-waiting episodes, we finally found ourselves conversing about a piano she claimed to know little about.

“I don’t really play the piano,” she insisted, “but I know it definitely needs a tuning.”

I recalled the J. Fritz Sohn artifact at the Discovery thrift store that was a whole- tone below concert pitch. York, the old geezer piano tuner, didn’t want to risk “raisin’ it up” as he claimed the strings would snap under pressure. “Them there wires hasn’t been stretched for a long time, and anyways, the piana is over a hundred! How would you feel if you was that old?” He pretty much dismissed these over-the-hill instruments as pieces of furniture or “junkers.”

Nonetheless, I’d done preliminary research on these exotic pianos, and prepared a whole set of pertinent questions to ask the seller. In fact, they were mounted on a clip board for easy reference.

“So where did you find this piano?” I asked.

“It was at a Somerset auction,” she replied.

“Did you know anything about who owned it before you?”

“Well there were some papers that came with it, but they really didn’t say very much.”

“Did anyone in your family play the piano?”

“Like I said, it’s never been played, but it has always looked very splendid in my living room.”

“Do you mind checking under the lid for a long, horizontal black wooden bar?”

I knew that if it bobbed up and down when the sustain pedal was depressed, then it would have strong ties to the old J. Fritz Sohn piano from the Discovery thrift store.

“Gee, I never really looked inside the piano because I have my skin product line of bottles sitting on top of it. The customers come here and love looking at the lotions set up there.”

I imagined a multicolored display of glass sculptures. My precious Steinway, on the other hand, held a conspicuous pile of worn Urtext editions of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. That was it.

I envisioned the Biglion gatherings. They would resemble the original Tupperware parties held around town, though plastic containers of different sizes were certainly no match for exotic skin care items.

“So where in the living room is your piano located?” I inquired.

“Oh it’s in the center, right smack up against the fireplace.”

It was troubling that she would expose her period piano to such extreme heat without a second thought.

“You know what,” she added, “I think it looks real pretty by the hearth. By the way, I don’t know if I ever mentioned the part under the piano that’s missing.”

I took a closer look at my computer screen, dominated by three photos of her Johann Fritz brand piano, and she was right— the whole pedal assembly and lyre were nowhere to be found! How on earth could I have overlooked this, something so essential to all pianos? I had to be losing my mind from sleep loss.

“So where is the rest of the piano?” I inquired.

It was like asking about missing body parts. There was a macabre twist to this whole plot as it unfolded.

“Oh, I have the one big piece somewhere in the house along with a bunch of screws that fell out on the floor one day.”

The more I learned about this instrument from the seller, the less appealing it became.

“So how big is the piano?” I inquired.

“Let me ask my husband,” she replied. “Jim, can you get a tape measure and see how long the piano is?”

I heard shuffling in the background.

“Oh, okay, it’s what, Jim? 6 feet? No, it’s bigger, about 7 feet or more? Well, it’s almost 8 feet!” she exclaimed.

“Do you think you could bring the phone next to your grand, and run your fingers over a few notes so I can get a sense of its tone?”

I had no intention of schlepping scores of miles, if this piano had already died and couldn’t be resurrected in this lifetime or the next. I had recently seen a Chickering Square grand that was winding its way to the scrap heap for dismemberment and salvage.

In any case, the moment of truth would arrive sooner than later, and no doubt it would be alarming!

As I had expected, the sour-sounding Fritz coming through phone transmission, reminded me of a Kincaid piano that was shipped from New York City to the West Coast by a fireman who’d been on the front lines during 9/11.

It was a sight-unseen cross-country purchase made by a young nurse who voiced no regret about the transaction. Ironically, she referred to the monstrous instrument as her “baby” as I detailed it. But even an infant’s scowl was no match for the howl this piano produced. The hammers were mangled causing multiple notes to sound at the same time. It made me so nauseated to play this butcher block that I had to wolf down a few Pepto Bismol tablets to get through the rest of the day.

From what the interior decorator seller had shared with me about the Fritz, I decided that I would pass on it and never refer the piano to anyone on my client list. But since I didn’t want to hurt the owner’s feelings, I dispatched York to the location to get his second opinion. It was not an inconvenience, since he had a few tuning and moth-proofing jobs out that way.

“Do you mind if my piano tuner drops over to check out your piano?” I asked the seller.

Oh, that would be fine,” she said. “Tomorrow would definitely work for me.”


In the meantime, I telephoned Thomas Winter, the reputed piano restorer in San Francisco who had just done some fine research for me on the authentic “Johann Fritz.”

“Yes,” he confirmed, “Fritz did most of his building in the first part of the Nineteenth century. Then his son Joseph took over the business after his death in 1827 and moved it to Graz, Germany. The veneer work was done in Munich. So the father who died in 1827 could not have been the maker.”

The case was closed!

Everything Winter had said made perfect sense and it conformed to the lengthy script on the fall board that mentioned Graz and Munchen. (Munich) and the year 1854.

“So what do you think of pianos that are not crafted by the esteemed builders, like those that would be made by Fritz’s son and others. Do you believe this particular instrument might be a stencil or decal piano?” (A copy of an authentic brand), I asked.

“Well, you need to have an open mind about it, and even if it’s a stencil, judge it on its own merit,” he answered.

“So what’s your feeling about restoring these old instruments? How do you avoid modernizing them so that they no longer approximate the sound produced during the era to which they belong?” (We’d been through this before with the first Fritz)

“Well, that’s a challenge,” he replied.

Winter had been strongly influenced by the ideas of John Watson, a Conservator of Instruments at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia. Watson’s philosophy of restoration was embodied in a paragraph posted on Tom Winter’s website. Both embraced the principles of “Restorative Conservation”—that is, “returning an instrument to playing condition while preserving its integrity as a historical document.

Pat Frederick, Director of the Frederick Collection of Historical Grand Pianos in Ashburnham, Massachusetts agreed and she’d emphasized over and again in her correspondence that a restorer could not put modern-day strings in a period instrument.

The Finchcock’s Musical Museum in Kent, England was also repository of fine, historic keyboard instruments, many of which had been sensitively restored to performance level. It was located on a picturesque Georgian Manor with 13 acres of wonderful gardens and park land. The Finchcock’s collection had over 100 historical keyboard instruments including organs, virginals, harpsichords, clavichords, and pianos, of which 40 were used in a celebrated concert series that attracted an international audience. There was one particular “Johann Fritz” Forte Piano that was housed among the others in an elegant room with hard wood flooring and period drapery.


The Johann Fritz stenciled version that I had stumbled upon, finally underwent a preliminary review by Mr. York. In the late afternoon he reported back on his findings:

“Well that there piana has some mighty big problems. About half of ‘em notes is stickin’ and the strings is so old, they’s lost their tone. Them hammers all need replacin.’ “

What the old man was saying corroborated what I’d heard of this piano over the phone. Land line or cell connection, it wouldn’t have made a scintilla of difference.

“Now it could use some work on it,” York said, “but replacin’ the strings would cost ya.”

York hadn’t been exposed to the au courant philosophy of piano restoration. Putting modern strings in a Nineteenth century period piece piano was ill-advised.

Tom Winter emphasized that the carbon content of the old strings was vastly different from the modern supply. He even considered the DNA of the inner assembly in his restorations and tried to select fibers of the period.

“Well that their Fritz piana aint in any playin’ condition and might as well be furniture and nothin’ else,” York said.

I wondered why he hadn’t mentioned the missing lyre, pedals and all the rest. I decided not to throw a spotlight on what was obvious. There was no need to embarrass him.

Otherwise, I agreed with his assessment. His appraisal had definitely saved me time and money. I’d just forget this one, and move forward in my travels without the ghost of Fritz ever to haunt me again.

P.S. Several months after Fritz II died on the vine, I couldn’t resist foraging through my e-mail files for an update on the Ghost– whether it sold, was put out to pasture, or dumped, dismembered and forgotten. To my surprise, I located this communication feeding my appetite for a few chuckles.

From: pharmacutest
To: Shirley Kirsten

Hi Shirley, No, I haven’t sold the baby grand. It still looks beautiful and I use it to present my Arbonne Skin Care Products and also to put out Hor d’oevres when I entertain. I will be having an Open House at the end of September, looking at the 22nd, but not completely certain from 2-6 p.m. I will be featuring Arbonne International Original Hand Made Jewelry, “Rock Star Nails,” Hand Made Purses by Good Stuff and maybe Gold Canyon Candles. Let me know if you are interested in attending and I will send you an invitation. I would like to meet you and you will be able to see my piano too!