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Phrasing at the Piano: Direction and Destination

Often I query my students about the “destination” and “direction” of phrases within a particular composition. Naturally, my questions are a reflection of a need to clarify what arrivals are significant in the transit of notes.

Part of this exploration encompasses the awareness of sub-destinations that are on the way to the peak or climax of a phrase. In addition, bundled into the journey is a framing singing tone, that requires a supple wrist, with a natural, unencumbered flow of energy through relaxed arms into the hands and fingers. (Needless to say, attentive listening is at the heart of sensitive playing, and “singing” helps to clarify shape and contour of lines)


Today, two pupils were grappling with essential elements of beautiful, well-shaped and directed phrasing as they respectively rendered a Chopin Waltz and Nocturne.

The Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, no.2 and the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 were both noteworthy for challenging the individual player to examine phrase relationships and the influence of harmonic rhythm, voicing, melodic contour, innate rhythmic flow, dynamic variation, nuance and more.

Mood-setting and changes that occurred in various sections of these compositions were also pivotal to fluid renderings.

In both these examples below, “destination” was a particular lesson focus.

Chopin Waltz in B minor

Chopin Nocturne in E minor

(Videos are edited for teacher demonstrations)

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Does approaching notes in different ways at the piano affect tone production?

Emanuel Ax, well-known concert pianist and teacher asserts that one note struck cannot be varied by physical approach (except for volume) and I’m assuming duration (a clipped staccato release vs. a lingering sustain without pedal) Yet he didn’t provide enough specific details about duration, dynamics, and how delays into notes using supple wrist motions could affect phrasing. Therefore, I was left in a quandary about what he really meant since pianists deal with many notes in sequence.

As an aside, Ax declared woefully, that most of his pianist colleagues doubted his views.

About chords, the pianist inserted a qualification, saying that decisions circumscribing voice balance factored into tonal variance.

Yet his overall thoughts lacked an imaginative dimension about creating illusions in the course of playing. Perhaps, if he had more time to expand upon his ideas, he would have been more specific about physical motions as they relate to phrasing groups of notes.

Seymour Bernstein, pianist, teacher, and author of With Your Own Two Hands chimed in that “Emanuel misses, or perhaps doesn’t understand a serious point concerning the resultant sound of hitting a key. True, the hammer knows nothing about such an attack. But what we hear is the friction of the finger or an object as it hits the key. And because the blow is done with uncontrolled speed, the key is propelled down to the key bed producing an added percussive sound…The truth is these things have been measured scientifically. There is no difference whatsoever in tone production whether you lower a key with your finger or a pencil, and whether your wrist is supple or not. We recognize sound or tone changes when two or more tones are played.”

In one of his teaching videos (“You and the Piano,” Part 4), Bernstein demonstrates an “upper arm roll” with an “undulating wrist” that together produce an enviable singing tone.

Irina Gorin, piano teacher and Tales of a Musical Journey creator uses “weeping willow” arms as her imaginative springboard for imbuing awareness of the singing tone in her youngest students. Here she partners relaxed breathing with flowing supple wrists:

Here’s her dead weight arm/wrist drop approach using a hairband with a pupil:

In my demonstration, I extract a few measures from J.S. Bach’s Sarabande, French Suite in G, BWV 816 to model supple wrist delays into notes that create tonal nuances or differences that a pencil point cannot produce.

Elaine Comparone, harpsichordist/pianist responded forthrightly to the above:

“I think it’ s impossible to play the pencil-point note and the finger-played note in the same way.

“I think what you are talking about ( and you said it a few times) is a delayed attack or approach to the note. But what one hears ultimately is a dynamic (a loud-soft) difference. I listened to your spiel with my eyes closed. What I heard was a dynamic difference.

“I’d take a position slightly between yours and Ax’s. You are striking the key with a slow stroke with your finger. The pencil touches the key more speedily. But I think you could get the same sound if you struck the key with the pencil using a slower and slightly indirect approach. The flexing wrist makes this happen with the finger.

“I don’t think you can ever resolve this to my satisfaction.

“Harpsichord-wise, you have to make a speedy stroke, especially if you have more than one set of strings engaged, unless you have your plectra voiced very lightly, in which case you’ll get a lot of thud in the attack. With light voicing, you really have to pussy-foot around the keyboard.”


Rada Bukhman, pianist/teacher/author, insists that “one note can be played beautifully with anything, even one’s nose. What’s important is how you relate sounds to each other.”


Irina Morozova, pianist and faculty member at the Special School/Kaufman Center, and the Mannes College of Music, noted the use of “illusions” when playing the piano, making reference in her comments, to “chords.”

“What about ‘”impersonating”‘ orchestral instruments on piano? There is a simple way to make a chord sound differently depending on whether or not one is trying to play a beautiful “piano” chord or an “orchestral” chord.

Here she begins a lesson with a six-year old, demonstrating a fluid wrist approach to playing a chord that’s allied to a relaxed breath. (no pencils in sight!)

Morozova also asserts, “that a most important concept to teach, is weight distribution, or a feeling of a ‘”grounded”‘ sound.”

Rebecca Bogart, a local East Bay area pianist/teacher added the following to the mix of opinions:

“One of my greatest pleasures as a pianist is manipulating the color of the sound through subtle adjustments in key depression, so I guess I would have to say that I totally disagree with Ax. Personally I do experience that how a pianist relates to the key from the key at rest (level with all the other keys) to the bottom of the key stroke makes a HUGE difference in sound. For me, many of today’s performers have very high key speeds, especially in louder dynamics, which result in a very bright, almost harsh, sound.

“How you interact with the key determines volume and duration of the sound you produce. Variations in key speed and weight are how you make dynamics and tonal changes. Otherwise, why not play the harpsichord or the organ???

“Of course Ax is correct that the relationships between notes are also very very important. And I realized after watching his video that possibly dynamic interrelationships (voicing) and agogic expression are a bigger percentage of the pianist’s toolkit than they are for other instrumentalists.

“In terms of posture for playing the piano, I think that there is a posture which is most efficient .i.e. gives the maximum results for the minimum amount of muscular effort. An efficient posture is one which allows the fingers and hands to be in the midrange of motion when playing the keys. More specifically, the bottom of the elbow (the part closest to the floor) should be level with the top of the white keys. Also, the wrist needs to be in a place where the kinetic energy and mass of the arm can be transmitted to the key.

“Of course determined and skilled people can play amazingly well with all sorts of postures – it’s just my opinion that their experience and/or results would be even better if they adopted the posture I just described. But hey – to each their own!”

Rami Bar-Niv, pianist, teacher and author of The Art of Piano Fingering, agrees with Ax on the unwavering sound produced by a single note key depression:

“I agree 100% with what Ax says and I said it many times on various groups.
A single note can be only louder or softer (+ the duration factor that happens after it’s being struck) — nothing else!

“Everything else in the magical hands of a pianist happens between the notes, due to balancing them, the relation between them, and timing. All other ideas are just untrue illusions and beliefs.

“Correct wrist motions and other correct techniques are there to produce good sound and protect your hands.But producing one sound can only be louder or softer, however good techniques help you match the next sound(s) according to your desires.

“We talk only about a single note because the next note already brings in the relativity aspect (which makes the music).”


While it’s instructive to gather opinions far and wide about an individual note approach, it’s the gestalt of many notes played in sequence that’s of prime importance to pianists as they explore an expressive tonal universe.


Emanuel Ax:

Irina Gorin’s You Tube Channel:

Elaine Comparone’s You Tube Channel

Official Website:

Rada Bukhman’s Website

Irina Morozova:

Seymour Bernstein’s Official Website:

Rebecca Bogart’s website

Rami Bar-Niv’s You Tube Channel

The Art of Piano Fingering by Rami Bar-Niv

Learning from Our Colleagues

Piano Technique: Avoid Pencil Point Playing

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Into the Hills with the Sound of Music –a Baldwin Acrosonic “acoustic” sings

The video attached to this writing validates the beauty of music-making on a well-maintained, though 1940s vintage era acoustic piano.

Baldwin Acrosonics were the Cadillacs of the spinet and console variety pianos. They had a noticeable innovation compared to their sister-size instruments. (A deeper sound chamber, especially noted in the consoles that measured 40″ or taller) Baldwin Acro’s standard 36″ spinet was still a resonating musical treasure, if properly cared for. The pianos were manufactured starting in 1936.

“Coined from the Greek word, “Akros,” meaning supreme, and the Latin, “sonus,” meaning tone, the trademark Acrosonics were famous for their tonal clarity, power, and *Full- Direct Blow action.” (Bluebook of

*This action sits on top of the keys instead of being a drop action where the action connects to the key by a rod or some other “indirect” method.


An Acrosonic with fluted legs, sequestered in a gorgeous El Cerrito Hills home lived up to its singing nightingale reputation, in the good company of “Haddy” Haddorff, one of my pianos, now in the good care of a well-regarded Central Valley piano teacher. (Both instruments have an immaculate set of ivory keys)

images haddorff

The Hills Acrosonic, purchased at DC Pianos in Berkeley, is accompanied by a sturdy adjustable concert bench.

And while many of my students own digitals, if they can possibly locate an acoustic of this variety in excellent condition, I would say, Go for it!

Acrosonics are easily found on Craig’s List, though a piano teacher and technician should be taken along for an assessment.

Just listen to this one and make up your own mind.e bay hills acro

The occasion was a make-up lesson on site at my students’ home. (We were working on Chopin’s A minor Waltz, No. 19, Op. Posthumous)

More often I’m found in a separate El Cerrito Hills location that houses my Baldwin Hamilton 1929 grand, another vintage charmer.

piano room where I teach El Cerrito

Finally, look at these lovely representations of Baldwin Acrosonics, striking for their beauty, inside and out:

images Baldwin Acro

piano_22  Acro 2

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The piano learning process at all levels of study

In spite of my having studied piano for decades, each learning experience is filled with challenges that I must approach with a glut of patience. A new composition has its own form, architecture, harmonic rhythm, fingering that requires a big reserve of self-acceptance in a deadline-free frame.

To the contrary, many of my students, who are 95% adults, have a built-in timetable plaguing them from day one. “How long will it take me to learn this piece?” They demand certainty about reaching a tangible goal on a fixed schedule. The End result is what most matters.

Since we live in an information age, strategies of mastery are in vogue along with a mandatory guarantee of knowledge acquisition in so many weeks. “Quick,” “easy-fix” consumption are the Millennium’s catchwords. CD sets are compiled and promoted to learn piano “in a flash.”


I have a pupil, who epitomizes the insecure student, searching for a micro-wave cooking equivalent for learning piano.

She’s an accomplished writer and retired lawyer. On more than one occasion she’s confessed to doing “everything well” except for piano. “I just don’t understand why my wrist can’t roll forward, why I stumble, stutter at the piano.”

If she stepped back and thought about how many years she’s been writing and practicing law as compared to playing the piano, she’d acquire instant insight about her personal quandary.

Irina Gorin, inspired piano teacher and author of Tales of A Musical Journey has often said, “We’re not born playing the piano…. we have to learn to physically relate to the instrument.”

That’s why she starts her kids young, using silly putty to dip tiny hands into. They experience “touch” as deep, densely probing, and sinewy, to produce the singing tone, not a poked out, pencil point sequence of notes. Dipping into jello is Gorin’s metaphor, nicely channeled into the keys:

The time old analogy of crawling before walking applies, yet so many adult students, will obsess about how long they have been working on a piece without the advances they expected of themselves.

Yet, if I think about the students who have made the most gains this year, it’s been those who accepted the baby-step paradigm without precondition. They learned to love the journey with its precious awakenings along the way.


A pupil is shown working on a section of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” absorbing a sound image before translating it into physical expression at the piano. She practiced separate hands, behind tempo. Call it mindful practicing; attentive listening. They belong together.


An adult student embarked upon the Chopin Waltz no. 19 in A minor.

Sight-reading was not a parcel of our work.

It was delving into the fundamental bass, measure by measure in slow tempo.

What was the relationship of one note to the next as each was played? Lean on some, relax others.

“Feel,” “hear” and know at the same time.

Then practice the melody at snail’s pace, but with a singing tone–no delay in contouring. The shapes must seep in from conscious to unconscious.

The student explored wrist motions to curve and shape lines. These poured out of her scale work.

Where an arpeggiated figure appeared, all her caring and conscientious practicing of buoyant broken chords, bristled with relevance.

In graduated steps, the after beat sonorities were separated, and played with a “spongy” feel. We thought of a “lighter” third beat. Not a parade of downbeats.

In time the layering process followed as melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords came together.

As I look back on this step-wise progression and its implications for the musical development of the Waltz, I can say with confidence that the student eventually played it with a wonderful sense of personal mastery and joy bundled together.

Patience and self-acceptance at every stage of the learning process was our paradigm.

If considered a mantra, it becomes a reminder of what teachers and students need to embrace.


How Long Should a Student Stay with a Piece?

Quality Spot Practicing by an adult student, “Fur Elise.”

The Value of Slow Practicing

Out of a Rut with Quality Spot Practicing


Just Being at the Piano
by Mildred Portney Chase

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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 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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Phrasing at the piano: Listening to the ends of notes as they flow into others

I’ve chosen Burgmuller’s “Tender Flower” as the springboard to explore attentive listening and its relationship to phrasing.

At the outset, the right moment to begin a piece is a challenge. The player has to experience the whole dimension of silence before a first note is played. That silence is not dead, but alive with cues about the moment of a composition’s birth. (If I shared all my video retakes of piece openers, it would take far too much time to sit through them) yet it’s the very patient, focused care taken to nurse the first sound or tone that makes all the difference in the outflow of a composition. It may be the most important place in the music.

To continue a piece after its opening note or chord shimmers with tonal beauty or has a blossoming energy, is all about phrase-loving and listening to the ends of notes in preparation for others. It’s a given that to accomplish this, a pianist must be tension-free and open to temporal events as they unfold. A relaxed, physical and mental state of mind is needed. Breathing with the music and its undulations involves being in the moment without distraction.

But harmonic rhythm also influences the shape of notes and their resolution. If a player is prepared to repeat an opening phrase that ends on the Dominant, then the resolution to Tonic is curved down. Listening to the very end of the Dominant note or chord, and breathing through it, will help taper the line as imagined.

Imagination, relaxation, being in the here and now of creation are all ingredients of attentive listening that make piano playing a gratifying experience. A patient, non-judgmental approach along with self-prompts or mental images that promote a free-flowing sound space, allow for inspired music-making.

“Tender Flower” played through:

About attentive listening:

Recommended Reading:

Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney-Chase

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Using piano repertoire as a springboard for a theory lesson: Major, minor and Diminished Chords (Videos)

One of my adult students is working on the gorgeous J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor which has a second page full of “Major,” “Minor” and “Diminished” chords. The sonorities progress in sequences, but they also have a secondary dominant relationship to resolving chords. The “harmonic rhythm” moves quickly.

While this particular pupil may not be ready to understand “functional” harmony or the “modulation” dimension of the broken chords as they occur in the B section, she could learn how to form “Major,” “minor” and “diminished” chords, and then appreciate their differences through ear-training exposure.

In this video, sent between lessons, I reviewed Major, minor and Diminished chords and their derivation from five-finger positions which she has been studying in the Major and Parallel minor. The fact that the chords (broken) moved in a sequence, or a pattern also helped her navigate this section.

The Secondary Dominant aspect had been briefly noted, but will be more deeply explored as the student’s scale work around the Circle of Fifths gives an opportunity to build chords on every degree of the scale, noting harmonic relationships, cadences, and modulations.

Teaching Video:

In part B, the music blossoms into a series of secondary Dominants against sobbing, sighing pairs of descending seconds, before it returns to a familiar revisit with part of the opening A section.

Sustaining a melodic line through recurring broken pattern chords is paramount to playing the Prelude poetically and musically. Varying dynamics and tapering phrases are woven into the artistic process.

Playing through entire prelude, first in chords, then as written in broken chord sequence.


Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery