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Practicing Challenging Pieces: If we’re over a barrel, we can still learn something valuable

I’m the first to admit that not every learning journey through a particular composition will produce results we might have hoped for. After weeks or even months of methodical practicing in baby steps, we can find ourselves literally over a barrel, wading through ornaments, for example, that are crystal clear in slow tempo, but suffer paralysis otherwise.

I came up against this very wall of resistance when I dared to take on J.S. Bach’s Gigue from the composer’s C minor French Suite No.2, BWV 813. Mordants and trills permeate treble and bass, and these dare-devilish ornaments must often be executed simultaneously without taking an easy way out. In my case, after weeks of hand parceling, enlisting various articulations and rhythms in back tempo, I couldn’t clearly realize all the indicated ornaments within the ideal brisk, animated pace I’d internalized.

Immersed in a frustrating journey through a difficult dance movement, perhaps a maiden voyage at best, I refused to give up hope that in time I would integrate a plethora of ornaments into a resilient, energy-driven Gigue. Most importantly, it was during my period of introspective practicing, that I gained valuable insights about wrist spring forward motions that permitted trills and mordants to roll out without keyboard impact. Such suppleness of movement freed up energy in an uninterrupted flow down my arms. This particular insight, alone, could fuel further advances through this piece without a time deadline attached.

Because all piano study has a positive dimension regardless of short-term outcome, it’s valuable to record epiphanies as they unfold. These feed our future learning challenges and they trickle down to our students who share their individual awakenings with us.

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Practicing the Gigue movement from J.S. Bach French Suite No. 2 in C minor, with a focus on wrist spring forward motions:

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Sound imagination and tactile, tonal expression at the piano for diverse compositional eras

Often a posted comment about a You Tube video inspires a blog topic that is of interest to pianists and teachers. One such public addition to my Channel quickly streamed into a comparison between two well-known compositions in the piano repertoire.

The commenter was asking about the grade “level” of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair as compared to Schumann’s Traumerei from Kinderszenen. She asserted that it was “easier” to read through the Romantic era character piece based on her supportive reasons.

“Would you recommend this piece for an Intermediate student (grade 4-5)? I had a very hard time even reading through it! (The Debussy) I learned Schumann’s Traumerei pretty quickly to a decent level, so I thought La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin was going to be feasible too, since the difficulties are more musical than technical. But just figuring out the fingering is proving more challenging than I thought.”

Initially, I’d planned to underscore my reluctance to comparatively “level” the pieces, having to spell out too many variables bundled into an assessment of each composition from distinctly different eras. (Romantic and Impressionist) In addition, by enlisting a narrow focus, I would pin myself into a rigid pedagogical corner.

Instead, I set out to explore the separate challenges of each work, fleshing out the expressive vocabulary that best realized each individual period of composition in partnership with its composer. My demonstration would incorporate a desired tonal palette that called for an imbued physical approach at the inception of study. It would encompass sound imaging springing from the imagination, reinforced by physical suppleness and weight transfer. Qualitative differences unique to the cosmos of each piece would be a pivotal dimension of my recorded reply.

While teachers can take a circuitous route in their mentoring, drawing on mental prompts to engage an internal representation of sound or tone, they must naturally be equipped to demonstrate what works choreographically, if you will– not proposing fixed motions in musical space, but engaging the student in what physically advances various forms of musical expression. (Naturally, fingering decisions are part and parcel of the journey.)

Mood sets, internal harmonic shifts, and structural considerations unique to each composition, must be at the fore in the developmental learning process regardless of suggested leveling. (And it’s a given that a mentor should not recommend pieces that he/she deems significantly out of reach for a particular pupil.)

Finally, in the attached video below, I synthesized in physical and musical terms, what words alone could not amply express.

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Trading places with our piano students

As teachers, the empathy we have for a pupil’s budding learning process with its slips and slides, is at the foundation of good mentoring. By remembering what it’s like to be in the student’s position, sitting at the piano under a professional gaze, we can increase our pedagogical effectiveness.

If we revisit our own early student experiences in the riveting capsule of a mentor’s examination, we can extract what worked to improve our playing or what sadly drove a passage further into the ground.

Yesterday, I met Online with a student who prepared her scales beautifully but had a glitch in the Harmonic form (A-sharp minor/Bb minor) It occurred when I’d asked her to replay the peak 16th note rendering to remedy a perceived overcrowding or acceleration in the initial outpouring. In her repetition effort she tightened up and lost more notes than previously, saying “I guess I’m just good for the first effort.”

In truth, she tried a bit too hard the second time, tightening up in her earnest determination to improve the peak speed staccato. It was an approach that had the opposite effect than intended, funneling tension through the arms and wrists that impeded a naturally paced flow of notes.

At this juncture, I found it helpful to personally identify with the same propensity to recycle glitches and how I found a way to unravel them: This was about taking pause, restoring natural respiration, and freeing arms and wrists through mental imagery.

Ultimately, my experience resonated with the student who benefitted by a changed consciousness. (a NONjudgmental approach) In a resumed effort, she acquired presence of mind, regained equilibrium, and created an interval of calmness and contemplation before she rippled through her third repetition.

The scale portion of this student’s lesson continued with the Melodic minor which was on a more even keel. A sensible, relaxed application of spot practicing removed a minor snag in the last two octaves.

This particular pupil, based in Scotland, has made big strides over the past two years in the technical/musical cosmos. Her peak tempo 32nds through scales are quite pleasing as she contours them in a breezy flow. (So nicely revealed in the first video segment.)

In the second portion of the footage embedded below, I worked with another student on body movement in contrary motion scales and arpeggios. In the arpeggio segment, where the student had practiced a different fingering for E Major in 10ths, I didn’t dismiss her choice but rather took the position that we should try both fingerings to see if one or the other could be reliable in triple speed tempo.

An objective examination of fingering allowed for student input, narrowing the distance between mentor and pupil. It precluded an authoritarian model of teaching–where one individual becomes the singular font of knowledge without challenge.

By such an example, we can examine, modify and refine our attitude toward a student so that it maximizes his/her musical growth and development. Periodic self-reviews bundled in empathy will definitely improve our own playing and teaching as well.

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Link:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2017/03/18/student-i-get-so-nervous-when-i-play-for-you-the-teacher-responds/

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Two-timing scale practice

I appreciate two-timing piano students who practice their scales with acutely sensitive ears. They are made keenly aware of what it takes to repeat a faulty step-wise sequence that’s been thrown out of rhythmic alignment along a 4-octave route. (Auditory memory is a vital ingredient through repetitions that require retrieval of a consistent underlying pulse.)

In a journey from 8ths to 16ths to 32nds, many pupils will underestimate the end game tempo, losing technical control in the final spill. To avoid a pile-up in the speed zone, they will put on the breaks, losing their initial framing beat. Ironically, a good proportion of two-timers who find themselves in such a jam will “think” they’ve doubled-up in the 32nds range, only to discover by a teacher’s real-time demonstration, that 16ths to 32nds were out of synch. (A metronome can be just as helpful in clarifying rhythmic disparities.)
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Ways to deal with rhythmic disorientation

I prompt students to back up by “half” from what they can realistically manage in 32nds. After a few retrograde repetitions in this practicing mode, they can revisit 8ths and then move forward in doubled sequence to peak destination. In most cases, a pupil comes to grips with what he can safely control at the 32nds level, knowing that the underlying pulse will increase through incremental learning stages.

A recent lesson sample illustrated rhythmic disproportion and remedy. (It’s excerpted at the juncture where a student zoned in on 16ths to 32nds in a D-sharp minor Harmonic form scale) A brief second segment focused on a “rolling into” effort in a more fast-paced staccato-rendered scale in Melodic form. It was a confidence-building effort that represented a “rite of passage” for this pupil who realized that she could, in fact, play brisker 32nd notes without faltering. Breathing, pacing, mindfulness, and lack of PANIC all kick into controlled, peak tempo playings.

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A Jet-setting adult student makes time for piano

No need to say Play it Again Sam, to Sam P. who’s been a super dedicated piano student ever since he approached me for lessons in Berkeley, nearly 4 years ago. And if we factor in a significant interruption of instruction due to Sam’s Acrosonic Console having been shipped to London when his company transferred him to Europe in 2014, he’s left with about 3 solid years of study. Along the way, we’ve doubled up on lessons to accommodate his rigorous travel schedule that includes departures to India, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Amsterdam, Dubai, etc, with a Tanzania Safari thrown in.

Sam has a meticulous approach to practicing. He relishes a deliberate and thorough journey through his assigned compositions that includes parceled, layered learning and he has no affixed deadline in his explorations. Most of all, he appreciates the process of musical discovery; how it spills over into other life activities, such as Chess for which he has a passion. He observes “patterns” in his pieces that have a direct tie-in to the game.

I had a chance to interview Sam about his piano studies after he landed back in London from Abu Dhabi. Since he’s working on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” a crown jewel piece for many students, I decided to separately include excerpts from his most recent lesson that focused on rhythmic unity between sections. Viewers will notice Sam’s earnest and methodical approach to this composition, that also infuses an awareness of the singing tone and how to produce it. He’s been working assiduously on relaxing his arms and wrists, while shaping phrases within a vocal model. For a time, Sam took singing lessons, until his travels made it nearly impossible to focus seriously on voice AND piano. I’m glad he gave the PIANOFORTE top priority!

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Alessandro Deljavan is a uniquely gifted pianist

Sometimes winners of piano competitions are not true messengers of great musical artistry. They might succeed in pleasing a panel of judges who often reward interpretive conformity and convention bundled in pyrotechnical displays, bestowing the Gold medal upon the least offending contender. Yet such a career launch may be short-lived once the round-by-round environment is no longer a convenient safety net. A truly creative musician must ultimately emancipate himself from a competitive framing and develop an unbridled, form of individual expression.

Alessandro Deljavan is one of the few young pianists of his generation whose participation in the renowned Cliburn Competition brought singular adulation from audiences far and wide, but did not attach a Gold, Silver or Bronze Medal. His BIGGER THAN LIFE talent, LIVE-STREAMED from Fort Worth, Texas, in 2009 and 2013, drew a chorus of praise from pianists, teachers, and listeners around the world who enthusiastically mouse-clicked their way to his scheduled offerings. Yet, when the Italian pianist did not make the Finals, global sighs of outrage were funneled into Discretionary honors that would not soften international waves of disappointment.

Fort Worth arts critic, Gregory Sullivan and others summed up the reaction to Deljavan’s playing during the course of the Cliburn rounds:

“Deljavan’s performance was revelatory in every respect. Everyone in the hall knew that they were hearing something special-something wonderful from the very first notes. At the end, the spontaneous eruption of cheers was so different from the perfunctory ovation that any decent performance is awarded, that being part of the thrilled crowd was a unique experience in itself.”

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It’s no surprise that Deljavan is a virtuoso and poet of the piano without needing the rubber stamp of Competition juries. (Yet, he’s amassed a generous serving of first place awards at International concours)

With a mellifluous singing tone, deft technique, and immaculate phrasing, his deeply probing art serves the music and composer.

(I must admit to having shed tears listening to this Concerto excerpt) Deljavan’s riveting emotional connection to a score comes through in all style periods.

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I had a rare opportunity to converse with Alessandro who was in the Silicon Valley area (CA) performing chamber music with violinist, Daniela Cammarano, and cellist, Eugene Lifschitz. The group will showcase the works of Beethoven and Brahms at the School of Music and Arts at Finn Center, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View, CA. Sunday, April 16th, 2017 at 3 p.m. Otherwise Deljavan is jet-setting around the world giving concerts to appreciative audiences.

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Alessandro shared his thoughts about the role of chamber music in the development of a pianist, along with providing a profile of his earliest exposure to the piano, journeying into the present.

LINKS:

Deljavan’s OFFICIAL WEBSITE: (Click “MEDIA” for more performance samples)

http://alessandrodeljavan.welltempered.com

Discography:

http://alessandrodeljavan.welltempered.com/#discography

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/alessandro-deljavan-is-a-cliburn-winner-for-me/

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Piano Lessons during the holidays: Inserting a creative composing dimension to chord exploration

Every winter holiday season most music teachers are asked by parents to devote at least a few weeks to the absorption of Christmas and related celebratory selections. In the traditional musical cosmos, “Silent Night,” “Deck the Halls,” “Hark the Herald Angels” and “Jingle Bells,” are popular learning requests.

This year, my 9-year old student who enjoys the singular status of being the only child amidst a crop of adult students, was eager to tackle “Silent Night,” and my having shuffled through various holiday collections had produced a particular arrangement with simple primary bass chords and broken chord interludes that nicely tied in to our theory journey.

For months, we had been studying scales in Major and Relative Minor through the Circle Fifths, and had added construction of CHORDS in ROOT position on each scale degree starting with C Major and A minor (Harmonic form). –(there is a scant reference to the PRIMARY CHORDS on the Chord Sheet below, but only to show their identities as I, IV, V, not how they can be juggled or “inverted” for smooth transit between them)

chords-major-and-minor-on-every-scale-degree-2-2

The “chord” universe had been carefully prepped with a pre-identification of minor and Major thirds, and how they are arranged to create Major, minor, diminished and Augmented Chords or triads. (EAR-Training experiences were naturally integrated into our lessons) In the days between lessons, my pupil practiced her aural identification of these various chords at Tone Dear.com

http://tonedear.com/ear-training/chord-identification

While a digital piano is enlisted at this particular Internet site which is not the best vehicle to expose a child to various chord changes, it still seemed to heighten my pupil’s aural sensitivity. (Again we were focusing on identifying ROOT position triads: Major, minor, diminished and Augmented)

Chord “inversions,” the next juncture of study, as presented in the “Silent Night” arrangement, (IV and V7), enabled the pupil to experience various “positions” of chords in the bass to effect smooth voice leading.

The piece, as notated, also had a preparatory Schemata of the PRIMARY bass chords used, with an attached illustration of the abbreviated forms of the Dominant 7th.

silent-night-p-1

silent-night-p-2

In this video sample below, I demonstrated the principle of chord “inversion” for the student.

This particular holiday selection (“Silent Night”) had also provided reinforcement a NEW rhythm, the dotted quarter–8th figure which permeated the music.

Finally, as a creatively driven teacher, who has consistently inserted composing opportunities into the pedagogical environment, I assigned my student the task of composing a 8-measure piece in 3/4 time using dotted half notes in each measure. It was to use Chords in ROOT POSITION from the A Minor Harmonic form scale in the treble. (Chord Sheet reference) This exploration was to serve as a springboard to INVERTING her chosen chords in a follow-up composing opportunity.

In this initial instance, she was to include a Major, Minor, Diminished and Augmented chord in whatever sequence that suited her creative inclination and then label these ROOTED triads in the score. Each chord enlisted fingers 1,3,5 in the Right Hand. (Note that in my teaching practice, I adhere to the principle of framing a composing experience with a particular educational goal, particularly when building a solid learning foundation in the primary year of of piano study.)

The student was asked to practice her chord piece notated in the TREBLE CLEF with a supple wrist in a singing tone fashion, while fleshing out a melody streaming through the upper most voice (the fifth of each chord) This brought up the notion of “voicing” chords which excited her. She had free reign to choose dynamics and enter them in her score.

Next, we had planned to leave the bass clef staff blank until the student had finalized her Treble notated chordal progressions.

Following this creative undertaking, I suggested adding one bass note per measure, perhaps considering the Root of each chord to match up with the treble harmonic sequence, though when I demonstrated adding a THIRD of each chord in the bass, she was far more pleased with the result.

Here is my pupil’s draft of her composition that enlarged her consciousness about chords and their harmonically colorful variety.

a-minor-chord-piece-harmonic-form

As mentioned, for part 2 of this composing adventure, she will put all her treble chords in first inversion, while considering another choice for the bass line progression. It will be stimulating to explore noting the ROOT in the bass against the treble inverted chords, and then sample the third, or the fifth through the bass sequence.

In conclusion, this holiday period offered a wondrous aesthetic journey with educational rewards for both teacher and student.

LINKS:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/liz-age-8-composes-a-piece-at-her-third-piano-lesson/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/11/19/a-9-year-olds-complete-piano-lesson-integrates-theory-and-ear-training/