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More and more “piano” students are going Digital. Is it a good idea?

It’s sad but true that a glut of former piano buyers who would have considered piano lessons for their children at age 7 or so, have made the choice to invest in a DIGITAL. (known as a DP)

Of further testimony to the culture’s relatively new fixation on electronic piano technology, are the 35,000 plus You Tube hits my DP overview has amassed, compared to a mainstream “acoustic” offering that snagged the spotlight because of my bench potato CAT.

The CAT and Chopin

Considering the above, which musical purveyance is more pleasing?

I’d say hands down that Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” (below) would be better rendered on an acoustic than a Roland, etc. based on tone dimension and timbre alone. The “feel” of a real piano, also cannot be compared to any so-called mimicked “hammer-weighted” electronic keyboard, though many buyers have tried to trick their hands, not to mention EARS into believing so.

“Fur Elise” rendered on a Steinway (Compare to Roland/Yamaha samples)

So having voiced my bias against digitals, why would I have invested hours of time scoping them out at Guitar Center and Best Buy? No less, bringing a video camera along for the ride? (thanks to Guitar Center’s CEO, Jeremy Cole for the written permission, and to Matthew Wheeler at BB)

Well, reality is, that the purchasing trend is in this direction, and if I tabulated all the inquiries fielded for an opinion on which one to buy, it would stagger the reader’s imagination.

It’s a fact that shoppers are flocking to acquire DPs at every opportunity and they haven’t stopped for a moment to think of what they are sacrificing in this fever-driven pursuit.

***

Elaine Comparone, a well-known New York City-based concert performer injected a bit of social commentary about the wave of DP buying. It was after I had bemoaned the number of parents contacting me for piano lessons who had electronic keyboards. Some of their prize musical possessions amounted to 61, bell and whistle sounds, with a few “belches” thrown in for special effect.

Elaine’s thoughts were riveting:

“I think a lot of this is economic along with the pervasive effect of pop culture. Which of these kids, or parents for that matter, have ever seen or heard a real instrument on TV or live? Real music study has become a pastime for the wealthy elites where years ago it was a sine qua non of immigrant working class culture. But it behooves us to hang in there and pass along genuine musical values, which can exist in myriad musical forms. Blah blah…..”

I added to the mix that “real” pianos sold at dealerships were beyond the financial means of the average instrument buyer, though, ironically, struggling consumers might in a flash, slap down a credit card for a $4100 Roland equipped with EVERYTHING, like a snazzy new car with all imaginable options.

Try this DP out for size:

One Facebook correspondent owned a 9-foot Steinway grand, but had the luxury to invest in a pricey Digital console that would yield hours of pleasure with its fancy accouterments.

Initially plagued by making a choice between a LX10 Roland at $4,100 and a $2900 Yamaha CLP 440, she was biased toward the Roland based on its “accelerated action and weighted keys from bass to treble unlike the Yamaha.”

It could also simulate the so-called Steinway grand piano sound with a simple finger tap.

Other consumers, of more modest means, might have gone the less expensive route buying a portable or more modestly priced console like the Yamaha Arius going for about $1100 plus tax.

Still, when it came right down to it, teaching piano to a child or adult equipped with a “hammer-weighted” digital wouldn’t be same as working with an acoustic.

I Skyped a few piano lessons to rural Pennsylvania, where a DP flashed up on the screen. In time, after the first virtually transmitted instruction, it was tossed in favor of a twangy Haddorff 1941 console. To call the latter a saloon piano would have been an understatement, though its “feel” and “resonance” appealed to the owner.

I could relate.

The decay rate of any note on this “real” piano was astounding. It reverbed to the heavens despite its shortcomings attached to a poor maintenance history.

By coincidence, I had purchased my treasured Haddorff 1951, advertised on Craig’s List for $700, and it played circles around any digital in the tone and timbre department. (Though I will admit that its tuning needs were frequent, compared to tune-free electronic instruments)

Nonetheless, the above example alone, proves to me, that there are many worthy used pianos waiting to be purchased, and like mine, they may be located around the corner.

I’ve helped any number of students acquire pianos before the digital rage took hold and these purchases included Baldwin Acrosonics and Wurlitzers from the 50s, 60s and 70s era.

Just a decade ago most parents who contacted me for lessons had one of these acoustic pianos in their home. Today, the majority own a Casio, Yamaha, or a lesser known DP, and they have no idea that embarking upon instruction might require the real deal as far as some piano instructors are concerned. (myself included, though I’ve made adjustments for students who have little or no space for even a console or spinet piano)

***

But for piano study to be meaningful, it entails properly teaching the singing tone, touch, phrasing, nuance, “feel” which means a student needs to practice on a functional acoustic piano– one without sticking notes, missing notes or blanks, etc. In addition, the instrument needs to have tuning viability. (an able technician can examine the tuning pins, hammers, strings, etc. before a particular piano is acquired)

Many DP owners boast the critical lack of need and cost associated with tuning or regulation. (not to mention having climate-free concerns ) While these may be definite advantages, the trade-off in other areas of assessment is, in my opinion, not worth it. And I’m not talking about the hours of recreation and pleasure afforded by DPs. That’s FUN and great. My concern surrounds TEACHING and passing on a traditional legacy that has been time-honored for generations. (and that goes for mentoring “beginners.” There’s no reason for the training-wheels equivalent of a digital as predecessor to a real piano) One piano teacher’s website, for example, shows a row of 3-year olds wearing over-sized ear phones, hooked up to computer screens and attached digitals. She claims they are Mozarts in-the-making.

I’ve heard that song sung so often, that it’s become a dissonant reminder of the status quo.

But to inject some humor into this posting,

Evgeni Bozhanov, a distinguished Bulgarian pianist who competed in the last Cliburn International Piano Competition, was quoted as being unhappy with the complimentary Steinway grand donated to his host family in Fort Worth Texas as he prepared for his first-round musical appearance.

Pictured at a Yamaha Clavinova practicing a warhorse Rachmaninoff piano concerto, he was the poster boy for musical sobriety, shrugging off the arrogance of effete snob pianists who might discredit him. (Would that happen to be me?)

So on this disturbingly confusing note, I’ll conclude by sharing my voiced fears about the survival of the acoustic piano culture as channeled in a previous blog.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/is-the-piano-a-dying-breed/

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My “new” old 1929 Baldwin grand–a tribute to a seasoned used piano. For me, no digital can come close to it.

***
Footnote to item about Evgeni Bozhanov, from Wilson Pruitt who blogged about the last Van Cliburn Piano Competition

http://varropieces.blogspot.com/2009/06/bozhanov.html

“Things we know about Bozhanov: … He doesn’t like Steinways, especially American-made Steinways, and definitely not the brand-new New York grand that was delivered to his host family’s house so he could practice. Instead, his host family bought a Yamaha Clavinova electronic piano for him to use for practice (while in Texas) … He travels with his own piano bench.” (which looks like one of those DP jobs)

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Piano Lesson: An Adult student practices the Presto agitato mvt. Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata (Video)

The Chromatic scale to the end of movement:

R.K. wished to remain anonymous because of the nature of his work, but, nevertheless, he’s a devoted student of the piano.

I met him at the American Cancer Discovery Shop, on Bullard and West in Fresno about 5 years ago when I was a regular music volunteer, showcasing pianos donated for sale. He introduced himself as a piano lover who had given up his lessons as a teen, and wanted to resume study.

R. brought “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” to his very first lesson, an arrangement that was almost impossible to play, and before long he was immersed in the Classics, studying Beethoven’s “Pathetique” (all movements), Fur Elise, Mozart Sonata, K.545, and the “Moonlight” Sonata, among other challenging compositions.

R.K. is a hard worker and practices diligently except when he’s on the road.

This past evening we decided to wing it and videotape segments of his lesson with the camera pointing in my direction.

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A new member of the piano family has arrived: “Haddy,” 1951 is home! (Video)

Yesterday was a sight to behold. My Haddorff, 1951, a stunning new acquisition, with an old world timbre (though it still needs a thorough maiden tuning in its new abode), was wheeled on a dolly, wrapped in blankets through the streets of Northwest Fresno. Traffic yielded, and two drivers jumped out with cameras. Two business people on a lunch break nudged the beauty over a minor bump. Otherwise it was a smooth ride made possible by Ginnadiy Mikerin, former owner of the Visalia Piano Gallery, who performed Olympiad “wheelies” with the dolly. His truck broke down, and we had to make do. Surely, he had the skills to coast along to my townhouse, zig zagging on his makeshift skate board sans piano.

The Haddorff, located practically around the corner from my home was artfully transferred with a few mesmerizing dolly maneuvers to home sweet home– Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy might have lowered “Haddy” out the window, making this quick transport along Shaw Avenue a piece of cake by comparison, though nonetheless an eye catcher.

At the one and only street crossing on Shaw and Arthur, Haddy weathered a few additional bumps, and regained a smooth ride onto the paved entry way to my townhouse, and from there, it was just a few weaves around rolled up rugs, before she was maneuvered into the space formerly occupied by the Casio PX110 Keyboard. The digital was promptly banished to the upper floor set beside my Aerobic Rider.

On the main tier, Haddy was joined by two Steinways, an upright (1098 model) and grand (circa 1917), keeping her dignity reserved for special playing times in and out of lessons. She would not be shared for it was her destiny to be an instrument for personal introspection and contemplation.

But onto the official welcoming ceremony as Haddy reveals how mellowed wine and music-making are wedded. (It has for me a more intimate, velvety tone)

A sample:

What I will do here, is play the same first two pages of the Mozart Drawing Room sonata on all three of my pianos to reveal the contrast in “color” that each instrument offers.

This journey among three instruments may at least enlighten about the character of various pianos and reveal why a player may favor one over another.

Please listen past the preliminary warbling of the Haddorff which is in a raw state. Its tuning will be refined after it has two weeks to settle in.

About the Haddorff Piano Company:

“Charles Haddorff was born in Sweden in 1864, and had studied European methods of manufacture and learned to play piano before he emigrated to the America. By 1898 he had become a piano factory superintendent. Founded by Charles Haddorff in 1901 in Rockford, IL with financial backing from P.A. Peterson they embarked upon building high quality pianos. Haddorff designed new piano scales for his grand and upright pianos preceded by a study of the scientific studies of theoretical acousticians. He called his soundboard design, “HomoVibrating Soundboard,” that was constructed to allow greater freedom of vibration.The cast iron plate was of extra heavy construction and was made with a custom shoulder mating against the pin block. The company also built the Bush & Gerts, Bennet , Hartzell, Karl Zeck and the Clarendon brands of pianos. From start to finish (1901-1960) there were aproximately 160,000 pianos built. After Charles died the company was run by the Krakauer Brothers. The Krakauer firm then sold out to the Kimball Piano Co and soon folded completely.”

Before Haddy came home, it was residing a few blocks away in a different ambiance. The tuner checked it over and was impressed. He did a rushed overview pitch raise to test the durability of pins, strings. It’s always a good idea to have the opinion of a technician before purchasing a piano.

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The double standard as applied to used pianos and their sale

I’m always surprised by the condition of many private party market used pianos, as if a double standard is operating when comparing a house sale to a piano sale.

I will sometimes walk into a home that is on the market that is clean and sparkling while the offered musical instrument is dusty, out of tune, and often missing a bench.

Ads on Craig’s List will say that the piano is in mint condition but “just needs a tuning.” Most of these instruments, when played and inspected up close and personal will sound so sour that one wonders if any tuning can salvage them. The concern would be whether the ill-maintained piano would even hold a tuning for the long term, or if the strings are so aged that they would have to be replaced. (cost prohibitive when dealing with a vintage piano)

I always watch myself delivering a lecture to a seller about the value of tuning a piano regularly–how it maintains the tension of the strings, and is part of over-all instrument care. Inevitably, I will get perplexed and vacant stares.

One would think that sellers would understand the value of tune-ups as they relate to cars. Why not transfer that awareness to pianos?

They would surely not market their house without making sure the A/C was in tip top shape and ready to go–same for any appliances like the stove or fridge. How about the plumbing, heater, etc. All would be well maintained, hopefully, and thoroughly checked out before a new home buyer took ownership.

Sadly, time and again, the piano is treated differently, like a pariah that’s frequently shuttled off to the garage where it is shown to interested buyers.

I find it particularly pathetic to find a piano photographed in the garage with bottled paint thinners/ chemicals in front of it, such as one I encountered recently. It’s not only repelling, but I can only imagine the cost to the instrument.

On one occasion, I visited one such garage space during two weeks of continuous rain in the Central Valley, and the piano (formerly, a viable Kawai) had literally become drenched with water. A technician who accompanied me, recommended installing a damp chaser which he monitored for one week.

Now why would this orphaned piano of former value, have been so abused?

What about prices that some sellers attach to their ill-maintained pianos? Many of these instruments, not tuned for decades or more, might have chipped keys with or without cigarette burns. Some have missing pedals, or none at all. (Yet they attach questionable appraisals over-estimating their value)

One piano seller actually photographed her 19th Century Fritz grand without the pedal harp or the pedals. She had to hunt them down and once found, it made absolutely no difference, because the piano’s strings were over the hill and barely produced a discernible sound. I heard what amounted to clanging silverware every time I depressed a jagged key:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/28/the-ghost-of-fritz-was-i-dreaming/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/28/did-the-ghost-fritz-ever-sell/

As a piano finder, having a side-line hobby that assists my students, I circulate through many homes in poor and affluent areas of town, and despite economic disparities, a good percentage of piano sellers don’t think much about how their piano is presented.

Sad but true.

Hopefully, with education and enlightenment, sellers in the private party marketplace will let their pianos enjoy a renaissance of care and repair.

Finally, this Craig’s Listing, worth a few chuckls, sums it up: (No pic accompanied this ad)

Tune me please..I’m your Piano (Fresno/Clovis)
Date: 2011-04-16, 2:47PM PDT
Reply to: sale-ajyas-2329440506@craigslist.org [Errors when replying to ads?]
Well…I”M YOUR PIANO….just wanted to let you know that I’M STILL HERE!!! Loyally holding up these pictures and magazines….Patiently waiting for you to PRACTICE!!! or actually PLAY ME!!!…..I know, I know …I sound a little funky lately, but I really just need a little attention maybe a TUNING MIGHT HELP…YA THINK???…Sorry didn’t mean to shout…, I know, the economy’s in the toilet, your jobs on the line, you broke your fingernail, and your head hurts a lot lately…WELL THAT’S STRESS…AND I CAN HELP!!!! Music is a great tension reliever, (something to do with the middle part of your human brain….) A LITTLE CREATIVE EXERCISE COULD DO THE TRICK!!! And think of the opportunities soon to be coming your way, a new line in the “personal interests” section of your resume, new topics of conversation at the next board meeting or luncheon. WOW. you’re obviously an intelligent, caring, renaissance type person filled with an appreciation of culture and brimming with new ideas!!! The mind boggles with the sheer amount of social and economic doors flying open for a person of your obvious intellect and vision!!!! So…relax, turn off CNN, give FOX NEWS a rest and contact this guy…he’s prompt, reasonable, has 25 years of experience and was taught by his father…and I promise I’ll do my part to make you forget the global economic cell phone i-pod twitter obama rush facebook o’reilly BS for a few hours a day..(well maybe we’ll start with 20 mins or so…)

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A Performance I’ll Never Forget!

I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to provide keyboard music at a Fresno art supply store. It happened quite unexpectedly around the time I’d bumped into Ralph Cato, US Olympic Boxing Trainer at the neighboring Guitar Center. (“Cato, His Killer Keyboard and A Round of Piano Lessons”)

Because I liked the establishment’s acoustical environment, I volunteered to serenade customers with Christmas music on my PX110 digital.

The space, located in a busy shopping area right beside Trader Joe had a high, wood beamed ceiling that gave a shimmer to even the worst bell and whistle keyboard, so my more spiffy 88-key, “weighted” one, would surely soar with streams of electronically generated sounds.

With the permission of the owner, a perky, middle aged woman, I plopped myself down with my gear next to a neat row of easels and promptly served up a menu of popular holiday carols along with Handel’s “Messiah” excerpts. It was enough of an audience draw to land me a steady paid gig at the “Second Saturday Art Exhibition,” hosted by this very establishment.

Each month local artists displayed and sold their paintings, while one selected in advance, was given a well publicized teaching table to share techniques with interested customers. The location was conspicuously at the front of the store.

I was to arrive at 10 a.m. to set up my keyboard, stand and other accouterments, and once settled in, I had agreed to play a steady stream of classical music, setting a nice tone for the event.

The owner strategically placed me behind the featured artist, who, on this particular weekend, would display her rock and roll subject era paintings. At first glance, these hardly made an impression, but upon closer examination, I realized that she had produced thought-provoking works. One, titled, “Solitude,” with a Beatles theme, had an instant association to “All the Lonely People,” one of my favorite songs. Its moody grays, pinks–shadows and silhouettes were mesmerizing, and the more I gazed upon it, the more I hungered to acquire this treasure as a trade for doing a few dinner parties at the artist’s house. Maybe she’d consider it. “Give me your business card,” she had said, before things got underway. A few had separated from my wallet and were lying on the floor beside my Casio keyboard, at risk to be trampled, but I had decided to leave everything in place, without a second thought.

The artist, a plump, middle aged woman, with flaming dyed red hair and steel green eyes sat by her table alongside one of her flamboyant keyboard theme murals. Occasionally, she dabbed it with grays and yellows while her husband, who appeared to be in his late 60’s, registered a strong, protective instinct toward her. Intermittently, he chatted with visitors to the gallery and carried on prolonged, audible chats with them.

I had just about set up after having lugged my 27 pound portable from my van along with other accessories–pedals, music rack, double braced stand, and an electrical source, when to my astonishment, the A/C transformer that plugged into my keyboard, got caught in the van’s sliding door, becoming detached from its wire. It was instantly rendered useless! What a great segue way to my second banana appearance at the Second Saturday exhibition!

Luckily, the Fresno Guitar Center was within easy reach, so I raced over to borrow a substitute that was taken from one of the Casio digital floor models. “Guy,” the store Manager had already delivered a keyboard size bench since I’d inadvertently left mine at home.

With a working transformer the music would soon be up and running, but not before the art establishment’s proprietor raced over like clockwork to do a volume check on my keyboard. She’d decided on a half knob sound level because of her concern that “background” music could drown out conversations between the artist and a stream of visitors. While I believed that a 50% volume cut would significantly muffle the music I had selected, I went along with it. In a paid situation like this, aesthetics were often put aside in favor of pleasing an employer. We musicians were used to keeping our place.

Right on the button at 11 a.m. I sent dim electronic impulses into the universe to the accompaniment of nearby conversation that grew intolerably distracting. A group of visitors to the featured art table who leaned right up against me, were comparing plumbing disaster stories and bad home re-modeling adventures. The toilet bowl intrigues were particularly invasive to my concentration, so for tension relief, I found myself mumbling a private wish fulfillment. After the concentration shattering dribble ran its course, another flock of visitors replaced the first, talking at a higher volume level, and through all the dizzying banter not one person noticed Beethoven’s heavenly music trying to squeak out of an electronic box.

As I moved on to play Baroque period Scarlatti Sonatas with their shimmering ornaments and trills, I noticed the registered displeasure of the artist’s husband in his angry demeanor. He was sending an inaudible, though pervasive message, that my music was too loud.

The situation hearkened back to a party at which I was invited to play, located in the Huntington Lake neighborhood. At the time, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sample a 7 foot Bosendorfer grand that was hand-picked by my dermatologist at the Vienna factory. What an awesome instrument with a resounding bass and lyrical treble. The rehearsal was definitely memorable and should have been savored as a special moment because once I was seated at the piano at the glitzy event, the Bosie quickly dwindled to half its size. Hordes of noisy guests crowded in on me with cocktails in hand and within minutes I could no longer hear what I was playing. It could have been a selection by Bach, Mozart or even Stephen Foster.

***

The circumstance at the art store was comparable. No one had acknowledged the music through 90 minutes of playing and increasingly, I received alienating stares from the protective husband who I’d learned had been a long-time member of the Fresno Philharmonic horn section.

But I persevered and moved on to the Beethoven “Adagio” movement, from the Sonata “Pathetique,” with its doleful melody that instantly brought tears to my eyes.

Within moments of my musical immersion, I was distracted again by the leering husband who looked like he was about to approach the keyboard and turn down the volume himself. Instead, the store owner did it for him. She arrived just as I was playing through the agitated middle section of the Beethoven slow movement and with lightning speed, she threw her arm in front of me, nicked my cheeks, and zapped the volume knob, stopping my performance in its tracks! I felt the whole world crumbling around me, and I wanted to escape the whole nightmare right then and there. It had been the same with composer, Robert Schumann, who in his Neue Gezeitschrift fur Musik (New Journal of Music) wrote about purging the dilettantes from the face of the earth! He depicted the earnest war against them in his “Davidsbundler Tanze,” written at the height of the Romantic period. His self-made “League of David” was a proverbial collective of artists, composers and performers who upheld the intrinsic value of higher art in the face of destructive forces.

With the spirit of Schumann hovering, I gritted my teeth and played his “Arabesque” with its forlorn spindle of themes that reflected my countenance. Almost on cue, the store owner’s associate arrived on the scene. Sarcastically, she said, “Now why don’t you smile, honey, ‘cause you have such a pretty face.”

My tolerance threshold was waning and I realized that if I didn’t pack up my gear sooner than later I would emit a primal scream that might summon an ambulance. I would surely be carried away involuntarily.

Just as I was about to make my gallant departure in defense of higher art, my 83 year old friend, “Ruthie” neutralized everything. She sauntered in and greeted me in her usual chipper way. “Hi, there,” she said, “I’m sorry for being so late, but everything just went wrong today. The worst part of it was that my JC Penney card disappeared so I had to call them and cancel the account.” At that very moment, I looked down at the floor where my wallet was placed to see if it was still there. The business cards nearby had strangely disappeared, so I had reason to panic. My money and ID’s might have been taken as I was immersed in the works of Scarlatti, Schubert and Chopin.

Meanwhile, Ruth roamed around the gallery viewing paintings, and then warmly greeted the displaying artist whom she seemed to know. My senior citizen friend was a talented water colorist who had a small art studio within her home where she painted and taught. We had enjoyed a nice companionship over the years, and in the course of time, she had become the chief screener of my newly released CDs. I would bring the Master to her home, and she made comments about the order of my selections and the sound balance from one to another. She enjoyed the process of quality controlling my disks before their official release.

It was about 12:45 p.m. and I needed a well deserved time out, so I inserted one of my own recorded classical CDs into a Sony boom box that I had brought along. The owner had concerns about it when she saw me carrying the monstrosity into the store along with my keyboard and related gear. “It’s just for the breaks,” I had reassured her, “like for 15 minutes of each hour.” The artist’s husband had a frightening look as my CD resonated through the awesome space with its astonishingly high ceiling. In a matter of time, exploding emotions could cause a face off.

Just then, Ruth chimed in proudly, “Oh my gosh, you’re playing CD #3, one of my favorites.”

I had decided to let the disk run on perpetual “repeat” because I was not looking forward to playing “live” again, with all that was transpiring around me. Just in the nick of time, “Sharon Cooper” walked in with her husband and four year old daughter. She had been enjoying her Wurlitzer console piano that had settled into her Lemoore home. An instrument with wonderful resonance and personality, it had been acquired for all of $500, an irresistible bargain. The piano also had a delicate pecan cabinet that complemented its lovely voice.

Sharon had agreed to come to the art store after my performance so we could both dash over to the Guitar Center to select a keyboard. She needed a supplementary instrument with earphones so she could practice late into the night without disturbing her sleeping daughter. At the same time, I dropped off the transformer and bench that I had borrowed from Guy.

By late afternoon, at least Sharon was happy. She left the Guitar Center with a gem of a keyboard and then Ruth met me at “Whole Foods” for lunch. Another ray of sunshine appeared when one of my piano finder clients had sent me a $20 gift card in appreciation for my having steered her to the resonating PX110 Casio digital piano.

Ruth and I had a nice repast and shared a chocolate chip/oatmeal cookie that someone had left, completely wrapped, on our table. Finally by the very late afternoon, I drove home, crashed on my sofa, and woke up dazed and disoriented in the middle of the night. Ironically, I had dreamed that I was playing in Carnegie Hall to a pin drop silence. Gratefully, I went back to sleep with a pleasing smile on my face.

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https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/cato-his-killer-keyboard-and-a-round-of-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/is-the-piano-a-dying-breed/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFBqDcVa1JA “Did Somebody Say Fresno?” Video Editor, Aviva Kirsten

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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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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/