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Our individual musical study grows our piano teaching

For the past year I’ve devoted many daily hours to the study J.S. Bach’s six French Suites while simultaneously keeping pace with my students’ passage through diverse repertoire. The decision to take on this additional musical challenge apart from meeting my basic teacher obligations of being present at lessons; knowing the material assigned, and dispensing meaningful suggestions, is to advance my own personal musical development. By growing my technique and musicianship; organizing music with a theoretical lens; getting deeply embedded in form, harmony, phrasing, and noting the very steps taken in my early learning process, I grow my teaching to the benefit of my students. This message I gladly send along to colleagues who enjoy comparable journeys of self-discovery.

A few weeks ago, I received a pertinent message via You Tube from an adult learner in Israel who was challenged by the Allemande of the B minor French Suite No. 3, BWV 814 and wondered if I’d a posted a tutorial about ways to approach the opening dance movement. Although I had studied the Sarabande, Anglaise, and Minuet/Trio of this work, I hadn’t yet commenced an examination of the Allemande. Her request, therefore, was perfectly timed to nudge my practicing of this movement with an enlisted analytical approach–breaking down the “subject” or main germ cell, and discovering any and all fragments of the smallest idea that unraveled in two-voice counterpoint (and inversion) through the binary form. (Fingering naturally factored into foundational practicing along with the preservation of a “singing” tone.)

The video that I uploaded just three days into my exploration, contained the basic elements of structure/counterpoint that fed the musical/expressive side of interpretation and spawned an early play through that reaped the benefits of my self-driven pedagogical analysis.

Tutorial:

Play Through

I continue to make challenges like these for myself, not just through deep explorations of Johann Sebastian’s Bach’s music in its many forms (Fugues, Gigues, Allemandes, Courantes, etc.) but by stretching the mind in expansive directions: studying repertoire from various historical periods; exploring harmonic flow, rhythm, and theoretical framings that are in the service of how to phrase and imbue emotion governed by what is expected and unexpected in the course of a composition.

Finally, this investment in individual study is not only a promotion of self-growth, but it becomes a gift to our pupils to whom we are teaching the very rudiments of learning so they will become truly independent in their own study as it matures, and ripens over time.

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W.A. Mozart Minuets: Valuable Journeys of Discovery

It’s easy to be dismissive of the Classical era Minuet form, though in the hands of a wunderkind like Mozart, a set of these 3/4 meter Binary dances springs to life with a myriad of embedded learning and performance challenges.

For example, the Minuet in F Major, K. 2 composed by Mozart at age 6, (1782) and notated by his father, Leopold, presents a motif of broken chords cloaked in repetitive rhythms of two eighth notes followed by two quarters. If these figures are played without a consciousness of harmonic function, they will march along lacking the expressive dimension they deserve. Given the composer’s formidable vocal signature that cannot be lost through permeating rhythms, the performer must nuance phrases guided, in part, by how each unfolding broken chord in the melody, flows into the next. (An economy of TWO VOICES still provides the very markers of harmonic expression that enrich a reading.)

In the first measure, the outline of the F Major Tonic leads into the second bar on the level of the Sub-dominant (Bb Major outline), yet an illusion of the first measure feeling like the DOMINANT of Bb Major to an imagined new Tonic in a related key sets up a nice dip from Dominant to Tonic. I found this nuance to work well in the harmonic universe of thinking and interpretation. Naturally, the vehicle of redundant rhythms also demanded a decision about second and third beat note repetitions. Instinctively, I lifted the third beat and therefore lightened the repeated note (last beat) of each measure. Suspensions and appoggiaturas suggested a leaning on the dissonant note with a wrist forward relaxation motion upon resolution and groupings of notes/leanings and detachments in tenuto style factored into interpretation.

Measures 5, 6, and 7 encompass a blossoming crescendo that has a directional shift UPWARD through the broken chord melodic outline as compared to the opening. With the added vitality of an inserted triplet figure, the music spills robustly into a semi-cadence at m. 8 with a LEAN/relax appoggiatura. This DOMINANT C Major Cadence at mid-point, is UP-lifting!

The longer B section (measures, 9-24) proceeds with a tad of operatic drama, though one cannot take this perception to an extreme given the concise confines of a charming Minuet. Yet, the very entry into these measures through a broken diminished 7th chord resolving to the “minor,” (g minor) creates a mood shift that suggests a feeling of pathos. Such should not be lost or overlooked. (The B section, in general will provide elements of “development” that will unfold, albeit briefly, in the language of key change or modulation.)

Finally, a pivot broken chord in G minor serving as the ii chord of F Major (the home key)–measures 13-14, gracefully sequences the music back to the refreshment of F Major and the return of a more lighthearted conclusion to the work, but with a heartfelt delay of a Deceptive cadence (vi chord) in measure 20. (A fermata gives emphasis to the unexpected, and this infusion of embedded emotion defers gracefully to a charming ending on the tonic in the last measure.

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The Minuet in F Major, K. 5, (1762) is almost a polar opposite in character when compared to K. 2. Its formidably bi-rhythmic dimension juxtaposes a division of the quarter note in triplets against a division of the same into 4-sixteenth notes. (and in reverse) Yet, as always, the SINGING dimension of this composition must be preserved through its outpouring of rippling notes while an awareness of SEQUENCES, particularly in the B section is paramount to a convincing musical interpretation.

Page 1:

My Tutorial: (Provides details of analysis and strategies of learning)

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Minuet and Trio in G Major, K. 1 represents a form that adds a 3-voice Trio section. The outer sections, in two voices, are notably permeated by parallel tenths, with still quicker inserted 16th flourishes in tenths evoking an operatic duet.

The tutorial below explores structure, voicing, and ways to nuance phrases using a supple wrist, singing tone approach.

According to Notes provided in the Alfred Edition, this Minuet is “unusual in its shifting phrases and rhythms.” The composition was Mozart’s creation at age five.

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Beyond Leon Fleisher’s riveting words about pianists and vocal modeling

Pianist, Leon Fleisher has given us his notable artistry over decades, while his insights about practicing and teaching have been invaluable for a vast community of mentors and students.

In his latest interview that coincided with the release of a new album, All the Things You Are, Fleisher spoke eloquently about the intrinsic relationship of vocal modeling and beautiful musical expression at the piano:

“I think, possibly … especially for pianists, to think in terms of ‘vocal.’ If you can sing something, and I don’t mean to sing all the notes, because the range of the piano is way beyond one person, but if you can sing the music, articulate it, then you can play it.

“One of the great challenges of a pianist is that every other instrument (I discount mallet instruments), violin to double bass, piccolo down through tuba, they have three things to think about: they have to think about how they attack the note; they have to think about how they support the note; and they have to think about how they stop the note. Most pianists just think of the first of those three, how they are going to attack the note, and not even all of them think about that. If they can expand their approach, new revelations will appear. You would be amazed how seldom one comes upon somebody who thinks in those terms or makes music on the piano in those terms.”

https://www.icareifyoulisten.com/2014/08/5-questions-leon-fleisher/

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Fleisher has also given us the mantra, “Hear it Before you Play It,” which is an internalization of what the pianist imagines in sound before placing his fingers on the keys. (The opening notes of a composition are not haphazard, but instead, are planned in advance in the psyche.)

While the aforementioned ideas (including vocal modeling) are essential to a well-meaning approach to the piano, a student journeying through the masterworks with the counsel of teacher, needs MORE than a vocal paradigm to make significant progress toward sensitive music-making.

For example, once a pupil can “sing” what he wants to produce at the piano, he needs to know HOW to realize his own model which will encompass a host of ingredients that are included in the following set of questions:

1) What are the physical means to the end? Are there blocks to freedom of expression because of tension in the arms and wrists that need to be identified? What about the breath? Does the vocal model suggest places to breathe in the natural ebb and flow of a phrase? Is the breath short due to tension which inhibits free expression?

What about the nuts and bolts of playing staccato, legato in complex strands of notes? These surely warrant modeling by the teacher at the piano. (How are notes “grouped,”or “spaced?”) What about “Rotation” and its effect on phrasing. etc. A pupil, needs hands-on knowledge that a mentor needs to provide. These encompass issues of traction and weight transfer into the keys, etc.

What role does the pedal play in beautiful phrasing? These require demonstrations as well. (Again, vocal modeling is not enough, but ATTENTIVE LISTENING and harmonic understanding are a must.)

2) Is faulty rhythmic framing blocking the flow of what is internalized? Are legato triplets, for example sounding angular and choppy? If they are, then it follows that a teacher must enlighten a pupil about the “color” and motion of these threads and how they can be liberated in a seamless, horizontal flow. (Teacher demonstrations at the piano can include supple wrist grouping of notes.)

If a fundamental beat is non-existent, or if a true “singing pulse is absent,” a student needs to understand what is causing note crowding, undirected accelerations, or interludes of lagging. Often a teacher will remedy such problems by “conducting” the student, simultaneously instilling a sense of shape and contour to musical lines.

3) Does a pupil comprehend the relationship of harmonic rhythm or flow of harmonies to phrasing? (cadences, modulations, etc.) Even with a well-defined vocal model, a student would still need to realize the dips in phrases that occur with various progressions (like Dominant to Tonic), or to understand the emotional ramifications of Deceptive cadences, parallel minor/or Major transitions.

Decays of notes also factor into phrasing. Is the student keenly aware of how what comes before affects what follows? What about sub-destinations and full destinations in a chain of measures?

How do dynamics, crescendos and decrescendo’s contribute to the sculpting of lines?

4) How does the historic period of a composition influence the whole approach to sound imaging? (Debussy vs. Bach; Mozart vs. Chopin) This opens up a universe of tonal variation and exploration. (Mental imagery contributes to a realization of a sound ideal.)

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In truth there are so many ingredients in an artfully sensitive music-making process that just one central focus, like vocal modeling, is clearly not enough.

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In exploring my archive of videos, I found two that resonated with a multi-dimensional approach to creating beauty at the piano.

1) Footage from the first sample is derived from my 2014 visit to New York City where I filmed Irina Morozova teaching one of her young students. (Franz Liszt La Leggierezza) The Special Music School/Kaufman Center.

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2) Excerpts from an ONLINE lesson to Scotland: Felix Mendelssohn Venetian Book Song Op. 30 No. 6. (The split-screen recording is a valuable playback reference for the student)

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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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A balanced piano lesson of Technique and Repertoire

If a student is well-prepared, having devoted quality time during the week to practicing scales, arpeggios, and pieces assigned, a lesson can contain a nice balance of ingredients.

Barring holidays, long distance travel and time zone changes, most pupils will devote 15 to 20 minutes of their lesson to technique, and the remaining 40 minutes to repertoire.

Today, one of my Online students based in Scotland for the moment, (destined for Australia) had a well-rounded lesson that began with a focus on the E minor Melodic minor scale. She attentively worked on making a crescendo to the peak in Staccato while the companion Arpeggio drew upon a related practicing strategy at the final octave. Increased dead weight, rotation, and relaxation were required to achieve a convincing climax in both, while blocking techniques firmed up hand centering and related finger geography.

In the repertoire realm, J.S. Bach’s Little Prelude in F Major, BWV 927, and Schumann’s “Of Foreign Lands and People,” Kinderszenen No. 1, Op. 15 capped the lesson, with a common exploration of phrasing and its relationship to harmonic rhythm and counterpoint. In both compositions, line parceling in slow tempo was of particular importance.

TECHNIQUE PORTION OF LESSON

REPERTOIRE

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Approaching a brand new piece with spirit and emotion

When piano students first encounter a fresh page of music, they will often wade through the notes as best as they can, fumbling here and there without an adjusted framing pulse or investment of animated interest in what the notes are saying beyond their humble, accurate identity.

In this early stage “reading,” tempo is usually far too brisk (and erratic) for the new learner to experience any emotional response to a cascade of dizzying dots and beams. They are consumed with finding the right pitches and nailing them down.

For this reason, I insist that my pupils separate hands, and slow down the pulse to frame a “deep” in the keys, mood-matching connection to a new score because every playing registers a profound imprint in their consciousness. So throw away trials that breeze over the character of a given composition only divert the learner from the essence of the new composition.

By example, I’m working with a student who’s enraptured by the intensely rhythmic and bi-tonal energy of Kabalevsky’s “Clowns,” yet there’s the same propensity to overlook the character/mood of this piece in the initial hit or miss the notes, baby-step learning process.

A changed perspective:

In this video sample, the student takes the right approach, working assiduously on the first section, paying attention to spring forward staccato releases, and notated accents that he manages in a slow tempo framing. It allows him to capture the “feeling” and emotion imbued in this miniature. Naturally, his being “connected” to the circus atmosphere of “Clowns” from the very start makes his learning engagement deeper and more satisfying.

Since Kabalevsky’s two-page composition has notable harmonic patterns, symmetries, agogic accents, inverted motifs, ostinato bass, etc. these present an opportunity to examine theoretical context as an aid to interpretation, noting that no dimension of learning is a pedantic side bar.

Every examination of a piece becomes part of an integrated whole, of which the very first note ignites a rich emotional, cognitive and kinesthetic experience.

Clowns play through:

Early “Clowns” lesson with my student in London, England (first section)

Kabalevsky Clowns p. 1

Kabalevsky Clowns p. 2

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Piano technique lesson segments flow nicely into repertoire

Today, the technique portion of a Face Time lesson to North Carolina complemented the main musical course, Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, Op. Posthumous.

It was a harmonious streaming with thumbs swinging; arms floating; and scale contouring that fed well-shaped Romantic era phrases.

It played out as follows:

The A minor scale was parceled out by thumb shift “swings” in rhythms; Rolling motions into a 4-otave spread ensued.

And then a diversion to a D Major arpeggio emphasized the same “swing” throughs from thumb to thumb to prevent impact and obtrusive accents.

The thumb is a nemesis for most students, having its frozen, isolated, annoying effect during transit unless freed of its propensity to interrupt and intrude.

That’s why specific focus on relaxing the thumb and LIGHTENING its effect, took up a good deal of lesson time, though it was worth the effort.

Finally, the layered learning approach to technique in small increments improved the student’s phrasing once she settled into playing the Chopin Waltz.