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“Listen to the Long Notes”

Five words resonated profoundly through a Masterclass given by Pianist, Andras Schiff at the Juilliard School. They framed a myriad of movements in Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras.

Three students offered selections by Bach, Schubert and Schumann. (The event was Live-streamed)

While Beethoven did not grace the program, Maestro Schiff’s mentoring had far-reaching implications for piano teachers sifting through suggestions about attentive listening, phrasing, spacing, harmonic rhythm, instrumentation, voicing and much more. They flowed into repertoire well beyond the limits of programming.

In my domain of mentoring and eternal music-learning, the words, “Listen to the Long Notes” struck a riveting chord. The idea of hanging with a note, especially one that stood out as a destination in an unwinding melodic thread, was pivotal to beautiful phrasing. By coincidence, such instruction nicely trickled into a Classical work I’d been poring over.

The recurrent, heart-throbbing theme from Beethoven’s Adagio Cantabile, Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”) was a Masterclass beneficiary.

The well-known middle movement, framed in Classical terms, but reaching toward full-blown Romantic effusion without over-exaggeration, requires “attentive listening” that underlies many dimensions of playing expressively.

The opening melody recurring in many musical “attires,” has a directional pull toward the very long notes that can be easily over-anticipated, or played before their time. (i.e. the dotted quarter note) Time, in this case, is not metronomically measured. It is has a breathing pulse that hearkens the arrival of a note in a fulfilling place. (The decay of a preceding one must be felt to its last in order to “know” kinesthetically and affectively what comes next.)

Instrumentation and voicing also apply to this universe of peak musical expression. (Schiff made many references to strings, trumpets, even percussion through his class that ignited the imagination of students who refined their thinking about phrasing.) His prompts and metaphors gave more context to their musical expression.

As pertains to the opening of Beethoven’s middle Adagio movement, a “violin” plays the lead melody within a Trio that includes a viola and cello. The viola renders wavy broken chord-like figures, while a significant underlying cello bass line provides a necessary Fundament-driven richness to the texture. Voicing decisions encompass how to balance the “instruments” especially as the “score” shifts to 4-voices, adding a “second violin.” By increasing the voices, the dynamics shift upward.

What needs formidable mention, notwithstanding Long Note to Long note emphasis, is an understanding of how harmonic flow or rhythm influence the crafting of phrases. (shaping, sculpting lines, etc.) A Dominant to Tonic progression suggests a dip down, but it can become a cliche if over-observed. Because there’s so much repetition of the theme, the idea of varying each statement, even with an unexpected diminuendo can create a heart ripple that is otherwise lost by rigid harmonic thinking.

And finally, without reference to supple wrists and relaxed arms, expressive music-making would be under-“played.”

While I’ve veered for a moment from the LISTEN to the LONG NOTES rubric, I’ve best communicated the value of Schiff’s all-embracing wisdom in my two video offerings.

1) A Play through of the Beethoven Adagio Cantabile

2) An analysis of theme repetition in the context of attentive listening that includes LONG NOTE awareness, scoring, notation, sequences, harmonic rhythm, dynamics, etc.

***
Note: Juilliard Masterclasses (Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia) can be revisited at Medici-TV

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When a Virtual Piano Student becomes a Reality!

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 8.51.55 AM

Touchdown! Berkeley, California! An Online student landed in the East Bay just as the Carolina Panthers were bracing for a Super-Bowl match-up with the Denver Broncos in Santa Clara.

Sports-crazed fans were headed for a Big, crowded weekend with tailgate parties, packed hotels and traffic jams!

But my traveling, jet-lagged pupil from North Carolina had no interest in following the football event. Weeks in advance, she’d scheduled her LIVE lesson in Berkeley, with an additional request to sit in on one of my local student’s classes.

It was a slam dunk without a hitch as our scheduled doubleheader turned into spontaneous three-way sharing: an off-the-cuff exchange about LIVE lessons as compared to those transmitted Online. (by Skype and Face Time).

Naturally, April had experienced both sides of the lesson-receiving spectrum while Laura possessed a home-based perspective, and I had both.

So the inevitable outcome of our collective conversation was a recorded interchange without a shred of resemblance to the hair-raising mega-produced commercials that run full blast during Super-Bowl breaks.

This is the real deal, uncensored and refreshingly honest.

 

 

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An Adult Piano Student teaches the Teacher

Awakenings alternately occur between teacher and student, especially if they’re collectively open to them. And embracing this sharing spirit, I welcome ideas from pupils about phrasing, technique, etc. since we enjoy a common journey of discovery.

By chance, one student brought a “new” fingering for his assigned D Major arpeggio in 10ths, and it worked so well that I tried it and liked it. Naturally, it wove its way into my recommended repertoire of fingerings and became an ever-flowing gift to other pupils.

In the White, Black, White stream of root position arpeggios  that use LH  5, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1, etc. against RH 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, etc.. in the sequence for example of D  F# A,  D  F# A,  D  F# A, D instead of using the Right Hand fingering as a springboard for tenths, where RH F# A  D  F#  A  D  F# would enlist 2, 3, 1, 2,  3, 1, 2, etc. my student suggested for the same Right Hand sequence  2, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, etc. which provided an inner symmetry between the hands and a nice RH spill into the last octave without an awkward thumb shift at the peak turnaround. (The “new” fingering explored also applies to A Major and E Major arpeggios in 10ths)

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The video below examines the feasibility of the revised fingering, showing its ease especially in brisk tempo. And where a crescendo to the peak note is needed, the RH 1, 2, 4 spread of fingers in the last octave is particularly defining. Viewing the hands together dimension there are convenient chord blocks in respective hands that if practiced in a parceled way, will aid fluency. And once the sequence plays out in broken chord fashion these symmetries will kick nicely into the speed zone.

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Piano Technique: Playing LEGATO can be a drag!

One of my favorite verbal prompts to students who have a choppy approach to scales and arpeggios, is: “drag” your fingers from note note–“feel” the weight transfer with imagined resistance. I often talk about flowing “vowels” not consonants through an arpeggio.

Other mental images are equally effective: Think of the piano as a bowl of honey or molasses as you play through it. Avoid a top layer, thin, transparent sound. I’m known to resoundingly nix any semblance of tracing paper. (There I go with mixed metaphors that nonetheless register when students are trying to achieve playing “density.”)

And of course, it helps to have a cooperative piano–one that has some resistance built in re: the down weight, after touch, let-off. I’ve been dealing with this very issue as my Steinway grand’s regulation is on HOLD. The punchings that were cut beneath the notes,Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 1.26.44 PM in conjunction with some other applications, created a piano with barely any friction or resistance to create a seamless legato, so I’ve retreated to the brand new Baldwin that has this capacity. Updates on Steinway M will be reported as they occur. I’m happy to report that first stage improvement is in progress and it’s going to be a long haul.

Back to producing a seamless legato on pianos that have at least minimum potential. As it played out, my long distance ONLINE Fresno student had to psyche out her Baldwin Acrosonic when a voicing issue intruded. An F# in the bass range sounded like a tin can bouncing off a kitchen counter,tin can bent so we had to deal with subduing the note through an F# minor arpeggio in contrary motion. The very process of avoiding an attack on the vulnerable F# invited attentive listening and a semblance of muscle memory.

Here’s a lesson segment that proved to be a real drag in the good sense:

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“Counting Correctly, but Playing Un-rhythmically”

“The habit of counting correctly but playing unrhythmically develops easily in the beginning and is too often overlooked.” – Richard Chronister (A Piano Teacher’s Legacy, Ed. Edward Darling)

http://www.amazon.com/Teachers-Selected-Writings-Richard-Chronister/dp/0976116308

I love this quote, because many students count out beats quite methodically but without musical meaning. Their metrical repetitions serve little purpose if the goal of study is to communicate an art form that is embodied in rhythmic framing with threads of melody weaving through a “singing pulse.”

Dimitri Kabalevsky’s “Clowns” piece from the composer’s Op. 39 Album of Children’s pieces, is the perfect springboard for practicing (behind tempo) with an animated, “living, breathing,” framing pulse that ignites the very mood and affect of the composition right from the start.

In this regard, my Face Time student in London, in his second year of piano study, has made nice gains playing rhythmically and musically. Here he takes a baby step journey in his early exposure to “Clowns,” with a keen awareness of buoyant rhythmic energies that propel his practicing in a chosen, steady, embracing tempo.

Kabalevsky Clowns p. 1

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In this sample, the pupil practices a five-finger C# minor penta-scale in double tempo starting with 8th notes, to 16ths to 32nds..(ending with staccato, forte and piano)

***

P.S. I always recommend that students enroll in a Jacques Dalcroze Eurhythmics Course. As it happened, my most influential teacher at the Oberlin Conservatory was Eurhythmics mentor, Inda Howland.

LINKS:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/eurhythmics-a-whole-body-listening-experience-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/dalcroze-eurhythmics-on-display-at-the-san-francisco-conservatory-of-music/

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Playing a Bach Invention: Say what you mean, and mean what HE said

My latest awakening occurred during a piano lesson last night with a student who loves Bach and nearly dotes upon his compositions exclusively. And that’s fine with me who’s a companion traveler sharing a comparable love for the composer and his diversity of keyboard works.

Invention 1 in C, BWV 772 is one of my favorites for its saying so much in two pages, and yet it can be played mechanically, without insights into its ingenious form.

Not only does the composer traverse the keys of C, G, D minor, A minor, F Major, returning to C, but the devices he uses with the Subject are worth probing to gain a deeper perspective of form, structure and interpretation.

And that’s what is meant by not only playing with a clear understanding of a composition’s ingredients, but communicating what the composer intended on multiple levels.

A few years ago I mapped out Invention 1, discovering more than I expected about the Subject and its development in the course of 22 measures, so I will let this blog and its embedded video lay the foundation for this discussion.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/revisiting-j-s-bachs-invention-1-in-c-bwv-772-video/

But beyond the pure Analysis of a work comes inspiration springing from knowledge and this is where a teacher and student can bond together in pursuit of playing that reaches to the stars, as Seymour Bernstein well said in his inspired book, With Your Own Two Hands.

Flash Forward:

My play through:

Lesson excerpts with a Bach aficionado in Chico, California:

PART ONE

PART TWO:

J.S. Bach Invention 1, page 1

J.S. Bach Invention 1, page 2

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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