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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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Piano Practicing: Breathing into phrases and blocking out passages (Mozart Sonata, example)

I’ve picked the first two pages of Mozart’s Sonata in Bb Major, K. 281, last movement, Rondeau, Allegro to explore breathing and blocking techniques in the learning process. (These principles can be applied to practicing music from a variety of eras)

Starting a composition is often taken for granted. Sometimes students will land on a first note, for example, with the force a belly plop into a pool. Others will forget there are opening notes, (as the 4-16ths upbeat of Mozart Sonata K. 333 in Bb) They’ll breathe a sigh of relief, once they’ve managed to elude them, moving with alacrity to longer, spaced-out notes.)

Yet, this very “sigh of relief,” can be utilized as a relaxed stream of expressed air to usher in a pleasing opening note or notes.

Naturally, breathing into phrases with ease should be ongoing as a composition flows, so biofeedback becomes a vital practicing ingredient. (I recommend that students keep a journal of awakenings)

Blocking

Blocking out passages to obtain fluidity is a simultaneous part of the learning spectrum. Thinking in “groups” of notes, especially with fast passages, encourages “fast melody,” instead of chaotic crowds of notes without shape, meaning or contour. Knowing the geography of notes, therefore, is an organizer that helps smooth out phrases (Relaxed arms and supple wrists accompany)

The first video below spotlights the aforementioned practicing areas, adding an awareness of dynamic contrasts/ weight transfer, and the use of solfeggiated syllables (do, re, mi, etc) to follow and absorb voices. (Separate hand practice and voice parceling within a slow, behind tempo frame are recommended)


Play through
(still behind tempo)

Mozart k281 rondeau p 1

Mozart k 281 rondeau p 2

LINK

Chopin, Warm-ups and the Art of Breathing

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/piano-warm-ups-and-the-art-of-breathing-video/

"Tales of a Musical Journey" by Irina Gorin, Chopin Waltz in A minor no. 19, classissima, classissima.com, Irina Gorin, phrasing at the piano, pianist, piano, piano blogs, piano instrruction, piano lessons, piano lessons for adults, Piano Street, piano studio, piano studio in El Cerrito, piano study, piano teacher, piano teaching, piano technique and breathing, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, practicing piano, practicing piano in slow motion, practicing piano in slow tempo, practicing piano with relaxation, relaxed arms in piano playing, scales, scales and arpeggios, separate hand piano practicing, Shirley Kirsten blog, shirley s kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, shirley smith kirsten blog, Shirley Smth Kirsten, slow mindful practicing, slow piano practicing, teaching Beethoven Fur Elise, teaching Fur Elise, teaching piano scales, teaching piano to adult students, teaching piano to adults, teaching piano to young children, whole body listening, whole body music listening, word press, word press.com, wordpress, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube.com, yout tube, youtube.com

The piano learning process at all levels of study

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples:

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

***

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

Sight-reading was not a parcel of our work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LINKS:

How Long Should a Student Stay with a Piece?

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/how-long-should-a-piano-student-stay-with-a-piece/

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

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/quality-spot-practicing-by-an-adult-student-beethovens-fur-elise-video/

The Value of Slow Practicing

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/piano-learning-and-technique-the-value-of-practicing-in-slow-motion-or-behind-tempo/

Out of a Rut with Quality Spot Practicing
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/piano-instruction-out-of-a-rut-with-spot-practicing/

RECOMMENDED READING


Just Being at the Piano
by Mildred Portney Chase

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Revisiting an old piano piece learned years earlier

I find my current musical journey down memory lane to be joyful and challenging–especially as I cut and paste the Mozart Rondo: Allegro, K. 311 pages to fit comfortably on the piano rack. (Deja Vu, Haydn C Major Hoboken XVI35–Haydn pinned and unpinned)

I wrote to a musician friend during the height of my frustration. “This undertaking is far more complex than the former because my Mozart Sonata Urtext edition, Breitkopf and Hartel, has enormously big pages. Therefore, I must figure out a way, to fraction them, ply them, add parts of measures on my printer/copier, then attach, and re-attach.”

My shabby efforts produced the following:

Mozart Rondo K. 311 2

As comic relief I summarized the process:

“This is the most flagrant cut and paste job to date—the Urtext oversize led to one hour of fidgeting, fumbling, frantic fastening, failing, flailing, faltering, framing—piecing, plying, pairing, pressing, taping, tying and crying. What a waste of time!

“Now I have to memorize the first 2 pages–because even with the taping, tying, plying and sighing, there’s just no room to read across.”

Despite this tangential escapade, I’m drawn back down to earth, believing, if you lay a solid foundation in your earliest learning effort, then a revisit will tap into familiar landmarks, making your review more smooth sailing than you might expect.

Case in point.. Mozart K. 311, the very first sonata my teacher, Lillian Freundlich gave me to study–and one I’d waxed poetic about in my “Sentimental Journey” posting.

What I had learned about learning in my first sonata encounter, aided my re-connection.

1) Phrasing–first movement–Allegro con moto
Freundlich parceled out one or two measures–drawing 16ths back to quarters.. deep in the keys approach
Then moved to 8ths in doublets or pairs, finally extending out to 16ths..it was rhythmic groupings in synch a singing tone moved the piece into an artistic rendering, rather than a typewritten framing.

Incidentally, the singing tone, not surface, key skimming was my teacher’s conception of the Mozartean voice.

AND SLOW MOTION PRACTICE was at the core of developing and shaping all passage work.

2) FINGERING–good decisions were made way back–NO guessing in the dark, or dice throws– No fly by night accidents of fate..
The fingering was set down, like good housekeeping– A table prepared to specification.

3) Harmonic Analysis–The KEY signature was well imprinted. Flow of harmony, the same..
How did certain chords or modulations affect interpretation? (Part of phrasing/harmonic rhythm exploration)

4)Form and Structure–First Theme, second theme, Development, Recapitulation
What key for second theme?.. What happened in the Development section–what keys explored, (modulations), rhythmic devices?

Sequences? Melodic symmetries and asymmetries. We circled what remained the same, and what changed.

All of the above fast forwarded on a consciously unconscious level into the present easily tapped out of a sub layer of knowing.

Last week I’d recorded K. 311, Allegro con brio– And after a few days of revisiting, I had mildly adjusted fingerings to conform with the brisk tempo.

Then moving on to movement 2, I remembered the importance of Mozart’s vocal line, the need for a lush, deep in the keys singing tone so well imbued by Lillian Freundlich. (NO to a frilly, top-layered, superficial approach)

Awareness of harmonic flow/rhythm, marked out in my score from years before, helped me retrieve the long lost movement and bring it back to life in short order.


The Journey continues

Rondo: Allegro, K. 311

Currently, I’m face-to-face with this rapid movement which seems easier to navigate the second time around, but for what I consider a particularly tricky section:

A set of trills in the Left Hand set against a rapid flow of 16ths begs for a crossed hands adjustment but it’s just not feasible.

Mozart rondo k 311

Seymour Bernstein, pianist, teacher and composer, points out that pianists have been known to heist sections of music.. reconfiguring passages, that cannot be easily executed as written.

Emanuel Ax, concert pianist, fleshes out this very issue in a Beethoven documentary. He demonstrates how the composer made it nearly impossible to play a section of his second sonata, first movement, with the right hand only fingering indicated in the score.

Ax posited that perhaps Beethoven considered his personal fingering to be a “cosmic joke” contrived “to annoy everybody!”

Nonetheless Ax, demonstrated how most pianists will divide the passage between hands.

Did I veer off topic?

Not exactly as this side excursion related to my tackling difficult passages with an innovative approach, if applicable.

In the Rondo section attached, the trill in the left hand will be a potential finger-jammer, so post video, I made the choice to play GAGF#, followed by F#GF#E, EF#ED etc.

(In the instruction below I navigate the section through a set of steps and practicing routines:)

Decisions like these made in the course of primary learning experiences, tend to surface again in composition revisits. They certainly further musical development.

Finally, the old, reliable, baby-step, ground up work, done during an original exposure to a composition, is the best gift a student can bestow upon himself as he reconnects with a former love.

LINK


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/piano-technique-and-repertoire-does-making-fingeringhand-adjustments-constitute-a-swindle/

The Value of Practicing behind tempo, in slow motion
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/piano-learning-and-technique-the-value-of-practicing-in-slow-motion-or-behind-tempo/

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The C Major Scale universe: metric and muscle memory; shaping and tapering

Most piano students celebrate the C Major scale as an “easy” journey over 8 notes and back.

But as the attached video instruction proves, the ingredients of playing this scale with a fluid, well-shaped legato (smooth and connected) in transition to a crisp and vibrant staccato touch (forte and piano) is a “challenge.”

One of my out-of-state Skype students amply described the terrain as she patiently practiced her 8ths to 16ths, (legato/staccato)

“It’s hard!”

I’d second that for these reasons:

Keeping a steady, singing pulse, ascending and descending requires presence of mind, and a sense of “breathing” through the notes.

Anticipation is out the door as 8ths double to 16ths. What about 32nds?

All the more reason to RELAX and psychologically BROADEN your perspective. Don’t crowd the notes!

Metric memory, especially, is a great asset when memorializing the scale over and again. One doesn’t want a shaky landscape to embed a curvaceous spin from C to C.. or from Sea to Shining Sea.

On a patriotic note, I love oceanic analogies when I play the piano, though more often, I draw upon images of smaller bodies of water, like babbling brooks. (Think of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, or rippling piano accompaniments to his Lieder)

Why digress with mental imagery? Because using one’s imagination to play the C Scale will help it rise to the occasion, not crash and burn!

To play a C Major scale beautifully, sing it, shape it, and taper at its conclusion. (A supple forward wrist motion is recommended)

For certain, a lesson-in-progress is worth more than a thousand words:

adult piano students, Berkeley piano studio, classissima, classissima.com, El, El Cerrito piano studio, piano, piano addict, piano learning, piano lessons for adults, piano teaching, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

Adult Piano Student Themes and Issues

Marie back Aiden frong

After decades in this teaching universe, I’ve acquired novel insights about the adult students with whom I’ve shared musical epiphanies. Of course, it goes without saying that they’ve provided more than a backdrop for my musings.

Surely, there’s no stereotype in this cosmos of retirees and a bit younger, but I’ve noticed common threads weaving in and out of their lessons.

Many exhibit a feeling that coming back to the piano at a more advanced age, or starting their studies in adulthood means they can’t possibly progress to a level of playing they envision for themselves. (Patience is sorely lacking)

Their built-in pessimism is not an attitude that best nourishes a musical journey.

In truth, state of mind, is a more significant ingredient of progress, than pounding away at scales and arpeggios.

So how does one deal with slipping and sliding egos and a pervasive lack of confidence among the adult pupil contingent? I affirm with reassurance that we are embarking upon a personal, tailor-made journey without value judgments and set-in-stone expectations.

The latter can seem like a superficial approach to teaching/learning but at least it invalidates an ultra performance environment that befits the corporate executive, not the nest-searching piano fledgling.

A few case histories:

Joan, a 63-year old returned to piano after a hiatus of 50 or so years. Her European mom taught her for a time, and there was classical music streaming through the house.

Strangely, her confidence gap was glaring and I got the sense that a second piano teacher along the way was punitive, harsh, and obsessed with a perfect, arched hand position, not to mention a fixation with playing the RIGHT notes or be escorted to the nearest exit.

(Another student, about the same age, had retread her traumatic experience being taught by a nun at a southwest Texas parochial school. It was break out the ruler, and burn the knuckles knee-jerk response when the hand collapsed–OUCH!!! Who could recover from that?)

A Polish grad student had suffered abandonment by a music teacher in the homeland who doted upon her older sister, and felt the latter could be primed for the concert stage at the expense of the younger sib. When the injured pupil arrived at my studio a decade later, she was a bundle of insecurity– beating up on herself for not “getting everything right” the first time.

Joan, my senior, had no playing sample for her first lesson, which was common among hyper-sensitive adults who tiptoed across my threshold. (Their thinking was I would audition them out of the running even when no such chorus line existed)

Many who’d previously taken lessons didn’t necessarily have remnants of their musical history stored in the piano bench. And that was a bit of a surprise.

Others, however, might come to the first lesson, with an armful of hymns, old collector’s item method books, like Diller-Quaille primers or John Thompson Red books, that had yellowed over time.

(One of my earliest piano teachers bestowed an old edition of the Chopin Waltzes bound in red hard cover, that when opened poured tiny flakes of parchment all over the rug. It was the stuff I’d seen tossed from balconies along Wall Street in ticker tape parades. Van Cliburn, upon his victorious return from the Soviet Union, was one of the few rarely feted MUSICAL heroes. It earned my personal BRAVOS!!)
***

Repairing past injuries

Pupils with fragile egos needed a form of on-the-premises psychotherapy that involved non-threatening, relaxed entrees into the learning environment. (A desensitization process that tested the merits of my NYU-awarded Music Therapy Master’s)

It was common sense that the very first lesson or interchange could make or break a budding musical relationship.

(I vividly recalled the first lesson with my traumatized, aforementioned senior with European roots. She sat hunched over the piano worrying what directions I would dispense and if she could meet the challenge)

In this teaching situation, intuition and instinct quickly replaced any method book approach. I had no intention of propping music on the rack with a required reading demand.

Instead, I just picked one note at a time, and worked with the timid student on producing a singing tone. It hearkened back to my own first lesson with NYC-based, Lillian Freundlich who promised to teach me to learn on my own, the most endearing gift she could have bestowed.

I borrowed from her in my own teaching universe. Likewise I wanted adult pupils to enjoy going BACK to an era of musical innocence– not perceived as being LEFT BACK –but building a good, solid foundation for the future.

We’d have a fresh expedition–a creative learning PROCESS that we’d nurture together for its own sake and intrinsic worth. Such seeped into my veins from Lillian, and enjoyed passage to my flock of adult students.

And that brings me to the subject of those who came full circle to the studio paralyzed by performance anxiety, a psycho-dynamic spectrum providing a field day for shrinks.

In past years, there was much talk about early psycho-sexual development and injuries to the Ego and Super Ego.

If an individual got stuck with the wrong parents, and later, an abusive piano teacher, there wasn’t a chance in hell he’d enjoy the spotlight of his own musical performance on stage, or even before a handful of “friends” who were quickly transformed into enemies through self-spun fantasies.

One of my poor adult students, a strapping US Attorney, bumped into a chandelier on the way to playing a Clementi Sonatina. That was worse than having his head pushed into music sitting on the rack after a few unwelcome clunkers. (He had recounted this nightmarish experience during lessons with a former teacher)

First he had to recover his senses before daring to participate in another home-based recital. (I made sure to stage these in a friendly environment, not up on a podium simulating a piano competition) My adult pupils shrank from such opportunities and barely wanted to come to potluck music-sharing. I’d be the only one playing amidst the popcorn popping.

Back to the performance anxiety milieu and how it affected adult piano students.

At least from my humble perspective, I believed the seeds were sown in childhood where parents registered disapproval or withheld love for imperfection.

To have confidence in anything one did–was to be at peace with oneself–to love oneself with all one’s short-comings—-a good first start to performing well.

Perhaps it was just the tip of the iceberg..

Love-starved kids might put all their energies into acquiring adoration through high intensity accomplishments–can you imagine the internalized pressure—and the world crashing down when their own expectations fell short–Impossible demands to meet.

It fed the adult anxiety spectrum and the nerves associated with playing for the TEACHER or any other warm body that entered the room–not to mention European juries that awarded certificates of achievement in a level-based spectacle. (I’d had a few foreign Skype students who were rushing to play for these judges that scared the hell out of them) So why did they bother? Did it go back to unreasonable demands made upon them in early childhood? Unreasonable expectations?

There’s lots to say—

In a recent spoof on all these certificates of merit, I imported an “Honorary Adult Student of the Week” platform to my home studio.

Ironically, the spontaneous, self-created piece of parchment bolstered the confidence of an originally, shaky adult student and sent her beaming out the door.

No doubt my cat, Aiden felt gratified, too, because he snuggled with her at each lesson, blessing the woman with good feelings about herself.

Finally, I wish the same well-being for all adults in their piano-launched journeys no matter where they reside, here or abroad.

Marie, as she earned her sparkling medallion and proudly displayed it after some prodding.

In addition she was added to my Wall of Fame at the entrance way.

Here’s Marie in piano karma. Oops, Aiden interrupted her meditation….
DSC01644

More photos at the Steinway:

The Backdrop:
Marie began piano studies at my former Central Valley studio in approximately 2007 when I had just moved from a knee-crushing cubicle to a civilized space.

She’d taken previous lessons, but had a significant hiatus of unknown length. I remember her first lesson well. She had no specific pieces to play for me but was ready, willing and able to embark upon a musical adventure.

The enthusiasm was there and remains to this day.

A video sample of Marie and I, in a naturally, flowing duo that nurtured the breath in piano playing warm-ups.

Here’s the musical terrain we’d covered over 6 years:

Pentascales or five finger positions in Major/parallel minor relationship–all keys.

Four-octave Major and minor Scales and Arpeggios in parallel/contrary motion around the Circle of Fifths. (We’re currently adding 10ths and 3rds)

Repertoire, following a review romp through the Faber Accelerated Adult Beginner Books–Lesson, Performance and Theory:

James Hook Minuet; Anna Magdalena collection, Minuet in G, attributed to Christian Petzold, and not J.S. Bach as formerly believed; Clementi Sonatina in C, Op. 36 no. 1, (all movements), “First Sorrow” and “Wild Rider” from Schumann’s Album for the Young, Rameau Menuet en Rondeau; Mozart Dance in F Major; J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor and Andante in A minor; Szymanowska Mazurka; Chopin Prelude in A Major; Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous; Beethoven “Fur Elise.”

Progress has been steady and satisfying. I enjoy Marie’s devotion to the piano, and laud her for acquiring a lovely, resonant Acrosonic Baldwin after letting go of her skittish Kincaid with its built-in handicaps.

The Acro is kept in tune, and has featured piano status as the centerpiece of her living room. A cage full of cackling parakeets is nearby, and a cat and dog who co-exist harmoniously, join in a chorus of approval while Marie practices.

I had the honor of presenting a concert on this very piano for Marie’s mother’s birthday. She was heading toward her 90th, but had a few years to go.

Incidentally, I keep these as a reminder of Marie’s musical presence in between her lessons.

LINKS

Are Adult Piano Students Stigmatized?
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/are-adult-piano-students-stigmatized/

Adult Piano Students Say and Do the Darndest Things

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/adult-piano-students-say-and-do-the-darndest-things/

Performance Anxiety and the Pianist


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/performance-anxiety-and-the-pianist/