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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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The value of studying short Romantic era Character pieces

Piano teachers often welcome the opportunity to use student repertoire requests as a springboard to nourish new learning adventures. Such pupil-driven musical endeavors can lead to deep-layered immersions in short, Romantically framed character pieces.

The value of dipping into miniature variety compositions encompasses taking on a learning challenge in compact form. For example, Schumann’s Album for the Young Op. 68 has a repository of picturesque musical samples that have dual artistic and pedagogical merit bundled into a page or two. The same economy of space/expression applies to Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Pieces Op. 39. Burgmuller, Dvorak, and Shostakovich, join many other composers in this genre, who have produced anthologies of program music in attenuated form.

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In both the Schumann and Tchaikovsky collections, colorful titles inspire the imagination while requiring a satisfying fusion of affective, kinesthetic, and cognitive approaches to learning. The process of absorption is still layered and developmental but it must be focused on a mood-set that is promptly captured and sustained. (Contrasts in middle sections must include a shift in affect, and an alteration of tonal expression within a short musical space.)

Schumann’s “The Reaper’s Song,” Op. 68 no. 19, is a pertinent reflection of piano study that requires an in depth examination of “voicing” despite its brevity. This particular learning dimension includes an awareness of how an opening thematic melodic line in 6/8, (duple compound meter) meanders from the “Soprano” range into the “Alto,” while the bass line provides an important fundamental underpinning. One might consider the interweaving of voices as reflective of Romantic era “counterpoint.”

In addition, there’s a syncopated rhythmic dimension that evokes the machine-like mechanism of the reaper that appears initially in the bass, but fans out to the upper voice.

Finally, any and all key changes, though ephemeral, must be noted and assessed for emotional/expressive impact.

In summary, this particular musical undertaking via “The Reaper” requires an attendant balance of all voices as they interact and move along with the enlistment of an expressive “singing tone.” (Arms must be relaxed, while wrists are supple in order to realize vocal modeled expression)

A “counter-melody” springs up, (though not readily apparent), that if fleshed out, will relieve thematic repetition and provide more nuanced artistic expression/phrasing. Rubato and dynamic variation also become integrated components in this learning venture, while an embracing rhythmic flow in TWO is musical wrapping.

As contrast to the opening fabric of voices that supports a singable, meandering theme, Schumann inserts an Interlude of rolled out UNISON triple-grouped 8th notes in Forte that smoothly transition back to the initial theme. Repetition of this particular mid-section with a doubled VOICE octave spread between the hands affords an opportunity to nuance it differently, perhaps with a less intense dynamic upon the second playing.

At the piece’s conclusion, the composer charmingly adds a Coda of lighthearted staccato chords in choir where the soprano remains, without doubt, the lead voice. A parallel harmonic third to fifth to sixth sequence in this addendum hearkens Schumann’s signature “hunting horn” motif, though I’m not convinced that the REAPER, relentlessly harvesting crops would have stumbled into this particular milieu. (but who knows?)

Other samples of short character pieces that require in depth probing of voicing/phrasing/dynamics etc. include these two gems that I’ve recently learned.

Robert Schumann

“A Little Romance,” Album for the Young, Op. 68
(This miniature requires playing after beat chords as harmonically rich supports, but not intruding upon an impassioned melodic line. Once again, “voicing and balance” considerations are pivotal to playing this piece expressively.)

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Antonin Dvorak

“Grandpa Dances with Grandma” (No. 2–Two Little Pearls)

Lots of thematic repetition requires expressive and dynamic variation. In a relentless 3/8 meter frame, a player must resist the temptation to sound mechanical and metronomic. A contrasting middle section that’s homophonic and in a modulating KEY, demands a shift in mood, needing prompt awareness and attention to tone/touch shifts. A Voicing dimension expectedly permeates the entire tableau.

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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.

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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!

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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/

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Ear Training and Transposing are intrinsic to piano lessons (examples from an Adult lesson in progress)

It’s not easy to plan a one hour piano lesson to include ear training, solfege and transposing. (They belong together, bundled with Theory, and enrich the learning environment)

At the Oberlin Conservatory, Theory, Keyboard Harmony, and Eurhythmics were taught separately. Our piano teachers (applied study) adhered to their rigid routine, rarely fitting solfege, sight-reading, improvising, composing etc. into the time-limited hour. Yet, the cross-fertilization of course work, expanded our musical horizons.

The New York City High School of Performing Arts, my alma mater, offered a valuable/mandatory Sight-singing course that continued from 10th grade through senior year. It was enormously relevant as the movable DO (solfeggio) helped me navigate complex scores, and peel away voices.

Piano students who just stick to the music without being exposed to theory, ear-training and other mind-enriching escapades, are basically short-changed. They often view their pieces as finger challenges only–easily becoming Treble clef fixated, tacking on bass lines without a second thought. Naturally, their sight-reading suffers because they’re not internalizing interval movement in various voices, or sensing harmonic flow.

In an effort to stem the tide of such top layer, tracing paper learning, I’ve made a concerted effort to delegate at least 15 minutes of my students’ lesson time to ear training and transposing. (One of my source materials is Fundamentals of Piano Theory by Snell and Ashleigh) Snell and Ashleigh

As an example, I videotaped an adult student transposing snatches from the Preparatory Level workbook, page 45.

for transposition using solfege

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I’ve tossed in a spot-practicing segment where the ADULT student is smoothing out a tricky set of measures in the RONDO: Allegretto, Mozart Sonata, K. 545. (Repertoire should be a springboard for sight-singing, ear-training and theory adventures since they’re interwoven)

(I often slip into solfeggio in parceling voices)

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LINKS:

Solfeggio and Transposing

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/piano-instruction-solfeggio-and-transposing-video/

The Importance of Sight-singing, Ear-training and Theory in piano study
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/the-importance-of-sight-singing-ear-training-and-theory-in-piano-study/

Using Piano Repertoire and as a springboard for a theory lesson

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/using-piano-repertoire-as-a-springboard-for-a-theory-lesson-major-minor-and-diminished-chords-videos/

How to Improve Sight-Reading

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/how-to-improve-sight-reading-at-the-piano/