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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.


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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An adult and child share common goals in playing piano artistically

There’s no big ocean of divide in working with children and adult piano students. In fact, today I found common threads running through two lessons: one with a local beginner, age, 8–the other, a seasoned adult.

Liz, 8, completed her fifth week of instruction, with my imbued emphasis on how to produce a singing tone. From day one, I’ve nurtured a relaxed funnel of energy down her arms, through supple wrists, and gently curved hands. This same fundamental lesson framing applies to Sam, a much older student who resides in London, takes lessons Online, and is practicing “Fur Elise.” (He’s about three years into his studies.)

The following lesson samples were nicely paired with common goals of creating beauty. Sam’s challenge today was woven into his D Major Scale in 10ths. He worked on ORGANIZING it–discovering symmetries between the hands in mirror images, while maintaining a natural flow of energy down his arms, wrists, and hands. Curling fingers under in a block practicing segment impeded its smooth octave by octave course, and grabbing notes would cause the same interruption of well-breathed out sequences. The remedy proved to be thoughtful repetitions, that gradually eliminated these impediments.

For Liz, whose lesson I re-capped in a summary video, I illustrated the very concepts that were woven into Sam’s lesson, but in a different context.

The child is studying short pieces in Frances Clark’s Primer, Time to Begin, but she’s also given composing assignments that tap into her creativity with an embedded alliance to the singing tone. The earliest exposure to the piano is probably the most critical in furthering the development of attentive listening; a physical/emotional connection to the instrument, and a cognitive framing that reinforces the practicing phase. (Not to overlook the imagination and its profound influence upon musical expression.)


SAM: Playing the D Major Scale in 10ths

A Summary of Liz’s 5th lesson–correction from “4th” mentioned in the video (in part)

Liz’s previous lesson segments have been recorded in progress:





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Deviating from the Piano Method Book to custom fit the child

In the course of page turning through The Music Tree, Time to Begin, I’m in agreement pedagogically with the early exposure of twin black note playing, enlisting alternating hands, using fingers 2 or 3. This route also provides a sound vehicle for teaching fundamental note values: quarters and half notes, with a pre-notational designation of hand use by stems up (RH) and stems down (LH).

However, after observing my piano student, Liz, during the course of three lessons, my inclination is not to dwell too long on TWIN black note playing with fingers 2 or 3. Instead I’ve decided to branch out and introduce three-black note combinations that include finger 2, 3, 4 in each hand. To this effect, I’ve borrowed a few pieces from Faber Piano Adventures: “The Walking Song,” “The I Like Song,” and “I Hear the Echo.” I plan to record teacher accompaniments for the child to enrich her practicing with a harmonic underpinning. (She will do introductory clapping to introduce tempo and a steady pulse)

As a warm-up to the aforementioned pieces, I’ve created a “Stepping Up” piece on twin black notes, (fingers 3,2 LH and 2,3 RH) dividing the keyboard in half to comport with a bass/treble division, and “Stepping Down” that reverses the direction of notes. This exercise, rhythm-framed, uses a LEGATO touch between consecutive fingers. (a new undertaking)

The same approach applies to traversing the keyboard over triple black notes using fingers 2,3,4 in the RH, and separately 4, 3, 2 in the LH. Again a framing rhythm and legato touch are the goals of this excursion. Built into this exercise is an inversion of the notes in a DESCENDING journey)


Today the student explored the musical alphabet. (ABCDEFG).

In both Time to Begin and Piano Adventures (“The Pecking Hen”) there are ample opportunities to name the sequence of 7 letters in repetitions all over the keyboard. (the word “octave” is introduced in this exploration).

Today Liz played C, D, E using fingers, 4, 3, 2 (LH)
and separately 2, 3, 4 (RH) during a four-octave span–She then reversed the journey in the opposite direction.

The same occurred with the balance of the musical alphabet as follows:
F G (with 3, 2 LH), A B (with 2, 3 RH) played LEGATO in quarter notes with a hand over hand progression. The exercise became a springboard for a second composing opportunity that included discovery and use of the sustain pedal.

Liz’s initial composing activity continued with an enlarged framing.

My teacher accompaniment had been added to the student’s piece that is shown below in a pre-notational representation that inserted the names of white notes.

Liz piece notation

We also experimented with an alternate style of accompaniment that complemented the rendering of the same short composition with staccato articulation on the quarter notes. (giving it a Spanish flavor)

Future Composing Activity:

I’ve assigned a two-phrase piece, that should be in groups of 4, using quarters and half notes.

FG AB: LH 2, 3, RH 2,3 (The piece is to encompass “two octaves,” use quarters and half notes; and should contain an echo.)

Given this student’s current musical knowledge, she will be able to float and name the notes while also notating the rhythm on paper.

Finally, in composing and other activities, the singing tone is emphasized and reinforced with demonstrations of the supple wrist, relaxed, floating arms, and a framing pulse.

OVERALL plan: To move to the partial staff sooner than later. I favor this Time to Begin approach as compared to the content of most Method Books that prematurely present the complete Grand Staff, and habituate students to five-finger positions that often compromise note reading progress.

Nonetheless, I’m not averse to borrowing parts of teaching materials that have pedagogical value and make up for the shortcomings of one or another piano “method.”





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The “upper arm roll” and undulating wrist in piano playing

Many piano teachers call the same physical approach to various passages by a different name. I find myself in harmony with author, teacher, composer, Seymour Bernstein when he demonstrates the “upper arm roll” in Part 4 of his recorded series, “You and the Piano.”

As it plays out in one my teaching videos, I similarly refer to an “arm roll” that has a continuum of funneled energy through undulating wrists.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 12.54.43 PM

I also emphasize that the fingers have to be draped in a relaxed way, so as not to impede the smooth flow of energy down the arms into wrists, hands and finally into the fingers. This energy delivery should be without tension-related interruptions at any juncture.

In addition, I advocate the use of “rhythms” to activate these bigger energies where they apply. For instance in the Coda section of J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor, (end of measure 22 through m. 25), many students get “locked up,” as a stream of Subject fragments pile up at close intervals. Often these notes within such sub-sets flow out of Dominant harmonies and land with ACCENTS instead of tapering according to harmonic rhythm.

To avoid such unmusical emphases, I suggest grouping notes in rhythmic segments with a natural arm roll into flexible wrists.

In the attached video, at the juncture where the A minor Invention spills into a climactic convergence of voices between the hands, commencing at measure 19, and continuing through an intensified spill (Treble 16th notes, against bass 8th notes) I further recommend a “rolling” or “wavy” contouring in groups of 8.

Bach A minor Invention p. 3

Finally, in reference to the uninterrupted flow of energy funneled down the arms, I urge students to preserve a mental image of “hanging arms, hands, and fingers.” By standing upright and then bending over in a relaxed way, they can simulate this “feeling.”

Even while seated at the piano bench, this same sense of “hanging” in relaxed abandon can be imagined and put to good use in piano playing, along with the related mental image of Puppet String Arms.


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Finding a melodic thread in a sea of fast notes

Compositions that are laden with myriads of fast paced notes often pose a problem for students whose immediate response is to efficiently “type” them out. Implementing such a mechanical approach often excludes an awareness of a melodic strand that will need to undergo shaping and contouring.

One particular piece comes to mind that offers an opportunity to explore the complex task of phrasing a nexus of notes in brisk tempo.

Burgmuller’s The Clear Stream with its relentlessly beautiful triplet figures (in Allegro Vivace) will sound very “notey” if it’s played giving equal emphasis to every 8th. Applying such an unmusical approach, will transform a “limpid” trickle into turbulent waves pounding against the shore.


This is why using a sensitive blocking technique (for each set of three notes in broken chord formation) can divert students from early superficial mechanics, affording instead a primary understanding of a melodic thread that resonates through clusters.

Yet it’s not enough to “block” out chords without an internal image of how these “chunks” move musically in sequence. Dominant chords might need a dip in dynamics at resolution. Or there may be an ascent of chords that requires intensification through a crescendo or by its opposite, diminuendo, in a descent.

Because dynamics are intertwined with a comprehension of harmonic rhythm, the journey becomes intrinsically allied to phrase shaping. Still, beautiful phrasing of seamless triplet figures requires a supple or flexible wrist approach which is another important phase of piano learning. The singing tone which becomes the focal ingredient of a threaded melody in The Clear Stream, necessitates not only an internal or imagined image of what the player wants to hear before the very initiation of sound, but a commitment to a “wavy” thread of notes with a moto perpetuo character integrating nuance, shape, and structural awareness. To play with artistry also requires the use of “rotation” in the flow of legato triplet figures.

Where the the second part or B section introduces a counter-melody, the student must be guided to understand devices of inversion and counterpoint and how to make decisions about two threads of melodic and sub-melodic interest that simultaneously exist.

Finally, my original tutorial set out ways to counter the “typed-out” approach to The Clear Stream and replaced it with a more thoughtful exploration that included ingredients noted in this discussion.

The play through:



To add to melodic thread discoveries and their treatment, I added a recent video of a lesson in progress on Bach’s Invention 13 in A minor. In this particular instruction, rhythm practice and BLOCKING techniques helped the student better phrase and shape reams of broken chord figures, while it nudged her in directions of recognizing contrapuntal/imitative interactions between voices.

Page One:

J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor

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A “cool” dip into Quicktime for wrist, finger, and forearm staccato practice

Amazing how 90-degree temperatures in the East Bay can wreak havoc over Face Time transmissions. It nearly made Online mentoring come to a grinding halt yesterday! except that a Quick Time saving grace Lesson Preserver came to the rescue!


In my Scotland travels, I’m accustomed to subbing in the iPhone for the iMac because of two-way computer Online Face Time/Skype irregularities, so from week to week, I’d been giving my back-up camcorder a 60-minute workout, snatching the whole lesson for a same day uploaded re-cap. But once I realized Quick Time on the Big Mac could be enlisted to simultaneously record selected lesson segments while glaring at the cell image of a Yamaha grand, I had the best of both worlds: Live iPhone transmission and a selective mouse clicked re-run in progress.

Here’s the set up: Call it an EMT piano teaching equivalent.

Naturally, the mechanics of Quicktime allow focus on well-measured lesson goals. For example, yesterday, I demonstrated a variety of Staccato approaches in scale and arpeggio framings using the overhead keyboard web cam view. (wrist, forearm, finger driven detached notes on display)

And once the day played out with cooler evening temps draping the East Bay, I had sufficiently “warmed up” my ‘finger’ staccato to demonstrate a fast 32nd-note romp.

In summary, being flexible and resourceful in this Online universe is a must to keep lessons up and running despite occasional annoying transmission problems.

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No dumbing down piano study for adult students

I’m ready for a shower of criticism on this one. After all, some adults want their favorite transcription of the Elvira Madigan theme song, (aka Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 in C, Andante) to encapsulate their musical journey—at least for part of the time. And that’s OK if the transcription route of top ten, poorly transformed (rotten tomato) versions of the Classics doesn’t squeeze out real deal pianoforte masterworks in unadulterated form.

On that pessimistic note, one of my students from the Central Valley, (aka agriculture’s West Coast heartland) had studied with me for 6 years before I escaped to pesticide-free Berkeley CA. Thinking she might be a carry-over on SKYPE, I’d already planned her next deep-layered musical exploration: Chopin’s B minor Waltz which would have been a logical follow-up to the less complex Waltz in A minor, No. 19, Op. Posthumous.

But no sooner than my pupil showed a lack of enthusiasm for ONLINE instruction, I had referred her out to a seasoned Valley mentor who’d graduated from one of the most distinguished European conservatories and made no bones about her “superior” training.

With such a self-ignited reputation, one would have expected a sequence of lessons on an exceedingly high level.

No such luck. The progression of selected works was tantamount to a poorly transposed, two-page FUR ELISE reduction, minus the meaty middle section and chromatic bridge to final theme.

It wasn’t the Beethoven Classic that was CUT to unrecognizable form, however, but a Chopin substitute that might have been as harmful as a banned artificial sweetener.

In short, the student was given an impossible remake of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude in Db Major, transposed to the key of G, with more technical land mines than the original. Certainly, the overwhelmed pupil was not ready to tackle the URTEXT edition or a shoddy substitute.

The good news is that she grew so frustrated with the roster of fakes, that she headed over to SKYPE in sheer desperation. Now two years later, she’s back to basics and deep-layered learning…

Which brings me full circle to the solid journeys my adult pupils are taking minus God forsaken short-cuts.

Case in point:

One student embarked upon the Schumann “Traumerei,” No. 7 from Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood) and has realized how fingering choices and voicing are pivotal to the initial learning stage. If fingering is haphazard, then a seamless legato line is unattainable.

Schumann Kinderszenen Urtext

To assist her study, I prepared a video that draws on the URTEXT edition, with recommended finger-switching maneuvers that will aid smoothly connected lines.

But her first assigned goal this week is to thread through the treble melody without adding the balance of voices.

Such a study model is shown in the video below:

And here’s my play through:

In summary, it all hearkens back to the meaning of piano study and its serious ingredients. If a student wants to read through fun transcriptions in his/her own spare time, I have no objection, but when lessons roll around each week, it’s most valuable to pursue compositions that have been time-tested for their substance and beauty. And as a direct benefit, they seed technique and advance musical growth.


PS: There are finely composed Jazz pieces, contemporary literature, etc. that can be integrated into the curriculum. These should be assessed for relevance to a student’s level of advancement.