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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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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 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.


The Value of Practicing behind tempo, in slow motion

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Teaching piano to Rina, 5, with a supplementary video for mom that outlines our lesson plan and goals

Rina’s mother attends her daughter’s lessons, takes notes, and receives a follow-up assignment.

Today, I sent her a video that summarized what we had accomplished yesterday along with a goal-setting outline.


The child has been working on her legato which is a new and enticing musical universe. For the better part of 6 months she’s had considerable saturation with single, detached notes, using one finger at a time.

Last week, I felt it was the perfect moment to join notes in a connected fashion because I’d seen her do this on her own, and felt she possessed the musical and physical ability to move forward.

Here’s a snatch of Rina’s legato from her last lesson:

And her preliminary work on Minuet by Reinagle:


She’s now playing her “Frere Jacques” in Major and minor (with Eb) using connected fingers (Legato)

In this regard, Rina currently “reads” a pre-notational form of music, where the notes in various rhythmic values float in space, going up and down in STEPS and SKIPS. Bar lines have been inserted along with letter names and finger numbers. (These pre-staff landmarks have been gradually learned)

EXAMPLE of the format with “Frere Jacques”


This latest video prepared for mom pertains to practicing an expanded five-finger warm-up in legato and the Reinagle Minuet in G Major.


MY PREP VIDEO for the Reinagle piece, created earlier, encouraged ear-training, clapping and singing activity, etc. in readiness for playing.


For the intricate intervals in measures 13-16, I’d planned to enlist staircase activity which is demonstrated on video. (Note that a FLAT can be added for the Parallel minor, which I illustrated at the conclusion of footage)


Finally, here’s an overview of Rina’s progress before she embarked upon legato phrasing:

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Piano Lesson: Analyzing/playing Bach Invention in D minor, No. 4, BWV 775 in slow tempo (Videos)

In J.S. Bach’s Two-part Inventions both voices overlap and imitate each other creating counterpoint.

The SUBJECT of no. 4 contains a d-minor Harmonic form scale whose 6th note, B flat does NOT continue in an upward motion to the leading tone, C# or 7th note, but instead, the C# is displaced down to the lower one. (B flat goes down to C#) This is unexpected in the course of scale progressions, so it has an emotional impact bound up in the intrinsic nature of the interval and its fall. (watch phrasing, and roll wrist forward for the ascending scale)

In truth, the descent sounds generically like a Major 6th, but its spelling conforms to a 7-letter spread, making it a 7th.

The second part of the opening subject, is the broken-chord, detached 8th-notes. They should not be too short. (I think press/lift)

Once the content of the Subject is understood, then any elaborations should be noted as occurs starting in measure 5 and on, as well as sequential measures, where a melodic or bass segment may be repeated a step below or above–or for that matter any uniform distance as long as there’s a symmetrical relationship between measures or phrases. (melodic and/or harmonic component–rhythmic as well)

The trills spelled out in the Palmer edition, are not played rapidly. They’re designated as treble 32nds against 16ths in the bass. When the trill is reversed, the Left Hand plays 32nds against 16ths in the Right Hand. (These would be called “measured” trills)

A very poignant juncture is at m. 48, with its DECEPTIVE cadence. An awareness of this surprising emotional shift is needed, so be prepared for an unexpected delay by way of a Bb VI chord.

Above all, carefully shape phrases and be aware of the counterpoint at all times.

Play Through:

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Irina Gorin, creator of Tales of a Musical Journey, shares her thoughts about braving a new piano teaching universe

From Irina Gorin:

“An expert is a person who makes all mistakes possible in a very specific field and learns from those mistakes. So I could probably consider myself getting close to being an expert in teaching children. But I hope there are many more mistakes and learning experiences ahead.”

This riveting quote set in motion a series of thoughtful answers to questions I posed to Irina Gorin, creator of Tales of a Musical Journey.

A master teacher with decades of experience, she’s been riding a crest of success with two self-published volumes that have earned acclaim from piano instructors around the world. Satisfied parents, too, are chiming in with their testimonials, forming a choir of praise. All are inspired by two volumes that introduce beginners as young as 4-years old to the “Magical Kingdom of Sounds.” Immersed in a fairy-tale universe, they encounter characters such as King Meter, Fairy Musicalina, Princess Melody, and Prince Rhythm who lead the way with enchantment and imagination.

A child’s progress will be nursed along in carefully conceived baby steps with a fundamental goal of teaching the singing tone and how to physically produce it. Learning in this environment with absorption of musical concepts comes quite naturally. I know, first-hand, because of my experience using Gorin’s Book I with Rina, who began piano lessons at age 4.

(P.S. My review of this material will be published in the Fall 2012 Convention issue of the California Music Teacher Magazine)


To widen our understanding of Irina’s motivation to pave a new pedagogical path for beginning piano students, she agreed to answer the following questions.

1) Tell us about your own training in Russia and how it influenced your approach to teaching?

I graduated from a music school, college and conservatory in the Ukraine. (It took more than 20 years of intensive training in total). Teaching was a favorite interest of mine from a very young age. And while performing never was my goal, I did well with those opportunities during my student years. In particular, I enjoyed accompanying and chamber music; playing duets and performing in ensembles. To this day I relish duet-playing with my students, and accompanying them when they study concertos.

I took intensive teaching courses (a total of 8 semesters) in college and conservatory and started working as a teacher at the age of 17. My first teaching experience was at college, where I observed my instructor mentoring the same student every week. The second lesson of the week I would teach this student on my own while my instructor would evaluate progress and move on to the next step in the learning process. In this way, I worked with the same pupil in coordination with my instructor for a total of 2 years, following the child’s progress from a late beginner level to early advanced.

In summary, living in the Ukraine afforded a vast opportunity to observe many master teachers in the lesson environment while it also exposed me to a variety of master classes, concerts, lectures, workshops, not to mention hundreds of books on piano pedagogy.

Eventually, I worked for years in a children’s music school beside 60 piano teachers who were of different ages, backgrounds and experiences. In this stimulating environment, there were joint recitals, discussions, and classes that continued to feed my growing interest in teaching.

2) What prompted you to create your own creative learning materials, given the vast array of popular method books out on the market?

As piano teachers, we always strive to help students make the most progress possible.

We want them to read notes fluently, develop good technical skills, perform confidently and expressively, and above all, we want them to enjoy playing piano and classical music.

These goals are realistic ones if we have the right tools to approach our students in the very early stages of piano study. One tool is a good method book that can size down the presentation of complicated musical ideas, and make them digestible, interesting, logically connected, as well as visually and musically attractive. At the same time, teacher satisfaction with the materials is a high priority.

For more than 30 years of teaching, I had been in search of such an ideal set of method books.

I should backtrack a bit by saying that in the Ukraine where I studied and taught, there were no method books at all. All the materials the teachers had were selected books with no pictures or words to the songs.

The typical first lesson would start like this:

This is the keyboard with white and black keys. Here are the notes ABCDEFG–so let’s play them. Then the teacher would take a student’s hand in her hand and play and name the notes in the middle octave. Following this introduction, the teacher and student played an easy tune on one note with finger # 3, then two notes, and moved on to songs with more fingers and more notes. (A creative teacher could vary this approach)

When I moved to USA in 1993, I was thrilled to discover method books such as as Alfred, Thompson, Bastien, Faber and Faber.

They had pictures; they had words to the songs, and moreover, CD’s with accompaniments. I was amazed by how easy it was to teach students starting with 5-finger positions. It seemed logical and convenient.

So I started teaching all my students with Faber and Faber’s Piano Adventures which soon became my favorite. For certain, these books made my work as a teacher less burdensome. (especially with my lack of an adequate English vocabulary)

But in a short time, I started seeing some big obstacles associated with these materials.

1. Students could not read or play music that was not in a 5-finger position.

With such patterns the five fingers are strictly fixed to certain notes in each position. Very quickly the students realize that they only need to pay attention to the fingerings so there’s no point in “reading” the notes because the same fingers are always “glued” to the same keys.

Sooner or later, however, the students and teachers will have to abandon these playing patterns, at a point when the pupil will suddenly realize that he has not acquired enough skills to read the notes. (The old trick of identifying the notes by fingering will not work when the student proceeds to learn the classical repertoire)

2. Another method-book related weakness was in the realm of technique, despite the existence of an entire album devoted it. Students who were exposed only to this material, had not developed a good hand position.

With fingers being constantly fixed in 5-finger positions for months and sometimes years at a time, young hands became immobile which led to a permanently strained, stiff and clumsy physical approach to playing–along with collapsing fingers and sterile tone.

3. While mentoring young children who had been submerged in these method books for too long, I had the challenge of teaching them to play expressively.

Students exposed to the five-finger positions, could care less about artistry, expression, and tone production.

In addition, the existing piano books did not explore feelings, or different approaches to tone production.

I must admit that part of the problem was tied to the prevalence of digital pianos, where touch could not affect tone.

Nevertheless, method books, likewise didn’t flesh out aspects of tone production. They emphasized loud and soft sounds (p and f) which hadn’t much to do with playing expressively.

So I was concerned with what had happened to feelings of sadness or happiness–being cheerful or gloomy. These were emotions children felt and understood by the age of 4.

4. Another difficulty with the standard method materials, was my having to use 4 or 5 different books in one short 30-minute lesson. These included SEPARATE Theory, Technique, Performance, Rhythm, Popular collections, etc.

Unfortunately, with the arsenal of method books required, many parents refused to buy the Theory, Technique or Performance book. They complained that it was too expensive, or that one or two books were enough. (By the way, I still can’t comprehend how technique and artistry can be separated out from the Lesson or Performance volumes)

As a result, as soon as students transitioned to the classical repertoire, they quit piano lessons, because the learning challenge became overwhelming!

It was devastating! I couldn’t return to the Russian teaching approach with its dry, visually unattractive materials. And besides the Russian selected books moved along too briskly. But I also couldn’t continue using American method books, having experienced unsuccessful results.

So that’s when I started thinking about creating my own method book using a combination of both Russian and American pedagogical approaches, bringing out the best in both.

My goal was to combine learning good technical habits with entertaining and fun musical material, using pictures, stories, and lyrics to the songs that would help students absorb complicated musical concepts. But I knew what a huge undertaking lay before me, and to that point I never had the time for it.

Two years ago, four siblings of my existing students asked to begin piano lessons and all of them were 4-years old. Because I had never taught such young children before (usually starting students at 6 or 7 years old) I couldn’t even imagine teaching them with the existing methods on the market.

So it seemed to be my calling, to make my dream come true.

I started writing several chapters for every lesson, and by the end of the school year I had written two books that make up Tales of a Musical Journey. I also created a supplemental kit for Book 1 and videotaped all my lessons with beginners. With the help of a media professional, I created a DVD with 3.5 hours of lesson excerpts that corresponded to each chapter of Book 1.

3) How are your materials uniquely different?

As pianists and teachers, we know that the main principle of acquiring technical skills is having freedom and flexibility in all the parts of our upper body: arms, fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Not a a single note can be played well on the piano if joints are stiff and muscles are tense.

Following the Russian pedagogic approach, I start teaching kids to play only one key at a time using finger #3, because this finger is in the middle of the hand, (the longest and the strongest), and when kids master the balancing of their hand by playing with this finger, it becomes much easier to use other fingers without tensing up unnecessary muscles.

Playing with only one finger also makes it easier to control and relax the shoulders, wrists, etc. which are extremely important in playing the piano.

In this endeavor, I focus on nurturing musical expression and creating a singing tone from the very beginning.

At the same time, a gradual process of learning notes ensures development of good sight-reading skills.

Intrinsic to my teaching, is using ONE book for technique, theory, etc. which saves lesson time and coordinates the materials so they are logically connected and well balanced.

4) I notice that you start children as young as 4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of teaching very young children before they can read or write?

I approach teaching 4-year old students in the same way as I do with the 6-7 or older beginners. Some kids develop earlier and are ready to start piano lessons at a young age (the same applies to reading or math readiness). And while some need to wait until they’re more mature, say by 6 or 8, for others, it might be never, for that matter.

If young students are ready and progress well, and if families are seriously involved in lessons with follow-up home practice, then those kids will have the advantage of reaching certain milestones sooner then other kids their age.

I personally love working with this young age group, but it can sometimes be very emotionally draining. In the end, however, the joys of teaching children outweigh any negatives, so that’s why I continue to seed beginners and develop them to their full potential. It’s a unique privilege I cannot refuse.


Gorin’s You Tube Channel:

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Piano Instruction: How to practice Variation 2, Mozart Sonata No. 11 in A, K. 331 (Videos)

The biggest challenge in this particular variation is the fast-paced tempo and ornament execution–not to mention the fleeting 4 against 3 relationship of treble 32nds above 16ths in the bass. But the latter, should not be a big concern considering how quickly everything spins by.

In the video instruction I suggest a step-wise practicing routine where the left hand is blocked in groups of three, tracking common tones and those that move.

Fingering is very critical in playing Variation 2 smoothly, so I have attached my recommendations, subject to modification depending on what is easiest for the player. I don’t think finger choices are set in stone.

As to character, this variant has the droll dimension due to the dissonant 1/2-steps rolling through it in the bass, (the D#, E redundancy, for example) and the prominent 8th note half-step bass line grace notes which are fleshed out in Forte measures.

Variation 2 definitely reflects Mozart’s lighthearted personality.

REMINDER: Slow practicing is the gateway to a happy long-range result. (Re: the ornaments, practice them slowly, and start on the upper neighbor of principal note)
For some players, depending on level and ability, a turn will be adequate. For others, try for more repercussions.

Close-up view– no repeats–for supple wrist motion and relaxed elbow swing out…

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Irina Morozova’s inspiring words flow through a lesson with an adult student (Beethoven’s Fur Elise-in-progress) Video

“From watching great pianists it is obvious that they incorporate quite different movements to achieve the same goals, because people do not play piano with fingers but rather with the mind and the ear. Again, it is the clear image of what kind of sound one wants to achieve, combined with the knowledge of how to get it….”

To frame a lesson with these ideas, helps to infuse it with the spiritual, analytical, and nonverbal elements of exchange.

Within this paradigm, one of my adult students continued her study of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” (C section, treble chord voicing with bass tremolo)