piano performance, piano playing

Favorite you tube video picks for 2018! (carried over from 2017)

I slipped up and missed the deadline for my end of 2017 super You Tube picks–realizing a bit late, that readers were celebrating the New Year in different time zones. Piano lovers from Japan and Australia had already popped champagne bottles 18 or so hours before those of us partook on the West Coast–And with USA Central, Mountain, Pacific and Eastern Standard times causing out of synch drifts of celebration, my Big Five You Tube List fizzled at 9 p.m. P.S.T, Dec. 31, as the stroke of Midnight Times Square (E.S.T.) ball drop welcomed 2018!

Still, redemption lay in a timeless series launched by the New York Times with long columns of piggy-backed you tube videos, Classical in genre, that were time-monitored for their mind-blowing moments. They fleshed out feats of virtuosity; heaven-on-earth phrase turns; wailing trills and heart-melting cadences. A harpist, Amy Turk, was singled out for her miraculous transcription/performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, amassing over 4 million views!

It became my bonus heist pick, falling outside keyboard bounds.

In the Piano Universe

Luis Fernando Perez


The artistry of Luis Fernando Pérez (Spain, b. 1977) topped my list, though choices following, from various years, accorded no preferential order.

Pianist, Perez, was my most treasured “new” You Tube surfing discovery, though he’d been circulating through Europe for years as soloist, chamber music player, and recording artist, earning performance awards along the way. Yet even with prestigious IMG Management, Perez had not reached the pinnacle of “big Name,” billboard success, having instead chosen a more true-to-art journey, reflected in his passion for Spanish repertoire that he chose to play in selected concert venues. (Carnegie Hall, or the Walt Disney complex were not along his musical route)

Perez’s website had revealed touch-downs at European Festivals interspersed by a foray to Kansas for a Master class and performance. He landed in North Carolina for a recital, though his travels inevitably pointed back to Europe.

In 2014, Perez played in Bilbao, Nantes, Paris, Madrid, Valencia, Zaragoza, San Sebastian, Brussels, Saint Petersburg, Budapest, Warsaw, Tokyo, Lyon, and Toulouse, with no further Internet posted concerts on his site. Judging by a significant escalation in Internet exposure post 2014, his energies seemed redirected to the recording cosmos.

Bryce Morrison, published a 2012 review in Gramaphone that amply described the pianist’s abundant gifts.

“RISING TO PRISTINE GLORY: Luis Fernando Pérez is clearly among the most individual and gifted pianists of today’s generation.

“And, in his more recent disc of Granados’s Goyescas, his playing is audaciously personal and has an improvisatory freedom and coloration very much his own. He achieves a superb senseof contrast, of innocence and experience…”


Perez’s interpretation of Spanish music is compelling as “channeled” through his performance of Enrique Granados Valses Poeticos. His radiant singing tone; broad palette of “colors,” and poignant creation of emotional intimacy draw the listener into a deep and abiding relationship with the composer.


Seymour Bernstein: A newly discovered awakening to tempo and mood in the Schumann Arabesque

A previous blog gave details and background about Bernstein’s epiphanies:


Seymour’s performance speaks for itself with its effortless spill of melody bundled in harmonic warmth. There’s no tempo impetuosity, or pre-meditated, boundary-determined section transitions. It’s all woven together as pure poetry flowing from the heart.

David Fray: A humbling encore follows a concerto performance:

J.S. Allemande from Partita No. 6 in E minor

This is an inspired rendering, well-voiced by Maestro Fray.


Irina Morozova – Bortkiewicz Etude Opus 15, No 9

Heaven on earth playing with impeccable fluidity. No words suffice to describe.


George Li plays Haydn with his emblematic liquidity and singing tone.

The complete Haydn sonata in B minor was the divine opener to Li’s October 2017 recital at S.F. Davies Hall.


Finally, Happy You Tube Surfing to All in 2018!

Just Being at the Piano, Mildred Portney Chase, Peter Illyich Tchaikovksy, pianist, piano, piano playing, Tchaikovsky

Imagination fuels expressive piano playing

As my local and Online piano students gear up for their bi-annual music sharing this coming Saturday over Skype, a commonly expressed concern is how to harness the imagination to feed a musical journey right from the opening measure of a piece to its final cadence.

The challenge for everyone embodies a centered period of silence, allowing a player to imagine the mood, timbre and tone of an opening phrase that will have a flowing impetus for others to follow.

This is why we observe piano competition entrants sitting quietly for what seems like an eternity. And we wonder what could possibly be on their mind during such quiescence.

I’ll conjecture that while it could be nerve-fighting strategies playing out in the psyche, it’s more likely to be non-cognitive, affective preparation. The imagination will fuel the playing, but it will have free reign only if preceded by phases of thoughtful, stepwise learning.

There’s no doubt that students of all levels need to practice meticulously before a recital: They would have approached their compositions in a layered progression, working on fingering, rhythm, phrasing, all bundled into an EXPRESSIVE whole, but in a behind tempo frame until a natural ripening process gently nudges the player to a desirable temporal dimension.

Yet some pupils will not have achieved an “in tempo” rendering at this coming Saturday’s music sharing, but each will need to be mentally prepared for the moment when they will be sitting at their piano benches in various locations, attempting to CENTER themselves, apart from the din of self-criticism and negativity.

…and here’s where I evoke the wise words of Mildred Portney Chase from her published diary, Just Being at the Piano.


“I am continually finding my way toward the here and now in my music and realizing a whole new dimension to the experience of playing. Nowhere is it more important to be in the here and now than in playing the piano. The slightest lapse in attention will affect every aspect of how I realize the re-creation of a piece of music. One note coming a hairbreadth late in time, may distort the expression of a phrase.

“It is impossible to be self-conscious and totally involved in the music at the same time. Consciousness of the self is a barrier between the player and the instrument. As I forget my own presence, I attain a state of oneness with the activity and become absorbed in a way that defies the passage of time.

About tone and imagining it:

“Listening… feeling… moving…feeling… listening.. The core of any tone should always have substance and expressive quality. The singing quality of tone can be developed by sensitizing the ear to listen for it and sensitizing the hands and fingers to feel it as if they too were listening.”

And I will conclude by saying that harnessing the imagination in the cosmos of tone, touch, timbre and mood is a preliminary to beautiful, expressive playing–not forgetting to retrieve the memory of how it physically felt to produce musical beauty.

Tactile sensitivity fused with a self-devised creative image and ATTENTIVE LISTENING, will move phrases along in smooth, lucid progression.

In this vein, I recently recorded a portion of a piano lesson with an Online student where I explored a facet of the imagination as it applied to Tchaikovsky’s “Sweet Dream,” Op. 39 no. 21. While I used a “floating clouds” analogy, I could easily have drawn on a “dream” as a mental prompt.

There are many mood pictures that help pianists to get into the zone and out of themselves, so it’s a universe worth exploring.

For those of us taking a common musical journey, its fulfillment resides in more than playing the right notes with perfect rhythm. The intangible often makes music-making the ethereally beautiful experience that it is.

Jocel preps for the Saturday recital

piano, piano blog, piano playing, piano teaching, piano technique, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, staccato, word press, you tube

A Teacher/Student fueled discovery about Staccato playing

I never cease to be amazed by a mutual discovery process that’s ongoing between me and my adult students. Without our learning partnership, we would not have periodic awakenings that feed our reciprocal musical development.

Case in point, is the attainment of Staccato refinement in its most crisp and animated form.

In the past month, after watching my pupils often stumble through their scales and arpeggios when they transitioned from playing legato to rendering short, crisp detached notes, I started to think about ways to remedy the problem.

Through finite observation, and experimentation in my personal learning lab, aka, my practice module, I came to the conclusion that having students snap each finger along the scale or arpeggio spectrum in slow tempo, would fine-tune their ears to what constituted a crisp note release. Naturally, the sensitive ear training phase was bound to a physical awareness of how these notes marched along in an appealingly animated manner.

From my perspective, it wasn’t purely a FINGER-driven staccato that fed a briskly played scale or arpeggio with a desired horizontal dimension, but the fingers at the end of a relaxed arm and supple wrist spectrum provided a necessary unity for fluid playing.

Naturally, a parceled layered learning approach that included a blocking phase, produced positive results.

In this particular video sample I used an Eb Major arpeggio framed in triplets to advance a well-contoured staccato. A lesson-in-progress with an adult student followed my tutorial.

piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano learning, piano playing, piano teaching, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

Early Musical Exposure and its importance

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 2.09.15 PM

I recall my early childhood in the East Bronx on Featherbed Lane. At age 2 or 3, I was exposed to music emanating from a victrola perched on a corner table in a small two-room flat. From sunrise to sunset, heart-throbbing violin concertos, interspersed with operatic solos of Puccini played endlessly. My mother, standing by the ironing board, with a pile of freshly dried clothes that were line-dried on the roof beside a fleet of message bound pigeons, squeaked out arias as tears rolled down her cheeks. Such a poignant emotional response to music was deeply embedded by her Russian parents and grandparents who sang bits and pieces of operatic solos, along with Yiddish folkloric melodies.

mother family

To confirm a music gene of sorts that complemented the environmental nurturance of a musician-to-be, I was told that my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Musikant. Yet I had no reference to a specific relative who made his living playing a musical instrument. All I knew was that the violin had been embraced in my family as the living, breathing expression of full blown emotion, beside the human voice.

When I think of my pianistic idol, Murray Perahia, his earliest exposure to music was through the opera. His father took him as a toddler to the Met every week, and when the child returned home, he would sing parts of arias by memory. Similarly, I was astonished when I heard a crawling 8-month old, intoning the opening measures of Bach’s C minor concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060. His father was an oboist and member of a well-known symphony orchestra. His chamber ensemble had been rehearsing the Bach work over days and weeks as the baby meandered between music stands.

Countless musicians hearken back to their earliest childhood years that were permeated by the sounds of beautiful music. The genres could have been diverse: folk, jazz, Classical, but the performances and performers offered a level of music-making that was riveting and made a profound and memorable emotional impression. (Seymour Bernstein refers to his early discovery of a Standchen recording that brought him to tears)

In the universe of phrasing, the impact of these early musical exposures is significant, because a LANGUAGE is passed down that becomes the basis of a primordial “feeling” about music, its contour and shape as one grows and develops.

As I grew older, my mother took me to Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, the Museum of the City of New York to hear Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazi, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, Rosalyn Tureck, Daniil Shafran (cellist), Nathan Milstein, violinist, while an updated living room hi-fi system in the Marble Hill Projects of the Bronx, delivered 33 LP recordings of Arthur Rubinstein, Oscar Levant (Chopin? where did they get that one?), Perry Como singing Kol Nidre; Zino Francescatti rendering the Mendelssohn violin concerto; Michael Rabin playing Paganini 1 beside Oistrakh’s Beethoven Op. 61, and Leonid Kogan’s Tchaikovsky D Major Concerto: (the second movement was a well of sadness and catharsis) Meanwhile my brother blasted Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture and Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, increasing interest on my musical memory deposits.

All of the above puts EXPOSURE center stage in feeding musical study. And since many pupils come to the piano without an early embedded language of music, they must make up for lost time through various directed opportunities.

Since I work primarily with adults, I recommend that they saturate themselves with the best performances they can access, whether LIVE (preferred), on you tube, by CD, etc. and in favorable acoustical environments. Mp3s fall short. Same for iPhone delivered transmissions of the masterworks which sound like they’re coming from a tin can.

About Modeling

Last week I found myself, at my student’s request, sitting at my grand piano, giving an overview of the sonata she was studying. This followed her rendering that I had interspersed with comments and small segment demonstrations/analyses. Still, she requested and needed a lingering musical impression that was the equivalent of a language exchange.

My most treasured teacher, Lillian Freundlich, communicated by singing. She sang over my playing, guided and shaped phrases, though she didn’t displace me at the piano bench to demonstrate the interpretation of a composition. Instead she taught a physical/musical approach that emphasized relaxation, supple wrist, bigger funnels of energy down the arm, that she would channel by guiding my arm/hands. (I was 13 at the time, having my first encounter with the physical dimension of playing that allowed my well-embedded imagination to roam free.)

In retrospect, the physical dimension of playing should have occurred earlier, as artfully illustrated in the video below: (another form of “exposure”)


No to be redundant, but exposure to beautiful phrasing can indeed be nurtured along at lessons without fearing the universal taboo that a student will not develop his/her own personal rendering or style if unduly influenced by the teacher. Same applies to recordings and LIVE performances. They are, to the contrary, a repository of enrichment that in many cases may not have been available in the formative years, so better late than never resonates to crescendo levels.

Irina Morozova, Oberlin Conservatory, piano pedagogy, piano playing, piano teaching, piano technique

Piano Technique: No Pain, Much Gain

Sometimes we learn a floating, flowing path to beauty through the unfortunate school of HARD knocks. To this effect, I recall my esteemed Oberlin Conservatory piano teacher dealing in mindless, stressful repetitions of meaningless exercises that caused joint pain and unremarkable displays of flat-lined, tightly squeezed playing. His teaching, to an extreme level of adherence to workhorse regimens (Pischna, et al) caused me to reel into a pleasure zone that my New York City piano teacher had kept as a safe haven after graduation day. I returned to her fold just in the nick of time.

With my Performance-Piano degree in hand, I was reunited with the singing tone and its physical/musical dimension, unencumbered by methodical routines that could extinguish the very basis of my love for the piano as an expressive instrument.

In retrospect, through decades of my own teaching, I observe students having to surrender the false security of grabbing, squeezing, and attacking the keys in their week-to-week practicing. It’s almost taught as a cultural norm to work so hard as to sweat–to extract pain to attain proficiency in nearly every endeavor, whether it be sports, music, or taking exams in any number of fields.

One is conditioned to meet a challenge head on, taking the bull by the horns with aggressive advances toward an imagined VICTORY of great magnitude.

But most of us have learned through a process of ELIMINATION, that pianistic fluency, by analogy, is not a strength enduring pursuit with an expected grit your teeth stoic approach. But rather the execution (oops) of scales, arpeggios, chords, Etudes, Nocturnes, Sonatas… and the rest should be natural outpourings with an aesthetic balance of physical and emotional forces—meaning, that the journey to beautiful playing should be paved with artful motions, feelings, fluid approaches, and imbued imagination.

Modeling a B minor scale as a stage by stage learning experience, we can extract a natural sequence to mastery without the preconceived EFFORT that is bundled with negative reinforcements. Instead, practicing should have a path of least resistance.

A few of my adult students are immersed in B minor, so I prepared a short video to steer them into more relaxed, non-confrontational directions. By focusing on floating, flowing images, we collectively refresh a harmonious musical journey.

And by example, this extraordinary pianist’s artistry is the ultimate in what sounds effortless and ethereal.

F Sharp Major scale, online piano instruction, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano learning, piano playing, piano teaching, Shirley Kirsten

A London piano student fine tunes her F# Major scales and arpeggios (staccato and legato)

Yu Du 1

Yu has been my Skype student for a few years now and she’s made big gains in producing a singing tone with supple wrists, relaxed arms, and hand/finger weight transfer. Today she assiduously practiced her F# Major Scale and Arpeggio, energizing forearm and wrist staccato. Using “cupped hands” for her power driven forearm staccato on the black keys, she played precise, crisp and accurate notes after absorbing a few of my suggestions. In the universe of wrist staccato, she created a nuanced piano (soft) dynamic. (Yu has noticeably fluid wrist motions that she’s acquired from deliberate, goal focused practice)

At the Skype recital (March 15) beamed to LIVE and ONLINE students from Berkeley, California all over the US and world, Yu played a very lovely Andante movement from Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 545. (Here’s just a snatch)

I recently interviewed Yu about her piano, hobbies, activities and recent career shift to life coaching.



acoustic piano, Classical music blog, digital piano, piano blog, piano playing

Mozart played on an acoustic and digital piano

If an acoustic piano is well-voiced and regulated, one can attempt to make a timbre and touch comparison with a “hammer-weighted” digital piano by playing a side-by-side excerpt from the repertoire. In this instance, my Steinway grand is in the process of undergoing hammer filing and regulation, so the two instruments are not perhaps justly comparative. Still, it’s instructive to hear tonal differences between the two, and decide which is more appealing for listeners. (Note the tempos taken are slightly different)

Steinway M grand, 1917

Yamaha Arius YDP 141