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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.)

***

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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George Li’s pianistic idol: Russell Sherman

In a compelling personal interview, Georgle Li waxed poetic about Russell Sherman’s artistry:

“I really admire and love his playing. It’s so colorful, yet so unique that it’s totally inspiring. There is so much character, so much drama, and he does things totally unexpected that it takes your breath away.”

George whet my appetite to find a sample of Sherman’s playing, and it landed me squarely at You Tube where I ingested a wondrous reading of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, Op. 109, movements 1 and 2.

Naturally, the name Russell Sherman rang a bell. With less than 6 degrees of separation in the musical universe, I was bound to find a link to one of my past piano teachers, their mentors or students.

From the short Wiki bio:

“Russell Sherman is currently artist-in-residence at New England Conservatory, where over thirty years ago he met and instructed Wha Kyung Byun, a woman who later became a well-known piano instructor herself as well as his wife. (And George Li’s teacher)

“Sherman’s efforts as an educator have produced a number of pianists of note, among them, Christopher O’Riley, Tian Ying, Keren Hanan, HaeSun Paik, Minsoo Sohn, Christopher Taylor, Hugh Hinton, Soojin Ahn, Randall Hodgkinson, Rina Dokshitsky, Sergey Schepkin, Kathleen Supové, Ning An, and Craig Smith.

“Sherman’s book of short essays on piano playing related concerns, Piano Pieces, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1996.

“Among Sherman’s observations in Piano Pieces:

“Music dispels the fear of mortality and the need for rigid and permanent identities. Music rejects the nine-to-five schedule, the hunger for cash, the encroachments and limits of crass appetite.”

I made the connection to George Li’s poetic allusions about music-making when he drew upon Bruce Lee’s Eastern-based philosophy.

Likewise, Russell Sherman had imparted more words of wisdom in a Boston Globe interview, on the occasion of his 80th birthday:

“I have always considered the piano a window to the world….Somehow in playing the piano and making music you have an insight into so many different cultures and ways of thinking about the most important things in life. The repertoire is so enormous, and so representative of really the best things that have been accomplished. I have always had the feeling as a pianist that I don’t have to go to the mountain. The mountain is coming to me.’’

A bio at the New England Conservatory’s website filled in more details about the pianist’s background:

“As a Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at NEC, pianist Russell Sherman offers his insights to students through masterclasses, performance seminars, studio classes, and coachings.

“Sherman’s studies with Edward Steuermann place him in the grand Busoni/Liszt tradition, and Franz Liszt is one of the core repertoire composers with whom he is associated as a teacher and as a concert and recording artist. In 2008 Sherman released a DVD of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes that captured a live performance from New York’s Angel Orensanz Center for the Arts.

“Sherman is the first American to record both Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas and the five piano concertos. His GM release The Beethoven Piano Concertos: Live at Monadnock features the all-star Monadnock Festival Orchestra.

“Russell Sherman made his debut at Town Hall at age 15 and has been acclaimed as a soloist with many major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the BSO, the Chicago Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has presented recitals throughout the U.S., Europe, South America, and the former Soviet Union.

“Sherman’s 1996 book of short essays on piano playing and allied activities, Piano Pieces, is perennially in print in the U.S. and has been published in Korean translation.”

B.A., Columbia College (N.Y.). Piano with Edward Steuermann; composition with Erich Itor Kahn. Recordings on Advent, Sine Qua Non, Vanguard, Pro Arte, Albany, GM.

***

I recalled “Edward Steuermann” having popped up in my New York piano teacher’s bio. Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich had studied with him at Juilliard following her years at the Oberlin Conservatory. And her husband, Irwin Freundlich had been a pupil of James Friskin and Edward Steuermann at the Institute of Musical Art which had merged with the Juilliard Graduate School in 1926 to become the current Juilliard School of Music.

Sherman, a next-generation pianist, had probably crossed paths with Lillian and Irwin at Juilliard when he was on the faculty in the 80s. (Lillian had mentioned his playing in glowing terms when I took lessons at her Riverside Drive townhouse)

New York City, being a hub of culture, would probably have found Sherman, and both Freundlichs in a triadic musical relationship.

In the same spirit, George Li, Russell Sherman and Wha Kyung Byun enjoyed a kindred trio in the present, making the circle of keyboard life its own testament to immortality.

***

A Boston Globe article by Jeremy Eichler, replete with Sherman’s inspired quotes, is worth a read:

http://www.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2010/03/21/russell_sherman_remains_driven_by_his_art_inspired_by_interpretation/

RELATED: My interview with George Li

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/my-interview-with-george-li-a-seasoned-pianist-at-16/

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Piano Instruction, Part THREE Beethoven “Tempest” Sonata in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2

This instruction continues from measure 41 through 57, where agitated pairs of 8th notes return, picking up the opening motif. As expected, I use blocking or clustering to keep the redundant figures resilient and bundled with energy. (a forward moving wrist motion is attenuated in rapid tempo, but more exaggerated in the slow practice phase) The refueling of energy through the wrist and relaxed arms avoids fatigue.

I separately focus on the Left Hand figure that alternates between the Tonic and Dominant of A minor and breathes longer breaths against the frenetic 8th-note pairs in the Right hand.

Solfege is also a good learning adjunct. Using a movable DO, you can keep track of modulations away from D minor. In the case of measures encompassing this Part THREE instruction, A MINOR is clearly underscored.

It’s fascinating to observe that Beethoven fleshes out quite a bit of A minor in this opening D minor movement, reflecting his affinity for this key.


LINK:

Part ONE Beethoven Tempest Sonata in D minor

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/practicing-tips-for-beethovens-tempest-sonata-op-31-no-2-part-one-video/

Part TWO Instruction

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/piano-instuction-part-two-beethovens-tempest-sonata-hand-cross-over-with-tremolo-in-the-middle-voice/

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Practicing tips for Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, Op. 31 No. 2, Part ONE: (Video)

Because I found myself rambling on and on about the first page, I decided to compartmentalize the instruction to make it easier to absorb.

And since I played the “Tempest” years ago, the surest route to my restoring the piece to a respectable performance level, was to practice it from the ground up in slow tempo.

As I re-approached this Sonata, I relied heavily on CLUMPING or CLUSTERING groups of notes.

The opening two measures that resonate with a peaceful broken chord in the Dominant, are followed by a rapid stream of melodic seconds in a tempestuous descent. (The duality of the motif is clear)

In the video, I demonstrate a wrist forward motion as I clump the seconds which embody non-harmonic upper neighbor tones that are passing dissonances.

Clumping these 2nds (appoggiaturas) and throwing the wrist forward for each group of two allows a bigger and more effective energy to mobilize the passage.

It also helps with developing a “feel” for the composer’s keyboard landscape before advancing tempo.

The Video Instruction further amplifies: Part 1

LINK

PART TWO, Instruction, Beethoven “Tempest” Sonata

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/piano-instuction-part-two-beethovens-tempest-sonata-hand-cross-over-with-tremolo-in-the-middle-voice/

Another Beethoven Sonata landscape:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/practicing-a-difficult-section-in-beethovens-sonata-pathetique-op-13-movement-1-video/

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Piano Technique: Burgmuller’s Tarentelle, Op. 100-Fueling and shaping fast passages with a dipping, supple wrist (Videos)

Most piano students will have been assigned a Burgmuller selection or two during their formative years of study. And most likely, these would have been snatched from the composer’s Twenty-Five Progressive Pieces, Op. 100 that advance by steps in difficulty, though it can be argued that all contain unique technical challenges.

Composed in the Romantic style, this music is strikingly beautiful while it advances specific technique-related goals.

One of my favorites, “La Tarentelle” in a fast and furious tempo, has its origins steeped in fear.

From Wikipedia

“In the region of Taranto in Italy, the bite of a locally common type of wolf spider, named “tarantula” after the region[3], was popularly believed to be highly poisonous and to lead to a hysterical condition known as tarantism. The stated belief in the 16th and 17th centuries was that victims needed to engage in frenzied dancing to prevent death from tarantism using a very rhythmic and fast music. The particular type of dance and the music played became known as Tarantella.”

It’s no surprise that over time, many composers tried their hand at writing their own Tarantellas. (Italian form)

Rapid, frenzied passage work characterizes Burgmuller’s “Tarantelle,” which requires whole arm activity and supple wrists.

And while it may seem that the fingers are propelling the composer’s music along, they can easily tire if not fueled by a bigger physical energy.

Breathing long, relaxed breaths, being in the moment and thinking slowly through fast stretches of notes, keep the music flowing.

Rolling through three note group figures that are characteristic of 6/8 time, also helps to style and phrase streams of eighth notes. This is where a supple wrist allows an infusion of energy when most needed. For shaping lines, it’s indispensable.

(Notice a SLOW MOTION video-only replay that’s sandwiched into the Lesson video)

A defined section of punctuated quarter note chords found on page 2, shifts the mood and character of the composition giving it a robust, march-like character. At this point, it’s best to style, cajole, and phrase the notes in such a way, that draws listener interest.

Piano Lesson:

Playing Tarentelle in tempo:

RELATED:

La Chasse (The Chase) by Burgmuller


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/piano-technique-re-arranging-hands-for-speed-and-agility-in-burgmullers-la-chasse-the-chase-videos/

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Lesson planning for a 5-year old piano student–(Video)

Rina who’s into her sixth month of study, is ready to learn dotted-half notes. Up to now, she’s been saturated with black and white cardboard circles included within a packet along with Irina Gorin’s Tales of a Musical Journey instruction.

The black notes (quarters) are known as “short” sounds, and the white ones (Half-notes), “long-sounds”

In “Frere Jacques,” we say:

short short short short–
short short short short—
short short long-sound, short short long-sound

For running notes–8ths
in the next part of “Frere Jacques:”

“run-ning notes and short sounds
“run-ning notes and short sounds

short short long sound (Ding Ding Dong)
short short long sound (echo)

I’ve branched off a bit in my own creative directions, introducing Whole Notes that Rina plays through in the Left hand on Tonic C, and as mentioned, we’ve experienced “running notes” within “Frere Jacques” (“morning bells are –) All FLOATING on a page– no staff notation as yet.

(Rina knows the 7-letter music alphabet forward and in reverse, and can sing letter names)

(also played in the parallel minor using Eb)

Her mom has gone the distance during the week between lessons by creating arts and crafts projects- Rina has cut out cardboard WHOLE NOTES that she brings to her lesson (“Whole Note Hold Down” is how she’s learned its duration)

Today I found a lovely Minuet by Reinagle (Faber Elementary -Developing Artist–old, unrevised edition) to introduce the DOTTED-HALF Note. In this effort, I took one of the cardboard white circles and added a BLACK DOT beside it. After mounting it on a piece of white paper, I made copies for Rina to have today. (It’s a springboard for another arts and crafts activity that Rina can undertake with her mother)

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In today’s lesson, we will be clapping dotted half notes, as “HALF NOTE DOT,” and we’ll spend most of the time feeling its rhythm/duration and singing.

Ideally, we should put the notes on white paper and float them OFF the staff since Rina is used to this now but I think she should have “exposure” to what the real score looks like with notes going up and down. (This does NOT pin us down to reading music so early in the child’s musical development)

Rina will learn the Minuet in Non-Legato form, separate hands.

But I will take the leap to let her play one consecutive finger after another. I feel that decisions like these arise from what the teacher intuitively feels is appropriate.

I believe that Rina has enough physical, coordination-related abilities to move ahead now. It will of course be a trial run to see what works. The exploration is subject to modification.

(Incidentally staircase climbing for spatial relationship understanding clearly applies here, since the Minuet encompasses five-notes up and down)

Here’s the video to help things along: (Part A of Minuet only as a start)

Rina will sing, clap, use hand signals, intone rhythmic syllables and then letter names.

Separately, she’ll study the Left Hand voice alone, which is so perfectly written with all the Dotted-Half notes.

The built-in Echo is also a nice follow-up to our work with “Frere Jacques.”

Hands together will wait for a while since we have a new frontier to explore.

In the offing–exploration of parallel minor along with additional key transpositions. These activities should start early in the learning process as part of ear-training experiences.



RELATED LINK:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/rina-5-shows-outstanding-progress-over-6-months-of-piano-lessons-videos/

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Piano Technique: More wrist-forward rolling motion in Sonatina by Clementi Op. 36 no. 1 Vivace (Videos)

In two videos, I flesh out the need for a rolling forward wrist motion in playing the last movement of Clementi’s well-known Sonatina in C, vivace.

In addition, a 3/8 meter designation in rapid tempo requires the “feeling” of ONE impulse per measure not three. And this sense of ONENESS suggests CIRCLES of motion which are physically demonstrated in the instruction.

The supple or undulating wrist is pivotal to playing this Rondo movement with shape and contour, avoiding the pencil point, or Rosie the Riveter approach to notes. https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/piano-technique-avoiding-pencil-point-playing/

In this regard, I offer preliminaries to loosen up the wrist, and suggest rhythms that I enlist to develop streams of 16th notes.

There’s a slow motion frame inserted to graphically illustrate the rolling wrist motion that is so necessary to express this Classical era music with beauty and grace.

Note that behind tempo practicing, along with separate hands is always recommended.

Rondo movement in tempo:

RELATED LINK:

Avoiding Pencil Point Playing

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/piano-technique-avoiding-pencil-point-playing/