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Practicing knotty piano passages, and tips on how to avoid fatigue while boosting technique (Videos)

At my You Tube Channel site, I routinely pick up comments daily, and the majority center on piano technique. While I lay no claim to being an expert in this complex universe, my trial and error practicing over decades has come with insights that I enjoy sharing.

Earlier today, I’d noticed the following note posted at my site that referred to a devilish strings of repeated notes found in Scarlatti’s D minor Toccata, K. 141:

“My God!

“I can’t believe I’ve found this video—I’ve been killing myself trying to loosen up my 3-2-1 repeated notes for this EXACT piece!

“You’ve helped me to try out new ideas because I was about ready to give up as I no longer take lessons and kept tensing up. I just couldn’t figure out just how to fix myself.”

He referenced one of my comments in passing.

“You mentioned getting fatigued doing the repeated notes later on in the piece…do you think that no matter how loose you are you will eventually get somewhat fatigued by the end of this piece?”


Naturally, I answered his final question, emphasizing the dangers of over-practicing knotty passages, especially those with redundant motions that could cause an overuse injury.

It becomes quickly apparent that if you keep playing 3-2-1 repeated note combinations for hours on end, even if you execute them with a supple wrist and relaxed, flowing arm, the oxygen to the cells is going to give out at some point.

Veda Kaplinksy, a Juilliard School Professor of Piano, had driven this point home loud and clear in one of her media interviews.

From ingesting her words of wisdom, it followed that a player should know when it’s time to take a breather. A few hours or more of needed break time would allow the muscles a period of rest and repair.

In the meantime, I had revisited two of my posted videos that might help those agonizing about those time-worn, bummer sections that required renewed fuels of relaxed energy.

The first dealt with those dizzying repeated notes in the Domenico Scarlatti Toccata and how to approach them. I used Martha Argerich as my role model, watching her motions as she generated perfectly formed scads of them. It looked like she was sweeping or dusting the keys.

You can be sure after watching the You Tube video following mine, that her arms, wrists, and hands were very relaxed to pull off such an amazing performance!

In my second instruction, I used Burgmuller’s “La Chasse” as a springboard to explore ways of dividing the hands to advance articulation as well as an effective crescendo in an Allegro vivace frame.

After the introductory measures, I examined the repeated broken octaves in staccato and how to play them easily without tiring.

Amidst this whole terrain of practicing passages that require redundant motions with regular infusions of supple wrist-generated energy, I noted my last night’s revisit of Chopin’s Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1.

Having already exhausted everyone’s patience obsessing over the “killer” MIDDLE SECTION, I still enlisted it as a potential overuse injury stimulant–that is, if rest and repair breaks were not taken, one’s hands could feel like they were about to fall off.

But before I was completely shut down at my sixth playing, I preserved the first, and uploaded it to You Tube, feeling some progress had been made.

There will be further attempts to unshackle the death-defying mid-section as time permits.


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Frustrated piano teacher/Frustrated student– What to do next? (Video)

A timely comment was posted at my blog site which echoed my own frustration at times about teaching piano. Here’s the spark for my current writing and it comes from a music instructor in Vancouver:

“I do have the odd students who don’t practice and never improve, and then get frustrated at their lack of progress. It’s been frustrating as a teacher because the kids are too young to understand that the reason they are not doing well is because they are not practicing, and the reason they don’t enjoy piano lessons is because they are frustrated. If they just practiced once in a while, they’d be happy!”

In a spirit of collegiality and sharing, I admit that I experience the same with younger students who are enrolled in lessons by their parents. These kids have no choice in the matter.

Some moms and dads have the idea that the Mozart Effect will filter from piano into school work without much effort. They’ve read articles in the news media about right and left brain development. These folks may be “My Baby Can Read” subscribers whose diapered tots were raising their tiny hands to letter prompts on a big screen, while Gerber’s mashed carrots dribbled down their mouths.

My daughter used to grimace when I broke out the carrots and peas, but at the same time she was bathed in Handel’s Messiah excerpts that I blasted on a cassette player.

Now she’s a world class writer/editor having done the WORK even as a child to develop her language skills. NO Baby Einstein tapes here, or Baby Can Read early exposures. Just READ, READ, and finish your homework in each grade up to college and beyond.

Back to piano:

By example, I had a very gifted 9-year old music student, who winged it from week to week. This was between lessons after we together focused on step-by-step ways to obtain lovely phrasing and expression. She was spoon-fed a meticulous practicing process in the hopes she would follow through.

If she decided otherwise, I knew the handwriting was on the wall. She would grow “bored” with the piece we were working on, and eventually complain to her mother, that lessons were just not “fun.”

Hearing the word fun applied these days to nearly every activity minus any work, is growing old and tired with me.

Jonas Salk may have had a passion for experimenting as a child, but he had to DO THE WORK, to make a contribution to the world down the line.

Piano teachers are not asking their students to conquer competitions in international venues or make a resounding impact in a universe of musicians.

We just want to give them the music education they deserve if they would meet us half way.

So how did I finally deal with the student who plodded along without much if any practicing?

Well, I invited mom in to observe one of her daughter’s lessons, since this parent had not been present from day one to see what was playing out at lessons. She was overloaded with full-time job obligations.

And dad, a University educator had no way to check in, due to his involvement in Department matters.

These parental absences in my opinion strongly factored into the student’s inertia. Dropped off by a baby-sitter, she felt like piano was the next care-taking station, but even worse there was another assignment lurking.

So far, bringing the mother front and center into the lessons, has been an eye-opener for her.

She began to see that her child could not sit back and expect the piece to be practiced all by itself. A commitment of time, energy, and mindful attention was needed to spur progress, interest, and attendant wells of joy and good feeling. I needed mom’s backing and involvement. And she needed to make sure her daughter set aside daily quality time to refine her pieces.

I’m now carefully monitoring the situation, providing lots of positive strokes in response to the student’s conscientious work.

As strange as it may sound, creating You Tube videos of playing that has improved through daunting applications of good practicing has been a motivator for this student and others.

These children want their friends to see them shine on the big screen, and it has the secondary gain of pushing the peers along in the same direction.

I now have three 9-year olds who are in healthy competition to master their pieces and display their accomplishment at any opportunity.

This has been a turn-around that I hope has a lasting effect.

We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ve learned how vital a parent’s presence is in the triad of support we need to make lessons a happy experience for all.

Below is an example of another 9-year old student, videotaped for You Tube, after she produced three consecutive weeks of good practicing on Gillock’s “Argentina.”

Enrolled in a bi-lingual (Spanish/English) immersion program, she has enjoyed the romp with pieces in Latino style.

(I’m told that my voice is not clear or loud enough on this video, but just the same the first two phrases that the student demonstrates should come through with definition)

I’m so proud of Ilyana! (her early, conscientious efforts)

The whole piece matured in baby steps.

This approach turned her playing around, increasing her interest in practicing with an eye and ear to detail.

At the Student Recital:


How long should a piano student stay with a piece?

Piano Lessons: Skimming the Surface or Getting Deeply Involved?

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When a piano student is not working up to potential, the meeting and e-mail that are needed…

I was reminded by a reader of my post titled, “When love for the piano dies..” and in that particular writing I focused on situations where certain pressures brought by parents and/or the piano teacher can trigger practicing avoidance, leading to the obvious, piano lesson termination. In these scenarios, mom or dad may live through the successes of their children, and make the process of learning another test driven arena. The child, in particular, just starting a musical adventure, will worry about “wrong notes” that have acquired a negative association, causing her to tighten up to avoid them, when in reality, it’s the opposite– a relaxed flow of energy is needed to play the correct ones on the page. Musical study, otherwise, becomes just another tense universe to prove a child’s worth that leads to a downward spiral, with lots of learning resistance and an eventual sensory turn-off.

This original discussion, however, did not focus upon the student who might not be working at his full potential even within a friendly, nurturing environment, with parents as part of a wholesome support network.

By way of example, in the past year, I’ve had two students in the 9 to 10-year old range who came to lessons without having prepared their assignments during the week, and this was becoming a redundant problem. Each had a bounty of musical talent that wasn’t being realized. The parents were affirmative about lessons, and wanted their children to make progress and enjoy the musical adventure. They were not “stage” parents or particularly judgmental.

It wasn’t a question of repertoire choices because each was excited by pieces drawn from Burgmuller, a wonderful Romantic era composer of colorful character pieces, and William Gillock, who had made quite a name for himself as the modern day master of melody and captivating harmony. His pieces are a wonderful panorama of cultures with something for everyone. I particularly love “Flamenco” which one of my Hispanic students doted upon, though she could have moved forward in her practicing at a better pace. (and I’m not one for hastening the learning process, which flows in increments, but students can sometimes think the piece will be practiced for them exclusively at lessons, and the in-between follow through is not necessary or required)

Let me hone in on the last part of the preceding sentence, because I’m sure many of my colleagues can relate to this particular circumstance.

By way of graphic example, I once wrote the following note to a parent AFTER we had gone over the same points at the lesson with the child present. (the name of the student has been changed for privacy reasons)

“As we discussed at Susan’s piano lesson, a few requirements and suggestions are offered to help your daughter realize her full potential so she can better enjoy the creative process of learning piano.

“Susan is very musically gifted. But as we both know, unless a student practices conscientiously and thoughtfully each day, progress is not made, and interest wanes.

“The first thing is to enlist energy and commitment to playing with an engaging tone which we work on each week in detail. If I filmed each lesson, we would get a glimpse of what we are doing. And in the past I have done this as a reminder and reinforcement of the baby steps needed to nurture along a piece to a level of playing satisfaction. When a student works steadily and carefully, she can ultimately savor the fruits of her labor. That’s our common goal in this collaborative teacher/student learning environment.

“And I’ve made sure to select a lovely piece of music that’s a treat–a nice departure from what’s going on in the method book. Repertoire of this caliber presents unique challenges that are well within your daughter’s reach if she would set aside time each day to explore this newest selection that is just four lines, but packed with beautiful melody and sonority. Susan loved it from the start and now needs to give the piece the caring attention it deserves so it can blossom and grow.

“There’s a rhythm to lessons and we want to establish this soon enough. It requires a slow framing tempo, a “feel” for legato that we work on at each lesson, the patience to find notes on the staff and setting a good fingering.

“We make sure to go over each and every step in the process with our metaphorical magnifying glass so each detail is expanded. Susan seems to engage well at the lesson with this framing, so it should be impetus to send her home to emulate what we have done at her lesson.

“If you could remind her of daily practicing with this mindset, I think we can regain the tempo of learning that will keep her interested in playing piano and looking forward to each new landmark she will reach as she explores the repertoire.

“Susan is very bright and once she sets her mind to a task, she develops a nice connection to it.

“In fact at our last lesson we spent the whole 45 minutes parceling out four lines. But this is the launch for her to continue the fine-tuned practicing at home, with attentive ears, relaxed arms, wrists, and a regular flow of energy. Maybe I’m being redundant so please excuse the re-emphasis.

“Just to remind: the nails are too long to allow the round, relaxed hand position that affords contact with the fleshy part of the fingers. So if Susan could make sure to have them trimmed it would allow the practicing to be more satisfying. She could then more easily find the center of her sound, with a nice settled in point of gravity that promotes the singing tone.

“Because Susan loves her ballet classes, I try to relate the piano to dancing that evokes flowing arms and grace of movement. We try to apply the dance metaphor to piano and your daughter relates well to it.

“For the time being, I am going to assign ONE piece until we get back into rhythm and that will be the Gillock selection along with her five-finger warm-up in E Major and minor (Legato to staccato)

“Note-reading skills should also improve with the daily, parceled approach to practicing that I’m recommending. It will take patience and attentive listening.

“Just 30 minutes a day will suffice as long as quality time is invested. Consistency, by the way is all important. Skipping days, and not practicing sets progress back.

“If you have any questions, feel free to call.”


I’m sure the contents of this note is familiar to many piano teachers, and perhaps it needs to be a reminder of our lesson paradigm even with its variations in studios across the country.

I would love to hear from parents and teachers about their own experience with energizing practicing when the doldrums set in.

Recital scheduling is a motivator, and always helps, particularly having “themes” that embrace various periods of music. But in between these events, we still need to encourage a satisfying practicing equilibrium that moves a student along.

To be sure, the over-scheduling of pupils in after school activities is an impediment we have no control over. That matter would require still another e-mail that might sound a bit too controlling and invasive.

Nevertheless, within the bounds of our teaching universe, we do the best we can to help our students realize their full potential.


Skimming the Surface or Getting Deeply Involved

Frustrated piano teacher-Frustrated student-what to do next?

Out of a Rut with Spot Practicing

In a Piano Teacher’s Arsenal: The Magic Bullet Piece

Piano Lessons, Long Nails, Peer Pressure

From Pop to Bach, a 9-yr old makes it over easy

Individualizing Piano Study: How to Avoid Method Book Dependency

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When love for the piano dies…and why

After many years of watching students grow and develop, I’ve noticed that some experience a turnaround of feelings about playing the piano, and it can occur at any level of study from beginner to advanced.

In some instances, the materials used by the teacher can dampen enthusiasm for learning, but more often, a complex set of pycho-dynamics is at work.

Case #1:

A mom or dad might unconsciously project their feelings of insecurity/inadequacy onto a child. In their mind, a level of “perfection” must be attained without reservation. There is no place for “wrong” notes or hesitation.

Children with very “perfectionistic” parents come to lessons feeling like the world will crumble if errant notes creep into pieces.

Very young students, in the 6 to 8-year old  range may start out with that wondrous tabula rasa, absorbing each new phase of their learning adventure with eagerness, but in no time, a form of rebellion and non-compliance emerges.

In many of these situations a parent who lives through the successes and “failures” of his/her child transmits this message loud and clear 24/7, with its global effect on many life activities.

I must admit that my jaw dropped when one mom who stayed during lessons, jumped out of her chair, sauntered over to the piano, pushed her child off the bench, and began demonstrating the “proper” way to execute a difficult passage. In a conspicuous violation of boundaries, she scolded her daughter and faulted her for “not getting it,” right away.

You can imagine how the child felt, let alone the teacher.

Perhaps this was a classic maneuver of a Tiger Mom, but in truth, parents of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds have “acted out” in the same inappropriate way.

“Shout outs” are usually more common, and these aren’t associated with confidence boosting, cheerleading efforts.  They’re quite the opposite. You might as well have an angry coach on the sideline picking on players thought to be lazy or not trying hard enough. The same would apply to piano students perceived by parents to be performing below par, even before they’ve had a chance to “play” and develop. It’s the metaphorical Little League  syndrome, where only players who can hit home runs are put in the line-up. The rest are benched and eventually drop out.

Case #2:

A beginning student is doing very well. She follows directions and is making progress.

During the week her parents follow through by helping her practice since she is very young and needs reinforcement. Goals are communicated by the teacher in a post-lesson phone conference and by e-mail. Everything seems to be humming along.

As lessons unfold, the child becomes less and less interested in the piano, where joy was previously in abundance.

Upon a close examination of the situation, it’s found that mom or dad have scolded the child during every practice session; vilified him for collapsing his hand position, playing wrong notes and having a short attention span.  Real threats to take away piano lessons if practicing continues to be “lazy” and unfocused are leveled at the child.

With such egregious, negative reinforcement on the home front, love for the piano turns to avoidance and aversion. It leaves the piano teacher with a battling, stubborn child who will do anything to have lessons terminated to alleviate overwhelming parental pressure.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is in motion.

In no time, lessons die on the vine. Love for the piano is no longer shared with the teacher who is perceived by the student to be one step removed from the parent.

Case #3:

The teacher is abusive and transmits an impossible performance standard. In some instances a child’s head might be shoved into the music when wrong notes are played.

Yelling and screaming permeate lessons making them a grid of high tension without relief.

Add in components of case 1 and 2, substituting teacher for parent and all the ingredients for a nasty divorce from piano are in the making.


Can love for the piano be rekindled amidst the turmoil inflicted by some parents and teachers?

Perhaps with psychological intervention, or miraculous enlightenment.

For teachers dealing with parents who “live” through the “performances” of their children and demand impossible levels of perfection, the only thing to do is make them gently aware of  their impact and suggest a healthier behavioral direction.

With parents who discover that the teacher is creating undue stress during lessons, the best remedy is to find another instructor who is caring and compassionate.

If all else fails, there’s always Dr. Laura. She’ll go the tough love route and suggest that piano lessons be canned without a second thought.

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The nitty gritty reasons why piano students drop out: Two staunchly different opinions

The current rage on the Internet surrounds a Facebook posting that claims a 95% dropout rate among piano students. The nitty gritty reasons cited by the poster are contained in what I view as a tirade against what he terms “standard lessons.” He insists that the “music teaching industry” uses a “status quo method that chains students to sight-reading instead of teaching independence.” His alternative is a “playing by ear” approach.

To begin with, the 95% dropout statistic is unsubstantiated and the reasons cited for this figure are far from proven.

In addition, what “music teaching industry” exists in the US or anywhere else? Most teachers are independently employed–many barely struggling along and they have no lobbyists to wheel and deal for them on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps the writer was referring to the method book industry that churns out $$$ driven materials that may not suit many creatively driven piano teachers. Those who do not embrace a pure method book path to learning might choose to modify content and supplement with composing and ear-training activities.

Music teacher conventions and symposiums also abound where new ideas are bounced about. An informed teacher can attend these and benefit from a cross-fertilization of ideas from his or her colleagues. Podcasts, you tube presentations and tutorials enrich the teaching landscape.

So with or without the method book industry as the target of blame or punching bag, how does any of this discussion relate to piano dropout rates?

I maintain that students give up piano lessons for a variety of reasons:

Time conflicts

Competing extracurricular activities are a big problem. Piano lessons are often squeezed out by ballet, tap, hip hop, and other dance lessons that may occur more than twice a week. Baseball, football, T-ball, soccer practices are additional time eaters.

Practicing is negligible when sports and other preoccupations, including burdensome loads of homework demand maximum attention. Teens in high school have additional pressures related to SAT test preparation and college admission. Their week is cluttered with exams and study deadlines.

Piano teachers can barely do their best with an over-scheduled, academically pressured child during the year. When lessons drop off in the summer, progress is further set back. Once school resumes, the whole cycle of holiday and other interruptions is renewed.

Short cuts

Above and beyond the scheduling snafus, piano teachers have to deal with many parents who demand the quick and easy route to piano learning which naturally filters down to the child. Self imposed deadlines to reach learning landmarks causes frustration among students that often leads to a premature lesson exit.

The pressure to acquire piano playing skills in a flash is pervasive. The quick fix is in. The long term relationship to the art of piano playing is OUT. There’s even a commercial package titled “Playing Piano in a Flash” whose creator made a few guest appearances on PBS in a fund-raising capacity. His assistant, an attractively dressed woman, fed him a script that standard private piano lessons were a big “waste of money.” Whoopie!

Both these advocates of FLASH learning were selling the idea that piano related skills could be mastered as easily as making instant coffee, and it was so tempting to BUY it!


But back TO THE FACEBOOK poster who continued his rant:

Under his topic heading: Piano Lesson Reform – Tyranny Of The Juggernaut, he said, “there is nothing I am more passionate about than piano-lesson reform. I have great love for what standard lessons are but hate them for what they are not.”

“Too many beginning students get lost and quit before they really learn anything significant. They’re excited in the beginning and commit themselves, their time, money and effort to learn the skill. However, over the course of about 2 years, all the excitement is sucked out them and the only thing left to do is quit to become a dropout statistic and faker.”

My comment: FAKER? I didn’t understand the term. Did he mean that what the student had not learned turned him into a faker?

From my nearly 40 years teaching, I never had a faker flow out of piano lessons. Most students who had the time and opportunity tried their best. Their repertoire was a mixture of classical, pop, theater and movie selections, but they knew they had to build a solid foundation to play any of these works well and with satisfaction. This required technical mastery (playing scales, arpeggios in all keys around the Circle of 5ths), learning how to physically produce a singing tone, and how to frame their music with a steady, buoyant beat. Reading music fluently was at the heart of lessons. Quitting piano amidst this kind of study had nothing to do with the content of each session. It had all to do with a DEARTH of TIME set aside by a pupil to study conscientiously, and/or an attitude by parents that failed to embrace baby-step layered learning.

More from the distraught and disappointed commentator who bemoaned his “wasted” years studying piano:

“The ‘standard’ piano teaching method, (??????) “dictates its own agenda of ‘progress’ based on eye-to-finger coordination and in so doing, steers most beginning students off course to their ultimate failure. It is specific to only one style of music (classical) and relegates the ‘skills’ of the player to that of a totally dependent, note-reading follower that will never lead.”

My comment: What standard piano method fits neatly into this narrow classification and who necessarily uses one approach without modification. Plenty of teachers prefer repertoire-based learning, and employ a variety of materials. They will often integrate composing into their curriculum, as previously mentioned.

The poster retread the same theme:

“I’ve been a staunch critic of the standard approach. Yes, it works fine for the relative few who devote themselves to classical music but for everyone else, it’s frustrating and misleading.”

My comment: What a big umbrella to encompass a horde of frustrated piano students who dislike classical music. Same for the “piano teaching industry” label that lumps the whole country’s instructors into a powerful pressure group that promotes the “status quo.”

In truth, where individual piano teachers may not mix and match well with individual students, or have the “right chemistry,” let alone possess adequate teaching skills, there’s always the option of finding a better fit.

Some pupils may want a jazz repertoire emphasis, others, classical etc. Vive La difference. Personal choices can be made with a solid understanding of what’s desired. But if quickie approaches eliminate note reading as part of the instructional program, then the long-term consequences should be explored.

In conclusion, I feel sympathy for piano students who had a painful instructional beginning. After all, it took me at least 3 tries before I found a wonderful piano teacher who ignited my life-long love of the piano and its repertoire.

I can only hope that piano drop-outs will not be discouraged by their early disappointments and will muster the courage to take lessons again.

To read more from the Facebook poster, go to PianoWorldwide, E-music maestro.!/groups/pianoworldwide/ Your feedback is always appreciated.