adult piano instruction, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Lara Downes, music study and ripening, patience, pianist, piano, piano blogging, piano learning, piano study, piano teaching, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stephen Hough

Pianist, Stephen Hough talks about growing a piece over time

Stephen Hough

In this excerpt from Lara Downe’s San Francisco Classical Voice interview with Stephen Hough, the universe of growth and musical ripening is explored.

Lara Downes: Your teacher, Gordon Green, was a great influence and inspiration to you, and you’ve quoted him as saying to you, when you were a young student: “I don’t care how you’re playing the piece now, what I care about is how you’ll play it in 10 years.”

Is that still true for you? As a deeply spiritual person, how do you experience the balance of making personal effort, and also just waiting for the revelation part of that learning process?

Stephen Hough: With this business of searching, I feel that I’m still very much a beginner. The idea of being patient for 10 years is not something that comes naturally to me at all! But I do think that it’s important for us to develop this kind of patience. It’s almost like farming. I mean, if you want to grow beautiful fruit, you do have to let the trees grow. You can dump chemicals on them and get them to produce very quickly, but if you want delicious fruit that’s going to grow season after season, even beyond your own lifetime, there’s a certain sort of time that simply has to pass, and I think it’s the same with learning music. We can learn a piece of music very quickly, but we have to be aware that it’s going to get so much richer over the years..

– See more at:

I applied Hough’s philosophy to a lesson on Bach Invention 13 in A minor. What I’d extracted from Hough’s poetically framed response, centered on the quality of study from the very start with its continuum of stages. If learning was quick and haphazard, it would not grow and blossom over time.

Naturally, as I taught an adult student last night, front and center in my mind, was laying a solid foundation in the early learning phase of a new piece:

1) Fingering had to be decided and solidified. (not a dice throw experience from one playing to another) It had to be a “musical” fingering that realized a phrase’s shape and contour. Sometimes replacing a thumb with an alternate finger at a cadence could make a qualitative difference. This applied to a segment in Bach Invention 13 in A minor where the student’s choice of a thumb instead of finger 2, forced an undesirable accent.

2) Rhythm, note durations, etc. needed specific attention.

3) Slow, separate hand practice with a framing pulse, factored into foundation building that would be the best bank deposit for future musical growth. It “banked” on good fingering choices and an awareness of context: what was happening structurally and harmonically to frame the learning process. (Included was a recognition of SEQUENCES)

Context reinforced each learning stage, and CONTOURING or SHAPING LINES was part of this phase, using singing as an aid to phrasing with equal attention to dynamics.

4) Spot practicing: Where finger trapping or redundant glitches occurred, making a conscious effort to work through specific measures that needed extra focus and attention became another solid, interest bearing bank deposit for optimum musical growth. (It’s opposite was meaningless repetition)

5) FRAMING ALL OF THE ABOVE was Hough’s PATIENCE mantra, that for me, was his most resonant theme.

Bundled into such wisdom, was an avoidance of tempo charging, or driving the learning process at a rate that failed to preserve quality in the present in order to insure ripening in the future.

Stephen Hough on the Practice of Practicing

Excerpt from a Masterclass (Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody)


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The universe of piano study: Too Little or Too Long on a piece

Not a bullet-proof analysis, but based on decades of teaching piano, I’ve come to a set of conclusions about why students give up on pieces too soon, or in reverse, prolong their agony, through time-warped months of static practicing. In truth, giving up too soon, or dragging a piece through months of inertia, both result from top layer, on the surface learning.

Surface learning does not come with a step-by-step analysis of what is needed to improve a composition after the initial “read.”

Fingering choices are the first big decision made–what I call the housekeeping department of practicing. If a student throws fate to the wind, and shifts fingering at each practice session, then resultant stumbling and note stutters virtually guarantee a short-lived exposure to the piece. (Frustration builds to crescendo levels.)

If an intelligent fingering is laid down in the separate hand practicing phase, but not observed, adding to wrong notes popping in and out of phrases (not corrected through specific spot-practicing routines) then the composition will be prematurely disposed or destined for a long, painful death.

Spot-practicing takes patience, so if a student is in a hurry to learn and discard a piece to move on to the next flavor of the week selection, he will have LESS than a deep layer experience in the PRESENT.

Here’s a thoughtful spot-practicing segment (A minor Harmonic minor scale in 6ths)

More spot practicing (slow tempo, Fur Elise, tremolo section)

SLOW practicing is obviously a big ingredient of thoughtful learning. It gives ample time to process fingering, phrasing, dynamics, etc. and to breathe into phrases with a ONEness relationship to the piano.

Here’s an example of breathing through an arpeggio to experience the here and now without anticipation:

Students who are aware of the breath in their practicing are less likely to abandon a piece before its full development or to waste time huffing and puffing through passages that are redundantly anxious, and out of control.


A striking area of NEGLECT that leads to shortened exposures to pieces, or overtime lag, relates to the phenomenon of practicing page one, and letting the remaining pages go fallow.

Once page one is adequately absorbed, a student may think it’s time to party through the rest of the piece. Or as a self-assigned reward for diligently practicing the opener, the pupil will rest on his laurels through the development and final cadence.

It’s called, “I did enough” and need a vacation.

At this juncture, it’s up to the teacher to pull in the reigns and redirect the student to the necessary work that’s needed before the composition is put to pasture.

By the same token, if the piece is drilled to the ground for months on end without efforts to spot practice or refine measures, sections that need remediation, then the undertaking may be beyond meaningful resuscitation.

On both sides of the spectrum, deep-layered practicing in a steady, incremental learning rhythm, is the best antidote to the demise of a piece before, or long after its expected life span.

Addendum: A Theoretical/structural analysis of a piece is always a learning reinforcer and helps to hold a piece together in its totality. Students who understand a composition from many dimensions are likely to learn and retain it more thoroughly in the long run. (Block practicing with a theory-based understanding is part of the process)


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Piano technique is about flexibility not finger strength

I remember my days at the Oberlin Conservatory pumping out meaningless Schmitt finger exercises, often holding notes down, while a selected persecuted finger had to brave the pain is gain ritual. (tap, tap, tap, tap, and move on to the next unlucky digit)

Looking back, it was a wasted effort which had NO relationship to fluid, beautiful piano playing. Yet so many “Performance” MAJORS hammered away through paper thin walls of stacked CON practice rooms hoping to build a SOLID technique.

NO doubt these Ex-CONS (at graduation) would surely find it a challenge to survive the rigors of mechanical drills outside prison confines, with injury being the price of senseless repetition and overuse.

finger in splint

And to think my beloved piano teacher, Lillian Freundlich that I left behind in NYC to attend her Alma Mater, had sent me off to do hard labor. (My apologies to Oberlin classmates who might have had exposure to better teaching methods in the LEARNING and LABOR school)

Learning and Labor better

To provide an example of how I emancipated myself from the no pain/no gain paradigm so respected back in my ancient student days, I’ve made this 9-minute video exploring how to learn a devilish fast passage, by organizing, blocking, singing and shaping the line. (No POWER DRILLS, if you please!)

It’s a NO sweat approach to playing a tricky phrase from Haydn’s HOBOKEN 52 Sonata in Eb (Finale: PRESTO)

Haydn sonata segment RONDO

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The piano learning process at all levels of study

In spite of my having studied piano for decades, each learning experience is filled with challenges that I must approach with a glut of patience. A new composition has its own form, architecture, harmonic rhythm, fingering that requires a big reserve of self-acceptance in a deadline-free frame.

To the contrary, many of my students, who are 95% adults, have a built-in timetable plaguing them from day one. “How long will it take me to learn this piece?” They demand certainty about reaching a tangible goal on a fixed schedule. The End result is what most matters.

Since we live in an information age, strategies of mastery are in vogue along with a mandatory guarantee of knowledge acquisition in so many weeks. “Quick,” “easy-fix” consumption are the Millennium’s catchwords. CD sets are compiled and promoted to learn piano “in a flash.”


I have a pupil, who epitomizes the insecure student, searching for a micro-wave cooking equivalent for learning piano.

She’s an accomplished writer and retired lawyer. On more than one occasion she’s confessed to doing “everything well” except for piano. “I just don’t understand why my wrist can’t roll forward, why I stumble, stutter at the piano.”

If she stepped back and thought about how many years she’s been writing and practicing law as compared to playing the piano, she’d acquire instant insight about her personal quandary.

Irina Gorin, inspired piano teacher and author of Tales of A Musical Journey has often said, “We’re not born playing the piano…. we have to learn to physically relate to the instrument.”

That’s why she starts her kids young, using silly putty to dip tiny hands into. They experience “touch” as deep, densely probing, and sinewy, to produce the singing tone, not a poked out, pencil point sequence of notes. Dipping into jello is Gorin’s metaphor, nicely channeled into the keys:

The time old analogy of crawling before walking applies, yet so many adult students, will obsess about how long they have been working on a piece without the advances they expected of themselves.

Yet, if I think about the students who have made the most gains this year, it’s been those who accepted the baby-step paradigm without precondition. They learned to love the journey with its precious awakenings along the way.


A pupil is shown working on a section of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” absorbing a sound image before translating it into physical expression at the piano. She practiced separate hands, behind tempo. Call it mindful practicing; attentive listening. They belong together.


An adult student embarked upon the Chopin Waltz no. 19 in A minor.

Sight-reading was not a parcel of our work.

It was delving into the fundamental bass, measure by measure in slow tempo.

What was the relationship of one note to the next as each was played? Lean on some, relax others.

“Feel,” “hear” and know at the same time.

Then practice the melody at snail’s pace, but with a singing tone–no delay in contouring. The shapes must seep in from conscious to unconscious.

The student explored wrist motions to curve and shape lines. These poured out of her scale work.

Where an arpeggiated figure appeared, all her caring and conscientious practicing of buoyant broken chords, bristled with relevance.

In graduated steps, the after beat sonorities were separated, and played with a “spongy” feel. We thought of a “lighter” third beat. Not a parade of downbeats.

In time the layering process followed as melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords came together.

As I look back on this step-wise progression and its implications for the musical development of the Waltz, I can say with confidence that the student eventually played it with a wonderful sense of personal mastery and joy bundled together.

Patience and self-acceptance at every stage of the learning process was our paradigm.

If considered a mantra, it becomes a reminder of what teachers and students need to embrace.


How Long Should a Student Stay with a Piece?

Quality Spot Practicing by an adult student, “Fur Elise.”

The Value of Slow Practicing

Out of a Rut with Quality Spot Practicing


Just Being at the Piano
by Mildred Portney Chase

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Phrasing at the piano: Listening to the ends of notes as they flow into others

I’ve chosen Burgmuller’s “Tender Flower” as the springboard to explore attentive listening and its relationship to phrasing.

At the outset, the right moment to begin a piece is a challenge. The player has to experience the whole dimension of silence before a first note is played. That silence is not dead, but alive with cues about the moment of a composition’s birth. (If I shared all my video retakes of piece openers, it would take far too much time to sit through them) yet it’s the very patient, focused care taken to nurse the first sound or tone that makes all the difference in the outflow of a composition. It may be the most important place in the music.

To continue a piece after its opening note or chord shimmers with tonal beauty or has a blossoming energy, is all about phrase-loving and listening to the ends of notes in preparation for others. It’s a given that to accomplish this, a pianist must be tension-free and open to temporal events as they unfold. A relaxed, physical and mental state of mind is needed. Breathing with the music and its undulations involves being in the moment without distraction.

But harmonic rhythm also influences the shape of notes and their resolution. If a player is prepared to repeat an opening phrase that ends on the Dominant, then the resolution to Tonic is curved down. Listening to the very end of the Dominant note or chord, and breathing through it, will help taper the line as imagined.

Imagination, relaxation, being in the here and now of creation are all ingredients of attentive listening that make piano playing a gratifying experience. A patient, non-judgmental approach along with self-prompts or mental images that promote a free-flowing sound space, allow for inspired music-making.

“Tender Flower” played through:

About attentive listening:

Recommended Reading:

Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney-Chase

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Using piano repertoire as a springboard for a theory lesson: Major, minor and Diminished Chords (Videos)

One of my adult students is working on the gorgeous J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor which has a second page full of “Major,” “Minor” and “Diminished” chords. The sonorities progress in sequences, but they also have a secondary dominant relationship to resolving chords. The “harmonic rhythm” moves quickly.

While this particular pupil may not be ready to understand “functional” harmony or the “modulation” dimension of the broken chords as they occur in the B section, she could learn how to form “Major,” “minor” and “diminished” chords, and then appreciate their differences through ear-training exposure.

In this video, sent between lessons, I reviewed Major, minor and Diminished chords and their derivation from five-finger positions which she has been studying in the Major and Parallel minor. The fact that the chords (broken) moved in a sequence, or a pattern also helped her navigate this section.

The Secondary Dominant aspect had been briefly noted, but will be more deeply explored as the student’s scale work around the Circle of Fifths gives an opportunity to build chords on every degree of the scale, noting harmonic relationships, cadences, and modulations.

Teaching Video:

In part B, the music blossoms into a series of secondary Dominants against sobbing, sighing pairs of descending seconds, before it returns to a familiar revisit with part of the opening A section.

Sustaining a melodic line through recurring broken pattern chords is paramount to playing the Prelude poetically and musically. Varying dynamics and tapering phrases are woven into the artistic process.

Playing through entire prelude, first in chords, then as written in broken chord sequence.


Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery

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Piano Technique: Focusing on Rotation in arpeggios, and building up a scale (Videos)

These are two supplementary videos that I created for adult students between lessons. As previously mentioned, they clarify and reinforce the content of our class, and map out ways to practice.

I. ROTATION at the turnaround of a B minor Arpeggio

Exploring the curve at the very top of the figure with an energy boost to transition smoothly in the descent (legato and staccato playing in two dynamic ranges)

II. The roll-in, wrist forward motion when starting the arpeggio, or coming around in a sequence of playings

C Major Scale

I. Blocking (separate hands)–block out “tunnels” through which the thumb passes (D,E and then GAB with thumbs played softly in between)

II. Find common fingers and notes between the hands (such as 3’s on E and A) Same for common thumb points.

III. Scope out the “bridge” over the octave, B, C, D and note how the fingers of each hand are in “mirror” or reciprocal relationship with each other. (practice finding these “neighborhoods.”)

IV. Format the scale once internal relationships are explored (Practice legato to staccato)

Practice the scale with a singing-tone Mezzo Forte (and don’t forget curve around “rotation” at the top before the descent)

Two octaves, quarter notes
Two octaves, 8th notes, with wrist dips in pairs of notes
Three octaves, rolling triplets
Four octaves, 16ths (legato)
Four octaves 16ths staccato (Forte)–Staccato is “a snip away from legato.”
Four octaves 16ths staccato (piano)