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Piano Technique: Practicing well-shaped scales and arpeggios (videos)

It’s always disheartening when students forego their scales and arpeggios at lessons, choosing instead, to dive immediately into repertoire. In their zeal to immerse themselves in the Masterworks, they neglect a pivotal Circle of Fifths journey that’s wedded to keyboard geographies, key relationships, and much more.

As a child, I reviled scales like most beginning piano students, and I relied on the faulty memory of my German mentor, Mrs. Schwed who heard me churn out the same C Major scale week after week– month after month. For me it was like taking uncoated cod liver oil pills cold turkey without a malted milk to wash it down. But at least I outsmarted my mentor in my one key-centered perseveration. (Ironically, C Major was probably one of my most unwise choices because it had no black key landmarks.)

It’s been decades since scales were hard to swallow, and over the years I’ve grown to love their ingestion. I will spend the first 45 minutes of my practice time, plying and shaping myriads of scales and arpeggios through Major and minor keys: in legato, staccato; by tenths, thirds, sixths. I will immerse myself in well-phrased note-rollouts in parallel and contrary motion with varied dynamics, feeling a kinesthetic and emotional connection to the “music” I make through these important preliminaries. Mindfulness, concentration, and a keen awareness of the breath converge in these keyboard-wide escapades. They’re intrinsic to a “centered” learning process.

One of my adult pupils who concurs that a scale-wise prelude to the repertoire segment of her lesson is relevant to her musical growth, shares her sprees through the key of G-sharp minor. Though my keyboard is under the webcam, one can feel a collective interaction of well-shaped scales and arpeggios par duo.

Over the past several months, this adult pupil has wedded her technique to the following repertoire:

J.S. Bach Prelude in F minor, WTC Book 2
J.S. Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847
Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72
Chopin Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64, No.2
Claude Debussy, “La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin” (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”)


Bonus video: Distinguished pianist and teacher, Irina Morozova mentors a student as he plays scales during his lesson at the Special Music School/Kaufmann Center in Manhattan. (His initial choice of “C Major” was instantly aborted)

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A Phrase loving exchange between Teacher and Student (Mozart Sonata in C, K. 545)

Tonight’s lesson with Judy had inspiring moments within a phrase sharing interplay. We started out singing the opening measures of the composer’s charming masterpiece, emphasizing a singing line supported by harmonies cresting and dipping into resolutions. The vocal lead-in, threaded through the whole lesson, often rippling into supple wrists, relaxed arms –but it deepened in perspective by an understanding of harmonic rhythm and its influence on phrasing and emotional expression.

Here’s how the lesson unfolded:

Sample of slow practice approach to opening phrases

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Lesson supplement videos assist Transfer Students in their transition to a new teacher

Most transfer students that I’ve encountered over the years better brave the change from one teaching style to another, by watching recorded views of their lessons. Because there may be a tad of anxiety associated with approaching the piano in a different way than previously learned, watching instructional excerpts that focus on the piano as “singing instrument,” becomes a more familiar and friendly frame of reference with time and exposure.

With a stroke of good fortune, a new tonal landscape that’s wedded to supple wrist and fluid follow through motions gradually replaces pencil point-like key attacks that impede beautiful phrasing.

A dimension of learning that partners with the singing tone approach, is the identification of ORGANIZERS (symmetries, fingering patterns, sequences, harmonic progressions, etc) that are fleshed out in recorded segments and forwarded to the student.


My newest transfer, (New York-based), discovered a whole new way of relating to the piano through a Level 1, Classical era Minuet by James Hook. Minuet by HookThough she expressed doubt she could remember all that transpired in the lesson (Over Skype), my having the Call Record feature enabled instant capture of footage from an overhead cam view which I edited for easier consumption.

In a second video, I demonstrated a side view of my own slow practice rendering.

OVERHEAD PERSPECTIVE: (Lesson in Progress–edited for teacher comments)

Finally, as I mouse-tapped through my you tube video files, I found a tutorial that afforded additional learning reinforcement.

In summary, these recorded lesson supplements provide a clear example of how to practice within a singing tone, singing pulse framework, that assists transfer students in their transition to a new teacher.


Avoiding Pencil Point Playing

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Manhattan’s Special Music School/Kaufman Center has a wealth of gifted students and teachers

The Special Music School-Kaufman Center

The original vision of Vladimir Feltsman, the Special Music School, with its serious commitment to musical development, is a K-8 public school with a private endowment. Located in the hub of Lincoln Center on W. 67th, its easy access to the great concert halls of the world, and the Juilliard School make it a draw for students in all five boroughs. For 15 openings, there may be 500 applications.

front desk The Special Music School

More About the School

“Special Music School, P. S. 859, is the first and only public elementary school in the United States that combines a full academic program with performance-oriented music training within the regular school day starting in Kindergarten. The music program includes private instrumental lessons and classes in music theory, history and chorus. The academic program emphasizes an integrated learning approach that develops problem-solving skills through hands-on cooperative learning experiences. The dedicated staff and faculty are committed to helping each child realize his/her full potential musically, academically, and socially.

“The Special Music School is a public/private partnership between the New York City Department of Education and Kaufman Music Center. As a public school, Special Music School is tuition-free. The Department of Education, through tax levy funds, provides the academic program and materials, while Kaufman Music Center, through its annual fund-raising efforts, provides each student with a full, merit-based music scholarship. The School is located in Kaufman Music Center’s facility at 129 West 67th Street, west of Broadway.”

In 2013, a “new” high school was added in a separate building in the Martin Luther King Educational Complex a few blocks from Kaufman. “… Dedicated to providing talented young musicians the opportunity to pursue serious, pre-professional along with a rigorous curriculum,” this secondary educational tier promotes “the development of the student as a musician for the 21st century.”

Performanc Class The Special Music School

I was fortunate to observe three piano students in the elementary grades taught by Irina Morozova, a towering pianist and teacher in the great Russian tradition.

The first of her brood, Daniel Mori, began his lessons in Kindergarten and has musically flourished under his able teacher’s wings into sixth grade. With awards and competition-related honors amassing, the youngster approaches the piano as a singing instrument with an embedded technical fluency grown assiduously by Maestra Morozova.

In these recorded lessons-in-progress, Daniel works on the Clementi Sonata in F# minor, Op. 25, No. 5, and Liszt’s Leggierezza.

The Special Music School Website:

Links to blogs about Daniel and his progress:

During the interview below, Irina Morozova discussed her approach to teaching Daniel from the very beginning of his studies. (included is a 2012 sample of her student’s artistry)

Irina Morozova BIO:

Piano; B.M. with Honors, Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music; M.M., Manhattan School of Music; piano studies with Vladimir Shakin, Galina Orlovskaya, Arkady Aronov; performances include Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, New American Chamber orchestra; participated in Film America’s “Music in the 20th Century” series; awards include Frinna Awerbuch, San Antonio International Piano Competitions; teaches, performs at International Keyboard Institute and Festival in NY; faculty, Mannes College of Music, Manhattan school of Music, Special Music School.

“Irina Morozova made her New York debut with a solo recital at Carnegie Hall in 1996 after winning Artists International Auditions. Critics raved, “Morozova possesses an astonishing beauty of sound and power of ideas…she is the sort of pianist who can turn a simple phrase into magic….”

“Born to a musical family, Irina Morozova began her musical studies at the Leningrad Special Music School for Gifted Children and graduated with honors from the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music where her major teacher was Galina Orlovskaya. Studying with Vladimir Shakin at the Saint-Petersburg Conservatory, she performed in the concert halls of Saint-Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, and many other cities in the former Soviet Union. She also toured former East Germany and appeared with the Berlin Radio Symphony in the famed Schauspielhaus.

(A list of performance credits is too long to tabulate, though they encompass a variety of international venues.)

“Ms. Morozova received her Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music where she studied with Dr. Arkady Aronov. Since 1997 she has been on the faculties of Mannes College of Music and the Special Music School at Kaufman Center.”

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Intermediate Level Piano Repertoire: Album for the Young by Robert Schumann

I took a musical journey down memory lane yesterday, rekindling scenes of childhood as I read through a set of “old” Romantic era compositions. These weren’t Robert Schumann’s illustrious KINDERSZENEN, but colorful character pieces wrapped into the composer’s Album for the Young Op. 68. (As I’ve said time and again, why give students arrangements of popular classics, when they can have dessert rolled into original manuscripts) Schumann, Burgmuller, Kabalevsky, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich, among others, all composed enticing pieces with a strong teaching dimension.

Schumann’s “The Wild Rider,” No. 8, is a well-spring of staccato learning. The treble (A section) opens with a punctuated theme against crisp chords in the bass, while voices are inverted in the middle (B) section. Sudden accents (sFzs) amidst slurred notes in a pervasive staccato landscape are a challenge, but students learning in layers, with a slow tempo framing, will advance.

The Wild Rider

Randall Faber, Piano Adventures creator, presented a forum on how to practice The Wild Rider.

He recommended that a student first play phrases legato using a wrist rotation where applicable, and then transition to staccato. I often enlist this technique in my own practicing, then pass it down to my pupils. (I say, “clip” or “snip” your legato passages into STACCATO)

In “The Wild Rider,” however, the staccato is not as clear as it could be when Faber releases the legato to the scored staccato articulation, so perhaps more of an injection of crisp energies (in vertical doses, especially on the indicated accents-“sf”-would be an effective, though modified approach)


Finally, here are THREE additional Album for the Young selections:

“First Sorrow” and “Sicilienne” reveal Schumann’s polarized personalities. He had two autographed personae in his famous Carnaval. (Eusebius–the dreamy character, and Florestan, the fiery one)

“First Sorrow” (No. 16)

“Sicilienne” (No. 11)

Finally, the effervescent Hunting Song, No. 7 reveals the composer’s ebullient energy.

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Piano Instruction, Don’t wake the “Sleeping Child,” Schumann Kinderszenen, Op. 15 No. 12

Often contemplative, lyrical pieces like lullabies, are bigger challenges to play than lightning bolt fast and furious etudes, final sonata movements etc.

“Sleeping Child” is its own poster child for fostering relaxed breaths, flowing musical poetry, and bigger energies beyond the fingers. It’s essentially a task not to wake the baby, with obtrusive, unwanted accents. (The flexible wrist is a shock absorber when needed)

In the videos below I divide Schumann’s masterwork into three parts, and consider fingerings, keys, harmonic surprises, inner voices and much more.

There’s infinite beauty contained in the composer’s short one page plus of music, but to experience heights of pleasure learning it, requires a patient, step-wise, non-judgmental approach. Toss in inspiration, enthusiasm commitment, and the journey is worth time invested.

Play through:

Sleeping Child Schumann Kinderszene reduced

Sleeping Child p. 2 Kinderszenen reduced

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Piano Instruction: Mozart Minuet in F, K. 2

Play Through

Such delightful music sprang from an inspired little Mozart who at age 6, composed this Minuet in F. His father, Leopold, “notated his son’s pieces in a notebook recording the exact date of almost every composition.” (K. 2 was born in 1762)

A musical gem that’s intrinsically vocal, requires the player to phrase lyrically, enlist dynamic contrasts and be aware of harmonic rhythm. (A poignant “deceptive” cadence, for example, in the last line provides a heart-warming moment of surprise that needs fleshing out)

At these junctures and others, the flexible wrist helps to nurture the unexpected–to taper, shape, and sculpt lines. Being a “shock absorber,” it has a natural ability to promote a singing tone.

(In the tone production venue, pay particular attention to REPEATED NOTES in Minuet K. 2 and how the wrist can create a subtle contrast, by its supple dipping and forward motions)

My instruction follows:

Mozart Minuet in F K 2