eurhythmics, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano technique

Piano Technique: Working with the character of rhythms

It’s easy to assess a student’s difficulty with navigating scales in progressive tempo framings from quarters to 8th notes to 16ths, etc. as being the result of shortcomings in rhythmic perception, when a larger cosmos of awareness is lacking.

I think immediately of the Eurhythmics course I took at the Oberlin Conservatory, taught by the legendary Inda Howland. It was not a doctrinaire approach to realizing the individual character of rhythms according to the tenets of Jacques Dalcroze. Instead, it was in part an imagery fed environment that supported the motion of the body in understanding the flow of notes as it also nourished relaxed breathing tied to the vocal and movement model. Triplets were expansive, rolling, and unrelenting, never crowded into a narrow space. They had to “breathe” in concert with our organic sense of them. (Think “vowels”) To experience the breadth of these notes, we grouped them in a horizontal procession, swaying, and physically ingesting their uniqueness.

In a transition to 16th notes, we realized a new character framing, a different “inner speed motion.” Our mentor spoke of “density,” unswerving “energy,” and lack of inhibition. She referenced “shape,” “contour,” “freedom” of physical and emotional expression.

If I tried to cram all that I absorbed from my Eurhythmics experience into a piano lesson, it would be a formidable task. Yet, I find myself prompting my students, not just with mental images, but with conducting motions, singing, demonstrating, and opening the piano technique portion of the lesson to a wide universe of personal/physical/musical discovery. (Choreography at the keyboard is a vital ingredient of rhythmic realization, but it’s always at the service of what’s “natural” or “organic” to the outpouring of notes)

Therefore, a metronome, per se, will not “correct” rhythmic weakness. Instead, an integration of ideas that harnesses the imagination, relaxes the body/mind and opens the student to experimentation and self-analysis, can go a long way to stimulating an awareness of how notes “breathe” in groupings to phrase peaks and resolutions.

Two examples

A local interaction with an adult student (B minor arpeggios and scales)

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My “Rhythm Rehab Lab” centered tutorial that followed a lesson with a pupil in Australia

LINK:
About Eurhythmics

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/eurhythmics-a-whole-body-listening-experience-video/

piano, piano technique, staccato

Piano Technique: Finding a secure nesting ground on Black Notes

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 2.17.33 PM

In our Circle of Fifths journey through the ARPEGGIO universe, the one KEY that stands out as the most dreaded among adult students, is F# Major. A slippery slope of skinny raised BLACK notes, it often feeds separation anxiety from the more spacious WHITE notes.

In the face of such traumatic avoidance of ratted black keys that can poison the piano learning environment, a mentor has the challenge of neutralizing fears by using mental prompts to nurture a SAFE HAVEN for flighty fingers.

But part and parcel of this remedial undertaking, is an examination of a student’s FROZEN encounter with the blacks that prevents a necessary FREEDOM of the arms, wrists and hands. This is where my personal FLOP, FLOP approach has the wrist hanging off the arms, SHAKING OUT the staccato notes. While I encourage a BIG, if not EXAGGERATED Full Arm/Supple Wrist follow-through GESTURE, it will be sized down by increments to encourage centering on the blacks without feeling SKITTISH or INHIBITED.

Ideally a LEGATO contouring should precede the Staccato playing because the former is likely to allow a student to SETTLE IN, before he detaches notes. However, in both LEGATO and STACCATO, a CONNECTION to the BLACKS, both PSYCHOLOGICAL and PHYSICAL, must remain.

In my LIVE and virtual studio, I always start with the premise that BLACK KEYS are welcoming to hands and fingers. They provide a secure nesting ground, NOT a high-wire challenge over a steep decline. With this mental SAFETY NET, the BLACK-KEY ARPEGGIO should be DE-Charged in ALL articulations.

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P.S. A student’s response to this posting that’s shared far and wide.

“And I thought I was the only one that was having trouble with that arpeggio in F# major! I’m glad you did not tell me ahead of time that it was the most dreaded.

“It’s better now, but remains the most awkward feeling of them so far as I find myself halfway around the circle! Hard to believe it’s only halfway….seems like I have been to the moon and back and I’m only half way??? Oh well,the journey continues to delight, and occasionally frustrate, but not for long with you rescuing us from the slippery slopes!”

blogmetrics, Kinderszenen, piano, piano blog, piano technique, Robert Schumann

The piano playing speed zone: Letting Go but Staying in Control

At some point, piano students will face the challenge of playing a super fast-paced piece without having it fall apart. And while such a task may seem daunting, the player can begin to allay his fears by devising a parceled out practicing strategy.

The best panic attack prevention, (at the sight of a MM quarter= 138) is a measured approach that should include crowd control: spacing notes in incremental tempo settings; anticipatory anxiety relief (when bursts of energy follow tapered cadences); relaxed breathing at climactic junctures, intensified crescendo sections and poignant harmonic moments.

If the score is permeated by insanely driven staccato notes that are interrupted by sudden outbursts of obtrusive accents (sFp’s), these mood-triggered shifts must at all costs, not ignite a fight/flight reflex.

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The mood state duality

Robert Schumann’s “Hasche-Mann,” (“Blindman’s Bluff”) from the composer’s well spun Kinderszenen (“Scenes From Childhood”) begs the player to inhabit a dual universe.

Hasche-Mann

Framed as a very short, energy-packed tableau, it requires a face-off between a pianist’s sensibility and his propensity to fly off the handle.

If the latter prevails, the piece collapses like a house of cards.

However, where unabashed freedom of expression is allied to technical control,(Horowitz’s “Fire and Ice” analogy) the pianist will have mediated a potential conflict between the two.

In the attached video, I walk through a stepwise process of desensitization that enlists back tempo practicing, and draws on legato playing as the model for shaping lines in a CALM frame, before “snipping” 16ths into staccato. I also pinpoint the most vulnerable, anxiety-provoking measures, using mental prompts and chord “blocking” choreography to oppose frenetic tempo spurts.

An examination of harmonic rhythm also helps to clarify dips in phrases that flesh out deceptive cadences, and Neapolitan to Dominant progressions.

In summary, capturing the spirit of a piece in the fast-lane must exist side-by-side with impeccable control so that practicing should encompass both.

piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano technique, Shirley Kirsten, Uncategorized

What should be natural is hard for many piano students

I often think about artificial barriers that many students erect when practicing. Of the adults whom I’ve mentored (and learned from) over the years some have had a formidable line of defense against “hitting” wrong notes.

In many cases they’ve lifted action verbs from the battlefield zone, transferring them to the keyboard conquering turf.

Such an aggressive and unnatural approach that basically ignites gripping tension in the arms, wrists, and hands, inevitably results in hapless, keyed-up repetitions that have no value. Certainly in this “call to charge” mode, students will keep “misfiring” to a point of mental and physical exhaustion.

But why should any player take a hard as nails approach to practicing?

Might it derive from the NO PAIN, NO GAIN, gym workout/weight training paradigm?

From my perspective, a great workout is a mind and body expanding experience minus grimaces and grunts. It’s an emancipation of the breath that feeds the muscles.

Stretching and relaxed breathing, therefore, in synch with repetitions become my specific consciousness-raisers that I transfer to the piano.

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Mental prompts aid the physical…

Without doubt, mental imagery plays a significant role in one’s whole attitude toward practicing. Fluidity requires a visceral sense of LETTING GO. The arms need to swing breezily while the wrists like sponges, are pliant.

The hands and fingers flow from relaxed funneled energy down the arms.
If there’s tension anywhere along the spectrum, the player is in opposition to his instrument, not in partnered harmony.

Teacher demonstrations, bundled with pertinent “verbal suggestions” can ameliorate a combative/self-competitive climate, and effectively turn the tide.

In this vein, I’ve observed some remarkable turnabouts in the course of 5 or ten lesson minutes if a pertinent image can filter down to the level of awakened physical/musical awareness. It’s in this touch/tone sensitivity universe that a satisfying co-dependent mind/body relationship ideally exists to nourish practicing and growth.

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In the attached video sample, an adult student, although boxed into the Skype screen, experienced a pertinent shift in consciousness as she worked on a C# minor arpeggio. While initially her wrists and hands were visibly filled with tension, I watched a gradual transition to a more relaxed approach that produced an audibly pleasing result.

Key words:
“springy, spongy, flexible wrists.. hanging hands, hanging arms.”

Roll toward the black notes that are your center of gravity.”

“Hang wrists and hands off the arms.”

(Revisits of recorded segments between lessons are invaluable for students.)

Claudio Arrau, J.S. Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, piano technique

Piano Technique: Shaking out Bach Ornaments! and the influence of Claudio Arrau

When working on executing ornaments with an adult student as they appear in J.S. Bach’s Prelude in F minor, I thought instantly of Claudio Arrau’s allusions to “shaking” these out, without having a thread of tension in the arms, wrists, and hands. One of his biographers, Joseph Horowitz, profiled the pianist in an extensive interview that drew out many of the virtuoso’s ideas about technique, of which ornaments were a particular focus. (Conversations with Arrau)

A central aspect of Arrau’s playing is arm weight technique as taught to him my Martin Krause: “Relax and let loose, never be stiff of cramped in any joint. Krause even recommended that pianists should engage in sports.”

It was no surprise that I had for years integrated the whole arm, “shake” out recommendation as it permeated Arrau’s teaching, and related it to playing long trills. (in Mozart sonatas, concerti, etc.), and then through years of studying the Classical repertoire, along with Baroque and Romantic era compositions, I drew upon Arrau’s resonating quotes, to unkink my Bach ornaments, freeing them of tension.

Rather than dissect the physical ingredients of the SHAKE ’em out approach to ornaments as they appear in J.S. Bach’s F minor Prelude, BWV. 881, I decided to let a lesson video illustrate the main points.

P.S. As it happens, one of Arrau’s proteges via his assistant, Rafael De Silva, was Ena Bronstein, who perhaps influenced MY SHAKE IT OUT, FREE THROW, ARM LOOSE, WRIST SUPPLE, ORNAMENT GRAPPLE. She was my teacher in Fresno, California for about a year before relocating to Princeton, New Jersey.

The following sources contain Arrau’s ideas about piano technique:

Piano Lessons with Claudio Arrau: A Guide to his Philosophy and Techniques by Victoria A. Von Arx. A book preview is found via the link below.
https://books.google.com/books?id=LGOMAwAAQBAJ&pg=PT141&lpg=PT141&dq=Claudio+arrau+on+trills&source=bl&ots=Lh77NME2Im&sig=DkZ0hWCAxBlFpzj5_3l0tijzo7A&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwizl-bXhNvLAhUI82MKHehQB8MQ6AEILTAD#v=onepage&q=Claudio%20arrau%20on%20trills&f=false

By the same author from her Dissertation: The Teaching of Claudia Arrau and his Pupils: Piano Pedagogy as a Cultural Work (2006)

https://books.google.com/books?id=T8vOlfQyq3sC&pg=PA85&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

“Arrau explained relaxation as avoidance of stiffening within the joints that impair the body’s ability to move freely. Freedom of motion would allow the realization of musical impulse, the transmission of musical intentions through the body to the keyboard. The freer there body, the more the piano would be experienced as an extension of the player’s body, converting musical impulses into sound.”

Essentially Arrau “expressed the importance of experiencing mind and body as an integrated whole.” (There’s a substantial section on the maestro’s “Piano Technique” that’s easily accessed within the Von Arx Dissertation.)

LINK:

Conversations with Arrau
Conversations with Arrau
http://www.amazon.com/Conversations-With-Arrau-Joseph-Horowitz/dp/0879100133

piano, piano blog, piano instruction, piano pedagogy, piano technique

An adult and child share common goals in playing piano artistically

There’s no big ocean of divide in working with children and adult piano students. In fact, today I found common threads running through two lessons: one with a local beginner, age, 8–the other, a seasoned adult.

Liz, 8, completed her fifth week of instruction, with my imbued emphasis on how to produce a singing tone. From day one, I’ve nurtured a relaxed funnel of energy down her arms, through supple wrists, and gently curved hands. This same fundamental lesson framing applies to Sam, a much older student who resides in London, takes lessons Online, and is practicing “Fur Elise.” (He’s about three years into his studies.)

The following lesson samples were nicely paired with common goals of creating beauty. Sam’s challenge today was woven into his D Major Scale in 10ths. He worked on ORGANIZING it–discovering symmetries between the hands in mirror images, while maintaining a natural flow of energy down his arms, wrists, and hands. Curling fingers under in a block practicing segment impeded its smooth octave by octave course, and grabbing notes would cause the same interruption of well-breathed out sequences. The remedy proved to be thoughtful repetitions, that gradually eliminated these impediments.

For Liz, whose lesson I re-capped in a summary video, I illustrated the very concepts that were woven into Sam’s lesson, but in a different context.

The child is studying short pieces in Frances Clark’s Primer, Time to Begin, but she’s also given composing assignments that tap into her creativity with an embedded alliance to the singing tone. The earliest exposure to the piano is probably the most critical in furthering the development of attentive listening; a physical/emotional connection to the instrument, and a cognitive framing that reinforces the practicing phase. (Not to overlook the imagination and its profound influence upon musical expression.)

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SAM: Playing the D Major Scale in 10ths

A Summary of Liz’s 5th lesson–correction from “4th” mentioned in the video (in part)

Liz’s previous lesson segments have been recorded in progress:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/an-8-year-old-begins-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/liz-age-8-has-her-second-piano-lesson-with-my-interspersed-thoughts-about-materials-and-teaching-philosophy/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/liz-age-8-composes-a-piece-at-her-third-piano-lesson/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/03/10/deviating-from-the-piano-method-book-to-custom-fit-the-child/

blogmetrics, blogmetrics.org, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano lessons, piano pedagogy, piano teachers, piano teaching, piano teaching by skype, piano teaching piano instruction, piano technique

The “upper arm roll” and undulating wrist in piano playing

Many piano teachers call the same physical approach to various passages by a different name. I find myself in harmony with author, teacher, composer, Seymour Bernstein when he demonstrates the “upper arm roll” in Part 4 of his recorded series, “You and the Piano.”

As it plays out in one my teaching videos, I similarly refer to an “arm roll” that has a continuum of funneled energy through undulating wrists.

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I also emphasize that the fingers have to be draped in a relaxed way, so as not to impede the smooth flow of energy down the arms into wrists, hands and finally into the fingers. This energy delivery should be without tension-related interruptions at any juncture.

In addition, I advocate the use of “rhythms” to activate these bigger energies where they apply. For instance in the Coda section of J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor, (end of measure 22 through m. 25), many students get “locked up,” as a stream of Subject fragments pile up at close intervals. Often these notes within such sub-sets flow out of Dominant harmonies and land with ACCENTS instead of tapering according to harmonic rhythm.

To avoid such unmusical emphases, I suggest grouping notes in rhythmic segments with a natural arm roll into flexible wrists.

In the attached video, at the juncture where the A minor Invention spills into a climactic convergence of voices between the hands, commencing at measure 19, and continuing through an intensified spill (Treble 16th notes, against bass 8th notes) I further recommend a “rolling” or “wavy” contouring in groups of 8.

Bach A minor Invention p. 3

Finally, in reference to the uninterrupted flow of energy funneled down the arms, I urge students to preserve a mental image of “hanging arms, hands, and fingers.” By standing upright and then bending over in a relaxed way, they can simulate this “feeling.”

Even while seated at the piano bench, this same sense of “hanging” in relaxed abandon can be imagined and put to good use in piano playing, along with the related mental image of Puppet String Arms.

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