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Piano Technique: Big Leaps, Crossed Hands, and shifty eyeballs (with slow motion video replay)

up tempo:

Be prepared to exercise your eyeballs minus head movements when tackling large leaps, especially those hand-over-hand acrobatics that are intrinsic to many of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas.

In the first video I’ve isolated a few of these jumps from Sonata K. 113 in A Major, demonstrating what I’ve found to be the best approach.

While I’ve crashed and burned on more than one occasion, a new consciousness emerged through trial and error.

Recommendations

1) No bobbing head back and forth when playing crossed hands.

Use your shifty eyeballs, if necessary, to target the destination notes going back and forth over your right hand.

There are two places that stand out in this sonata. The first involves two octave, crossed-hand jumps. The Left travels back and forth over the right multiple times.

In the second instance, there are jumps of four octaves, and these can be suicide trips, unless mediated by shifty eyeballs.

2) Use an arc-like motion back and forth, but not too high, or you’ll lose contact with the keys.

3) Block out the broken chord progressions in the right hand as they move in sequence. Then unblock them before adding in the left hand.

Be calm, relaxed, and breathe deeply but not anxiously.

Finally, say a prayer..

CLICK to enlarge (page 1 and 2, Sonata, K. 113 by Scarlatti)

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The very first Chopin Waltz that I teach: #19, Op. Posth. in A minor (Video instruction)

After decades of teaching the Chopin Waltzes, I’ve come to the conclusion that the A minor, No. 19, Op. Posthumous is the best student introduction to the form as the composer cultivated it. While many other Waltzes in Chopin’s collection are far more substantial and technically challenging, No. 19, is in my opinion, easiest to assimilate, study, and play. In part, it’s because the harmonic structure is very straightforward, leaning toward tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chord relationships. In addition, a frequent interchange occurs between the tonic A Minor in which the piece is written and its relative C Major. (Good material for introductory theory) Finally, there’s an abundance of thematic repetition.

The big climax of the piece, on the third page, (measures, 33-40) is a modulation to the Parallel A MAJOR, which makes a conspicuously audible impression. This section also has the most notes phrased at a Forte dynamic level.

Following the composition’s peak, the composer returns to the opening theme, which is in the home key of A minor.

Palmer Edition, Chopin Waltzes:

About the Composer, Frederic Chopin
(1810-1849)

Chopin lived during the height of the Romantic Period, and composed very expressive music that included free flowing phrases, ornamented notes, a colorful harmonic palette, and a tempo rubato (flexible, borrowed time that if taken too far, is a bit of a parody of itself) The pedaling for this music is rich, but tasteful. (The player should not over use the sustain)

The Way to Practice:

1) First, trace the path of melody through the opening section, (measures 1-16) in SLOW motion, following the phrasing very carefully. Chopin was very much a molto cantabile composer, who stressed the singing tone capability of the piano. In this first section, the composer offers the preponderance of material for the complete Waltz. Note that ornaments are played on the beat and with good directions in the editor’s annotations.

2) Continue by separately practicing the fundamental bass of the first section. (only the first beat of each measure, known as a “downbeat”) Draw each one out with a deep, resonant stroke.

3) Then play “after beat” chords only–the two sonorities following the downbeat. Isolate them from measure to measure and notice the voice leading. Knowing they are neighbor chords will make the jump from the downbeat bass notes seem less awesome. Lighten the third beat or chord in each measure. Approach with a flexible or spongy wrist. (The wrist is the great shock absorber)

4) Next play the downbeats followed by the after beat chords in each measure. Draw out the downbeats without poking at them. You want a rich bass, not an accented one.
The after beat chords should be lighter, as previously mentioned.

5) Finally, put hands together for the first section. The melody should be very singable and prominent. The fundamental bass gives the ground energy; the after beat chords fill in with colorful harmony. The balance between the melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords is very important.

Part II (Measures 16-24)
The same advice for part one applies here. Keep to the order of practicing separate hands, with an awareness of balance between right hand and left hand.
Notice that this part of the composition is more extemporaneous, and feels improvised. It begins in the Melodic form of A minor and lets go with a DOMINANT key arpeggio (E Major) If you’ve been conscientious about practicing arpeggios, this passage should not be too difficult to execute, but consider it a freely rendered figure and not meant to sound forced, regimented, or robotically played. Remember that the Romantic style is characterized by a sense of freedom and improvisation.

The next section is a return of the opening phrase in A Minor. (measures 25-32)
Follow the method of practicing separate hands, as introduced in the beginning of the work.

The Climax: Measures 33-40 The longest phrasing in the piece and in A MAJOR (The Parallel MAJOR) with a Forte dynamic.

Practice with the same parceled out approach as the beginning.

Finally the opening section returns in Measures 41 to 52 with a Codetta (small, modified ending) as the last line.

***

The Waltz played in tempo:

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/butterfly-by-edvard-grieg/

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Why Play Scales?

Scale practicing examples:

***
The Backdrop:

As a young piano student living in New York City, I remember my reluctance to prepare a mandatory scale each week for my lesson. In fact my first teacher had so many students, she always seemed to forget the scale she had assigned to me, so I remained happily in the key of C for most of the year. (Played on all white keys) Little did I know that C Major was a lot more challenging to practice than the keys of B, F# and C# Major that had nice, regular patterns of double and triple black notes that fit the longer fingers perfectly, with the thumbs meeting in between.

Frederic Chopin was known to teach these three black-key scales before all others. Think about how much easier it would have been for a sightless person to play these step-wise passages with braille-like elevated black notes in regular patterns, as opposed to a sea of white notes without reference points.

Now that I’ve grown up to be a piano teacher and you tube poster, I realize the importance of scale study in the growth and development of musicianship.

Scales are about the “feel” and geography of the keyboard. They are about shaping, phrasing, sculpting. Sometimes they’re practiced with catchy rhythms, crisp and detached (staccato) or as smooth and connected, freely spun out, rolling triplets. You can even reverse the direction of the fingers when practicing scales, having them lightheartedly dance together and apart, in shades of loud, soft, and in between. And you might bring out one voice over another, by drawing more intensity from the left hand, then reversing the process, giving the right hand its place in the sun.

Most importantly, scales help us understand where we are in a piece of music because they define the TONAL CENTER of a composition or a section of it.

I wish I had known about the famous Circle of Fifths when I was beginning my piano studies. The Circle maps out the progression of scales (Major and minor) in an orderly fashion with sharps acquired going clockwise, and flats in reverse. As a student moves from the Key of C, to G, to D, to A, etc. he/she learns not only the new sharp that is picked up in the clockwise journey but comes face to face with fingering adjustments that make the smooth playing of various scales more attainable.

Scales, in summary, are part and parcel of piano study and they feed in and out of the piano repertoire. What could be a better entree to the pieces we most cherish than to find the key they’re in, and dance through a few preliminaries.

Example of a Classical era Sonata by Mozart (first movement) permeated by a series of scales.

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Performance Anxiety and the Pianist

For too long performance anxiety was a taboo subject, always swept under the rug.

I remember grappling with paralyzing jitters during my years at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. My piano teacher at the time, a seasoned professional, would always say the same thing:

“Honey, the music is bigger than you or me.”

Of course it made me otherwise feel like an Egomaniac.

Her altruistic mantra never worked beyond the opening measure of a piece. I would fall apart quite instantly, and hardly remember if I had ever played a composition before an audience of anyone other than myself.

In a previous blog, I referred to going cold, like an ice cube when I was invited to play on “Music in the Schools,” a WNYC F.M. program that showcased talented youth in the city.

It was Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 311 that was for all intents and purposes on automatic pilot without a real “live” pilot at the controls. The final cadence was a crash landing with emotional consequence. I was miserable for weeks and months following the disaster and I never again wanted to play in front of a microphone!

REDUX: My teacher would say with even greater urgency, “The music is bigger than you or me.”

The problem with engulfing nerves, is that unless there’s a break in the cycle, it can perpetuate itself. You can go from one performance to another saddled with the same crisis with no end in sight.

And don’t believe the instruction: Learn your notes inside and out and all will be well.
Preparation is a given, but not God given when you need a life preserver in the middle of a piece.

I remember a nightmarish situation that played out at the Oberlin Conservatory when I was a student majoring in Piano, Performance. A very gifted young woman was publicly auditioning the Schumann “A” Minor Piano Concerto, when suddenly she had a massive memory lapse smack in the middle of the first movement. One phrase trapped her and she couldn’t get out of it. The same few measures were repeated 15 times to no avail which kept her from advancing to the final cadence. (I wondered if she would be signaled to go offstage, as happened recently to a participant in the Chopin International Piano Competition) I resisted jumping on stage with the music so the afflicted young Oberlin pianist could make it safely back to her dorm before nightfall.

As it happened, the player finally found her away out of the snag, and managed to play the next two movements impeccably well. She wasn’t chosen among the finalists but the following year she came back and won! Now that’s a story of fortitude and courage that should teach us all a lesson about not giving up.

I might add right here, that my own piano teacher had a significant memory lapse at her well publicized concert at the 92nd Street Y, so I began to make the connection between her son’s life’s work as a psychiatrist and her possible difficulty performing onstage. (though I’m not certain whether her memory lapse was self limiting or a symptom of a greater problem)

There’s hope!

To give others a twinge optimism about finding a cure for their paralyzing nerves, I will explain what I did, that not only helped me, but had been passed down to my students over the years.

1) Hypnosis: I became a confirmed Believer.

I had the courage to visit a hypno-therapist about 20 years ago who began by asking me about the piano; challenges to playing in public; what were my worst fears when performing or anticipating a performance (and inevitably these were related to fear of failure and its consequences, loss of love, loss of identity, etc.)

At that point, I reminded myself that my piano teacher’s son, Dr. David Freundlich, had published papers on Performance Anxiety that focused on masturbatory fantasies. I recall reading his Journal writings from the 1960’s that tied asphyxiating nerves on stage to fear of auto-erotic activity exposure. So if a player was crippled by anxiety, it was because playing piano was a self-gratifying, libidinal process best kept in a dark closet and not exhibited in public.

Well and good, for a beginning construct, but who could afford to lay on a psychiatrist’s couch and mull over the first five years of life, honing in on the psycho-sexual stage as a key to unraveling a Neurosis. It might take decades!

As reference, the late David Freundlich’s paper on the subject of “performance anxiety and musicians, American Journal of Psychiatry. 148:598-605. …. Freundlich, D. (1968) Narcissism and exhibitionism in the performance of classical …
http://www.analyticpractice.co.uk/…/Useful%20Reading%20on%20Performance.pdf”

For me, talking to my hypnotist who had her Certification posted up on the wall, was a more practical and direct approach to my problem.

With the information gathered from me at the first session, she put together an audiotape. And as I lay on the couch, not facing her, she soothingly repeated mantras that were more useful than “music was bigger than me.”

It was more like, “Imagine slowly descending a staircase to a beautiful room that looks out on a magnificent garden, with flowers of all varieties..” She led me to the garden where I contemplated nature and its bounty. I became more relaxed. She reminded me to breathe easily and deeply. She kept coming back to the breath. After 30 or more minutes, I was breathing without anxiety. She then placed me beside my piano which I “loved as a faithful friend.” The elegant, stately grand was not a threat, or something to avoid. She kept revisiting the garden, the relaxed contemplation and meditation. The tie-ins were natural, not contrived.

After 45 minutes, I was in a deep trance, needing to be brought back up the staircase by my hypnotist.

At the very end of the session, before I was in a completely conscious state, she transported me back stage as a rehearsal for my upcoming performance. (Incidentally, my own piano would be shipped to the location so that’s why she referred to it)

I was at the same time in the midst of the lush garden, very relaxed and at peace with myself. The people in the audience would “share” my music with me. They were “not judging” me or otherwise waiting for me to fail.

She planted many of these ideas as I was in my subliminal state, and it helped me on the day of my concert.

***

I can say with certainty that my performance following many re-playings of this audio-taped session was 90% improved over those I had ever previously given.

And in the course of 6 months, I continued my sessions with the hypnotist and acquired a sizable collection of cassettes.

Going Beyond Hypnosis

2) What I previously discussed would fall under Hypnosis and Self-Hypnosis strategies in dealing with performance jitters. After all, what I took from the hypnotist was the ability to go home, listen to the audiotapes and then make my own recordings with variations on the same theme.

But in the course of the 20 years since I visited this wise woman, I went further in exploring additional ways to handle performance anxiety. And these, again were allied to the breath and to Yoga in its many forms.

In the present, I advocate a healthy regimen of exercise, at the gym or otherwise. Yoga, again is a wonderful activity.

I tell my students to “breathe” through their playing.. through their scales, especially at the turnaround (the very end of the passage and the very beginning) And I use words like “roll in” into a scale or passage. “Play into the silence.”

I tell them to use MENTAL IMAGERY, and that again, is tied to self-hypnotic routines.

Elite athletes use mental imagery as a matter of course. Just imagine what floats through a diver’s mind as he prepares for an impossibly difficult maneuver— same for
gymnasts, skaters, runners, et al.

Pianists are part athletes, mastering great feats of coordination while simultaneously being artistic interpreters. They have a double challenge.

The mind/body connection applies, as always.

Examples of mental imagery for a pianist:

Playing staccato: Think of the piano as a playground, and in that association, you are a child. Use words “like bouncing a ball,” or for light staccato, imagine “ping pong balls.”

Piano can be child’s play.

For legato, “float, relax, play more effortlessly, don’t squeeze, or hold on.”

These prompts often relax the students, at least during their lessons.

For a more long lasting effect in dealing with upcoming piano recitals, I copy specific quotes from Just Being at the Piano, by Mildred Portney Chase, that I extract as mantras:

“To be a pianist, is to think that a daddy long legs on the window sill is dancing to your playing; it is to think that the breeze came through the window just to talk to your music…it is to feel that one phrase loves another….it is to think that the tree is a teacher of the tranquility you need in your playing.”

Important chapters: “Body Awareness and Movement,” “Tone,” “Listening,” “Slow Practice,” and “Performance.”

My other favorite book is The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey.

Treasured quotes:
“Listen to how D.T. Suzuki, the renowned Zen master, describes the effects of the ego mind on archery” (a metaphor for just about any endeavor, piano playing included)

“As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes.” DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR? Too many of my students talk about “losing concentration,” with tangential thoughts creeping in. Much of the time, they refer to a little voice telling them things are going too well and a “mistake” is about to happen, and as soon as the thought enters their mind, guess what happens?

“Calculation, which is miscalculation sets in……”

“Man is a thinking reed, but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored with long years of training in self-forgetfulness.”

Gallwey continues:

“Perhaps this is why it is said that great poetry is born in silence. Great music and art are said to arise from the quiet depths of the unconscious…”

I agree.

Performance anxiety doesn’t have to be crippling but it takes patience and a grain of optimism to move forward to a better place. Start where you are and go further, one baby step at a time.

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/a-breathtaking-music-camp-finale/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/music-comes-from-the-heart/

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Piano Lesson: Step by step Diminished 7th arpeggio warm-up with a 10 yr. old student

I previously discussed diminished 7th chords and how they are constructed as an introduction to an actual warm-up routine. The missing ingredient was the student:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/piano-instruction-playing-diminished-7th-chords-and-arpeggios-video/

In this video, a ten year old pupil fills the bill, romping over the keyboard, joining in a scintillating choreography with her teacher:

Diminished 7th arpeggio sampled: G# B D F

1)Played in open position with resolutions to MAJOR and parallel minor chords
LH–5,3,2,1 RH 1, 2, 3, 5
Parallel and contrary motion routines.

2)Practiced across the keyboard in parallel motion with rhythmic build-up:
G#,B,D,F etc

RH 2 1 2 3 4 etc Arpeggio ends in RH with finger 4
LH 4 3 2 1 4 Arpeggio ends in LH with finger 3 (or optional, 2)

quarters, 3 octaves legato=smooth and connected
8th notes, 3 octaves legato
16th notes 4 octaves legato
staccato 16ths, loud and soft

Advanced students might add 32nds, legato/staccato

Next played in 10ths
Left Hand remains in root position starting on G#
4, 3, 2, 1, 4 etc.
Right Hand starts on B–finger no. 1

B D F G# B etc.
1 2 3 4 1 At the end of arpeggio RH has open position fingers: 1,2,3,4,5
B D F G# B

Same rhythmic build-up applies as in root position, parallel motion

Advanced students can add 32nds, legato/staccato

Dynamics can vary according to instructor’s direction.
Advise lighter approach on faster note values.

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/piano-instruction-five-finger-warm-ups-in-major-and-minor-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/piano-gym-routines-with-my-10-year-old-student/

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Practicing Bach Inventions 4 and 13 with my 10 year old piano student

We had fun videotaping part of a lesson from a different camera angle. My student and I sat in front of our separate pianos, collaborating on two Bach Inventions. (Number 4 in D minor and number 13 in A minor)

In the first segment, my pupil is playing through the d minor Invention, mostly on her own, with some teacher input and demonstration.

The second part offers a slow rendering of the A minor Invention as a duet between student and teacher–the playing is intentionally behind tempo to flesh out the main subject as it weaves between the right hand and left.
***
I’ve included my separate performance of this composition that is in tempo.

All the two-part Inventions have a dialog or counterpoint between voices that require the performer’s attention to detail.

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Teaching Piano to Teenagers: Classical, Pop, Taylor Swift, Liz on Top of the World and more (Videos)

There’s always room for flexibility in choice of repertoire, especially when teaching teenagers. Alex, 18, had taken lessons during primary school, took a long break and returned to the piano as a senior in high school. His first request was to study “Liz on Top of the World,” by Dario Marianelli from the movie, “Pride and Prejudice.” I felt it was a bit above his head, but I realized it could be a terrific practicing motivator. Alex and I struck a deal. He promised to work on a Classical sonatina (Latour, in C Major), the “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach” and a regimen of scales and arpeggios going around the Circle of Fifths as the mainstay of his piano study. “Liz” would be his dessert piece. The plan worked.

Alex took the camera spotlight as he practiced “Liz on Top of the World” in a methodical way, chunking or grouping notes together in the first section using separate hands. He continued by playing the next part, a soaringly beautiful melodic section with his right hand only as I provided the bass.

The melody played out in such a way that chunking two notes at a time was helpful. (The student learned interval relationships through this approach: clumping harmonic 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths) The bass line in this second section is an ostinato, or repeated, pattern that is easily assimilated. It’s a sequence of redundant broken chords that creates a rolling effect.

Related:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/alex-breaks-the-choke-hold-on-his-scales-on-you-tube/

Allyse, 16, who is Alex’s sister, also returned to the piano after a long hiatus. A junior in high school, she had requested to play “100 Years” by John Ondrasik, and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always.” To balance out her repertoire, she had agreed to work on Menuet en Rondeau by Rameau and simultaneously practice scales/arpeggios in all Major and minor keys.

Here’s a snatch from a lesson with Allyse. This was the dessert following the main menu of classics.

Related:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/10/24/teens-popular-music-then-and-now-taylor-swift-throw-in-five-for-fighting-100-years/