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Tchaikovsky’s “Harmonica Player” fits snugly between a Song and Dance

When I first stumbled upon “The Harmonic Player,” No. 12, from Tchaikovsky’s Op. 39 Children’s Album, my first thought was, “Why on earth did the great composer include such tirelessly redundant music with an unimaginative harmonic scheme and belabored melody.” For certain, as a stand-alone, it could be easily passed over— dismissed as a throwaway piece, among a list of twenty-three more highly prized musical gems.

Ironically, Program Notes surrounding “The Harmonica Player” reveal a Russian man tinkering with a small accordion (not a harmonica). He practices in a begrudgingly methodical way and then wanders off into the distance to his own choir of unresolved Dominant seventh chords. Great ending, eh?

But don’t fret–“The Harmonica Player” is dragged out of his tedious drone by a feisty folkloric Dance that follows. “Kamarinskaya” (No. 13) sweeps up the dying F-A-C-Eb Dominant 7ths, resuscitating them in an ear-grabbing transition to D Major in celebrational STACCATO!!

Without doubt, Tchaikovsky was very clever in his overall musical menu planning. He preceded the accordionist with a very singable, “Russian Song,” (No. 11) that spilled so naturally from F Major to the street musician’s flat lined Bb Major. (The F Major key is the Dominant of the player’s lament)

Finally, the progression of THREE tableaux shows a remarkable sequence of keys tied to a variety of moods: F Major to Bb Major to D Major.






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Favorite Tchaikovsky piano pieces and their pedagogical value

Tchaikovsky painting

I made a promise to myself well before the New Year, that I would learn one new Tchaikovsky composition each day from the composer’s Op. 39 Children’s Album. (24 tableaux) Not that I’m recommending to piano students that they assimilate new music at lightning speed, but for me the challenge was to make a spurt of growth without sacrificing quality in my quickened journey. In fact, often an early reading is like experiencing the first sunrise with a childlike gaze.

The Back Story

Rada Bukhman’s gift to the music world, The Magic Link, had arrived for Chanukah with its colorful bouquet of program-driven piano miniatures that were sensitively juxtaposed offerings of Peter Ilyich and Robert Schumann.

Rada Bukhman The Magic Link

In a heartbeat, I bonded to Tchaikovsky’s pieces, perhaps because my *DNA (Russian background) increased my affection for the composer’s emotion-packed music, yet, simultaneously, I appreciated the teaching value of each and every tender musical morsel.

The following selections from the Op. 39 collection received my latest embrace, winning me over with their grace and beauty.





The Organ Grinder Sings

Italian Song

Morning Prayer

From a teaching perspective:

Each musical tapestry requires a vivid imagination coupled with a singing tone repository. Bigger than finger energies, a supple wrist and relaxed arms allow for a legato (connected touch) when needed, and a diversified staccato (crisp notes in contrasting dynamics) as well as tenuto execution (detached, press lift approaches with a leaning emphasis).

Finally, a tasteful rubato (flexibility of time) and sensitive use of the sustain pedal apply to both dance and song forms, fleshing out their character and emotion.

Addendum: A performance of Op. 39 that made the most overall indelible impression on me, came from the late Brigitte Engerer who sang like a nightingale with imagination and artistry.





*My Family’s history and genealogy

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Should a teacher demonstrate phrasing and interpretation for a student?

I asked a few piano teachers and a harpsichordist if they felt playing passages, phrases for a student was a viable way to teach, and why?

Seymour Bernstein, author, With Your Own Two Hands, rendered a riveting opinion:seymour_bernstein_home revised

“I have never taken a lesson with a pianist-teacher who didn’t demonstrate musical and technical points under discussion. I don’t swallow the idea that they decide not to demonstrate for philosophical reasons: “I don’t want my pupils to copy me. They have to develop their own style,” etc. My feeling is that that when teachers do not play for their pupils, it’s an indication that they can’t demonstrate with any degree of control. Teachers who are injured, notwithstanding, there is no logical reason why a teacher should refuse to demonstrate a musical or technical passage. We’re not talking about a teacher sitting down and tossing off the Chopin 2nd Etude, or the Etude in 3rds up to tempo. But when a pupil sees/hears a demonstration, even at a slower tempo, his ears and eyes absorb vital information that words alone cannot impart. Comprehension is augmented, and the student makes faster progress.

“Some teachers find that when they play too convincingly for their pupils, they defeat them. The pupil thinks, “I can never reach that level!” Really? Send the pupil to a psychologist.”


Rada Bukhman, author, Discovering Color Behind the Keys, The Essence of the Russian School of Piano Playing, kindly translated the opinion of Russian pianist/teacher, Oxana Yablonskaya where it concerned “copying the mentor.” (I preserved the original Russian text)Oxana

Я предпочитаю, чтобы они подражали моему музыкальному стилю.
Рахманинов приветствовал подражание на разных этапах обучения: “Педагогу следует играть, а студенту – подражать ему. Когда талантливый студент мужает, он должен углубляться в свою интерпретацию”.
Кроме того, я думаю, что пример педагога оказывает огромное, если не решающее влияние на развитие музыкального вкуса ученика. Как говорится, о вкусах не спорят. Но существуют понятия хорошего вкуса, манер, благородного вкуса.
Даже если ты сначала просто копируешь красивый звук твоего педагога, это хорошо. Позже этот звук станет твоим. Чехов говорил, что если маску не снимать, она станет твоим лицом…


“I prefer that students imitate my musical style. Rachmaninoff approved imitation for various levels of the educational process: The teacher should play while the student copies. A talented student will be deepen his own interpretation as he matures.

“The teacher serves as an example of noble musical taste and by copying the teacher’s tone, the student can achieve the same quality of sound production. Chekhov said that if you wear a mask it can become your own face.”

Might this lesson conducted by Nairi Grigorian Akimov, meet the parameters of “copying” the teacher?

Rada Bukhman
provided her own slant on the subject:Rada pic

“This is a very broad topic. It depends on many factors including student level, choice of repertoire, the student’s learning type and so on. An accomplished pianist can learn from any great musician, even if this musician plays another instrument. However, if a pupil is seeking help related to technique, then it’s beneficial to learn from a teacher who knows how to solve the problem and can effectively demonstrate.”


Elaine Comparone, Harpsichordist/teacher shared her thoughts:portraitelainecomparone2

“I just think you have to leave an open area for those who are advanced enough to “interpret”. You just have to be careful not to overwhelm them with, for example, a tempo they cannot handle so that they might feel inadequate to the task. A teacher must always take the level of a student into account when demonstrating. It should not be a situation where the teacher is ‘showing off.’ ”


Jeffrey Biegel
, Concert pianist/teacher expressed the following:Jeffrey B
“I studied with Adele Marcus, who quite often demonstrated and played for her students. It was this ‘aural’ art that we learned, about singing out loud while practicing, counting out loud, breathing within the phrases while singing, which gave us the ability to help ourselves as students and stewards of music.

“First and foremost, is the total respect for the score. Nuances are simply the way we play a phrase, the slightest hesitation perhaps, or breathing between phrases–sometimes within a phrase. These nuances, after time, never repeat themselves, because we don’t exactly say the same thing the same way more than once.

“Teaching interpretation is more, for me, teaching the basic intentions of the composer. What each student and each re-creating artist does with these basic principles is what makes their interpretation uniquely their own. I often say that I learn more about music from teaching, and from students first impressions of works that are too familiar to us. I believe in this approach to teaching, because it is easy to offer fingerings that fit under the hand, almost any hand for that matter, and to write in pedaling according to the harmonic structure or melodic line, but having that unique voice in phrasing, and having the musical touch that each hand can indeed have, is what makes teaching challenging and rewarding. The feeling of the sound emanates from the fingertips–the departure point between the player and the instrument.”

Here’s an example of Biegel teaching a piano lesson by SKYPE:



What Jeffrey Biegel says resonates strongly with me. There are so many elements to explore in the teacher/student exchange and we learn decisively from our pupils as attentive listeners. A two-way feedback allows for mutual demonstration, experimentation, trial and error.

As for the breath and phrasing, here’s an example of my breathing back and forth with an adult student where we both gained from the interaction.

And following, a supplemental “demonstration” video with a tie-in to the breath/phrasing that I sent to the same student. She was studying the Chopin Waltz in A minor:

Video of a Boris Berman masterclass: See for yourself what teaching techniques are used by this distinguished Russian mentor.

Gyorgy Sebok’s Masterclass (Chopin Sonata no. 2, Op. 35)

RADA BUKHMAN comments: “I love master classes of Sebok. What a musician, what a person!”


S.K. I attended one of Sebok’s classes at the Oberlin Conservatory and it made an indelible impression in the area of phrasing and the singing tone.


In conclusion:

From all that I’ve gathered in this post from teachers and performers who have generously shared thoughts about teaching, it seems that demonstrating for the student is an important ingredient of the learning environment. Yet each mentor decides what best meets the needs of an individual pupil without adhering to a fixed or rigid approach.

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A Russian composer’s colorful pieces with a strong teaching dimension

Native Russian, Samuel Maykapar (b.1867, d. 1938) composed a set of gorgeous, program-inspired pieces, that are carefully phrased, articulated, and fingered. The music is ear-catching in the spirit of Dimitri Kabalevsky and William Gillock as all three composers were highly expressive and imaginative within a pedagogical framing.

Maykapar aims to teach an ebullient, crisp staccato beside a tenuto (leaned on, detached note) in his beautiful miniature, “In the Garden.”

In the attached instruction I explore the flexible wrist and its role in realizing a beautiful tenuto. At first I demonstrate an exaggerated motion in slow demonstration that becomes attenuated in the assigned Allegro tempo.

(Baby step, separate hand practicing as always is recommended in a layered-learning process)

Samuel Maykapar In the Garden

Rada Bukhman, author, has a generous serving of Maykapar’s compositions in her book, Discovering Color Behind the Keys, The Essence of the Russian School of Piano Playing. An interview with Ms. Bukhman can be found at:

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An interview with Rada Bukhman, pianist, teacher, author, about the “Russian School of Piano Playing”

51sfEigbLVL._SX285_blow up book cover Bukhman

Rada Bukhman, a Vancouver-based piano teacher with native Russian roots, has produced a 212-page soft cover volume that entices with its interspersed selections of compositions at various learning levels.

The text offers a variety of fascinating topics, “Developing Initial Musical Skills: on the Nature and Development of a Musical Ear, on Rhythm, Preparatory Stage, Sight-Reading” and continues with “The Means of Expression in Performance: Sound production, Dynamics, the Art of Phrasing,” etc. among a plethora of compelling instructional headings that follow in a well-organized sequence.

Rather than retread specific areas covered by Ms. Bukhman in her volume, I asked her to respond to a series of inquiries that arose from my exploration of her book.

SK (Shirley Kirsten): Is there a Russian School of Piano Playing, and if so, what exactly is it? Nikolai Lugansky, a student of Tatiana Nikolayeva, for example, said the following when asked the same question:

“It is difficult to describe, but the piano is not a knocking instrument (perhaps he meant percussive), and you must always try to play a melody as if you were emulating the human voice.”

Rada Bukhman: Before answering your question, I would like to define the meaning of “Russian School of Piano Playing.”

Many musicians stress the word “playing,” while for me, it is the “school” that’s important. There is no such thing as Russian piano playing, but there is definitely the SCHOOL.

The singing tone cannot be related to Russians only. The majority of Old Russian masters who impress us with their singing tone have a Western European background. Russia developed slowly: the Rubinstein brothers opened their music conservatories in Moscow and Saint Petersburg only in the second part of the 19th century. By that time Europe produced quite an impressive number of amazing pianists- Talberg, Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Clara Schumann, Brahms.

While I don’t believe there exists a Russian way of playing, I do recognize the Russian School of Piano teaching – the method historically proven by raising generations of accomplished musicians. I would like to avoid over-generalizing by implying that all Russian teachers are excellent or that only Russian teachers are great. However, in Russia there was a very well-defined organizational structure and pedagogical strategy, both aimed at children. This is something I miss in North America.

In regular Russian music schools children had quite a few courses additional to specialty instrument study. These included solfeggio, theory, and music literature. Students were expected to participate in a choir and to play in the orchestra. The schools provided general musical education on a very high level. Many of these graduates continued professional studies in musical colleges.

There were also special music schools meant for gifted children, which Lugansky himself had attended. Teachers in those schools were both exceptional musicians and great performers. Therefore, the students were taught refined musical taste and a high level of musical understanding.

These teachers had developed the core of the method that we now call the “Russian Piano School.”

One of the most important features of the School is the development of the piano apparatus based on a serious foundation of musical and medical knowledge. It is a well-known fact that many pianists suffer from all kinds of professional traumas due to inappropriate training in childhood. It is vital, therefore, to understand how our body functions. It’s also important to know which movement best suits the desired articulation, particular tone…. Then instead of hours of repetitive practicing one can achieve quality results much faster and be injury-free.

The standard set in schools for gifted children was extremely high. It demanded the embrace of art as a whole. The best Russian teachers expected children to explore music, visual art, and literature. This is another major feature of the Russian School.

The teachers were also unique, and worked day and night. I should mention that the only motivation they had was love for the students and for the music. I have read memories of a principal of one of those schools, where he shared his admiration for old teachers who voluntarily worked long hours and weekends.

Nowadays music teachers have to be business-oriented; it makes the teaching process totally different. You would not imagine someone working additional hours with a private student unless paid extra. The same is the case in contemporary Russia. These extra lessons cost money, and the rate is not low.

It’s ironic, but the terrible economic and political conditions in the Soviet Union motivated artists to work with greater enthusiasm, because the only sanctuary for real freedom and spiritual happiness was their art.

Consequently, only during the first half of the 20th century had Russia produced an enormous amount of extraordinary musicians.

SK: In the Russian tradition of teaching piano, what is the physical route to producing a legato (smooth and connected) singing tone? And what role does a supple wrist play in developing a molto cantabile. (very singable sound)

Rada Bukhman: Legato is a more audible phenomenon than physical. It is sort of an illusion. First of all, one should be talented enough to imagine and to hear this type of sound internally. Another important thing is to control the sound. We often play legato using pedal for connection in situations when physical legato is impossible. It is crucial to build smooth dynamical change from sound to sound creating an illusion of legato.

In the book I introduce the melodic exercises which aim to teach how to play legato with dynamic development. It motivates children to control the decay of each sound and initiate conscious transfer from one sound to the next.

Physical legato definitely is a very important skill and it depends on proper use of pianistic apparatus. The singing sound physically depends on proper touch of the fingertip and on a masterful distribution of weight of the arms on fingers, while moving from key to key.

The wrist helps our fingers to reach the most desirable position on the keyboard. Wrist is a bridge connecting the forearm with the hand, and it contributes to a greater mobility of the hand. It helps the hand to change positions. The wrist can work as a resisting force while we are playing heavy and loud, softening the tone. Thus the wrist should be flexible but never loose. Excessive movements of the wrist may result in a professional injury; this is something to keep in mind.

SK: I notice that in one portion of your book you recommended inking a dot on the fleshy part of a student’s fingers to remind him or her of where to make contact with the key. Does this allow flexibility as far as a deep in the key approach, with longer, less rounded fingers in Largo or Adagio passages? Daniil Trifonov mentioned in an interview that he often plays with “flat fingers.”

Rada Bukhman: Inking a dot is not my invention; this was advice given by the legendary teacher Anna Artobolevskaya.

A skillful performer instinctively flattens his or her fingers for a variety of reasons. Sometimes in fast tempo as well, playing, for example, on black keys. While the finger is flattened, the distal phalanx is still a bit curved allowing touch of a key with a fingertip. In the case of legato, the larger part of the flesh is involved.

Why it is essential to teach children to touch with a tip or in other words, to grab a key with a tip? Because this skill is not innate to us. This skill has to be nurtured, sometimes for years.

Professor Mikhail Voskresensky, who has been teaching for many decades in the Moscow conservatory, once said to me: you should feel as if you’re holding the keyboard with your fingertips. In other words, one should imagine that the grip of the keys should prevent keyboard from falling on the floor. When this feeling is established, one is free to experiment with colors of tone.

SK: What is the value of playing detached notes, before exposing a student to legato playing?

Rada Bukhman:
Legato is the most complex skill. Playing non-legato establishes the foundation for movement and touch. It motivates to play with a full arm, realizing the unity of the different parts of the piano apparatus; it teaches to immerse the finger to the end of the key bed. In my book you will find exercises for circular movements of the arm, necessary for establishing the habit of transferring the hand comfortably.

SK: Your teacher antecedents go back to Heinrich Neuhaus who taught Richter and Gilels. What was the main dimension of his teaching that was passed down to you?

Rada Bukhman: I am still learning from my former Moscow teacher, examining her video recordings. Richter and Gilels are not very good examples of Neuhaus’s art of pedagogy because they are geniuses, not to mention that Gilels can hardly be considered a pupil of Neuhaus.

My teacher, Lidija Phikhtengoltz, who was student of Neuhaus from the age of 14, explores his musical principles more obviously. She was always touched following her performances when somebody would say that it is apparent that her teacher was Henry. She has a refined musical taste, expressive natural phrasing, and a deep understanding of a composer’s language. Pay attention to her logical gestures (there are no unnecessary movements). When she was performing, it was always sincere and truthful. From her I learned appreciation for the quality of the sound and the importance of musical taste.

SK: One of the strengths of your book resides in its inclusion of repertoire that you recommend with tie-ins to your whole technical/musical approach to teaching.

Were these pieces you were given to study as part of your training in Russia?

Rada Bukhman: I was searching for repertoire in all possible internet libraries; additionally I wanted to incorporate the material which would be new for teachers and students. I was using the Nikolaev book in my childhood, which is translated into English. However, I found it impossible to use most of its content. I managed to combine well-known music like the selections from Children’s cycles by Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Maykapar with the music that has never been published before in North America. For example, my book includes pieces by Russian prominent composers such as Sviridov and Lokshin. For the part of the book called “Development of Piano Apparatus” I was searching for pieces that would correspond to each technique.

SK: Could you describe the specific teachers who most influenced you and why?

Rada Bukhman: My learning experience is a combination of skills I acquired from very different but unique musicians. All of them contributed to my musical development tremendously. However I feel that teaching young musicians continuously makes me a better musician and performer.

SK: How is your book set apart from other piano instructional materials on the market?

Rada Bukhman:
My book is both an exploration of the method and repertoire. The method is a pedagogical tool for teachers interested in learning the “Russian way” of building the piano apparatus. I offer an explanation of the nature of pianistic movements as well as a strategy to follow while working with beginners. I explain in detail the order of techniques introduced and how all exercises have to be performed, from an audible and physical perspective.

By using some of the exercises one can help more advanced students who suffer from inappropriate initial training. Additionally, I touch on every aspect of musical development of the child. That makes my book different from other children’s piano methods.

(I offer free consultations via Skype to new owners of my book who would like to have more detailed explanation of the book’s themes)


AMAZON: DISCOVERING COLOR BEHIND THE KEYS: The Essence of the Russian School of Piano Playing


RADA BUKHMAN’S YOU TUBE CHANNEL with playing samples of her students