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A deep immersion in Schumann’s Wiegenliedchen, Cradle Song No. 6, Op. 124

Who would have thought that a Romantic era character piece of short length could have so much to savor on multi-tiered levels? Relentless triplets with double stemmed quarters, seemed at first glance to direct the player toward a horizontal rendering of a conspicuous melodic thread that’s reinforced by the highest notes in the Right Hand. It’s clearly a vocal line that requires a singing tone wedded to a seamless legato.

But the more one delves into the score, an awareness of note groupings, within phrases, requires the player to breathe as a vocalist would, with an attendant understanding of how fingering, harmonic analysis, rotational motions, and exploration of the bass line all factor into a deeper rendering of the composition.

While the piece only landed in Berkeley just two short days ago, having been emailed in attachment form from a Scottish Isle, it was “cradled” with great care upon its arrival in the Berkeley flats–having passed through an embryonic stage of discovery to a more heightened level of understanding.

Since a tutorial is like a diary of epiphanies, the one I’ve included below, is a springboard to further learning discoveries that grow from repeated exposures and more intense scrutiny of what the composer, Robert Schumann, intended.

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When Upbeats have a new meaning and importance

For most piano students, an upbeat is considered a lighter springboard to a more predominant DOWN-beat, as if the UP in music should always be taken LIGHTLY. (except in Jazz framings where syncopations are characteristic of the genre.)

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We can universally agree that in the patriotic Star Spangled Banner, the dotted 8th/16th upbeat is conspicuously wedded to the baton assertive first beat of whole measure one, but this will not be set in stone, as exemplified in Schumann’s “Curious Story.” (Kinderszenen, Op. 15, no. 2)

The Romantic composer’s second tableau turns the upbeat cliche on its head, prodding the student to rethink his weak mindset. If he persists in embracing the subservient upbeat mantra that it must be a co-dependent partner to a domineering downbeat, the player will be headed in unmusical directions. In fact, as a practicing experiment, the pupil can downgrade the anacruses in the first 4 measures of “Curious Story,” to experience its effect.

Curious Story

During a piano lesson with an adult student, we UPGRADED our upbeat conscious-raising journey. In fact, it helped us to clarify phrasing and attendant choreography. (Use of the springy, supple wrist, for example.) Such rhythmic phase focus was just one of our examinations, since we also delved into section contrasts, breathing, and harmonic rhythm as they influence phrasing. (inclusive of Major/parallel minor emotional shifts, etc.)

One pertinent practicing tool is to LIGHTEN the load of voices, and pick out the uppermost soprano line to realize the buoyancy or LIFT of the upbeats, and to understand their importance and value in achieving the whimsical/childlike nature of the opening measures. They are quite motivic to the character of the piece as the composer envisioned it.

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Practicing routines

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Schumann’s “Almost Too Serious” (Kinderszenen No. 10) requires get serious, step-wise practicing

When I first looked at a “seriously” complex page of dizzying tied-over (syncopated) notes in Schumann’s “Almost Too Serious,” (Fast Zu Ernst) I had a knee-jerk avoidance response–that is until I tapped into a permeating melodic thread that I isolated and wooed from its conspicuous alliance to myriads of off beats.

Fast zu ernst p. 1

Fast zu ernst p. 2

In other words, I simplified my journey in a baby-step voice parceling manner, de-intensifying a threat to learning a gorgeous harmonic mosaic that’s spun from broken chords and affectionately supportive syncopations. (I’m sure the composer’s passionate unraveling harmonies were a reflection of his love for a uniquely beautiful, self-created outpouring in the somber chosen key of G# minor)

First things first in approaching the tableau:

A behind tempo practicing approach to what looks rhythmically challenging is the only sensible antidote to anxiety that many adult students have when they perceive a score riddled with unusually foreign-looking notational strands.

And to allay their fears as well as my own, I set out to piece out “Almost too Serious” in a purposeful step-wise manner with a learning guide intention, blazing a trail that my students and others could follow without trepidation.

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Various practicing constellations are explored in my video

1) Identify a treble line melodic thread–and practice in slow tempo with relaxed arms, supple wrists and a permeating singing tone.

2) Isolate (play) the alto line notes

3) Play the fundamental bass notes throughout the composition

4) Block three-note 16th groupings in the bass, that appear after the downbeat in each measure. (These will eventually unfold in broken-chord fashion, using ROTATION to avoid tension, and to play musically.)

5) All through the step-wise learning process identify keys and harmonic transitions (or modulations).

6) Listen for and tab suspensions/passing dissonances and how they resolve.

7) In the course of layered-up practicing, examine the BALANCE of voices as they are sewn together.

8) Explore the ritardandos at various cadences and practice relaxed breathing at bridges across measures with fermati (extra holds), to avoid “gasps” between phrases.

9) Pedaling as the final polish should be sensitive to dissonances, not causing conspicuous blurring of harmonic resolutions.

The aforementioned are suggestions that can be “seriously” supplemented along the way, but always with a defining awareness that the Romantic era singing approach to this music is at the core of practicing it.

My Instruction:

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What’s Frightening about Schumann’s “Frightening? ” (Kinderszenen, Op. 15, no. 11)

What convinces most pianists that Schumann’s “Furchtenmachen” (Frightening) is an expression of fear or perhaps more specifically anxiety, are the markedly impulsive sections that contrast with lyrical, reflective ones.

Frightening schneller

And not to be overlooked, are the interjections of syncopated SF’s (accentuated outbursts) that are quite STARTLING and must be well communicated in measures 21-24, as well as in the Schneller (“FASTER”) sequences.

Frightening full page 1

Frightening full page 2

The challenge for the player, therefore, is to keep calm, centered, and focused during the agitated measures and not LOSE CONTROL!

Vladimir Horowitz referred to the fire/ice analogy when approaching testy passages. (particularly those in rapid tempo) so I would readily concur with the Maestro that presence of mind under pressure is central to portraying a potpourri of closely spaced, vacillating emotions.

In my instruction, I suggest an approach to the Schneller section that might relax the treble after beats so they don’t sound forced or too vertical, undermining the horizontal thread of notes in the bass. It’s easy for these to intrude if tension permeates the arms, and if harmonic rhythm is ignored.

Finally while “Frightening” may look frighteningly simple at first glance, it’s far from it, given its abrupt mood shifts.

Instruction:

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Schumann’s ‘Rocking Horse’ comes with a spring forward wrist

Rocking Horse

Schumann’s Kinderszenen album, (Scenes of Childhood) includes a child-inspired Rocking Horse piece that enlists spring forward wrist motions to help frame its character. If the pianist tightens up and tries to realize third beat accents with a tight jolt of a stiff hand, then it’s all over for the player who will tire quickly while undoing the rocking nature of the music.

So what better opportunity exists for a piano teacher than to AWAKEN a student to a redundant motion that enlivens a composition and keeps it percolating with well-delivered energies.

But the mentor should also enlighten the pupil about the multi-dimensional nature of the Rocking Horse that’s not necessarily pumping back and forth in needless repetition. There’s syncopated rhythm; melody and counter-melody, as well as perfect fifths that are inverted to perfect fourths that carry a snatch of the opening thread. It’s the probing musician, therefore, who will discover that the wrist spring forward motions are part of a larger exploration, not merely a demonstration of moto perpetuo.

Instruction

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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)

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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