executing trills, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog

Navigating Tricky Trills

Experimentation is central to piano learning in all its phases, including that which applies to the build-up of trills. Unfortunately, for many students engaged in such a learning process, rapid alternations of notes will often ignite instant panic and fear which tighten muscles, inhibiting a smooth flowing musical line. In some instances, the initial approach a pupil undertakes in practicing trills becomes marred by poor fingering choices and a precipitous push to play these figures at a “fast” pace too soon.

In my own experience practicing trills over decades–a journey that’s been introspective, experimental, and open to new and creative fingering assignments, I’ve had epiphanies that have grown my technique while filtering down to my pupils in productive increments.

Currently, I’m preparing the Enrique Granados Oriental (Danza Espanola No. 2, Op. 5) that one of my students plans to study. In this particular undertaking, I’ve been laying the groundwork for smoothly rendering a tricky set of three trills for the Right Hand–each with a different resolution that presents a technical and musical challenge.

All 3 trills, however, share a sustained alto note under them, with quick grace note driven resolutions requiring not only fingering that is “natural” to the hand/fingers, (different for each player) but can propel an uninterrupted shimmering beauty to resolution. When I sampled the editor’s recommended 3, 5, 3, 5 etc. trill fingering, I could not nearly realize a fluid progression of notes to my satisfaction. And with a subsequent realization that R.H. trill fingers 2, 3, 2, 3, etc. were my most reliable ones, I immediately tried these as I attempted the first unfolding figure in the Spanish Dance. (This trill springs into an awkward resolution divided by an octave bundled into a Major Third) Unfortunately, my choice resulted in an immediate surge of strain and tension that sparked an experimentation most likely considered unorthodox. Still, I persisted with a “creative” exploration that ultimately produced desired fluency.

In the video tutorial posted below, the final fingering that became a springboard for further development of each trill, relied on right hand fingers 2, 4, 2, 4, etc. in conjunction with a hanging hand, energized by relaxed arms and supple wrists. I even added a “sigh” to my trill executions to bundle them in warmth and lucidity. (The breath is so intrinsic to a fluid trill outpouring that’s imbued with a singing tone) Trills, are essentially fast melody, vocally modeled.

Fundamentally, the build-up of each trill in the Granados Oriental was based on a sighing back tempo approach that flowed gradually into the tempo desired, using fingering that not only worked for me, but well served the music.

(P.S. The footage encompasses fingering decisions for each trill sample that naturally considered the grace notes and how to navigate all three trill settings to full resolution.)

Oriental Play through:

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Liz, age 8, has her second piano lesson! (With my interspersed thoughts about materials and teaching philosophy)

As I journey along with Liz, my newest piano student, I’m collecting insights about the nature of music learning from the perspective of a child. And by this most recent experience, I’ve come to realize that the choice of teaching materials is wedded to a mentor’s own philosophy about expressive music-making.

The samples below represent Liz’s second lesson exposure to the piano. Her initial introduction to the instrument was memorialized in a separate blog that’s linked at the conclusion of this post.

Thoughts on Teaching

Over decades of mentoring beginning students (in the 7 to 9 year old range) I’ve concluded that nearly all so-called “method” books have their set of strengths and weaknesses and each can be somewhat adapted to meet the needs of a diverse student population. But if pre-reading offerings that include staff-less, floating black key pieces, are quickly disposed of in favor of quick fix, Five-Finger position romps that over-generalize keyboard geographies, (and become addictive), then then I must draw the line about what I can in good conscience work with in my role as a front line, first responder to the musical needs of a fledgling.

Have I found a magic path in a published set of materials on the market?–not necessarily, but I’ll admit that Frances Clark, the original Mother of The Music Tree series never intended to woo students to the piano with “shortcuts” and Kool-Aid dispensing note-reading routines that pin the thumb on Middle C, and follow with a parade of invented “positions” that march laboriously through Red, Green, and Yellow “A,” “B” and “C” levels.


I tend toward being a repertoire-based teacher, though in the formative introductory period to the piano, I want to synthesize singing tone production, with cognitive and affective dimensions of learning within a balanced, educational framework.

So rather than nit pick this or that “METHOD” that could ostensibly work, or to the contrary, not be feasible for a particular student and teacher, I’ve made the decision to embark upon a collective journey with Liz, having an open mind.

In this vein, the student’s piano lessons will continue to be recorded and posted weekly on You Tube as my point of departure for review and evaluation. In this way, I’ll allow myself the unswerving freedom to modify any teaching material to meet the pupil’s individual needs.

What I currently favor, however, about Time To Begin, is its renunciation of the “position” route that forces too many pupils into a five-finger dependency rut.

Yet, I’m not unconditionally pleased with method book packaged pre-recorded accompaniments that are associated with the Music Tree Primer.

The companion Time to Begin CD provides the beginning student with a cushion of harmonic support and rhythmic framing in duo form, while it can be constraining for a pupil who has to fit into a “robotic” Midi generated Secondo.(Accompaniment) Between lessons he/she is unable to bend a phrase, contour or it, or “express” creative spontaneity while the disk is streaming. Nevertheless, I can still live with what I consider to be a CD generated- compensatory boon for early learners because of the disk’s repository of adventurous harmonies and basic framing “beats.” Eventually, these measured “ticks” should become internalized and ripened into a “singing pulse.”

I’ve already worked around the pitfalls of MIDI Secondo parts, by revisiting Time to Begin duets at the LIVE lesson, with my creative prompts. More specifically, I’ve “slowed” up the fundamental beat, while suggesting an array of “dynamics” that include “making a “crescendo” and varying “colors.” We have “floated the Canoe on gentle waters”–(“In The Canoe”) and made an “echo” on the repeat of “Inchworm.”

Liz, a bright and responsive child is flexible and malleable when taken off the CD track and placed in an imagination-rich zone beside her teacher at the piano.

So for the present, Time to Begin is working harmoniously for Liz and its pages have unearthed my own unique approach to mentoring the child with necessary, self-applied Add-ons. These expand the learning environment as I perceive it, without strictures imposed by Clark, Goss and Holland.

In the creative cosmos, I’ve even added a “composer” opportunity to Liz’s lessons, hoping that she can trust her own unique expression at this early developmental stage.

In time, as Liz progresses to the Grand Staff, not having been exposed to the same old fixed notes attached to specific fingers, (thanks to Music Tree) she’ll ultimately become a repertoire-based learner (with supportive technique-based regimens). Listening assignments, meanwhile have been added into the mix. (Teacher recordings and those of various pianists–i.e. Burgmuller’s “Harmony of the Angels” to illustrate “supple wrist” motions through seamless, rolling triplets; Duet playing examples such as a set of Haydn variations with ECHO phrases.


In the offing, hand-picked compositions of merit will draw upon the the works of Turk, Hook, Kabalevsky, Tchaikovsky, et al serving to emancipate beginners from the drudgery of pre-designed, one-size-fits-all, LEVELED books.


The post below contains LIZ’s first piano lesson, in THREE parts:


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An 8-Year old begins piano lessons!

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 3.38.30 AM

An exciting musical journey has begun! Liz, an 8-year old who prances by my apartment singing mellifluously, became my newest piano student last night. Her lesson opened with, “Welcome to a universe of the imagination,” an inspired framing that kept student and teacher riveted to 45 minutes of collaborative music-making. (The duet form was the perfect vehicle to grow the child’s earliest relationship to the piano.) It evoked memories of my Russian mentor who played harmonically rich Secondo parts, while at 6, I tinkered with three-note Diller Quaille melodies beside her.

“Ding Dong” was my signature piece, brought to life each week in a bed of blossoming sonorities that Mrs. Vinagradov provided. She’d mentored me in a tiny attic space of the quaint Kingsbridge Music School perched on a hill in the Bronx.


Yesterday’s FACEBOOK message that I’d posted hours before Liz’s lesson, was the harbinger of delights to come in a shared “new” environment of musical growth. It was also my reconnection with the world of children, who’d faded into the past as pupils since my teaching efforts were redirected toward adults.

“Exciting day!” I announced in the warm glow of social media friends!

“I’m starting a brand new beginner this evening–An 8-year old whose parents are safe-keeping my Steinway M grand. This will be a journey of imagination, expression, colors, emotion, natural, flowing connections to the keys, and intertwined relaxed breathing. I look forward to a mutually enriched learning adventure.”

In preparation for the maiden event, I’d browsed many teaching materials, finally settling upon Time to Begin, a Music Tree primer, that was originally created by Frances Clark. Ironically, I’d shelved a very early edition of the book that I’d used to teach one of my children at the tender age of 4, yet into the present many of the duets we’d played were included in the latest 2000 renewed copyright. (The cover and book lay-out had become more appealing, while the fundamental teaching philosophy remained intact.)

Clark, to her credit, did not embrace five-finger crutch learning, but taught students to rotate fingers around landmark notes (Treble G, Bass clef F, and Middle C), which promoted solid note-reading and other skills. It definitely earned my support for the MUSIC TREE series with its development over the years. (Note co-editors, Louise Goss and Sam Holland)

Right Side up Music Tree

Finally, as follow-up to Liz’s first lesson, I’ve posted three recorded segments that launch the “series” “LIZ’s Piano JOURNEY” that welcomes comments from teachers, students, and all piano lovers.

P.S. Camera angles will be adjusted and improved for forthcoming weekly videos.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

A CD with colorful accompaniments comes with the Primer

CD Time to Begin

CD reverse Time to Begin

Elaine Comparone, J.S. Bach, Ornaments in the Baroque, piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, word press, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video, youtube.com

Baroque Ornaments, execution, style, context and taste: A Conversation with Elaine Comparone


On a rainy Saturday morning in New York City, I packed my tripod, camcorder, battery chargers, and Henle Urtext edition of J.S. Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G, and headed for Elaine Comparone's gorgeous harpsichord and piano sanctuary on Manhattan's West side.IMG_2354-2 We'd planned to discuss ornaments in the Baroque using the springboard Sarabande, though wide-eyed and inspired Elaine wove in the Loure with a bedazzling reading framed by a Harvard Dictionary introduction.

A two-part exchange, in an impromptu spirit captured the essence of "improvisation" in the Baroque period, and found expression in harpsichord and piano renderings.

A big Thank You goes to Elaine Comparone for her illuminating words and profoundly beautiful music-making!

Loure rendered on the Piano

Updated rendering by Elaine Comparone on the harpsichord:


Elaine Comparone teaches harpsichord and piano on Manhattan’s West side with a Baroque period emphasis.









Bach with Pluck on Amazon:


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Scenes from Manhattan

First day in the Big Apple:

These are popular picture postcard themes yet worth memorializing.

I took this photo set as I trekked from 34th Street and Penn station to the West Side ‘Y’ gym at 63rd off Central Park.

Bogged down with luggage, I approached Columbus Circle at W. 59th Street (off Central Park)



Columbus Circle



The Y Gym where I have a six-day guest pass


Day two:

My visit with Elaine Comparone, harpsichordist (and pianist)


Elaine discussed Baroque ornaments while displaying her impeccable artistry at the harpsichord and piano. Her riveting interview will be posted after my return to California.


Today, Sunday (Day 3)

I’m going to my mother’s 100th Birthday celebration at her apartment on 218th Street in Manhattan.

Mom’s  place overlooks the Hudson River at the picturesque northern tip of Manhattan.

I’ll take the ‘A’ train to 207th and then climb a steep hill to Park Terrace Gardens.

Once arrived, I ‘ll be sure to capture the old Sohmer upright, my first REAL piano after I endured treacherous years practicing on an abysmal sounding Wieser (aka WHEEZER)

Sadly,  the Sohmer has deteriorated  from extreme temperature and humidity shifts over decades, so it’s now a living room centerpiece and photo gallery.

More to come….

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The piano learning process at all levels of study

In spite of my having studied piano for decades, each learning experience is filled with challenges that I must approach with a glut of patience. A new composition has its own form, architecture, harmonic rhythm, fingering that requires a big reserve of self-acceptance in a deadline-free frame.

To the contrary, many of my students, who are 95% adults, have a built-in timetable plaguing them from day one. “How long will it take me to learn this piece?” They demand certainty about reaching a tangible goal on a fixed schedule. The End result is what most matters.

Since we live in an information age, strategies of mastery are in vogue along with a mandatory guarantee of knowledge acquisition in so many weeks. “Quick,” “easy-fix” consumption are the Millennium’s catchwords. CD sets are compiled and promoted to learn piano “in a flash.”


I have a pupil, who epitomizes the insecure student, searching for a micro-wave cooking equivalent for learning piano.

She’s an accomplished writer and retired lawyer. On more than one occasion she’s confessed to doing “everything well” except for piano. “I just don’t understand why my wrist can’t roll forward, why I stumble, stutter at the piano.”

If she stepped back and thought about how many years she’s been writing and practicing law as compared to playing the piano, she’d acquire instant insight about her personal quandary.

Irina Gorin, inspired piano teacher and author of Tales of A Musical Journey has often said, “We’re not born playing the piano…. we have to learn to physically relate to the instrument.”

That’s why she starts her kids young, using silly putty to dip tiny hands into. They experience “touch” as deep, densely probing, and sinewy, to produce the singing tone, not a poked out, pencil point sequence of notes. Dipping into jello is Gorin’s metaphor, nicely channeled into the keys:

The time old analogy of crawling before walking applies, yet so many adult students, will obsess about how long they have been working on a piece without the advances they expected of themselves.

Yet, if I think about the students who have made the most gains this year, it’s been those who accepted the baby-step paradigm without precondition. They learned to love the journey with its precious awakenings along the way.


A pupil is shown working on a section of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” absorbing a sound image before translating it into physical expression at the piano. She practiced separate hands, behind tempo. Call it mindful practicing; attentive listening. They belong together.


An adult student embarked upon the Chopin Waltz no. 19 in A minor.

Sight-reading was not a parcel of our work.

It was delving into the fundamental bass, measure by measure in slow tempo.

What was the relationship of one note to the next as each was played? Lean on some, relax others.

“Feel,” “hear” and know at the same time.

Then practice the melody at snail’s pace, but with a singing tone–no delay in contouring. The shapes must seep in from conscious to unconscious.

The student explored wrist motions to curve and shape lines. These poured out of her scale work.

Where an arpeggiated figure appeared, all her caring and conscientious practicing of buoyant broken chords, bristled with relevance.

In graduated steps, the after beat sonorities were separated, and played with a “spongy” feel. We thought of a “lighter” third beat. Not a parade of downbeats.

In time the layering process followed as melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords came together.

As I look back on this step-wise progression and its implications for the musical development of the Waltz, I can say with confidence that the student eventually played it with a wonderful sense of personal mastery and joy bundled together.

Patience and self-acceptance at every stage of the learning process was our paradigm.

If considered a mantra, it becomes a reminder of what teachers and students need to embrace.


How Long Should a Student Stay with a Piece?


Quality Spot Practicing by an adult student, “Fur Elise.”


The Value of Slow Practicing


Out of a Rut with Quality Spot Practicing


Just Being at the Piano
by Mildred Portney Chase

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The C Major Scale universe: metric and muscle memory; shaping and tapering

Most piano students celebrate the C Major scale as an “easy” journey over 8 notes and back.

But as the attached video instruction proves, the ingredients of playing this scale with a fluid, well-shaped legato (smooth and connected) in transition to a crisp and vibrant staccato touch (forte and piano) is a “challenge.”

One of my out-of-state Skype students amply described the terrain as she patiently practiced her 8ths to 16ths, (legato/staccato)

“It’s hard!”

I’d second that for these reasons:

Keeping a steady, singing pulse, ascending and descending requires presence of mind, and a sense of “breathing” through the notes.

Anticipation is out the door as 8ths double to 16ths. What about 32nds?

All the more reason to RELAX and psychologically BROADEN your perspective. Don’t crowd the notes!

Metric memory, especially, is a great asset when memorializing the scale over and again. One doesn’t want a shaky landscape to embed a curvaceous spin from C to C.. or from Sea to Shining Sea.

On a patriotic note, I love oceanic analogies when I play the piano, though more often, I draw upon images of smaller bodies of water, like babbling brooks. (Think of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, or rippling piano accompaniments to his Lieder)

Why digress with mental imagery? Because using one’s imagination to play the C Scale will help it rise to the occasion, not crash and burn!

To play a C Major scale beautifully, sing it, shape it, and taper at its conclusion. (A supple forward wrist motion is recommended)

For certain, a lesson-in-progress is worth more than a thousand words: