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:

adult piano teaching, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

A Jet-setting adult student makes time for piano

No need to say Play it Again Sam, to Sam P. who’s been a super dedicated piano student ever since he approached me for lessons in Berkeley, nearly 4 years ago. And if we factor in a significant interruption of instruction due to Sam’s Acrosonic Console having been shipped to London when his company transferred him to Europe in 2014, he’s left with about 3 solid years of study. Along the way, we’ve doubled up on lessons to accommodate his rigorous travel schedule that includes departures to India, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Amsterdam, Dubai, etc, with a Tanzania Safari thrown in.

Sam has a meticulous approach to practicing. He relishes a deliberate and thorough journey through his assigned compositions that includes parceled, layered learning and he has no affixed deadline in his explorations. Most of all, he appreciates the process of musical discovery; how it spills over into other life activities, such as Chess for which he has a passion. He observes “patterns” in his pieces that have a direct tie-in to the game.

I had a chance to interview Sam about his piano studies after he landed back in London from Abu Dhabi. Since he’s working on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” a crown jewel piece for many students, I decided to separately include excerpts from his most recent lesson that focused on rhythmic unity between sections. Viewers will notice Sam’s earnest and methodical approach to this composition, that also infuses an awareness of the singing tone and how to produce it. He’s been working assiduously on relaxing his arms and wrists, while shaping phrases within a vocal model. For a time, Sam took singing lessons, until his travels made it nearly impossible to focus seriously on voice AND piano. I’m glad he gave the PIANOFORTE top priority!

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Piano Lessons during the holidays: Inserting a creative composing dimension to chord exploration

Every winter holiday season most music teachers are asked by parents to devote at least a few weeks to the absorption of Christmas and related celebratory selections. In the traditional musical cosmos, “Silent Night,” “Deck the Halls,” “Hark the Herald Angels” and “Jingle Bells,” are popular learning requests.

This year, my 9-year old student who enjoys the singular status of being the only child amidst a crop of adult students, was eager to tackle “Silent Night,” and my having shuffled through various holiday collections had produced a particular arrangement with simple primary bass chords and broken chord interludes that nicely tied in to our theory journey.

For months, we had been studying scales in Major and Relative Minor through the Circle Fifths, and had added construction of CHORDS in ROOT position on each scale degree starting with C Major and A minor (Harmonic form). –(there is a scant reference to the PRIMARY CHORDS on the Chord Sheet below, but only to show their identities as I, IV, V, not how they can be juggled or “inverted” for smooth transit between them)


The “chord” universe had been carefully prepped with a pre-identification of minor and Major thirds, and how they are arranged to create Major, minor, diminished and Augmented Chords or triads. (EAR-Training experiences were naturally integrated into our lessons) In the days between lessons, my pupil practiced her aural identification of these various chords at Tone Dear.com


While a digital piano is enlisted at this particular Internet site which is not the best vehicle to expose a child to various chord changes, it still seemed to heighten my pupil’s aural sensitivity. (Again we were focusing on identifying ROOT position triads: Major, minor, diminished and Augmented)

Chord “inversions,” the next juncture of study, as presented in the “Silent Night” arrangement, (IV and V7), enabled the pupil to experience various “positions” of chords in the bass to effect smooth voice leading.

The piece, as notated, also had a preparatory Schemata of the PRIMARY bass chords used, with an attached illustration of the abbreviated forms of the Dominant 7th.



In this video sample below, I demonstrated the principle of chord “inversion” for the student.

This particular holiday selection (“Silent Night”) had also provided reinforcement a NEW rhythm, the dotted quarter–8th figure which permeated the music.

Finally, as a creatively driven teacher, who has consistently inserted composing opportunities into the pedagogical environment, I assigned my student the task of composing a 8-measure piece in 3/4 time using dotted half notes in each measure. It was to use Chords in ROOT POSITION from the A Minor Harmonic form scale in the treble. (Chord Sheet reference) This exploration was to serve as a springboard to INVERTING her chosen chords in a follow-up composing opportunity.

In this initial instance, she was to include a Major, Minor, Diminished and Augmented chord in whatever sequence that suited her creative inclination and then label these ROOTED triads in the score. Each chord enlisted fingers 1,3,5 in the Right Hand. (Note that in my teaching practice, I adhere to the principle of framing a composing experience with a particular educational goal, particularly when building a solid learning foundation in the primary year of of piano study.)

The student was asked to practice her chord piece notated in the TREBLE CLEF with a supple wrist in a singing tone fashion, while fleshing out a melody streaming through the upper most voice (the fifth of each chord) This brought up the notion of “voicing” chords which excited her. She had free reign to choose dynamics and enter them in her score.

Next, we had planned to leave the bass clef staff blank until the student had finalized her Treble notated chordal progressions.

Following this creative undertaking, I suggested adding one bass note per measure, perhaps considering the Root of each chord to match up with the treble harmonic sequence, though when I demonstrated adding a THIRD of each chord in the bass, she was far more pleased with the result.

Here is my pupil’s draft of her composition that enlarged her consciousness about chords and their harmonically colorful variety.


As mentioned, for part 2 of this composing adventure, she will put all her treble chords in first inversion, while considering another choice for the bass line progression. It will be stimulating to explore noting the ROOT in the bass against the treble inverted chords, and then sample the third, or the fifth through the bass sequence.

In conclusion, this holiday period offered a wondrous aesthetic journey with educational rewards for both teacher and student.



piano, piano blog, piano blogging, playing scales in staccato, Shirley Kirsten, staccato, staccato scales

Piano Technique: Soft staccato scales with projection, springboard energy, resilience, and shape


One of the biggest weaknesses that present in soft dynamic range staccato scales, is a lack of projection. Students often snuff out notes, play them in a whisper without a tenacious spring UP character, or a necessary rebound effect from note to note. Instead, they become inhibited and constrained. Yet even at the Forte level, their staccato rendered scales may lack definition, animation, adequate SPACING, and overall shape/direction.

In an attempt to remediate lackluster scales that transition from smooth and connected legato to staccato, particularly in the soft cosmos, I suggest mental images to frame the sound, while also demonstrating the springing UP character of these detached notes to create an ear-catching environment.

Two Sample Lesson Excerpts:

B minor


C-sharp minor (Melodic form)

In the second example, the student also worked on intensification of the Melodic minor ascent (staccato), in contrast to a relaxed descent. (i.e. Naturalization of the C-sharp minor scale) Finally, she rendered the C-sharp minor Arpeggio, refining a Forte/Piano staccato transition in triplets.

A wrist generated approach to staccato, to relieve tension, and improve projection.

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A 9-year old’s “complete” piano lesson integrates theory and ear training

After 9 months of study, “Liz” whom I’ve followed at regular recorded intervals since her first lesson in mid-February, has been exposed to multi-tiered music learning that’s incorporated a Theory and Ear Training dimension. (Note the choice of Frances Clark’s Time to Begin as a 6 month Primer, with my imposed creative modifications that expanded composing opportunities) Tonal explorations were built into my custom-made lesson design as well, offering pentachords, executed with divided hands in Major and minor “parallel” tonalities before I nudged the student into 8 note hands-divided scales. (Again it was my decision to alter the time worn approach where each hand is challenged to autonomously deal with complex thumb shifts before integrating both.)

Nonetheless, through a Circle of Fifths driven scale and arpeggio journey, my student acquired the ability to transpose, based on a solfeggio-framed moveable “DO” orientation which coexisted with alphabetically driven note naming. The latter is derived from traditional scale progressions that flow in “whole” and “half steps according to the alphabet. In this pursuit, Liz has nicely absorbed the structural aspect of scale construction and can easily navigate Major, and relative minor scales in three forms. (Adhering to the division of hands.)

This particular decision that alters traditional Major and relative minor scale fingering by dividing 4 notes between right and left hand in a one-octave span, was an intuitive gesture that I believed put a priority on phrasing and shaping a line, with supple wrist, and bigger, relaxed enlistment of arm energies. The one octave limit of the scale, implemented with an equality between the hands would ultimately provide a “natural” springboard to traditional parallel scale progressions over many octaves. The latter scale expansion would ensue after the pupil’s journey through the cycle of Major and minor keys had obtained completion. (clockwise motion in fifths, acquiring sharps, and counter-clockwise movement in descending fifths, accruing flats)

To travel around the WHOLE CIRCLE of FIFTHS, with an additional window into ENHARMONIC relationships (overlapping scales in sharps and flats) would be a tall order in itself that didn’t need the added complexity of multiple octaves with attendant thumb shifts “un-synched” between the hands except as applied to the pattern scales of B Major, F# Major and C# Major, that had thumbs meeting between the raised black notes in “mirrored” reciprocal fingering modality.

Liz, as it happens, is unusually equipped on a cognitive level to process the analytical (structural) dimension of scale-building where such an intense, layered exploration might be out of reach for many piano students. That’s why I’ve always supported a custom-designed music learning journey for each uniquely individual student–one that is not codified or based on a method book driven set of formulas. (Hence, my unabashed rejection of color sequenced method books through ponderously pretensive levels has been well aired.)


At this point in her piano study, Liz has practiced Major and relative minor scales through the keys of A Major and F-sharp minor. (From eighth notes, to 16ths to 32nds–legato to staccato) As pertains to F-Sharp minor, I’ve adjusted fingerings as illustrated in the attached Scale video with a particular change made in the Melodic form.

In the Arpeggio cosmos, I’ve supported hand-over-hand triadic movement that spans 4 octaves to prioritize agile shaping and contouring. (Historically, the student started with two-octave arpeggios and incrementally expanded to 3, followed by 4-octave travels.)

Through hand-over-hand transit, (LH fingers 5-3-1, and RH 1-3-5) Liz has learned to nicely “shape” the triplet flow of broken chords between the hands without the obstacle of bringing the thumb (root) under the “third” and “fifth” (middle notes)

In this arpeggiated endeavor, she incorporates PARALLEL minor practice by lowering the “third,” while scales flow in Major and relative minor relationships. (The AFFECTIVE contrast of Major to minor whether parallel or in relative minor relationship, has been amply explored.)


Prior to Circle of Fifths scale study, Liz was deeply embedded in “pentachords,” or five-note progressions, BUT NOT using fingers 1-2-3-4-5 in the Right Hand, and 5-4-3-2-1 in the Left Hand.

Instead, I had her divide the five-note progession between her hands.
(2 notes in the LH using fingers 3 and 2, and 3 notes in the Right hand, using fingers 2, 3, 4. This particular division nicely fleshed out the MAJOR and PARALLEL minor key relationships by having the critical and decisive THIRD note arrive as the first note in the Right Hand (finger no. 2) that altered tonality. In this regard, the student was repeatedly prompted to make an affective or “emotional” shift from Major to minor with “attentive listening” as an important underpinning.

While the pentachords proceeded through the Circle of Fifths, they could not realistically acquire sharps and flats that would attach to 8-note scale progressions. Still the journey, though attenuated, acquired an understanding of the Parallel Major/minor tonalities that integrated a companion EAR TRAINING experience.

Liz’s most recent lesson reveals how far she’s traveled over nine months time.
Following a stint with Time To Begin, I transitioned her to Accent on Gillock, Level 2, that has enticing character pieces with wedded musical and technique-driven goals.


In this vein, I’ve recorded two pieces from the collection–the first, “Splashing in the Brook,” is Liz’s newest assigned piece, though she’s simultaneously refining “Little Flower Girl of Paris.” (Following “Splashing in the Brook” we will embark upon the delightfully spun, “Sail Boats” that’s included in my recording)

The additional video below throws a spotlight on the most recent lesson segment that focused on “Little Flower Girl…” where the student has the challenge of fleshing out a cantabile legato melody in the Left Hand against Right Hand after beat harmonic thirds and seconds in staccato. The voices are inverted in the second section, along with a key shift from C Major to G Major. (Liz fully comprehends given her ongoing Theory exposures)


In the ear-training universe, Liz is learning to build and aurally identify Major, minor, diminished and augmented chords. To this effect, she has been given a chord sheet that tags these triads on every scale degree of C Major and ‘A’ Harmonic minor. (Theory and Ear Training are nicely interwoven)


In the attached recorded segment Liz specifically splits a triad in half, to construct a harmonic third between notes 1 and 3, and the same between notes 3 and 5. She has learned that a Major third plus a minor third equals a “Major” chord, and in reverse, a “Minor” chord. The “Augmented” and “Diminished” chords have also been carefully constructed with an integrated EAR TRAINING awareness. In this connection, I use “Do a Deer” from Sound of Music to track the first three notes of a Major progression from the Root to Third. (whole step/whole step) and then juxtapose the sad “Do a Deer,” (Whole Step/half step) through the first three notes of a MINOR scale. The pupil then splits a particular chord in half–analyzing the first to the third note as Major or Minor, doing the same from the third note to the fifth note. She then combines both to determine the identity of a chord. I’ve also exposed her to the instability of Diminished and Augmented Chords and how they have a pull toward “RESOLUTION.”

In summary, Liz has made enormous strides in cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic realms that span her 9 months of lessons. And even from the start of instruction, the fundamental focus on relaxed, “weeping willow” arms, supple wrists, and whole arm energies to advance a “singing tone” has been the underpinning of all her music-making.

Without doubt Liz has enjoyed a journey that has grown her sensitivity to tone production, dynamics (with weight transfer awareness), phrasing, and the ebb and flow of harmonic rhythm. In the Rhythm cosmos, the student understands the “color” of various rhythms and how BREATHING is intrinsic to well-shaped lines. Above all, ATTENTIVE LISTENING has been a central component of all her music-making that has a pivotal structural and aesthetic dimension.

Liz explores a Schoenhut Toy piano which enlisted an easy transfer of her Keyboard skills to a childlike universe.

P.S. Many of Liz’s lessons from Day ONE are available on you tube and these videos have been embedded into a series of blogs. (a few are sampled below)





Chopin, Frederic Chopin, phrasing at the piano, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano lessons, Shirley Kirsten

Phrasing at the Piano: Direction and Destination

Often I query my students about the “destination” and “direction” of phrases within a particular composition. Naturally, my questions are a reflection of a need to clarify what arrivals are significant in the transit of notes.

Part of this exploration encompasses the awareness of sub-destinations that are on the way to the peak or climax of a phrase. In addition, bundled into the journey is a framing singing tone, that requires a supple wrist, with a natural, unencumbered flow of energy through relaxed arms into the hands and fingers. (Needless to say, attentive listening is at the heart of sensitive playing, and “singing” helps to clarify shape and contour of lines)


Today, two pupils were grappling with essential elements of beautiful, well-shaped and directed phrasing as they respectively rendered a Chopin Waltz and Nocturne.

The Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, no.2 and the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 were both noteworthy for challenging the individual player to examine phrase relationships and the influence of harmonic rhythm, voicing, melodic contour, innate rhythmic flow, dynamic variation, nuance and more.

Mood-setting and changes that occurred in various sections of these compositions were also pivotal to fluid renderings.

In both these examples below, “destination” was a particular lesson focus.

Chopin Waltz in B minor

Chopin Nocturne in E minor

(Videos are edited for teacher demonstrations)

piano, piano instruction, piano lessons, piano teaching, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

A 9-year-old piano student devises a plan to improve her practicing


Into her seventh month of music study, Liz has more clearly defined her approach to practicing various pieces by devising a well-written outline of phrase-loving reminders. And though her vocabulary is an understandable offshoot of her teacher’s, with its emphasis on floating, flowing wrists, side-by-side with “pokey” finger prohibitions, she manages to offer an original spin for preparing her latest piece by William Gillock, “Summertime Polka.” (It’s in the ripening phase)


Not surprisingly, children and adults who embark upon a journey of musical discovery, inevitably face common challenges that Liz well-articulated.

These are fleshed out below:

1) Keeping a framing rhythm in legato and staccato

Subjectively, a pupil might “think” he/she has preserved a singing pulse in transit from smooth/connected playing to short, detached notes, but on playback of a recorded segment, rhythmic irregularities become conspicuous.

Liz tended to rush the staccato section of “Summertime Polka,” not to the extreme, but a trace of anxious rushing can disturb the expressive flow of a composition.

The remedy, is not necessarily metronomic reinforcement, though it can be helpful. I prefer, as teacher, to assume a conductor role, assisting with beat driven gestures, together with singing prompts steeped in vibrant/musical pulsations.

Such SINGING fused with a framing pulse provides a memory reservoir that a student can draw upon in the interval between lessons.

In successful playings, with pertinent prompts, Liz improved the rhythmic stability of her staccato notes.

P.S. The student was similarly made aware of the need for buoyant, “bright,” and crisp staccato releases that she’d enumerated in her practicing plan, but like most pupils, she will benefit from teacher driven reminders that refine the character of detached notes, and contrast them with those that are “tenuto” marked. Ironically, Liz’s own written header attached a tenuto designated note with her self-imposed admonition to “lean” and not “poke.”

2) Preventing the thumb from making fall down, obtrusive accents

This is a universal vulnerability that can be addressed in part, by mentally configuring the shortest finger, as “featherlight,” and by thinking “UP” rather than down.

With my adult students, I talk about “folding” the thumb- played notes into the texture; thinking of it as having a soft cushion, while imagining its levitational dimension.

Liz improved her thumb approaches in consecutive playings of “Summertime Polka” as I sang “soft thumb” at pertinent junctures in the music.

3) Phrasing with horizontal fluidity; not succumbing to “Rosie the Riveter” percussive down strokes

Liz eradicated any semblance of a pencil point, pokey, approach to the keys, though as with all students of diverse ages and levels, I will continue to reinforce the singing tone, and how to produce it. The vital ingredients include the use of supple wrists, full arm relaxed energies and creating musically pertinent “delays” into notes.

Forward wrist motions similarly promote graceful resolutions at cadences in their status as “shock absorbers.”

4) Promoting Attentive listening and awareness of note decay

Early learners and those at more advanced levels always need reminders to fine tune their listening skills. When a teacher exposes students to how music travels in a before/after sequence, notes that were insensitively played at incongruous auditory levels, can begin to flow more sensitively with an imbued consciousness of balance and voicing.

Liz expressed her awareness of “decay” and how she planned to respond to it, as part of our recorded conversation.

5) Making Dynamic variation

Through various degrees of arm/hand/wrist delivered weight transfer, students learn the art of expressive dynamic contrasts, though the imagination must be ignited before the first note is played. All students are timely nudged to energize their mental framings of pieces that include “visualization,” and mood-setting among other strategies.

In summary, piano students of all ages and levels are confronted by a host of common challenges that should drive an enthusiasm for creative adventure, and progressive musical growth.


Piano technique segment of Liz’s lesson at the 6th month juncture

Liz’s first piano lesson/February, 2016