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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Keeping up our skills as piano teachers, with an “eye” to taking on challenges

I couldn’t resist juxtaposing the importance of learning new and challenging music with an “eye” toward how we can best accomplish our short and long-term goals within our teaching milieu. (The EYE metaphor becomes CLEARER and dual serving as the posting progresses.)

***

So many music teachers have a tight schedule of back-to-back students that precludes personal musical development. They’re caught in a tight squeeze, trying their best to keep up with the repertoire assigned to pupils, with the painful knowledge that they could use more than a spoonful of time to more deeply probe a Bach Fugue or a Beethoven Sonata movement.

Yet by not specifically setting aside daily periods for serious practicing, teachers are short-changing themselves and their students.

In my own professional development, I’ve been focusing on the J.S. Bach French Suites these past months– an undertaking sparked by an Online pupil in North Carolina who wanted to study the Allemande from French Suite No. 4 in E-flat BWV 814. Because I’d never worked on this particular movement, or the whole Suite No.4, I felt compelled to immerse myself deeply in the music so I could more effectively mentor the student. Otherwise, I would have been “winging it” without much depth.

The Allemande project led me to a set of independent discoveries within the total volume of French Suites. At first, I was drawn to movements that Murray Perahia had previewed in his you tube trailers where he covered all 6 of the French Suites. The last one in E Major caught my “eye” because it had an enchanting Courante and Bourree which I’d first explored before committing myself to a thorough study of the whole work.

(Without a doubt, the Sarabande proved to be a heart throb)

Perahia will play the French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817 during his appearance at Davies Hall, Sunday, April 25th. My pre-immersion in this composition will have deepened my understanding and subsequent revisit. It will keenly benefit my teaching on many introspective levels so the next student who embarks upon this work, will have the advantage of my intensified relationship to it.

***

An ongoing French Suite journey has brought even more musical growth opportunities. Sarabande from French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812,is a tender love note, filled with sadness that demands a sustained mood of pathos and tenderness.

***
But my biggest learning challenge is embodied in the Gigue from French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812.

Upon first glance, the Gigue looked like an uphill climb with its complex rhythms and crossover voices from hand to hand. In fact, when I tapped into Perahia’s Trailer on this very D minor Suite which ends with a snatch of the Gigue, I realized it was DIFFERENT from all others I had encountered in Bach’s collection: The Gigue from French Suite in G Major, BWV 816 was one I had previously learned when a student asked to study it. In 12/16 time, it has the characteristic mood and motion associated with a Bach GIGUE while the D minor is a cut time (2/2), “triple fugue,” according to Perahia–a revelation that was invaluable to my assimilation of this work from the ground up.

In the first few days of my exploration, I knew tackling this Gigue would ignite a significant growth spurt–the kind that I welcome in my musical evolution. A triple fugue, with its internal complexity, was a big serving that required meticulous voice parceling and thoughtful, painstaking fingering decisions. (The internal trills and ornaments compounded the complex rhythmic overlay that I characterized in totality, as “a cow.”)

In a companion email to my students, I shared the agony and the ecstasy of my journey, putting an emphasis on this very COW aspect of my learning adventure. These pupils know by this time that I’m always looking for ways to notch up my skills, hoping my efforts will trickle down to their individual musical travels. The collaboration, we collective realize, is a two-way growth process.

Finally, with an EYE to taking these big leaps in our musical excursions, and making challenging opportunities for ourselves along the way, I conclude with what may seem to be a mix-and-match ADD-On. It suggests a FOCUS that we should be made aware of in our own playing and that of our pupils.

The attached video provides food for thought, suggesting a discussion about how we absorb, play, read, and retain music when sitting at the piano bench. It certainly factors into our whole creative learning process and how we shape our development as pianists and teachers.

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

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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)

maeve-maps-out-summertime-polka-1

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.

LINK:

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

Liz’s first piano lesson/February, 2016

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/an-8-year-old-begins-piano-lessons/

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Learning J.S. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” (Egon Petri piano transcription)

Egon Petri offers a transcription of J.S. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” (based on the Baroque composer’s “Birthday” Cantata) and it’s drawn a cult of admirers, mostly adult students begging to learn it. The work originally scored for two flutes, soprano and continuo, comes a close second in popularity to “Flight of the Bumblebee,” with its enticing stream of breakneck speed chromatics, evoking the buzzing insect.

Not unexpectedly, one of my students who’s deeply immersed in J.Bach’s Prelude in F Minor, BWV 881 (Book Two, Well-Tempered Clavier) happened to bring a fresh copy of Petri’s “Sheep…” saying she wanted to “read” through it, and might I insert fingering in the virgin score.

My undertaking, therefore, required careful screening of various lines, with recommendations for an optimally smooth journey through a chord laden terrain with some challenging, treble range parallel sixths, etc. (In this regard, there were measures that included intervals over the octave, where the player is given the option of eliminating a note or two.) In truth, given the transcription landscape, the player has a guilt-free, creative license to make sensitive changes that serve the smooth rendering of a phrase without doing an injustice to the COMPOSER’s work.

During my 4 page finger-assignment, I found that the experience sparked a deeper journey of discovery. Therefore, as follow-up, I carefully examined my own learning process, and uploaded a tutorial that focuses on the relaxed floating arm and supple wrist as aids to navigate various awkward sets of measures. (I also emphasized the relaxed, featherlight thumb in practicing pertinent measures well behind tempo.)

An earlier tutorial provided an optional fingering here and there with attention to an inner alto voice in the first section of Petri’s arrangement.

Other Helpful Sources

1) The Cantata excerpt as originally scored by J.S. Bach


2) Egon Petri plays his transcription with the manuscript scrolling through.

3) A pleasingly tranquil reading by Italian pianist, Alessio Bax

Murray Perahia analyzes and then renders “Sheep May Safely Graze,” during an interview broadcast from Israel with Arie Vardi.

Start 20:42 in the track below:

P.S. The whole program, centered on the works of J.S. Bach, is worth watching.

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One grand piano in, and another out, but not forgotten

My tiny Berkeley apartment had been shrinking by increments with its herd of tight-squeezed grand pianos and digital keyboards. Count in a Baldwin grand acquired in April, 2015; a medium size Steinway grand (5’7″) bequeathed by my father after Oberlin graduation, and two side-by-side digital keyboards–YDP 105, and Yamaha Arius 141. The electronics were fun to play in the wee hours of the morning, with a snug pair of earphones to ensure privacy.

In truth, I had no real need to seal off my practicing from an appreciative audience of neighbors. Many admitted to eavesdropping–pressing their ears against my door, to savor a “free” concert of diverse timbres.

Why, then would I want to add a 6’2″ grand to my overflowing, “colorful” instrument collection?

I had no intention of allowing a tenuous keyboard situation to spiral out of control, until one Saturday, a neighbor’s baritone voice boomed through my door, announcing with urgency that “a Steinway A grand piano” was the centerpiece of a nearby Estate sale.

Instantly, I recognized the Letter “A,” like a dog sniffing out and pursuing a tantalizing beef bone– the impetus of which triggered a Pavlovian response.

I sprang out the door, running like a fiend to the McGee Street framed house only a block away, in hot pursuit of a prized instrument that I’d fantasized about since adolescence.

***

 

The ebony grand with lid open, was a 1911 model, making a stately appearance, and begging to be sampled. In a heartbeat, I was seated at the piano bench, running my fingers over its immaculate set of original ivories that afforded a fluid passage from phrase to phrase.

Steinway full view

Ivory keys

The piano sang like a nightingale and was smooth as silk to the touch. It sparked an impulse to possess it that barred a shred of doubt and common sense.

It was a mad love frenzy that sent me scrambling for my check book.

But first I’d dispatch a technician for a piano inspection.

His thorough assessment came within hours, and was so remarkably positive, that I sensed the man’s imminent, if not fantasized desire to rob the cradle of my future piano-playing pleasure.

I responded with a hasty offer aimed to thwart a bid by side-by-side salivating contenders. A few had huddled around me as I sampled the ‘A,’ with servings of Romantic era repertoire– the last offering was the first tableau from Schumann’s Scenes of Childhood. (Kinderszenen, “Of Foreign Lands and People.” )

As I inhabited my ethereal playing universe, a Chinese couple had edged close to the keyboard, breaking a spellbound immersion with a barrage of questions about the ‘A.’ They wanted to know if they should purchase it.

With a tiny, transparent sales slip chugging slowly out of a machine, I quickly sealed my ownership of ‘A’ and promptly contacted the piano movers .

While the logistics of containing THREE grands in a pod-size space were beyond my comprehension, I chose to let my fever pitch excitement abate before making a final decision about the fate of my PIANOS.

Somberly, I concluded that Steinway ‘M’ had to go with its modest, though resonant voice that matched its “medium” size and proportion.

My ads for an adoptive family spread far and wide in neighborhood Online listings. ‘M’ would either be placed in a temporary home with a suitable environment, or be sent to climate-controlled storage in a bumpy ride to Oakland. The latter seemed like a death sentence.

Israel Stein, my retired technician had e-mailed me a set of valuable recommendations that supported the well-being of my ‘M.’ These were borrowed and inserted in my posts.

“1. Keep it out of direct sunlight – always. (“only an hour or so per day” is just as damaging).
“2. Keep it away from open windows and doors (especially in the winter)
“3. Keep it away from heat sources (radiators, heat vents, space heaters, etc.)
“4. Keep it away from steam, vapor, and other excess moisture (in today’s “open” floor plans, pianos often get subjected to kitchen steam and vapor).

“Unfortunately,” he emphasized, “people too often placed pianos in accordance with their home decor needs, not considering what was good for the piano.”

My ardent pursuit of a caretaker took many twists and turns.

One eager prospect, was a song writer with admirable credentials. She and her composer husband who lived about 2 miles from Steinway ‘M,’ almost became its temporary parents, but for their open kitchen in close proximity to the grand. The gas heat, and vapor would swell the soundboard, ushering in a compensatory contraction. Their bedroom was at first a possibility for containment, but ‘M’ could not fit into the small space.

Other wooing adoptive applicants were ruled out by radiators, and very young children. Still, I was clinging to the hope that perhaps my neighbors down the walkway would agree to take my ‘M’ in exchange for piano lessons bestowed upon their chirpy 8-year old daughter who sang past my door each day. It was her dad who had first alerted me to Steinway ‘A.’

***

Through this whole, foster care-seeking process, I felt more than a shred of guilt for abandoning ‘M’ though I knew that it was time for ‘A’ to claim the rightful space that had been taken up by ‘M’ these many years.

To my great relief, my neighbors came through in the wee hours of the morning with a text that they would take ‘M’! And that’s how the piano shuffle began.

(‘A’ now sits snugly beside ‘B’ (Baldwin) in my music room, as ‘M’ is resting comfortably in her neighboring abode)

side by side piano best

 

Finally, piano lessons will soon start where ‘M’ resides, and I’ll keep my ties to a piano that will not be forgotten.

Little girl in front of M

LINK
http://www.mcpianomove.com/mccreas_piano_moving/McCreas.html

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Mirrors and piano playing

As we age, we’re reluctant to look at our reflection in the mirror, but as we grow over time as musicians, the mirror of our playing in recorded “reflections” can foster quality adjustments in phrasing and interpretation.

If we nudge ourselves to step back and be “objective” about what we’re hearing, we may try to amend our next playing so it’s not a static, unaltered repeat of the last.

When I observe my own false starts, phrase imbalances, thumb pokes, and breath-short measures, I aim to improve these shortcomings by studying physical and musical dimensions that must be intertwined and synthesized.

***

In a separate but related universe, Alfred Brendel, renowned pianist, puts a negative spin on the “finished” recording, while his comments upon careful scrutiny, support the self-educational value of making longitudinal student recordings. (While these exist in an “unfinished” form, being raw and home-based, they still have significant redeeming value)

In the following abridged paragraph of his newly released book, Music, Sense and Nonsense, the celebrated pianist bemoans the “impalement” by the public of renderings that permanently emblematize player. Yet amidst a string of professionally recorded efforts, Brendel appreciates an evolution of artistry that ripens over time– permeated by modified creative perceptions.

“But a recording is… simply the fixing of a moment.. so the artist should have the right to identify his work within a certain phase of his development… (And) it is only the continuous renewal of his vision – either in the form of evolution or of rediscovery – that can keep his music-making young.”

The last sentence fits perfectly into the paradigm of enlisting recordings to illuminate a particular developmental phase and to move it along to the next with sensitive adjustments and acquired awakenings. These flow through an artistically dynamic chain of youth-preserving efforts that should draw students toward recorded reflections of their playing, not away from them.

For piano teachers who evolve beside their students in a comparable growth process, home-created recordings can mirror efforts that are undergoing constant refinement without their needing “fixed” deadline arrivals, or contrived makeovers to mimic youth appeal that has no depth or substance. (i.e. fast and furious top-layer playing without thought, emotion or REFLECTION.)

***
As a footnote to this discussion on the value of recordings in the learning environment, I offer a Student/Mentor mirrored-back lesson sample. (In teaching this Bach Invention repetitively, I will, no doubt, alter my ideas in consonance with an ever-changing process embedded in refined artistic illumination. The same metamorphoses will apply to the student.)

J.S.Bach Invention 13 in A minor:

LINK

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/24/music-sense-and-nonsense-alfred-brendel-collected-essays-lectures-review-alan-rusbridger

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J.S. Bach Prelude in Ab, BWV 862: A Fresh Start for Student and Teacher

In the course of teaching, a situation may arise where a particular favored piece is requested by a student that I’ve never studied–which means a deep-layered journey is ahead of two learning partners.

And given that J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Ab, (Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1) requires thoughtful fingering choices; an awareness of Baroque era ornamentation, phrasing/articulation/voicing, and a knowledge of counterpoint/harmonic movement/structure, the undertaking requires a baby-step advance.

Therefore, one of my learning reinforcers is to create a self-made tutorial early in the assimilation process, well before I’ve had significant exposure to a composition. The goal is to exemplify a parceled practicing approach that is stacked heavily in the direction of gaining mastery, or relative fluidity when the piece ripens to tempo.

The big embracing mantra, however, is Patience un-enslaved to any Deadline because learning and growing into a desired tempo has no marked out notches of predictable progress. Yet one has to have a heap of confidence on credit to keep optimism in high gear.

With that said, one pivotal aspect of the learning journey is setting a good fingering and in the case of Bach’s Prelude in Ab, a separate hand approach becomes only one dimension of the undertaking. In truth, there are more than two steps to be taken in determining a workable fingering.

1) I assigned what I thought were reasonable choices for the Right Hand in a slow tempo frame.

2) I did the same for the Left hand.

3) The above first and second steps had to be refined if not revised significantly in certain measures, when hands were played simultaneously.

And this is an epiphany that most students will have as they explore a new score. Where fingering might work separately for each hand, it will not necessarily comport for both. (This explains the current adjustments I’ve made since I last e-mailed my student)

Naturally, the Baroque style of phrasing is the other important universe of decision-making, and all that follows in relation to harmonic rhythm, modulation, and the contrapuntal cosmos must be part of a nit-picking, ground-up exploration.

So in the spirit of step-by-step learning, the video below should be foundational and of particular assistance to my student and others taking this common journey.

Bach Prelude in Ab WTC revised p. 1 revised

Bach Prelude in Ab WTC revised p.2