adult piano instruction, piano, piano blog, piano teaching, singing tone legato

Creating a seamless, singing tone legato through arpeggios and scales

My students are often amused by my prompts that frequently include “oohs,” “ahhs,” and “wah’s,” among other spaced out sounds, to prevent consonant sounding notes or hard-liners from interrupting a smooth, “sighing” stepwise descent to the tonic. And from this universe of impromptu effusions, I’ve created a self-styled language, that, at times, has incorporated barnyard vocabulary to the smiles of impressionable pupils (The “cluck, clucks” of Black note passage in staccato arpeggios, for instance, will assist students who tend to give the thumb more assertion than it deserves: i.e F# minor, Eb Major, etc.)

But for a seamless legato, (smooth and connected playing), the clucks are replaced by a soft and responsive cushion of keyboard support that precludes finger-poking or incongruous accents.

To think “slower” into notes by “dragging” them are a few of my favorites. Naturally these suggestions are meant to acquire “density” in the playing and to discourage a hard turf beneath the hands. They’re also employed to inhibit anticipation and note crowding. In this vein, a note coming a “hairbreadth too soon” can imbalance a phrase. (Mildred Portney Chase, author of Just Being at the Piano, poetically frames a singing tone legato through pages of inviting prose.)

Listening for the “decay” from the previous note to the next is another effective prompt. It invites a particularly riveted attention to sound as it “floats seamlessly” from one note to the next. (Singing, of course, is of great assistance in producing the imagined sequence of notes with shape and beauty) Often when a student sings, he can better imagine the sound image before playing the very first note.

All the aforementioned suggestions are, naturally, not enough. If a student is tense in the wrists, arms, fingers, he/she has to be made aware of barriers to a free-flowing, stream of scales and arpeggios that should transfer fluidly to compositions. If tension is tied to faulty breathing, then the BREATH must be explored as a partner to musical expression. Breathing deep, but natural breaths should infuse all music-making while weight transfer, or energy coming down relaxed, “buoyant” arms into supple wrists must be synthesized into fluid playing.

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During recent piano lessons, two of my adult students separately explored the challenge of playing arpeggios and scales in a smooth, legato stream. (One of them “snipped” her improved legato arpeggio into a “horizontally” pleasing staccato.) Some of these prompts and suggestions seemed to be a springboard to a deeper imparted vocabulary that nourished limpidly played phrases. And the “memory” of these prompts partnered with a physical sense of the legato has continued to advance musical growth and development.

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Piano Technique: A Bouncy Scale workout with forward arm rolls and supple wrist motions–Enjoy the romp! (Videos)

Scales can be a great workout routine if you let your arms loose, dip your pliant wrists and go with the flow. And it’s a great cardio. (No treadmill or weights required) Just apply principles of balance and buoyancy.

Here are snatches from an adult student’s lesson (Legato and staccato playing with slow motion replays)

C# NATURAL minor in parallel and contrary motion

First Aiden cat joins in:

http://www.powhow.com/classes/shirley-kirsten

Join me for a Piano Cardio class.. See my class schedule at POWHOW

Abby Whiteside, Mastering the Chopin Etudes and Other Essays by Abby Whiteside, phrasing at the piano, pianists, piano, piano addict, piano blog, piano blogging, piano blogs, piano instruction, piano instructor, piano lesson, piano lessons, piano playing, piano tutorial, piano world-wide, pianoaddict.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, playing piano, playing piano with expression, playing the piano, Shirley Smith Kirsten, shirley smith kirsten blog, singing tone legato, slow mindful practicing, slow piano practicing, Steinway M grand, studying piano, supple wrist in piano playing, technique, the art of piano playing, The Russian singing tone school of piano teaching, video instruction, video supplementation of piano lessons, video uploading, virtual piano lessons, virtual piano teaching, whole body listening, whole body music listening, word press, word press.com, wordpress, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

Abby Whiteside and playing beyond the fingers as a point of departure (Videos)

From WIKI:

Abby Whiteside (1881–1956) was an influential American piano teacher. She challenged the finger-centric approach of much classical piano teaching and instead advocated a holistic attitude in which the arm and torso are the conductors of a musical image conceived first in the mind and soul.

This quote is riveting:

“Why spend dull hours with Hanon when the arm can easily furnish all the power that is needed without specialized training? If we could only believe in nature’s way instead of in traditional concepts, so much wasted time, boredom, and ultimate frustration could be avoided.” Mastering the Chopin Etudes and Other Essays, p. 178

The Hanon reference evokes a teacher at the Oberlin Conservatory who assigned all his students the same package of taxing Schmitt five-finger exercises for the piano, op. 16 (c1922) Pupils were instructed to practice these on a daily basis for months, if not years, in pursuit of a BIG, enviable Technique.

Unfortunately, the paper thin walls of a NEW (at the time) Conservatory structure, allowed these time-warped exercises to filter into rooms from every angle, producing a sad choir of droning, pedantic interludes. (My own Schmitt-driven efforts were drowned out by students inhabiting cubicles above and beside me.)

Overdosed on Schmitt, I desperately sought a teacher change in my Freshman year, jumping from one studio to another, meeting up with the same fruitless prescribed regimen in vogue at the time. And most often it led nowhere, causing pain and injury by its rigid embrace of a fixed hand position.

Obviously, Abby Whiteside, sensed a need for REFORM, that predated the referenced scourge at Oberlin and other conservatories and made a whopping contribution in the teaching arena. But so did others, like Mildred Portney-Chase who became personally enlightened through her self-explorations, carefully logged in Just Being at the Piano, Berkeley Press.

A changed consciousness about piano playing, however, is often limited by the written word, so the physical presence of a teacher beside a student is the ideal. Still, in this day and age, the Internet imports Masterclasses where distinguished mentors impart wisdom about technique, phrasing and overall musicianship.

In this spirit, I often go You Tubing, like others surf the Malibu waves, expanding my consciousness.

Watching an artist flowing in and out of phrases with fluidity is for me, a prime learning experience.

By example here’s a video performance that I revisit, study and try to emulate as a remarkable fusion of the physical and musical aspects of playing: (with a permeating SINGING tone)

Irina Morozova–Chopin Mazurka, Op. 63, No. 3

And another for liquid phrasing and enlistment of rolling arms, undulating wrists: Yeol Eum Son plays George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.” (Arr. Earl Wild)

George Li, 16, performs Liszt Consolation no. 3

Lang, Lang plays Liszt’s Liebestraum

Having an up front and personal teacher demonstrating the use of bigger energies in playing the piano, in lieu of fingers down reliance, is always a nice start. Enrichment of private lessons with concert attendance and selective You Tube excursions fills out the learning triad.

LINKS:

Morozova:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/ethereal-piano-playing-another-irina-with-an-i-in-the-middle-brings-heaven-to-earth/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/irina-morozova-pianist-shines-playing-gershwin-virtuoso-transcriptions-on-cd/

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Teaching Gillock’s delightfully appealing, Later Elementary Level music: “The Glass Slipper” (Video)

I have no reservation about the immense teaching value of William Gillock’s music from elementary through advanced levels. And while the titles in the first few volumes appeal to children, the pieces can be universally enjoyed by piano students of all ages.

In this spirit, I picked out “The Glass Slipper” from Accents on Gillock, Volume 2, Late Elementary, and savored its beauty as I fleshed out the learning challenges and how to meet them.

In the video instruction, I pointed to the melodically woven, slurred bass notes in groups of two and how to enlist a dipped wrist to wrist forward motion to realize their musical contour. Above these figures, in the treble, the students separately practices spongy wrist after-beat harmonic thirds.

The realization of an echo in measures 4 to 8, requires a lighter application of arm weight filtered through relaxed wrists into the fingers.

Balancing the voices between the hands, and following the crest of crescendo and its opposite, diminuendo becomes a continuous challenge in the outflow of gorgeously nuanced music.

As the student is bathed in beauty from start to finish, he’s more willing to meet the technical demands of this piece.

A middle section, provides a stark contrast to the page one offering, and takes off in an upward scale-wise direction. This is a whimsical portion of the interlude that strikingly sets it apart from what preceded.

The crescendo rolled from left into right hand peaks with an accented half-note that has a bass staccato played harmonic 2nd in between, gives the music a pleasing lift. A sequence of this scale figure up a step, intensifies it, before there’s a graceful transition back to the beginning theme.

The most wondrous cap to this composition is a longer scale-wise ascent to the final sustained tonic note, (with a touch of chromatics–half steps) A rolling motion underlies these passages.

A final soothing chord emanating from the melodic C wisps away, leaving behind a satisfying feeling of resolution. The sustain pedal enriches the closing cadence with warmth.

What an amazing piece of music to explore with a student on so many levels.

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Another Gillock sampler, but for Intermediate students:

“Flamenco”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hbFhesmbo4

LINKS:

Blog: The Formative years of Piano Study and the basic building-blocks of learning

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/the-formative-years-of-piano-study-and-the-basic-building-blocks-of-learning-videos/

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WILLIAM GILLOCK http://www.halleonard.com/biographyDisplay.do?id=240&subsiteid=1

“William Gillock (1917-1993), noted music educator and composer of piano music, was born in LaRussell, Missouri, where he learned to play the piano at an early age. After graduating from Central Methodist College, his musical career led him to long tenures in New Orleans, Louisiana and Dallas, Texas, where he was always in great demand as a teacher, clinician, and composer. Called the “Schubert of children’s composers” in tribute to his extraordinary melodic gift, Gillock composed numerous solos and ensembles for students of all levels. He was honored on multiple occasions by the National Federation of Music Clubs (NFMC) with the Award of Merit for Service to American Music, and his music continues to be remarkably popular throughout the United States and throughout the world.”

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Playing through Chopin’s B minor Waltz with its sighing motif (Video commentary)

Last night I sat myself down at my imperfectly regulated Steinway M grand and managed to sigh several times through torrents of phrases crafted by design and inspiration to tug at the heartstrings.

And in the video below, I journeyed in baby steps through this intensely emotional landscape pinpointing how I could flesh out the SIGHs that spill from recurrent tied notes in Chopin’s somber Waltz in B Minor, Op. 69, No.2. (The singing tone–molto cantabile-is intrinsic to this music)

It seemed natural to draw a comparison to the violin in the execution of such repetitive figures. If I had a bow in my hand I would delay entry into the string and follow through with a deliberate broadening of the tone. (I spent six years of my life studying violin noting its carryover to the keyboard)

No doubt it’s easier to draw a slow bow than to translate this effect to the piano, but a pianist can accomplish the same by entering a note from below using a dipping wrist.

The permeating tied notes that seek relief in a curve down, dissipating motion flow into a contrasting middle section in D Major, marked con anime, with animation. Here the notes are lifted and configured in groups of three leading to a longer note.

To realize the vibrancy and unique character of the dotted-quarters springing from the shorter eighths, still another delayed entry into these longer ones is suggested. But just as conspicuous is the circular motion of the phrases that move the composition along. To best flesh out these shapes, I enlist the right elbow to swing in and out in counter-clockwise movement.

In measures where there is a sudden note-wise build-up in passion and intensity (forte outpourings, along with a staccato, or PORTATO) I find that broadening these streams of notes thwarts a tendency to crowd them. And allied to this more relaxed, freedom of expression is a tasteful application of rubato.

A second interlude in the B minor Nocturne utilizes the Parallel B Major key, giving the composition a lift. But no sooner than our emotions are plied, we are pulled back to the somber opening theme with its elaboration that closes the composition in sighing despair.

I consider this Waltz a favorite of mine and dote upon Artur Rubenstein’s reading on You Tube. His performance has a disarming simplicity, framed in a relaxed tempo. In all, the master takes about 4 minutes to weave his poetry with the grace and beauty he’s known for.

LINK:

What Pianists can Learn from String Players

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/what-pianists-can-learn-from-string-players/

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A Skyped supplement to piano lessons (Video)

Here’s an example of a Bay area student taking a Skyped piano lesson to supplement her regular weekly meetings with me.

These work well, particularly if a pupil has to catch up from a vacation period absence, or needs reinforcement of technique, and/or an added revisit of a piece in progress.

In this segment, the pupil is playing the opening section of the Latour Sonatina, a Classical era, level 1 piece.

We were working on a fluid legato along with hand/arm rotation and dynamic contrast.

Video:

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Mozart memories, reflections and revisits (Videos)

Andante: second movement, Mozart Sonata K. 545 played on my Steinway, 1917, M.

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My relationship to Mozart and his music began with the violin. At the Merrywood Music Camp in Lenox, Massachusetts, only a stone’s throw from Tanglewood, I encountered Eugene Lehner, first violist of the Boston Symphony when I played second violin in a string quartet. At the time, in 1960 I was simultaneously fiddling and tickling the ivories.

In the company of more seasoned chamber ensemble, I was privileged to rehearse and refine one of Mozart’s most divinely beautiful works:

The Quartet in G, K. 387 (first movement)

Lehner, in his 50s at the time, danced around us with a warm smile, conducted as we played, cajoled, hummed, gestured in every which way to make us “sing” with warmth radiating through our very beings. He wanted each of us to give everything we had, and we did, slipping into a universe of imagination, inspiration and pure beauty. I’ll never forget the experience.

At Performing Arts High School in the mid 60s, I had the unique experience of playing the first movement of Mozart’s piano Concerto in G, K. 453 at the Winter concert where a radiance flooded the stage creating a special ensemble between orchestra and soloist. It was my second Mozartean journey that followed my having studied the Mozart Sonata in D K. 311.

My teacher, Lillian Freundlich, the next inspiring individual to flow out of my music camp experience came backstage in the glare of the spotlight to remind me of what we had worked on for months, and how all my practicing was worth the effort. (Ironically, her nephew, Douglas, a Merrywooder had led me to his aunt when I most needed a teacher to guide me through the basics of producing a singing tone)

Mozart became the staple of my practicing as I branched out following my years as a student at the Oberlin Conservatory. Once settled into my own studio apartment on W. 74th Street and Amsterdam, I selected the Sonata in A Major, K.331 composed uniquely in Theme and Variations form, with a culminating Ronda Alla Turca as the final movement.

In my confined creative space that was dominated by an imposing Steinway grand, gifted by my father, I learned the Piano concertos in D minor, K. 466, and C Major, K. 525.

From there it was on to learn and teach more of Mozart’s sonatas.

The composer has always presented a special challenge for the performer. One cannot over pedal, or under pedal his music. The Alberti, “broken chord” bass must not sound monotonous or grinding, but supply a warm underpinning for an operatically spun melody, especially in Mozart’s slow movements.

Certainly the impetus for playing Mozart in a molto cantabile style was aided by suggestions from Eugene Lehner and Lillian Freundlich.

It has also been awe-inspiring to hear the composer’s trios played with a harpsichord instead of piano, creating a timbre, that perhaps Mozart intended. I’ve included a link to performances of this genre.

In a word, I thank those who’ve helped me realize the spirit and soul of the Master’s music so that it’s realized in a style that is convincing and aesthetically pleasing.

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BIO (Eugene Lehner, Wiki)
Eugene Lehner (1906 – 13 September 1997) was a violist and music educator.

“Mr. Lehner, as he preferred to be addressed, was born in Hungary in 1906. Originally named Jenö Léner, he performed as a self-taught violinist from the time he was 7. When he was 13, the composer Bela Bartok heard him play, and arranged for him to pursue his studies formally. At the Royal Conservatory of Music in Budapest, he studied the violin with Jeno Hubay and composition with Zoltan Kodaly. In 1925, soon after his graduation from the conservatory at 19, he joined the Kolisch Quartet.

“Lehner was a violist with the Kolisch Quartet from 1926 until 1939, performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 39 years (the only player to be invited to join without an audition by Serge Koussevitzky), and continued teaching chamber music at the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University well into his retirement. Late in his life most coachings were given at his home in Newton. The modest upstairs room he coached in contained photographs covering every wall from all the quartets that he mentored – a real “wall of fame”. Lehner was widely regarded as one of the greatest living experts of the interpretation of chamber works by Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, and Béla Bartók, having been involved in the premieres of several of such works during his time with the Kolisch Quartet. As a member of the quartet, Lehner gave the premieres of Berg’s Lyric Suite, Schoenberg’s Third and Fourth String Quartets, Bartok’s Fifth Quartet and Webern’s Second Quartet.

“When the Juilliard Quartet was formed, they spent a summer in intensive coachings with Lehner. He advocated playing string instruments with tempered intonation, in the spirit of Bach.

“Lehner studied violin with Jenö Hubay and composition with Zoltan Kodály.”

Related Links:

A Breathtaking Camp Finale: About Merrywood

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/a-breathtaking-music-camp-finale/

Mozart: The 1788 trios Elaine Comparone, Peter Seidenberg, Robert Zubrycki & The Queen’s Chamber Trio

http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/mozart-the-1788-trios/id257027599