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Navigating a robust Beethoven Sonatina (not the one everybody plays)

I borrowed a few hours from my Haydn immersion to review a Beethoven Sonatina that is absolutely charming but very challenging. One would think that such a work labeled -mini, by its “-ina” suffix spelled an easier passage to the final cadence by comparison to a composition in SONATA form.

Not so.

For example, many associate Clementi sonatinas as student pieces, not well-developed musical masterpieces. In the same vein, Beethoven with far LESS output in this form, might be taken even less seriously in these composing efforts since his 32 SONATAS stole the show. (Note: Op. 49, so-called EASY ones are beyond simple to play)

In truth, Beethoven’s two-movement sonatina masterpiece in F Major, (Anh.5) is packed with scads of runs that require clarity, shape, and injections of personality. Therefore, a player cannot skim the surface through streams of 16ths, or ignore the composer’s diverse articulations. To add to its complexity, abrupt mood shifts both in the Allegro Assai and Rondo require a mastery of emotional and physical control. (Back to the fire and ice metaphor)

Here’s a sample of what’s demanded in the very First movement:
I apologize for my Mac Computer’s temperament. I never can predict motion/sound delays, but just the same, you can see my demonstrated physical gestures because of the repetitions I’ve provided.

Play through:

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“Piano Student of the Week,” Claudia S. practices Bach and improves her playing (Video)

Claudia is one of the old-timers around here at age 11. She came to study piano with me when she was just 6 and in those days, I gave her Noona’s “The Red Drum,” in addition to selections from Book One, Royal Conservatory of Music, University of Toronto: Hook “Minuet,” Schein “Allemande,” Telemann “Dance” in G minor, J.S. Bach “Bouree,” Tansman “Arabia,” Poole “Mist”; “A March” by Paciorkiewicz, Lubarksy “The Busy Hen,”Rybicki “Cradle Song,” and Fritz Le Couppey “The Shepherd’s Pipe.”

I never used method books in her studies because Claudia was well into note reading at the time, and was ready for some ear perking repertoire. In addition, we started five finger positions in all parallel major and minor keys, which led to full scale and arpeggio study. She has now come a long way, doing the equivalent of a gymnastics display at the piano each week. We spend the first 20 minutes turning scales and arpeggios into whirlwind spins in every manner you can imagine, parallel/contrary motion, in 10ths, 6ths, 3rds, and more.

I can recall Claudia’s first recital in my home like it was yesterday. She played the most of any other student, because she had enough learned pieces in her fingers to give a full scale recital of her own, and that was the memorable day that one of my adult students, a 6’5″ strapping fellow, clunked his head on my chandelier, barely making it to the Steinway in a half dazed state. But the show went on….

Claudia’s serious-minded attitude about piano study

With her strong work ethic, Claudia sets a good example for other students. She practices steadily and has the patience to learn pieces applying a stepwise approach. Claudia also dutifully completes her Theory assignments in the Snell-Ashleigh workbooks, transposes pieces, learns Solfege, names intervals and improves her ear-training skills.

The fruits of her labor are rich and bountiful.

Currently she’s studying the Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV847, Invention 13 in A minor, and the Chopin Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64 no.2. Quite a nice music menu for an 11-year old.

Here’s a sample of her riveting focus on improving the Bach Invention 13. We were using rhythms to refine the climactic measures on the last page:

Who would have imagined this very poised youngster gracing a 9 foot piano at Fresno State’s recital hall? (MTAC Baroque Festival)

I still remember her as a sweet, sensitive and wide-eyed 6-year old. How time flies. And during these many years, she’s racked up international travels to Korea, Germany, and Austria (Salzburg) Her horizons are ever-expanding as is her language acquisition of Korean and French. German, anyone?

Flash forward to the present for a glimpse of Claudia’s repertoire:

Bach Invention 1 in C; Invention 4 in D minor; Invention 8 in F and 13 in A minor; Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV847; Beethoven Fur Elise, Chopin Waltz in A minor no. 19, Op. Posthumous, Mozart Sonata complete K. 545

In the past:
Beethoven Sonatina in F Major; Clementi Sonatina Op. 36 no. 3; Mozart Dance in F; a collection of Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals character pieces arranged for piano; J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor; Andante in A minor, Rameau Menuet en Rondeau, Kabalevsky “Clowns,” “Joke,” and “Funny Event.”

Noona “The Red Drum,” a set of pieces from Faber’s classical duets including “Snake Dance,” Pachelbel Canon arrangement, Piano selections from the Celebration Series, Toronto Conservatory, as previously mentioned.

Claudia in video and photos: Looking back over the years

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Piano Instruction: Common student problems related to playing Clementi Sonatina, Op. 36, No. 3, Spiritoso (Video)

The student I’m currently teaching by Skype has received a number of supplemental videos from me that target problems universal to those learning Clementi Sonatina, Op. 36, No. 3.

In this video, geared for teachers as well as students, I define areas in the first movement, Spiritoso, that need particular focus for improvement:

As a preliminary, the Classical era Sonatina Form should be explored, fleshing out the EXPOSITION (first and second themes); DEVELOPMENT (devices used that relate to rhythm, and modulation to various keys) RECAPITULATION (return of Theme I and related material in the home key)

In summary:

1) The left hand broken chords that open the composition are usually played vertically and far too loud, detracting from the melody or THEME I (The same issue presents where Theme I is inverted in the Development section, and returns in the Recapitulation)

Remediation: Have the student first “block” out these two-note Left Hand figures with a “spongy” wrist, and then unblock, playing softly with a rocking motion, being attentive to the notes that move. (a flexible wrist is needed)

2) Piece lacks a steady, underlying, cohesive beat. Tempo changes are frequent.

Remediation: DON’T use a metronome. Instead instill a rhythmic consciousness by lifting beats as a conductor beside the student. Sing beats, so they have a phrase context. Subdivide counting using ANDS between beats as necessary.

3) Dynamic range is not wide enough throughout the composition, and Theme II needs a contrast and change in character. Underlying broken chords played in the bass under Theme 2 are too ponderous.

Remediation: Encourage Attentive listening for changes in dynamics; requires deeper in the key weight transfer to lighter application having a relaxed arm, wrist, and elbow. For the broken chord figures in the bass, block with a spongy wrist, and unblock with a rotation of the left hand.

4) Notes are played without awareness of a singing tone. Phrases lack shape.

Remediation: Sing phrases with student, and apply weight transfer to create swells of a line, as well as crescendo and diminuendo, enlisting a supple wrist.

5) Where music has measures of imitation, student overlooks.

Remediation: Focus on these and practice feeding the imitative lines between the hands, framing as a “conversation.”

6) Note values are not observed, giving short shrift to quarter notes, in particular while rests are ignored.

Remediation: Focus on measures where these figures need attention, and count beats aloud with student. Where quarter notes are dropped too early in relation to eighths running through them, single out those measures for extra practice.

7) Articulation and phrasing as noted by the composer are not observed (slurs, legato to staccato figures, etc)

Remediation: Remind student of the composer’s markings in the music and separately practice measures that need clarity.

8) Detached notes, such as those indicated with a staccato marking are clipped too short or come out sounding too heavy with unwanted accents.

Remediation: Work with student on lengthening these, keeping the wrist pliant to avoid crash landings on the keys.

9) Fingering is frequently not observed which impacts phrasing, articulation, etc.

Remediation: Single out measures that need fingering adjustments and practice behind tempo.

10) Trills bog down the flow of the composition, mostly played too slow, and in a tempo that is markedly different from the rest of the piece.

Remediation: Practice a measured trill and have the student focus on the steadiness of the bass notes through pertinent measures.


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Learning and Memorizing Clementi Sonatina in C, Op. 36, No. 1, Mvt. 1 (Video)

I begin by playing the Sonatina, first movement and then I map out the composition to advance thoughtful learning and memorization.


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Individualizing Piano Study: How to avoid Method Book dependency

Over decades of teaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that each student needs a custom designed long-term lesson plan. Method books only go so far.

Often they stratify the learning process, keeping students in an interminably drawn out, regressive C Major universe. For the most part, flats and sharps with Letter Name identifications are regarded as aliens, not welcomed into the musical cosmos until a student is so addicted to white notes that he can’t be easily detoxed. I was a such a victim, being fed John Thompson’s Primer series with pixies and parades. As a consequence, my fears of black notes linger. Do I need music therapy?

One of my African American students poked fun at the preponderance of white notes on a keyboard as evidence of hard core discrimination. We both chuckled, but at that the same time he didn’t realize that his observation had relevance to Method Books and their built in color line:

“Black notes are not welcomed here, right now.”

I don’t mean to knock Bastien, Faber, and any other Lesson, Performance, Theory, Technique and Artistry package, but the only way I can co-exist with these materials is to modify them as I go along. And the adjustments I choose will be different for each pupil, because mass produced, standardized education doesn’t work for me.

In a previous blog, Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery, I inserted p. 24 of Faber’s Piano Adventures that contained the “C-D-E-F-G March” as a perfect opportunity to introduce the Parallel Major/minor tonality by lowering the E to Eb. (Did I commit a sin advancing the clock on the FLAT?) If so, let the black notes go to hell.

For the vast majority of pupils who’ve entered the sanctuary of piano learning as beginners, they jump at any chance to create a different mood by a simple alteration. Knowing Left from Right is the only requirement. Flats descend to the LEFT by a HALF STEP. If a pupil doesn’t understand the quantity of a “half,” just rely on the tiniest distance on the piano and there you go. Kids love analogies, imaginary references to things. They can make up their own name for the smallest distance from one note to another. Could be “elf-like.” If Grieg liked elves, why not borrow the metaphor.

Some students might follow up, creating a rote piece in a new tonal center–like playing the “C-D-E-F-G March” in C minor and then in G minor. Wait a minute, TRANSPOSING for beginners isn’t part of the program when we get to p. 24 of the Lesson Book? Or if a creative activity is suggested, BLACK NOTES are once again barred, jailed, imprisoned, waiting to be paroled.

Who cares what method books do or don’t do? For lots of kids, improvising in the company of sharps and flats, makes piano study more interesting. And as a fringe benefit, students who are tonal adventurers, will find that their explorations become second nature.

Composing is a joyful activity. Ask the student to shuffle around the five notes that have been drilled into him as “C POSITION” in the METHOD BOOK and relocate the tonal center to G or D, (oops, another alien SHARP is introduced on the planet) Hang loose, and let the student name it. He won’t decompensate in the process.

The pupil can even vary the order of the notes, up and down, which means he might choose to skip, and NOT step. (Wait a minute, the METHOD book doesn’t introduce SKIPS at this point) Just a second. It’s the student’s piece–his creation and copyright. Such creative expression is not owned or controlled by the Method Book publishers.

Uh, oh, Should I dare to show up at this summer’s MTAC Convention without my Groucho Marx disguise? I think I’ll be otherwise, persona non grata.

All I’m saying is that short of designing individual materials for each student that we take what we are given and MODIFY, EXPAND to meet individual needs.

And while this discussion applies in the main to beginning pupils, it equally pertains to those who are at Intermediate and Advanced levels.

First off, I beat it out of the Method Book track as soon as I can see the forest from the trees. By and large, after Book One of Faber Piano Adventures (with my modifications) I’m off to Classical Repertoire. If a student would like popular pieces, those are added into the mix as long as the musical diet is balanced and enriched with scales, arpeggios, minuets, sonatinas and the rest.

I like Faber’s the “Developing Artist Series,” Book 2. Favorite selections: Johann Christian Bach’s Prelude in A minor and Andante; Rameau’s Menuet en Rondeau.
and the Sonatina series starting with Book one:

Even at the Faber Lesson Book One level, I supplement with Gillock, a composer with amazing gifts. I love “Little Flower Girl of Paris,” “Argentina,” “Splashing in the Brook,” and most pieces contained in Accent on Solos, Level TWO.

Some pieces in this collection work for students in Level One, Faber. And perhaps more apply to students who’ve had modifications in their method books as they’ve moved along.

With such adjustments, NO child will be LEFT BEHIND.

Gillock’s “Flamenco” highlighted in a previous blog, is another fabulous piece that has a built in sequential pattern in its harmonic progression, so while the selection is flooded with alien black notes, the student can see and “feel” note grouping relationships that ease his anxiety during the learning process.

Side journeys to Kabalevsky’s “24 Pieces for Children Op. 39” (Palmer/Alfred) Schumann’s “Album for the Young” and Bartok’s Children’s Pieces, offer repertoire enrichment at early levels of study, easing the burden of a standardized teaching curriculum.

In conclusion, we need to give our students more leeway– Let them break out of the method book mold, and spread their creative wings.

At least it will be a start in the right direction, reaping rewards at every stage of learning.

PS As a footnote to this writing I have experienced the joy of using Irina Gorin’s Tales of Musical Journey that utilizes a creative approach to teaching children in the 4-7 year-old range. It is a book I highly recommend because of its early focus on tone production, and fluency of motion. It mobilizes the young imagination, and takes baby steps in its progression.


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The very first Chopin Waltz that I teach: #19, Op. Posth. in A minor (Video instruction)

After decades of teaching the Chopin Waltzes, I’ve come to the conclusion that the A minor, No. 19, Op. Posthumous is the best student introduction to the form as the composer cultivated it. While many other Waltzes in Chopin’s collection are far more substantial and technically challenging, No. 19, is in my opinion, easiest to assimilate, study, and play. In part, it’s because the harmonic structure is very straightforward, leaning toward tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chord relationships. In addition, a frequent interchange occurs between the tonic A Minor in which the piece is written and its relative C Major. (Good material for introductory theory) Finally, there’s an abundance of thematic repetition.

The big climax of the piece, on the third page, (measures, 33-40) is a modulation to the Parallel A MAJOR, which makes a conspicuously audible impression. This section also has the most notes phrased at a Forte dynamic level.

Following the composition’s peak, the composer returns to the opening theme, which is in the home key of A minor.

Palmer Edition, Chopin Waltzes:

About the Composer, Frederic Chopin

Chopin lived during the height of the Romantic Period, and composed very expressive music that included free flowing phrases, ornamented notes, a colorful harmonic palette, and a tempo rubato (flexible, borrowed time that if taken too far, is a bit of a parody of itself) The pedaling for this music is rich, but tasteful. (The player should not over use the sustain)

The Way to Practice:

1) First, trace the path of melody through the opening section, (measures 1-16) in SLOW motion, following the phrasing very carefully. Chopin was very much a molto cantabile composer, who stressed the singing tone capability of the piano. In this first section, the composer offers the preponderance of material for the complete Waltz. Note that ornaments are played on the beat and with good directions in the editor’s annotations.

2) Continue by separately practicing the fundamental bass of the first section. (only the first beat of each measure, known as a “downbeat”) Draw each one out with a deep, resonant stroke.

3) Then play “after beat” chords only–the two sonorities following the downbeat. Isolate them from measure to measure and notice the voice leading. Knowing they are neighbor chords will make the jump from the downbeat bass notes seem less awesome. Lighten the third beat or chord in each measure. Approach with a flexible or spongy wrist. (The wrist is the great shock absorber)

4) Next play the downbeats followed by the after beat chords in each measure. Draw out the downbeats without poking at them. You want a rich bass, not an accented one.
The after beat chords should be lighter, as previously mentioned.

5) Finally, put hands together for the first section. The melody should be very singable and prominent. The fundamental bass gives the ground energy; the after beat chords fill in with colorful harmony. The balance between the melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords is very important.

Part II (Measures 16-24)
The same advice for part one applies here. Keep to the order of practicing separate hands, with an awareness of balance between right hand and left hand.
Notice that this part of the composition is more extemporaneous, and feels improvised. It begins in the Melodic form of A minor and lets go with a DOMINANT key arpeggio (E Major) If you’ve been conscientious about practicing arpeggios, this passage should not be too difficult to execute, but consider it a freely rendered figure and not meant to sound forced, regimented, or robotically played. Remember that the Romantic style is characterized by a sense of freedom and improvisation.

The next section is a return of the opening phrase in A Minor. (measures 25-32)
Follow the method of practicing separate hands, as introduced in the beginning of the work.

The Climax: Measures 33-40 The longest phrasing in the piece and in A MAJOR (The Parallel MAJOR) with a Forte dynamic.

Practice with the same parceled out approach as the beginning.

Finally the opening section returns in Measures 41 to 52 with a Codetta (small, modified ending) as the last line.


The Waltz played in tempo:


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Why Play Scales?

Scale practicing examples:

The Backdrop:

As a young piano student living in New York City, I remember my reluctance to prepare a mandatory scale each week for my lesson. In fact my first teacher had so many students, she always seemed to forget the scale she had assigned to me, so I remained happily in the key of C for most of the year. (Played on all white keys) Little did I know that C Major was a lot more challenging to practice than the keys of B, F# and C# Major that had nice, regular patterns of double and triple black notes that fit the longer fingers perfectly, with the thumbs meeting in between.

Frederic Chopin was known to teach these three black-key scales before all others. Think about how much easier it would have been for a sightless person to play these step-wise passages with braille-like elevated black notes in regular patterns, as opposed to a sea of white notes without reference points.

Now that I’ve grown up to be a piano teacher and you tube poster, I realize the importance of scale study in the growth and development of musicianship.

Scales are about the “feel” and geography of the keyboard. They are about shaping, phrasing, sculpting. Sometimes they’re practiced with catchy rhythms, crisp and detached (staccato) or as smooth and connected, freely spun out, rolling triplets. You can even reverse the direction of the fingers when practicing scales, having them lightheartedly dance together and apart, in shades of loud, soft, and in between. And you might bring out one voice over another, by drawing more intensity from the left hand, then reversing the process, giving the right hand its place in the sun.

Most importantly, scales help us understand where we are in a piece of music because they define the TONAL CENTER of a composition or a section of it.

I wish I had known about the famous Circle of Fifths when I was beginning my piano studies. The Circle maps out the progression of scales (Major and minor) in an orderly fashion with sharps acquired going clockwise, and flats in reverse. As a student moves from the Key of C, to G, to D, to A, etc. he/she learns not only the new sharp that is picked up in the clockwise journey but comes face to face with fingering adjustments that make the smooth playing of various scales more attainable.

Scales, in summary, are part and parcel of piano study and they feed in and out of the piano repertoire. What could be a better entree to the pieces we most cherish than to find the key they’re in, and dance through a few preliminaries.

Example of a Classical era Sonata by Mozart (first movement) permeated by a series of scales.