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Piano practicing, performance, and gym routines: Always Reach Beyond! (Video, Bach Invention 8 in F)

I take my inspiration from the two Irina/Irena-s, each pronouncing their names slightly differently. Irina Gorin is the ingenious piano teacher from Carmel, Indiana via the Ukraine, and Irena Orlov is from Washington D.C.’s Levine School of Music via Leningrad. They both inspire students to explore and draw out their deepest creative expression.

That’s what we should all be doing in our personal practice sanctuaries. I certainly try to evaluate and re-evaluate my own performances, whether they’re recorded for myself to review, or for You Tube. Regardless of having an audience of one, or many, the process of learning from experience, examining phrasing, physical comportment, and anything that might have intruded upon a free flow of physical and emotional expression (there’s that word again) is worth noticing.

That’s why I believe that videotaping yourself is an amazing teaching tool– one that can spur musical growth if you, the player, can distance yourself enough from the recorded sample to make some valuable observations. In other words, don’t be hard on yourself. Look at the mirror of your playing like it was someone else’s image– Think of a friend, whom you would not harshly criticize. Underline “O” for objectivity.

This type of mirrored self-analysis is the next best thing to having a teacher present looking over your shoulder. Or maybe you don’t want anyone encroaching on your space. Give yourself a breather and do a little self-assessment.

If you can spot places in your recording where something went awry, and not necessarily a glut of conspicuously wrong notes, you can try to pinpoint a physical problem, where perhaps a tense arm or wrist got in the way. You might remember at this moment, that you lost your breath and became anxious. Every aspect of one’s mental state and respiration factor into a total performance. Musical inspiration or intuition are not enough to get a pianist from the first measure to the final cadence. There must be a pacing, just like athletes know. Pianists are part athlete, part Terpsichore or any nyphm in the forest you choose to be–and part split personality when they’re playing. Vladimir Horowitz talked about fire and ice states when tackling the warhorses.

Being attuned to a relaxed physical state, in any case, works in a player’s favor

Which reminds me that today, a few hours before I attempted to record the whip-lashing, nerve-splitting, Bach Invention 8 on my iMac, I dashed off to Bally’s Gym, with my boots on, no less, and did a self-instigated photo shoot. Actually I aimed the silly Sony Cybershot at the mirror, not realizing that the flash (an automatic setting) would obliterate me, like I was blown up in one of those superhero video games. But at last, I survived once I knocked out the flash.

My goal was to get a pic of myself working out on the Gravitron where I build upper body strength and feel a good workout for my arms. It’s really helps leverage weight into the keys, so I strongly recommend it.

Here’s a fleeting look: I set the weight at 70, which means I’m pulling about 45 pounds. I follow up with 30-minutes of leg press, deep breathing all the way through.

Not to forget, that behind every performance, especially one being recorded, there’s a cat lurking in the wings ready to pounce at the wrong moment, sending any and all music to the trash! So make sure when you sit down to videotape yourself, that your feline is not permitted on the piano, in the piano, or near the piano. In this instance, Aiden was about to leap to the window sill to make his favorite racket, pawing the blinds.

RELATED:
Tutorial on this Invention 8, BWV 779–using a spring forward wrist motion:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/piano-instruction-j-s-bach-invention-no-8-in-f-bwv-779-using-a-spring-forward-wrist-and-hand-rotation-two-videos/

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Pianists and Injuries

You can’t avoid it. Athletics are part of piano playing so if you abuse your hands, arms, wrists, let alone your fingers, you’ll end up benched, like an overused relief pitcher.

Yesterday, I pushed the envelope, practicing rapid fire repeated notes in Domenico Scarlatti’s Toccata in D minor, well into the night. Ample streams of adrenaline fueled my earliest efforts, but after three uninterrupted hours, my fingers felt like silly putty, while my arms ached. Like a well-primed hurler, I had gone too many extra innings.

Word of warning: Even if you have a big arm swing, and can mix up your stuff, repeating a particular motion over and again, like a set of Forte parallel octaves, can cause an overuse injury.

From the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, Summer 1999:

“Dr. Fred Hochberg, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, began treating instrumentalists’ injuries about 15 years ago, when a friend asked him to meet with Gary Graffman, a world-renowned pianist who was having difficulty with his right hand.

“He couldn’t lift his fourth finger,” Hochberg says. “And he wasn’t the only one—he had a list of friends with the same problem. These were pianists who played the same repertoire, or what are called the heroic pieces.”

Focal dystonias, involuntary movements of fingers, or an inability to freely move them, affected these pianists, that included Leon Fleisher and Byron Janis who routinely practiced the big warhorse repertoire.

Selective Movements

Still, about two-thirds of Hochberg’s musician patients presented with overuse injuries, not dystonias.

“They had a localized inflammation of the joint or tendon, probably due to microscopic tears of the tendon with hemorrhaging,” he said.

“Almost invariably, the problem related to the shoulder. Since the arm weighs between 15 and 20 pounds, and even though playing an instrument tends to involve selective movements of the fingers and wrists, the shoulder musculature takes most of the brunt of the movement. Most people can’t stabilize their shoulder while using their fingers.”

Teaching Perspectives

Since my private instruction has been slanted to avoid piano-related injuries, I favor enlistment of bigger energies beyond the fingers when practicing. Using larger, gross motor motions, minimizes redundant end-finger keyboard impact.

In the same vein, the use of a “spongy” wrist, delays entry into notes, thereby preventing pokey, percussive landings that could result in physical trauma.

For unusually big stretches in piece of music, a student can learn rotational movements to ease the flow of passages and create curvaceous phrases.

***

Irina Gorin, a Russian teacher based in Indiana and creator of beginning piano instructional materials, imbues her students with the image of a keyboard as a bowl of jello to prevent hard surface, key attacks. First, she will dip a pupil’s fingers into a jar of putty, purchased at the Dollar store, to provide the tactile “feel” desired, before a transfer is made to the keys. Lastly, a muscle memory of the experience helps the student play fluidly and produce a beautiful singing tone without exertion or strain.

In the following You Tube video, Gorin teaches a student the C Major scale using her “jello” model:

***

The Clinical Perspective

Dr. Hochberg recommends physical therapy and exercise to return an afflicted musician to a normal range of movement and to strengthen the muscles needed to stabilize the shoulder.

“Playing an instrument is not good exercise,” he said. “You would think the more you play, the stronger your arm would get, but that’s not true.”

Of the thousands of patients Hochberg has seen, fewer than 30 have undergone surgery, most commonly for carpal tunnel syndrome and ulnar nerve entrapments. And on average, patients take three months to recover. During that time, they may only play for ten to fifteen minutes at a time, two to three times a day.

“Michael Charness—director of the performing arts clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and a member of the Charness Family Quintet with his wife and three children—has a unique take on what it means to be a pianist with an injury.

“I started treating musicians because of my own injury,” he said. “I was starting to play some difficult pieces. The more I practiced, the more my fingers weren’t doing what they should. They were sluggish, less accurate, and less controlled. I had an electromyogram, which was normal. I had a fairly normal hand exam too, but I felt I had an enormous problem.”

Eventually, Charness underwent surgery to decompress his ulnar nerve on both sides. That was in 1984, and he slowly regained his strength and facility.

“I had a debilitating problem, yet my hand appeared normal to skilled clinicians.”

Charness sees focal dystonias as particularly vexing. “It’s a bizarre disorder,” he said. “People who have spent many years acquiring musical skills lose the ability to perform because their hands pull into a position that makes it impossible for them to play. Their ring finger, for example, may pull into their palm when they play a scale going up but not going down.”

When Charness meets with patients, he watches them play their instruments. “We’ve learned how to change people’s position to make it easier to sustain playing.”

How much practice is too much?

“That’s a difficult question,” Charness said. “I think most people ought to be able to get everything done in four to five hours or less. It has to be individualized, but there are some general principles that encompass, for example, not playing for more than 25 minutes without a break.”

***
I personally knew last evening, when it was time to stop, but it was well beyond Charness’s recommended time boundary.

Veda Kaplinsky, a Juilliard faculty member, and frequent judge at international competitions, insisted in a recorded interview, that after 5 or so hours of piano practicing, the blood supply to the muscles diminishes.

So true. The spurt of energy flowing down the arms into wrists, hands, and fingers maxes out and then begins to run dry. It’s the body’s warning to the player, to take a break, or call it a day.

Before my reserves were thoroughly depleted I managed to post an upped tempo performance of Scarlatti’s Toccata in D minor. This was a daredevil challenge to myself, notwithstanding the risk of overdoing it in one final recording session.

***

Since 1999, schools of thought have changed about performance-related injuries and how to prevent and/or treat them. The issue is not necessarily about over-practicing, but rather about how the player integrates relaxation techniques and mental imagery into all his playing.

Principle Players in The Performance Injury Field

FRANK WILSON, NEUROLOGIST

Dr. Frank Wilson was an early contributor to the development of performing arts medicine in the United States and Europe in the 1980s. In 1986 he was a co-founder and neurologist for the Health Program for Performing Artists at the University of California, San Francisco, where his interest focused on impaired hand control in musicians. In this connection, he organized a research team studying focal dystonia as it affected performing artists.

In 1996, Wilson became the Medical Director of the Health Program for Performing Artists, and in 2001 accepted an appointment as clinical professor of neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine, joining a clinical research team that studied deep brain stimulation for patients with complex movement disorders.

The Golandsky Institute:

Edna Golandsky, a former student of former Juilliard faculty member, Dorothy Taubman, founded an Institute on the East Coast devoted to preventing performance-related injuries, as they apply to the piano. An archived collection of You Tubes fleshes out specific physical piano-related problems and how to remedy them.

My disagreement with Taubman/Golandsky circumscribes the wrist and its flexibility. Where Goldansky frowns upon “breaks” or dips of the wrist in piano playing, I join the ranks of many teachers, including Irina Gorin, who encourage the opposite. In fact one of the hallmark physical dimensions of producing a singing tone, is having a supple wrist that can spring up and down.

Finally, there are many schools of thought in the universe of teaching piano and injury control, so it’s best to research these, compare notes, and keep an open mind.

RELATED:


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/piano-instruction-avoiding-injuries-using-butterfly-by-edvard-grieg-as-a-slow-practicing-example-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/more-ideas-about-piano-technique-and-mental-imagery-playing-into-a-bowl-of-molasses/

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Piano Technique and Weight Control: Bringing out and balancing voices (Video) Teacher, Shirley Kirsten

When students do routine scales and arpeggios as warm-ups to their tour de force pieces, I like to spice things up a bit by playing around with voicing and weight control. (Yes, you heard me right) I’ll surprise them by asking for the Left hand notes to be fleshed out, while the Right ones are subdued. Initially, my request throws everyone for a loop, eliciting quizzical looks that could be freeze framed and imported to You Tube–a collage of raised eyebrows, and collective chagrin. The whole spectacle would definitely be worth a million hits past Nora the Cat pawing the keys of a Yamaha grand.

As a heads up helper and student stress reliever, I take a hard cover book and hold it palms up in my Left hand, while I have a flimsy soft covered one in my Right. While it’s a flip-side teaching model, the basic concept comes across: heavier in one hand and lighter in the other. (There’s no doubt that muscle memory kicks in)

In driving my points across, I might also allude to feeling an upper body fullness filtering down the arms, through the elbows, wrists, fingers, into the keys vs. an opposite, easing up sensation. (That’s where weight control comes in) In truth, most students can stand to gain a few pounds of pressure when weighing into the keys versus tickling the ivories).

Weight measuring at the piano is pivotal to voicing and students will observe me doing weight bearing maneuvers as living, breathing examples.

Sometimes I will do a push-up of sorts, finding my dead weight upper body core, and leveraging myself against the keyboard with embracing hands. That’s when the wooden key slip starts making a racket (tennis anyone?)

This basic gravitational connection to the instrument is the impetus for modified weigh-ins. No, not the type associated with boxing: Heavy weight, Light weight and Feather weight divisions? Sports analogies save the day when standard piano teaching lingo does not adequately serve me. Tennis again? with that power-packed serve requiring weight transfer from the back foot springing forward to the front with dead center gravity at play.

Bottom line, when you want to bring out the left hand in a scale, think “heavier” or deeper into the keys. But know that “deeper” may not be enough if concurrent, relaxed, dead weight is not the back-up. Connection into the keys whether light or heavy remains a constant while skimming the surface of keys is not an option.

The attached video demonstrates various weight applications used in drawing out voices using scales and arpeggios as the vehicle.

Here are some routines:

1) Play a four-octave scale in 16ths in parallel motion–Legato–smooth and connected Forte singing tone (Allegretto tempo, or in a slower frame if you choose)

Start by voicing deeper into the Right Hand. Use the dead weight application I mentioned. The left hand should feel “lighter” reduced to medium soft (mp) or soft (p), if possible.

2) Do the same, fleshing out the Left hand notes, subduing the Right. Keep the Forte singing tone in the bass, and go way down to piano. in the treble

3) Finally evenly balance the voices.

Steps one, two and three can enlist STACCATO for variety.

Students can also explore Contrary motion scales with thumbs at the starting note, going out for three octaves and returning to the beginning point.

Bring out the Left hand in one playing, then the Right in the next, or in reverse order.

Finally evenly balance the voices.

Do the same overall routine with a four octave arpeggio in Parallel motion, then play in contrary motion. You’ll be using legato and staccato approaches. Mix it up for variety.

***

So why take the trouble to turn your keyboard world upside down like those pilots who do aeronautical gymnastics?

Well, because to play the piano repertoire from Classical to Pop, requires “voicing.” All music requires a balance of voices in one form or another. Schumann, for example, often intentionally slips inner voices into his compositions, making the pianist take notice. Fleshing these out, reveals the full blossomed beauty of his works. Beethoven’s Adagio from the “Pathetique” Sonata begins with three voices and progresses at some places to four. The quartet scoring must have a resonating melody, a rolling alto, subdued tenor and framing bass. The player must decide what he must draw out in the course of a composition, and how the fabric of lines is woven. Such decisions about voicing are synthesized into a kinetic/aural/ and affective(emotional) frame.

Jazz pianists who are part of a larger or smaller ensemble, where blending and interaction of voices is intrinsic to a performance, may want to flesh out a theme that’s jumped from the treble into the bass or alto voice. So knowing what it takes to draw out a line is pivotal to a jam session or performance.

“Voicing” then, is universal to the piano repertoire in its various forms and media and should be cultivated artfully with an awareness of weight applications and sound images.

RELATED:
Thumb shifts in playing scales and arpeggios

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/piano-technique-thumb-shifts-in-playing-scales-and-arpeggios-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/sports-and-piano-technique-how-about-chunking-on-you-tube/

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Adult piano students say and do the darndest things.

I remember Art Linkletter’s show, “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” which made me think of a few adult piano students and their hauntingly memorable words.

Yesterday, for example, I was forewarned by a 70-year old pupil, that I should expect a call from her during the night about the key of “F# minor.” What impending crisis was she talking about? Did it have to do with the Melodic form of the scale and its raised notes going up, but not coming down? Was it the temporary shift in fingering or the modal turnaround? I’d concede that the “melodic” was a cliff-hanger on the ascent with its “raised” 6th and 7th notes, but definitely a descending blow-out in its restored “natural” form. Would this duality catapult a student into full-blown despair?

F# G# A B C# D# E# F#
E D C# B A G# F#

The Circle of Fifths for Major and Minor Scales

Wait a minute, my 70-year old, wasn’t assigned the more complicated Melodic minor this week. She was supposed to practice the NATURAL FORM with mirror fingers, 4, 3, and 3,4 on F# and G# in every progressive octave, with 3’s meeting on C# in both hands. We’d spent a few lessons on these reciprocal relationships and symmetries, though she’d planted her 4th finger on two different notes in the same octave, hoping I wouldn’t see the guilty left hand from my vantage point at the second piano. But my peripheral vision had been fine-tuned from hunting down crossed-hand notes with rolling eyeballs.

All humor aside, it’s always difficult to navigate scales that are not strict patterns of two and three-black key groups with thumbs meeting like those of B, F# and C# Major and their “enharmonics” spelled in flats: Cb, Gb and Db. But just about every scale has an internal symmetry that can be explored to best advantage regardless of its location on the Circle of Fifths.

The scales of C, G, D, A and E fall under one heading where the bridge between the octaves has a reciprocal fingering or mirror.

In the case of C Major, the 7th note B crossing over C to D, uses finger numbers 4, 1, 2 in the Right Hand while the left plays 2,1, 4. The anchor finger over which 4 passes in either direction, holds things together.

In previous writings and videos, I also pinpointed where finger number 3 met in both hands, providing another internal organizer.

For the student who was rattled by F# minor, a scale that had a novel identity, we found a different location for mirror fingers, but still a helpful aid.

Another pupil, a US Attorney who’d been chasing robber barons in South Carolina, was worried that he didn’t get to the piano this past week, so he let me know in no uncertain terms by telephone and text message, fax, email, registered mail, certified mail, and just plain 3rd class snail mail, that his upcoming lesson would “just be a practice.” I wondered to myself, had he otherwise feared a public flogging in front of Starbucks?

He had done very well over the years, reconciling the relationship of scale study with his desire to improve his understanding of the Beethoven sonatas and other repertoire.

I’d previously mentioned Ralph Cato, the US Olympic boxing trainer who was my sparring partner for ten minutes following his lessons. Every week he’d use my staircase for athletic training and balance routines. Was I dreaming? Because his coaching was pert and perfect, I’d wished his precise directions were recorded for posterity, though they remain a lingering memory.

Up in the Bay area, a retired lawyer, used her iPhone to capture angles of her hand and fingers that were used as learning reminders between lessons.

I had started to believe these technology based aids were helping her and I had to get with it without resisting change.

She’d admitted that her first piano teacher, a nun in a rural Texas parochial school, had used a ruler to beat her hand into a rigid, arched position.

Oops, maybe I’d mixed her up with my paternal grandpa who ran away from the Cheder in Latvia after his knuckles were skinned with a cat o’ nine tails by the head Rabbi. He’d ditched his Torah lessons.

Oh well, some teachers over generations used this same dastardly approach.

In a few years, none of us would be collecting colorful stories about our piano students. We’d be replaced by micro robots who’d comb the keyboard, electronically marking fingerings for every major and minor scale.

An exaggeration, perhaps.

In retrospect, I should have appreciated middle-of-the-night calls from my 70-year old student. At least I could log them for a growing anthology of pianorama.

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/piano-instruction-learning-the-f-minor-scale-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/31/piano-technique-related-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/the-iphone-invades-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/cato-his-killer-keyboard-and-a-round-of-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/a-piano-teachers-worst-nightmare/

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Piano Technique: Big Leaps, Crossed Hands, and shifty eyeballs (with slow motion video replay)

up tempo:

Be prepared to exercise your eyeballs minus head movements when tackling large leaps, especially those hand-over-hand acrobatics that are intrinsic to many of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas.

In the first video I’ve isolated a few of these jumps from Sonata K. 113 in A Major, demonstrating what I’ve found to be the best approach.

While I’ve crashed and burned on more than one occasion, a new consciousness emerged through trial and error.

Recommendations

1) No bobbing head back and forth when playing crossed hands.

Use your shifty eyeballs, if necessary, to target the destination notes going back and forth over your right hand.

There are two places that stand out in this sonata. The first involves two octave, crossed-hand jumps. The Left travels back and forth over the right multiple times.

In the second instance, there are jumps of four octaves, and these can be suicide trips, unless mediated by shifty eyeballs.

2) Use an arc-like motion back and forth, but not too high, or you’ll lose contact with the keys.

3) Block out the broken chord progressions in the right hand as they move in sequence. Then unblock them before adding in the left hand.

Be calm, relaxed, and breathe deeply but not anxiously.

Finally, say a prayer..

CLICK to enlarge (page 1 and 2, Sonata, K. 113 by Scarlatti)

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The Big Baroque Festival!

I cleared most of my Saturday morning lessons so I could be on time for a special rehearsal at Fresno State. I took no chances given the steady rain these past few days that caused dangerously deep puddles along Shaw Avenue. The inevitable flow of traffic to crowd-jamming Bulldog games would also be a time delayer. (What season were we in?) My ignorance reminded me of the time I inadvertently scheduled a student recital on Superbowl Sunday. I had booked Northwest Chapel well in advance for a particular weekend afternoon, and naturally a specific Sunday in February was the only one available. Not a mystery with all the sports hoopla engulfing the city of Fresno. Since a pile of tailgate parties had to be canceled on account of my recital, the inconvenience cost me 4 students. And by coincidence, these kids all lived on the BLUFFS, a pseudo wealthy northwest enclave where homes overlooked a custom contrived pasture. (I noticed similar landscapes along my weekly train route to the Bay) It appeared that almost every city had set aside acres for panoramic views of a deep, expansive ditch decorated with trees, a few roaming horses, and some wild dogs chasing a few rodents that needed easy disposal) Here in Fresno there had been a fever pitch rush to buy such properties on the newly fabricated hills back in the late 80’s. (But I often wondered if the people hawking these houses, realized that a chugging, whistle blowing train would whiz by at frequent intervals, turning their dream homes into railroad flats)

***

Despite the fact that these Bluffs parents were put off by my recital scheduling on the day of a mega sports event, they still managed to show up for their kiddies’ concert with a variety of television hook-ups. Since iPhones had not yet arrived, I wished I had brought my camcorder to videotape some of the instant replay videotaping going on. No joke. The unpleasant distractions virtually ruined all of my students’ performances.

***

Flash forward: Thank God, today’s musical event at the university didn’t compete with football mania. (I happily reminded myself that the Superbowl came and went)

A high brow Baroque Festival sponsored by the Music Teachers Association of California had been planned in the afternoon, and one of my ten-year old students eagerly participated. The event had a competitive edge because only 1/3 of the entrants would be selected to go on to the Regional recital. In simple terms, those who were picked in this round by two esteemed out of town judges, would play in March at an Honors performance. It came with a Certificate of recognition and a handsome medallion. Not exactly an Olympic event, but for some keyed up students, it was a good comparison.

For starters, at 11:30 a.m. my student and I met at the concert hall to test out the stage piano.

Just last week, I had nearly died, thinking I missed my student’s run through, because a mistake was made in the announcement put out by the local music teachers association. Or maybe it was last year’s flier that got sandwiched into my branch’s Yearbook with an erroneous date of 2011 instead of 2010. Naturally, with the old dating, the February Festival would have been past history along with me.

What a relief to have come back from hell this week with another shot at being this kid’s teacher. Close call.

Today this very talented youngster performed two Bach Inventions weeks after she had appeared faceless on You Tube demonstrating her technical prowess. With only her HANDS on camera, she was put through grueling technical paces, playing every scale and arpeggio known to mankind. A bit of an exaggeration, but used to give her credit for hanging in there with a camcorder gaping over her shoulder.

Here’s a snatch of her anonymously rendered keyboard agility:

(Note that one of the pianos on video was waiting for a tuning, while the other had just received one. Hence, the warbling between them.)

In any event, the formerly invisible student, finally emerged with a face attached to her name, along with an assigned number that followed her to the Walberg concert hall stage that was equipped with a 9 foot size Yamaha.

Incidentally, last year I had learned a mighty lesson about Festival pianos and warming up. Mistakenly, I permitted a student to practice on a small upright piano in one of the university’s cubicles after she had tried out the concert hall’s concert grand. The diminutive practice size instrument had a very light action by comparison to the house piano’s resistant touch, so when my pupil played the first few notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata on stage, they totally disappeared. Naturally, she was caught by surprise and remembered the most recent piano she had tried. Live and learn.

The atmosphere at today’s Festival, or COMPETITION, was superficially low keyed. Everyone was supposed to be celebrating the age of the Baroque without a second thought, and I guess I should have joined in the fireworks, or the candle lighting ceremony but neither took place.

In preparation for the ordeal, or golden opportunity, however one wanted to spin it, I gave my student a copy of Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase and told her to meditate over several selected, underlined passages.

I made sure to recommend my favorite mantra:
“To be a pianist, in one sense of the word, is to think that a daddy long legs on the window sill is dancing to your playing; it is to think that the breeze came through the window just to talk to your music; it is to feel that one phrase loves another; it is to think that the tree is a teacher of the tranquility you need in your playing. It is to know a loneliness crowded with the beautiful as you play.”

These words had worked like magic with another student who had made it to the Regional recital two years ago. In honor of her sterling playing, I had framed a picture of her holding a Certificate and wearing the medallion. But by far the truest memento of her 2009 Baroque Festival appearance, was a DVD that captured a portion of her “live” performance.

Here’s the c minor fugue from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Book I coming from Fresno State University’s concert hall. (excuse the raw footage with some sound irregularities)

PS An in depth documentary is in progress about what transpired at the MTAC sponsored Baroque Festival. In the meantime, winners will be alerted by email on Sunday Feb. 20, 2011 so the suspense is killing most of the participants.

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Performance Anxiety and the Pianist

For too long performance anxiety was a taboo subject, always swept under the rug.

I remember grappling with paralyzing jitters during my years at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. My piano teacher at the time, a seasoned professional, would always say the same thing:

“Honey, the music is bigger than you or me.”

Of course it made me otherwise feel like an Egomaniac.

Her altruistic mantra never worked beyond the opening measure of a piece. I would fall apart quite instantly, and hardly remember if I had ever played a composition before an audience of anyone other than myself.

In a previous blog, I referred to going cold, like an ice cube when I was invited to play on “Music in the Schools,” a WNYC F.M. program that showcased talented youth in the city.

It was Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 311 that was for all intents and purposes on automatic pilot without a real “live” pilot at the controls. The final cadence was a crash landing with emotional consequence. I was miserable for weeks and months following the disaster and I never again wanted to play in front of a microphone!

REDUX: My teacher would say with even greater urgency, “The music is bigger than you or me.”

The problem with engulfing nerves, is that unless there’s a break in the cycle, it can perpetuate itself. You can go from one performance to another saddled with the same crisis with no end in sight.

And don’t believe the instruction: Learn your notes inside and out and all will be well.
Preparation is a given, but not God given when you need a life preserver in the middle of a piece.

I remember a nightmarish situation that played out at the Oberlin Conservatory when I was a student majoring in Piano, Performance. A very gifted young woman was publicly auditioning the Schumann “A” Minor Piano Concerto, when suddenly she had a massive memory lapse smack in the middle of the first movement. One phrase trapped her and she couldn’t get out of it. The same few measures were repeated 15 times to no avail which kept her from advancing to the final cadence. (I wondered if she would be signaled to go offstage, as happened recently to a participant in the Chopin International Piano Competition) I resisted jumping on stage with the music so the afflicted young Oberlin pianist could make it safely back to her dorm before nightfall.

As it happened, the player finally found her away out of the snag, and managed to play the next two movements impeccably well. She wasn’t chosen among the finalists but the following year she came back and won! Now that’s a story of fortitude and courage that should teach us all a lesson about not giving up.

I might add right here, that my own piano teacher had a significant memory lapse at her well publicized concert at the 92nd Street Y, so I began to make the connection between her son’s life’s work as a psychiatrist and her possible difficulty performing onstage. (though I’m not certain whether her memory lapse was self limiting or a symptom of a greater problem)

There’s hope!

To give others a twinge optimism about finding a cure for their paralyzing nerves, I will explain what I did, that not only helped me, but had been passed down to my students over the years.

1) Hypnosis: I became a confirmed Believer.

I had the courage to visit a hypno-therapist about 20 years ago who began by asking me about the piano; challenges to playing in public; what were my worst fears when performing or anticipating a performance (and inevitably these were related to fear of failure and its consequences, loss of love, loss of identity, etc.)

At that point, I reminded myself that my piano teacher’s son, Dr. David Freundlich, had published papers on Performance Anxiety that focused on masturbatory fantasies. I recall reading his Journal writings from the 1960’s that tied asphyxiating nerves on stage to fear of auto-erotic activity exposure. So if a player was crippled by anxiety, it was because playing piano was a self-gratifying, libidinal process best kept in a dark closet and not exhibited in public.

Well and good, for a beginning construct, but who could afford to lay on a psychiatrist’s couch and mull over the first five years of life, honing in on the psycho-sexual stage as a key to unraveling a Neurosis. It might take decades!

As reference, the late David Freundlich’s paper on the subject of “performance anxiety and musicians, American Journal of Psychiatry. 148:598-605. …. Freundlich, D. (1968) Narcissism and exhibitionism in the performance of classical …
http://www.analyticpractice.co.uk/…/Useful%20Reading%20on%20Performance.pdf”

For me, talking to my hypnotist who had her Certification posted up on the wall, was a more practical and direct approach to my problem.

With the information gathered from me at the first session, she put together an audiotape. And as I lay on the couch, not facing her, she soothingly repeated mantras that were more useful than “music was bigger than me.”

It was more like, “Imagine slowly descending a staircase to a beautiful room that looks out on a magnificent garden, with flowers of all varieties..” She led me to the garden where I contemplated nature and its bounty. I became more relaxed. She reminded me to breathe easily and deeply. She kept coming back to the breath. After 30 or more minutes, I was breathing without anxiety. She then placed me beside my piano which I “loved as a faithful friend.” The elegant, stately grand was not a threat, or something to avoid. She kept revisiting the garden, the relaxed contemplation and meditation. The tie-ins were natural, not contrived.

After 45 minutes, I was in a deep trance, needing to be brought back up the staircase by my hypnotist.

At the very end of the session, before I was in a completely conscious state, she transported me back stage as a rehearsal for my upcoming performance. (Incidentally, my own piano would be shipped to the location so that’s why she referred to it)

I was at the same time in the midst of the lush garden, very relaxed and at peace with myself. The people in the audience would “share” my music with me. They were “not judging” me or otherwise waiting for me to fail.

She planted many of these ideas as I was in my subliminal state, and it helped me on the day of my concert.

***

I can say with certainty that my performance following many re-playings of this audio-taped session was 90% improved over those I had ever previously given.

And in the course of 6 months, I continued my sessions with the hypnotist and acquired a sizable collection of cassettes.

Going Beyond Hypnosis

2) What I previously discussed would fall under Hypnosis and Self-Hypnosis strategies in dealing with performance jitters. After all, what I took from the hypnotist was the ability to go home, listen to the audiotapes and then make my own recordings with variations on the same theme.

But in the course of the 20 years since I visited this wise woman, I went further in exploring additional ways to handle performance anxiety. And these, again were allied to the breath and to Yoga in its many forms.

In the present, I advocate a healthy regimen of exercise, at the gym or otherwise. Yoga, again is a wonderful activity.

I tell my students to “breathe” through their playing.. through their scales, especially at the turnaround (the very end of the passage and the very beginning) And I use words like “roll in” into a scale or passage. “Play into the silence.”

I tell them to use MENTAL IMAGERY, and that again, is tied to self-hypnotic routines.

Elite athletes use mental imagery as a matter of course. Just imagine what floats through a diver’s mind as he prepares for an impossibly difficult maneuver— same for
gymnasts, skaters, runners, et al.

Pianists are part athletes, mastering great feats of coordination while simultaneously being artistic interpreters. They have a double challenge.

The mind/body connection applies, as always.

Examples of mental imagery for a pianist:

Playing staccato: Think of the piano as a playground, and in that association, you are a child. Use words “like bouncing a ball,” or for light staccato, imagine “ping pong balls.”

Piano can be child’s play.

For legato, “float, relax, play more effortlessly, don’t squeeze, or hold on.”

These prompts often relax the students, at least during their lessons.

For a more long lasting effect in dealing with upcoming piano recitals, I copy specific quotes from Just Being at the Piano, by Mildred Portney Chase, that I extract as mantras:

“To be a pianist, is to think that a daddy long legs on the window sill is dancing to your playing; it is to think that the breeze came through the window just to talk to your music…it is to feel that one phrase loves another….it is to think that the tree is a teacher of the tranquility you need in your playing.”

Important chapters: “Body Awareness and Movement,” “Tone,” “Listening,” “Slow Practice,” and “Performance.”

My other favorite book is The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey.

Treasured quotes:
“Listen to how D.T. Suzuki, the renowned Zen master, describes the effects of the ego mind on archery” (a metaphor for just about any endeavor, piano playing included)

“As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes.” DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR? Too many of my students talk about “losing concentration,” with tangential thoughts creeping in. Much of the time, they refer to a little voice telling them things are going too well and a “mistake” is about to happen, and as soon as the thought enters their mind, guess what happens?

“Calculation, which is miscalculation sets in……”

“Man is a thinking reed, but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored with long years of training in self-forgetfulness.”

Gallwey continues:

“Perhaps this is why it is said that great poetry is born in silence. Great music and art are said to arise from the quiet depths of the unconscious…”

I agree.

Performance anxiety doesn’t have to be crippling but it takes patience and a grain of optimism to move forward to a better place. Start where you are and go further, one baby step at a time.

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

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/music-comes-from-the-heart/

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