Edinburgh Scotland, piano, Sydney Australia

A Motivated adult piano student with an International profile

Right now, as I’m posting these words in Berkeley, CA, my student, Claire, (an international lawyer) who avidly practices the piano in two different time zones, is perched high up in her apartment overlooking Sydney Harbor. It’s 19 hours past Pacific Standard Time over there, or the next day in Australia. As a consequence, we have to factor in the time disparity when she leaves Edinburgh, her home base, to avoid its bitter winter. At the Scottish location, we’re distanced by 8 hours.

In Sydney, I greet Claire with a paradoxical ‘top of the mornin'” though I’m in fuzzy culture shock even at 3 p.m. my time, and 9 a.m. hers, the following day. In Edinburgh, it’s a hearty “good afternoon,” as the time zone is reversed, but without an extra day hanging out.

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Claire’s Sydney apartment overlooks the Harbor with a breathtaking view:

Sydney Harbor

In Edinburgh, her neighborhood is speckled with historical architectural edifices that she showcased in a post-lesson webcam-guided tour.

Claire’s colorful Scottish brogue, so conspicuously revealed in the narrative, reminded me of percussionist icon, Evelyn Glennie as she delivered a TED TALK. Yet it took several senior moments, bundled in associative strategies, to make the “connection.”

During our Australian cycle, I might be exposed to a distinctly different ambiance:

One week, Claire had taken an interval to visit a friend in a more rural part of the country, so I was treated to a LIVE kookaburra concert as a bunch of colorful “native” parakeets settled onto the porch.

This particular location had introduced a “third” piano into the prior mix of two.

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Claire hosts a wonderful Yamaha grand in her Edinburgh apartment while a Clavinova graces her place in Sydney; finally, a loaner piano turns up wherever her extra travels take her.

About two years ago, I received a lesson inquiry from Claire that was very detailed. Her MOTIVATION to learn resonated, and she had a nice prologue of experience at the piano and in a choir, the latter that I sampled on You Tube. It turned out to be a group with an able choral conductor who selected diverse repertoire of many eras. The level of musical expression was at its peak.

Claire had also offered a Wish of List of pieces she wanted to learn in her introductory letter that included the works of Beethoven, Burgmuller, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Mendelssohn among others.

From there, a progressive journey ensued that has accrued shared epiphanies about:

Tchaikovsky’s “Sweet Dreams”
Schumann “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples,” “Traumerei,” “A Curious Story”
Beethoven Bagatelle, Op. 119 No. 1
J.S. Bach Little Prelude in F
J.S. Bach Invention 8 in F Major
Burgmuller “Tarentelle,” “Tender Flower”
Mendelssohn Venetian Boat Song in F-sharp minor
Chopin Waltz in B minor, Op. 64

Here’s Claire watching the proceedings during one of our International Skype beamed piano recitals. She’s was settled into her Australian hub readying to play the Beethoven Bagatelle in G minor, Op. 119:

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-8-18-21-am

Not to forget that this very devoted student is immersed in Scales and Arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths and has developed an enviable supple wrist, relaxed arm technique.

You can easily discern her fluid approach in this most recent lesson sample beamed from Australia.

Technique snatches: (from Edinburgh)–Yamaha acoustic grand piano

From Sydney Australia Yamaha Clavinova


Back to Edinburgh
on the grand piano.

Claire is a JOY to work with, along with my lovely group of ardent piano lovers!

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A Skyped Piano Lesson between Fresno, California and Sydney, Australia (VIDEO)

Here’s the gig as it unfolded today, with a few sprinkled photos of my technology driven living room prior to the California/Australia Skyped transmission:

First segment: Building technique with scales and arpeggios

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Piano Technique: Forearm and finger emphasized staccato (Videos)

More often than not, pianists acquire insights about piano technique through self-exploration and analysis. (trial and error attempts) Others have had mentors who demonstrated physical approaches to the piano that paved a learning path for the next generation of students. And finally, pupils, themselves have always provided a window for teachers to clarify their own ideas about the technical side of playing.

Above all the nit-picking, observation, and analysis, the alliance of technique and phrasing in a musical frame propels satisfying playing with physical relaxation at its core.

In my personal staccato driven expedition, I scanned a popular Online Piano Forum and found this riveting set of quotes:

“Finger staccato is used to produce a plucked, sharp sound (like a guitar). You simply ‘pluck’ the keys by quickly touching the keys– snapping your finger back towards your wrist.

“Wrist staccato is used for light staccato (no arm weight). You simply let your finger drop into the key, using your wrist as a hinge.

“Forearm staccato is used for heavy staccato. You can’t use wrist staccato for this because you don’t have the arm weight needed to drop your finger heavily into the key. For this technique, the wrist has to be locked.” (I immediately RED FLAGGED the word, LOCKED)

I pondered these assumptions and their relationship to the practical hands-on knowledge I had acquired in my own analytical excursions and through student observations.
Some clarification was necessary.

Forearm and Finger Staccato

By coincidence, I had an up close, over the shoulder view of an adult student playing his A minor scales during a Skyped lesson yesterday. His web cam was so well angled that I felt like a scientist looking through a microscope at his arms, fingers, and wrists. It afforded a lab assisted opportunity that was imported in “real time” from Sydney, Australia, though we were 14 hours apart, and he was well into the next day.

As the student cycled from triplets to 16ths, in moderately fast tempo, he braved 4 octaves ascending and descending, first in Legato Forte followed by Forte (loud) Staccato and piano (soft) staccato. Through his staccato phase, he relied on his fingers, and though he had a semblance of wrist pliancy, his energy reserves ran out quickly. The contrast from Forte to piano staccato was absent, and over repeated renderings, it became clear that two dynamic polarities (F and P) required a “weight” applied variation, generated beyond the finger tips.

So I decided to revisit the same set of scale octaves in 16ths staccato and convinced myself that FORTE was achieved with a dead weight forearm application and slightly lowered wrist. (The wrist was not “firm,” or “stiff” but it had a different status, as compared to my playing, light, “finger-driven” staccato in the soft range.)

I thought about basketball players rapidly dribbling a ball around the court which was no light object. It had to have crisp, movement generated bounces. A push into the ball came from the forearm, backed up by the whole arm, so tightening the wrist was to no avail. The wrist belonged to the total anatomical assembly– a source of fuel to spur smooth motor movements.

Forearm staccato, regarded as an isolated physical universe separated from the wrist and fingers was for me, counter-intuitive. All levers and muscles worked together, but one might be enlisted with particular emphasis in various musical contexts.

When I played the A minor Natural form scale in rapid 16ths, staccato, soft (piano) I released the dead weight of the forearm to my imagined finger tips, but I still had the support of my whole arm, a relaxed, wrist and forearm behind my fingers. This energy supply back-up may not have been thoroughly visible, but it was my overall sense of “feel” that counted. “Feel” that translated into desired phrasing and dynamics. The imagination played no small role.

The short video below demonstrated the unity of muscles and physical levers as I played staccato scales in a contrasting dynamic range, but specifically juxtaposing the forearm versus finger emphasized staccato.

and another video zeroing in on a WOODPECKER STACCATO, with focus on Left Hand development

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A piano lesson over Skype: shaping and phrasing scales (Video)

I sometimes chuckle at the surreal nature of teaching to a computer screen, and as illustrated in a graphic videotaped sample, meeting up with an adult student mid-week. She has a real flesh and blood teacher on Mondays in the Bay area–ME. I’m otherwise located in the Central Valley where air pollutants practically choke me each waking day of my life.

Still another student who beams in from Australia sometimes complains that he’s not used to a teacher being right on top of him, which I find amusing since thousands of miles separate us. (Where are the crocodiles?) It’s his web cam placement that makes all the difference. I find myself hopelessly peering over his shoulder. And because it’s something new for both of us, adjustments will made as we move along.

Now that I’m a few months into Skyping, I can say with reasonable confidence that credible teaching can take place if certain rules of etiquette are observed.

1) Don’t play at the same time as the student.

2) Don’t talk, clap, or snap while the student is playing. Find a convenient time at cadences to insert a comment, or better yet, between short note values with rests intervening in the same measure. It takes a bit of practice, pacing, and finesse.

3)If you get knocked offline, decide ahead of time who will initiate the call back–same for starting the Skype connection–have the rules in place.

I have to admit that this morning I was caught off guard because I slept past my alarm and found myself disheveled when my student cell phoned me saying she was trying to connect without success. Oops, that was a first for me, but it won’t beat the time my NYC teacher forgot about my scheduled lesson and was in the shower when I arrived. You just never know.

I like Skyping, but for beginning students I would not recommend it, especially children who need a teacher to work with hand position, relaxation, follow through, and basic fundamentals of note reading, rhythm, etc.

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It’s definitely going well with adults who want and need a supplementary lesson to keep up their practicing momentum, and for the more advanced student who could stand to polish phrases and shape them.

Nothing’s perfect in this world and Skype has its ups and downs. For now, I’ll take a few weekly “flights” out of Fresno without all the airport hassles and x-ray machines. Besides, I get to see places I would not have dreamed of visiting except on Netflix.

More Skype lesson samples:

Between California and Oregon

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/between-california-and-oregon-skyping-chopin-with-a-ten-year-old-student-video-of-lesson-in-progress/

Skype transmission between California and Australia

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/piano-technique-chunking-an-a-minor-arpeggio-over-skype-between-ca-and-australia-video/

Poking fun at Skyped piano lessons:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/a-sitcom-about-a-glee-fully-skyping-piano-teacher/

A Skyped supplement to “live” weekly lessons:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/a-skyped-supplement-to-piano-lessons-video/