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Tchaikovsky’s “Sweet Dream” requires a balanced synthesis of voices

At first glance, most piano students will not realize the amount of detailed work and analysis that applies to learning one of Tchaikovsky’s most endearing miniatures from his Op. 39 Children’s Collection. However, after an initial reading and overview, it becomes crystal clear that each voice must be parceled out and then re-integrated in a layered manner to satisfy a balance of counterpoint in the soprano and bass, with harmonic enrichment in after beats folded into the texture.

Sweet Dream p. 1 1

Naturally, flowing, relaxed arms, supple wrists, effortless breathing, and HORIZONTAL motion are embedded in all learning stages to best produce the desired singing tone that’s wedded to the music as it floats in Dream sequence. (Mental imagery certainly feeds the imagination but it cannot be solely relied upon without a deep and dedicated learning foundation.)


Most often the tendency to undermine Tchaikovsky’s delicate framing of voices occurs when the after beat intervals in 2nds, thirds, fourths, etc. start popping out, causing an incongruous, imbalanced mosaic. This is why isolating them, and subduing their impact with a supple wrist, and lighter weight transfer where needed is helpful.

As well, the outer framing voices (soprano and bass) can be discovered first alone and then together, while the student can also permute the harmonic alto afterbeats with either the bass or treble. All voices can be shuffled around in practicing before they are synthesized, noting that the contrasting middle section of “Dreaming” amounts to a prominent melodic shift where a cello line in the bass is fleshed out against chordal after beats in the treble. The player, therefore, has to deal with an inversion of voices and altered weight transfer.

Sweet Dream p. 2 1

The idea of listening for decay after a preceding cadence is also a significant component of shaping lines in an aesthetically satisfying way. It requires reading between the lines in a score, and not plunging into a raised dynamic under a note, but factoring in what came before and how it affects what comes later. (It might mean entering a note or phrase by picking it up on the decay of what preceded.) To this end, hyper-attentive listening is part and parcel of a thorough learning process that will ultimately produce beauty, nuance, and poignant responses to harmonic rhythm. (Harmonic mapping, incidentally assists phrasing and interpretation)

Finally, in my teaching video, I was able to define the necessary ingredients that most favored a growing relationship to the piece over time, and many students who had joined for me for the adventure, provided even more enlightenment as we shared back and forth.

Play Through

Just Being at the Piano, Mildred Portney Chase, Peter Illyich Tchaikovksy, pianist, piano, piano playing, Tchaikovsky

Imagination fuels expressive piano playing

As my local and Online piano students gear up for their bi-annual music sharing this coming Saturday over Skype, a commonly expressed concern is how to harness the imagination to feed a musical journey right from the opening measure of a piece to its final cadence.

The challenge for everyone embodies a centered period of silence, allowing a player to imagine the mood, timbre and tone of an opening phrase that will have a flowing impetus for others to follow.

This is why we observe piano competition entrants sitting quietly for what seems like an eternity. And we wonder what could possibly be on their mind during such quiescence.

I’ll conjecture that while it could be nerve-fighting strategies playing out in the psyche, it’s more likely to be non-cognitive, affective preparation. The imagination will fuel the playing, but it will have free reign only if preceded by phases of thoughtful, stepwise learning.

There’s no doubt that students of all levels need to practice meticulously before a recital: They would have approached their compositions in a layered progression, working on fingering, rhythm, phrasing, all bundled into an EXPRESSIVE whole, but in a behind tempo frame until a natural ripening process gently nudges the player to a desirable temporal dimension.

Yet some pupils will not have achieved an “in tempo” rendering at this coming Saturday’s music sharing, but each will need to be mentally prepared for the moment when they will be sitting at their piano benches in various locations, attempting to CENTER themselves, apart from the din of self-criticism and negativity.

…and here’s where I evoke the wise words of Mildred Portney Chase from her published diary, Just Being at the Piano.


“I am continually finding my way toward the here and now in my music and realizing a whole new dimension to the experience of playing. Nowhere is it more important to be in the here and now than in playing the piano. The slightest lapse in attention will affect every aspect of how I realize the re-creation of a piece of music. One note coming a hairbreadth late in time, may distort the expression of a phrase.

“It is impossible to be self-conscious and totally involved in the music at the same time. Consciousness of the self is a barrier between the player and the instrument. As I forget my own presence, I attain a state of oneness with the activity and become absorbed in a way that defies the passage of time.

About tone and imagining it:

“Listening… feeling… moving…feeling… listening.. The core of any tone should always have substance and expressive quality. The singing quality of tone can be developed by sensitizing the ear to listen for it and sensitizing the hands and fingers to feel it as if they too were listening.”

And I will conclude by saying that harnessing the imagination in the cosmos of tone, touch, timbre and mood is a preliminary to beautiful, expressive playing–not forgetting to retrieve the memory of how it physically felt to produce musical beauty.

Tactile sensitivity fused with a self-devised creative image and ATTENTIVE LISTENING, will move phrases along in smooth, lucid progression.

In this vein, I recently recorded a portion of a piano lesson with an Online student where I explored a facet of the imagination as it applied to Tchaikovsky’s “Sweet Dream,” Op. 39 no. 21. While I used a “floating clouds” analogy, I could easily have drawn on a “dream” as a mental prompt.

There are many mood pictures that help pianists to get into the zone and out of themselves, so it’s a universe worth exploring.

For those of us taking a common musical journey, its fulfillment resides in more than playing the right notes with perfect rhythm. The intangible often makes music-making the ethereally beautiful experience that it is.

Jocel preps for the Saturday recital

learning a new piano piece, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano learning, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Tchaikovsky

Early stage learning, and ways of knowing a new piano piece

One of my adult students has embarked upon studying Tchaikovsky’s “German Song,” Op. 39, and in her initial baby-step exposure to the composition, she has already explored multiple ways of “knowing” the work.

German Song, Tchaikovsky

1) Setting a fingering for each hand, and counting beats through each measure in a sub-divided way (within a slow tempo frame) is a good start. (KNOWING THE SCALE of the piece and practicing it, is a vital part of its framing)

Noticing the articulation, slurs, groupings of notes is part of the exploration. Once security or connection into notes is established, dynamic shifts and how to make them are part and parcel of the early learning stage that grows by increments over time. (Patience is a desirable mantra to frame all practicing.)

In any approach to the keyboard, the arms and wrists should be relaxed. Elasticity, flexibility, pliancy are all important physical framings. A singing line supported by supple wrist, spongy chords in the bass are part of the hands-on knowledge pursuit.

2) Defining harmonic structure and flow (Harmonic “rhythm”) of the composition enrich an understanding of how to phrase and “shape” the treble line. In “German Song,” the Tonic and Dominant chords alternate. There are NO modulations, but resolutions from Dominant to Tonic are pivotal to phrasing.

For a student who needs more theory exposure to navigate a piece like this, practicing Tonic and Dominant chords and their inversions is a good route. First it’s essential to build chords on the first and fifth degree of a scale (in this instance G Major) before inverting them.

Demonstrating elements of voice leading between chords is of course, equally valuable.
Block practice helps map out chord relationships and voice movement between them.

3) An awareness of the fundamental bass line in “German Song” is invaluable. Practicing the singular bass line without the after beat chords is recommended. Or practicing the after beat chords without the fundamental notes (downbeats) is another way of “knowing.” Understanding the relationship between fundamental bass notes and after beat chords is invaluable. Will the chords be played louder than the first beat notes?

Eventually the distance between the downbeat notes and after beat chords shrink because the floating arm has a good perception of voice leading between chords. The jumps, or fear of them, therefore will not be an impediment to smooth playing.

4) Playing hands together evolves and develops from first “knowing” treble and bass parts separately. Coordination of hands together is another dimension of knowing the piece.

The PERIOD of Composition is worth KNOWING–What is its STRUCTURE? Do sections REPEAT–Are there SYMMETRIES between phrases? or differences that should be noted? What was the practice in regard to rubato? (flexibility of time) For tempo choice, that’s an allied consideration as the piece develops along to fluency. Same for pedaling choices, etc.

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Stimulating the imagination: choosing piano repertoire that embraces childhood themes (Video)

I was awakened this morning to an inspired Facebook post that featured a six-year old captivated by a delightful piece that amounted to a “playground” of light-hearted chords with engaging harmonies. The piano teacher, Irina Gorin played snippets of Samuel Maykapar’s “In the Garden” that seemed to share character kinship with Kabalevksy’s Op. 39, Children’s pieces. Both Russian composers set aside time to compose a body of work for children embarking upon piano study.

“Maykapar was born on December 18, 1867 in the city of Kherson, to Karaite Jewish parents and spent his childhood in Taganrog. In 1885 he graduated from the Boys Gymnasium where he studied with Anton Chekhov. He also took private music lessons from Gaetano Molla, director of the Italian Opera in Taganrog.”

According to an entry in the Wikepedia, The image of Taganrog and its people was featured in numerous Anton Chekhov works, including Ionych, The House with an Attic, The Man in a Shell, Van’ka, Three Years, Mask, My Life and more. It is believed that the Taganrog image may have been used as Lukomorie (fairy tale land) in Alexander Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila (1820). It also appeared in the novels of Ivan Vasilenko, Konstantin Paustovsky and in the poems of Nikolay Sherbina and Valentin Parnakh.”

What a backdrop to a composer whose music contained more than an incidental repository of child-centered themes to engage the ears of children and motivate them to dance across the keyboard from the beginning of piano study.

Here’s an example drawn from a lesson in progress, as a child and his teacher are in a playground on the same imagination-driven turf. What could be a more divine immersion in the fantasy world of music and its evoked emotions.

Repertoire that springs from childhood activity is a big attention getter and technique builder. I have countless times found that particular miniatures work wonders in motivating practicing. Just to name a few: Kabalevsky’s “Clowns,” “Joke,” “Galop,” (from his Op. 39 Children’s pieces), and from Tschaikovsky’s Album for the Young, Op. 39 for the piano: “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” “Playing Horse Games,” “Morning Prayer” among others.

Robert Schumann had his own Album for the Young that included a host of harmonically engaging pieces: “Soldier’s March,” “The Happy Farmer” and the “Wild Rider.” For more advanced students he produced a tableaux of Childood “Scenes,” known as Kinderszenen. Who could not fall in love with music for a “Sleeping Child” or be rhythmically engaged by “Catch Me!” a child’s lively spree of tag.

Not to forget Grieg’s Lyric pieces and his ebullient, “Elf Dance” with elves prancing in staccato through Norwegian caves.

Bartok’s Children’s pieces are also musical enticements. Bathed in the Hungarian folkloric idiom they include an engaging “Magic Dance” and “Sewing Song” among others. These compositions imbue a rhythmic consciousness as they teach various ways to phrase and articulate.

William Gillock is a favorite composer of mine. Untold students have been lifted out of their practicing doldrums with his animated pieces. Favorites include “Flamenco,” “French Doll,” “Little Flower Girl of Paris,” “Stars on a Summer Night,” “Fountain in the Rain,” “Dragon Fly” as well as “Soaring” from the composer’s “Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style.”

Burgmuller’s Op. 100 25 Progressive pieces are an assortment of imagination-grabbing miniatures in the Romantic genre: “Ballade” in C minor might as well be titled “Spooks” with its “misterioso” opening and punctuated minor chords. Students insist it’s a Halloween inspired piece by its overt mood and character.

Other popular compositions in this album include “Arabesque,” “The Chase,” “Tender Flower,” and “Chatterbox.”

Shostakovich’s “Children’s Notebook” includes harmonically sparkling miniatures such as “Clockwork Doll,” “March,” and much more.

Here, the composer plays his own compositions:

Add in selections by Prokofiev from his repertoire of Children’s pieces, Op. 65:

(Irina Gorin includes the “March” from this album in her “Tales of a Musical Journey”) Children tap, clap and move with alacrity to this miniature as they begin their piano learning adventure.

Please share your own favorite compositions inspired by childhood themes and how they influenced your piano study.

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Highlights of Rina’s fourth piano lesson, 8/25/11: Learning about Rhythm and tapping C’s and Ds to Marches (Videos in three parts)

Rina reached a learning landmark last week when she located “little houses” with two black key roofs across the keyboard. Irina Gorin, in her book, “Tales of a Musical Journey” cleverly marks out seven “neighborhoods” (aka “octaves”) that encompass small, and big houses (three-black key roofs) Students explore the geography of the piano with the assistance of colorful keyboard pictures before they specifically name notes.

Last week Rina drew individual lines from a row of illustrated animals into the little note house, and placed C for CAT, D for DEER, and E for EAGLE into their respective white note dwellings. The black keys, or the raised notes, formed the roof. Rina practiced finding these notes with my prompts using finger numbers 2, 3, and 4, and then we shuffled them around. (both hands were enlisted separately)

At a preceding lesson, Rina had played “swinging monkey C’s” that explored a rotational movement involving swinging, supple elbows as she traveled from one “C” destination to another. For this activity, I had attached a fuzzy, purple monkey to her wrist that came along with Irina Gorin’s teaching materials. In addition to the toy monkey, two soft, colorful balls and an assortment of cardboard notes had been included in the instruction package. A CD with chapter assigned selections was also attached. (Rina had learned the middle C location from having had exposure from her mother prior to formal lesson instruction.)

The day before Rina’s lesson, I had sent the following preliminary plan to Rina’s parents.

Opening Relaxation exercises–weeping willow tree pretend, and eagle with flowing, graceful flight and wing motions.

I will accompany at piano (Burgmuller,” Harmony of the Angels.”) I should record this for Rina so she can use at home.

Reminder to sit in middle of bench–front edge position–arms’ length from fall board

Finger number review: Hold up both hands with a round position. Reminder to place ball in palms, relax hand, and then remove ball.

Hands from lap to keyboard–supple wrists practice

High and low note locations–rainbow movements–keyboard divided in half.
Pretend round ball in hands for round, relaxed hand position

Rocking motion Cs’ or monkey swings C’s Divide piano in half.

Little and Big House locations by placing fingers 2,3 on double black groups to 2, 3, 4 Triple black key groups–rainbow motions between..

Review of Little Note house and placing animals on white note spaces.
C Cat D for Deer E for Eagle

Start at Middle C

Locate these C, D. E notes using fingers 2, 3, 4 in each hand, one note after another. Divide the piano in half (Practice RH and LH)

Finally, mix up the white notes (from the little note house) and designate finger numbers for each note identity. Shuffle fingers so Rina doesn’t associate any one finger with a specific note.

For further exposure with C, we will introduce the Metronome unit to obtain an awareness of rhythm and ticking beats.


Rhythm is introduced in Gorin’s Chapter titled “Wizard Metronome.” In keeping with the flow of the book, I will show Rina how the ticking “beats” travel through notes in various durations. She can listen attentively for how long a C, or D, or E lasts when she holds each down with the metronome ticking away. Ultimately, I would like her to viscerally “feel” beats through her clapping and marching movements beside singing activities.

Irina Gorin provides some pre-recorded selections on her CD that are included with her materials. The metronome ticks away with introductory beats and then permeates all the individual selections. We will be using many of these pieces as we move along, so follow-up practicing during the week is recommended.

Today all lesson goals were met, but I’ve only highlighted portions of Rina’s Lesson on videotape.

Part 1: Introductory warm-up movements: Rina pretended to be an eagle as I played Burgmuller’s “Harmony of the Angels.”

Part 2: Introduction to Rhythm and Wizard Metronome: Rina held middle C as the metronome ticked through it and then she listened to a Prokofief March and another, “Flute and Orchestra” to which she marched and clapped.

Part 3: Rina sat at the piano tapping C’s to “Flute and Orchestra,” and then she tapped D’s in rhythm to Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers” which I played beside her.