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The piano teacher as conductor–sometimes shaping gestures help a student phrase better (Video)

I couldn’t resist an opportunity to conduct my student playing the Bach Invention 13 in A minor today. She’s preparing two selections for a competitive Baroque event coming up in two weeks, and the second offering is the Prelude in C minor BWV 847.

Claudia, 11, rehearsed the Invention a few times with a few sideline prompts from me, but at some point she needed her teacher to coach her close up to extract desired arpeggio shaping.


Flashback to my student days

My New York City piano teacher, Lillian Freundlich, didn’t conduct the music I played, but she compulsively SANG over my feeble attempts to please her, making her point loud and clear that I needed more contoured melodic lines. (Wake up little girl and play from your heart)

I guess her approach became so embedded, that to this day I can’t resist singing when I practice, and obviously it spills over into my teaching.

But the conducting comes from another place within me—perhaps from a well of frustration that I don’t have an orchestra to direct.

So as the next best option, I find myself choreographing and singing at the same time which is great prep for a Broadway musical audition. At minimum I’m up for a place on the Chorus Line, hoping against hope to be picked.

Worse case scenario, as the saying goes, Those who can’t perform, teach. (which is ridiculous) It should be revised as, those who teach CAN perform– dancing and singing all over the place in their private studios.

So having cleared the air, owning up to my teacher-driven eccentricities, I offer an impromptu choreography and a few grunts that sprang out of Bach’s exuberant Invention 13.

The point was well taken. Claudia decided to imagine that she’s the conductor of her own duo, a two voice instrumental, as she ascends the stage to play her pieces.

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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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Revisiting J.S. Bach’s Invention 1 in C, BWV 772 (Video)

Yesterday I had the novel experience of working on Bach’s Invention 1 in C Major, via long distance transmission. Beamed to Sydney, Australia, by way of SKYPE, I found myself having gained new insights about a piece I had temporarily tabled.

While I had always been aware that the Subject, or main idea, had been inverted at various points in the composition; pieced out or abbreviated; then mimicked back and forth between the hands in characteristic “counterpoint,” I hadn’t realized how J.S. Bach borrowed the first four notes of the subject, and had these blown up as longer note values at various junctures. (Augmentation) I’d also noticed that fragments of the opening subject were inverted and streamed in sequential groups. While Bach’s enlistment of technical devices was intrinsic to his style, the beauty of his music and its divine inspiration were the core of his musical creations.

In this video tutorial I carefully journeyed separate hands through each voice, noting form, harmonic movement, and phrasing. Finally I played hands together through the complete Invention, fleshing out interplay of parts and nuances as I went along.

Baby step practicing:

Often piano students of all levels want to study a particular piece and achieve instant results in the shortest time possible.

But in truth, any learning process, going back to our earliest year of life is marked by passages and transitions in baby steps. We couldn’t walk before rolling over in our cribs, then sitting up, crawling, and achieving vertical balance.

Beginners have the exciting, parallel challenge of studying a new “language,” with its vocabulary of musical symbols, meters, clefs, (Bass and treble) while building coordination skills in each hand alone, and then combining two hands at a time. Their pieces gradually advance from simple melodies to more complex forms involving chords and counterpoint (interweaving voices) And while learning primer level pieces might seem substantially removed from studying the more advanced literature (compositions by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, et al) the same attitude of patient, parceled out practicing in layers, from the ground up, applies.

The student who has advanced far enough in his/her studies to play a Bach Two Part invention, with its characteristic dialog of two conversing and overlapping voices, will know this composition more thoroughly and satisfactorily by following each separate line of music, phrase by phrase in slow motion. (The tempo is bent to accommodate the learning process) It’s back to the baby step approach.

Having the patience to experience a piece in its expanded, enlarged, form by playing it very slowly, line by line, is worth the time invested. It gives ample space to feel the shape and contour of the phrase; as well as the spatial, interval relationships between notes, while practicing in a fingering that best realizes the smooth flow of music.

To overload ourselves with all the details of notation all at once when learning a new piece, reading it down over and over without getting to the heart and soul of it in a patient, graduated process is probably the biggest reason why compositions reach a certain plateau and do not ripen over time.

Therefore, slow, deliberate, but sensory enlightened practicing is recommended for students who want to improve their playing and acquire fluidity.

Performance in tempo:


More two part Inventions: