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The piano learning process at all levels of study

In spite of my having studied piano for decades, each learning experience is filled with challenges that I must approach with a glut of patience. A new composition has its own form, architecture, harmonic rhythm, fingering that requires a big reserve of self-acceptance in a deadline-free frame.

To the contrary, many of my students, who are 95% adults, have a built-in timetable plaguing them from day one. “How long will it take me to learn this piece?” They demand certainty about reaching a tangible goal on a fixed schedule. The End result is what most matters.

Since we live in an information age, strategies of mastery are in vogue along with a mandatory guarantee of knowledge acquisition in so many weeks. “Quick,” “easy-fix” consumption are the Millennium’s catchwords. CD sets are compiled and promoted to learn piano “in a flash.”

***

I have a pupil, who epitomizes the insecure student, searching for a micro-wave cooking equivalent for learning piano.

She’s an accomplished writer and retired lawyer. On more than one occasion she’s confessed to doing “everything well” except for piano. “I just don’t understand why my wrist can’t roll forward, why I stumble, stutter at the piano.”

If she stepped back and thought about how many years she’s been writing and practicing law as compared to playing the piano, she’d acquire instant insight about her personal quandary.

Irina Gorin, inspired piano teacher and author of Tales of A Musical Journey has often said, “We’re not born playing the piano…. we have to learn to physically relate to the instrument.”

That’s why she starts her kids young, using silly putty to dip tiny hands into. They experience “touch” as deep, densely probing, and sinewy, to produce the singing tone, not a poked out, pencil point sequence of notes. Dipping into jello is Gorin’s metaphor, nicely channeled into the keys:

The time old analogy of crawling before walking applies, yet so many adult students, will obsess about how long they have been working on a piece without the advances they expected of themselves.

Yet, if I think about the students who have made the most gains this year, it’s been those who accepted the baby-step paradigm without precondition. They learned to love the journey with its precious awakenings along the way.

Examples:

A pupil is shown working on a section of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” absorbing a sound image before translating it into physical expression at the piano. She practiced separate hands, behind tempo. Call it mindful practicing; attentive listening. They belong together.

***

An adult student embarked upon the Chopin Waltz no. 19 in A minor.

Sight-reading was not a parcel of our work.

It was delving into the fundamental bass, measure by measure in slow tempo.

What was the relationship of one note to the next as each was played? Lean on some, relax others.

“Feel,” “hear” and know at the same time.

Then practice the melody at snail’s pace, but with a singing tone–no delay in contouring. The shapes must seep in from conscious to unconscious.

The student explored wrist motions to curve and shape lines. These poured out of her scale work.

Where an arpeggiated figure appeared, all her caring and conscientious practicing of buoyant broken chords, bristled with relevance.

In graduated steps, the after beat sonorities were separated, and played with a “spongy” feel. We thought of a “lighter” third beat. Not a parade of downbeats.

In time the layering process followed as melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords came together.

As I look back on this step-wise progression and its implications for the musical development of the Waltz, I can say with confidence that the student eventually played it with a wonderful sense of personal mastery and joy bundled together.

Patience and self-acceptance at every stage of the learning process was our paradigm.

If considered a mantra, it becomes a reminder of what teachers and students need to embrace.

LINKS:

How Long Should a Student Stay with a Piece?

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/how-long-should-a-piano-student-stay-with-a-piece/

Quality Spot Practicing by an adult student, “Fur Elise.”

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/quality-spot-practicing-by-an-adult-student-beethovens-fur-elise-video/

The Value of Slow Practicing

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/piano-learning-and-technique-the-value-of-practicing-in-slow-motion-or-behind-tempo/

Out of a Rut with Quality Spot Practicing
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/piano-instruction-out-of-a-rut-with-spot-practicing/

RECOMMENDED READING


Just Being at the Piano
by Mildred Portney Chase

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Piano Technique: Rotation, Turnaround, and Curve around of scales, with application to repertoire (Videos)

Piano students, by and large, don’t relish playing scales. They would rather eat spinach than practice what they view as tedious, finger-trippers.

I have a different perspective.

For me, scales are my playground and workout space. They keep me in shape, fine tuning my ears to their internal undulations and curvy turnarounds. They translate from aural images, into buoyant, touchy-feely journeys across the keyboard with a tie-in to pieces I study.

Practicing them in a tradition-bound sequence around the Circle of Fifths, also provides a solid harmonic and theoretical foundation. They’re the underpinning of chords that form progressions which influence melodic contouring.

So even if students are turned off by the academic side of scale practice—needing to process the content of sharps and flats for each key, they can easily be redirected to a vibrant, athletically-charged arena, with sports metaphors woven in.

A pitcher on the mound, for instance, winds up for the pitch, preparing its delivery in a series of graceful synchronized movements.

The pianist will likewise roll into scales at the right moment, rippling his way to the top with a curvaceous turnaround that avoids an angular finger poke.

Most students will crowd the notes in the last octave, finding themselves tagged out before the scale makes it safely back home. Known as a choke, it’s often a sports commentator’s analysis of a faulty play on the baseball diamond or football field.

For piano students, who might be tackling C# Major with 7 sharps, white included, such a finger pile-up instigated by tension, can be blocked by a rotation that smooths out a stream of notes on the descent, making it feel like a breezy journey down the ski slope.

Finally, what better way to justify the time spent practicing scales, than to find a composition that’s pleasantly permeated by them. I’ve picked an Intermediate level piece that’s popular among students of all ages.

But first, tips on how to pace and curve around scales that form their own unique category by a symmetry of double and triple black keys. These are good springboards to practice melodic shaping and rotation. I’ve thrown in a slow motion replay in the spirit of athletic adventure.

Latour Sonatina in C Major

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The Transfer Piano Student

I would hate to pigeon hole all “transfer” students in one way or another. It would be unfair, and unfortunately many piano teachers shy away from prospects who were immersed in learning environments where little progress was made over a period of years.

Some reluctant piano instructors might say, “there’s just too much work involved in reversing bad habits, so I’m not up to the task.”

In my own experience, where a student is at least on a common page, dedicated to receiving a new set of ideas that will help him improve his technique and musical expression, wedded together, of course, then I’m up for the collective journey. (even with its built-in challenges)

Just the other day, I was delighted to meet a “new” adult pupil who had studied for five years with another teacher. The shift, springing from a schedule issue, brought more than a blessing in disguise. I was pleased to discover that the young woman had been exploring the great piano literature with method books being a things of the past. (Thank Goddess!)

In fact she played a gorgeous Haydn Minuet and a Mendelssohn Children’s piece which both offered opportunities to probe the singing tone, and ways of phrasing in two contrasting musical periods. (Classical and Romantic)

Of interest was the motif of the Mendelssohn composition that could have sounded like Schumann’s famous G Major March (Album for the Young) but for the difference in notated slurs. The former had the march spirit, while the other had to be executed as if sung expressively. This second piece required yielding to the upper voice of two, and letting the common thumb go a tad early. In this way a legato melodic line was preserved. (smooth and connected notes)

What a nice entree to style and interpretation.

In the realm of technique, I noticed that the pupil needed to play with supple wrists and more freedom in her arms which we worked on from the very start of her lesson. Scales that were a bit locked by tension, gradually gave way to a curvaceous spill of 16ths to four octaves.

Had I harbored a prejudice toward meeting with a “transfer” student, I would have lost a treasured opportunity to grow as a musician along with a willing student.

Another situation, but less appealing:

I’ve had moms bring Middle school children, in the main, who’ve bounced from teacher to teacher. This can be a RED FLAG, but not always, depending on the individual circumstance. (Family relocations can require a teacher change given the high rate of job transfers and home foreclosures)

However, where the grass is greener mantra infiltrates each and every teacher consult, I tend to shy away from being the next trial and error instructor.

In the Bay area, there are an abundance of gifted teachers, and each offers a well of musical wisdom. But an instructor and a student need TIME to develop a relationship, and not be subject to espresso evaluations.

However, in the Fresno environs, the musical landscape is a bit different, and often the “transfers” are neighborhood driven, or a student has devoted little if any time to practicing, and blames it on the piano teacher. Mom keeps talking about the “right or wrong chemistry” ad nauseum, and while this could be a valid reason for a shift in instructors, it’s often just the opposite. She will insist that the turnover of pieces is too slow, and that junior has spent too much time learning one selection.

Example, an 11-year old was brought to me who had studied for 9 months with one teacher, and barely a year with another. Mom said her child was not playing enough “popular” music and needed someone to make lessons “fun.”

Upon examination of the child’s musical skills, I observed that she was barely note-reading at a satisfactory level and she couldn’t play a one-octave scale up and down. In fact, she’d never been exposed to a scale or anything resembling, including five-finger Major/minor positions.

Was I braced to be the next mentor in line, accused of NOT making lessons a bowl of cherries?

I passed up the chance.

Obviously there are all kinds of circumstances in which we meet up with transfer students, and each should be separately evaluated. One, for example, may circumscribe an emotionally abusive situation, a cosmos I explored in the following blog:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/the-emotionally-abusive-piano-teacher-and-suggested-rehab/

A student may be fleeing an unwholesome learning environment that has stifled his progress and reduced him to feelings of overwhelming inadequacy.

Seymour Bernstein, author of MONSTERS AND ANGELS describes this very abuse that drove him to request another piano teacher at the distinguished Mannes College of Music. The story is well capsulized in this blog posted by Harriet:

http://www.mymusiclifeblog.blogspot.com/2012/02/monsters-and-angels.html

Bernstein’s experience among others must be carefully assessed, or with our cultural blinders on, we could overlook a blessed musical relationship with a transfer student that will grow and ripen with time.

If my beloved teacher, Lillian Freundlich, had viewed me as just one of those garden variety “transfers” who came through her door so ill-prepared to play what I had been assigned by a previous mentor (the Chopin Scherzo in Bb Minor, for example) then I would have given up the piano in sheer frustration.

What I heard in my inner ear, I couldn’t express as a player due to inadequate technique and phrasing. These hallmark musicianship skills had to be learned from the ground up and I needed a willing teacher to guide me. (starting with an awareness of the singing tone)

Teachers make such a big difference in our lives if we let them do the work needed. Support and respect for the instructor and learning environment must come from the pupil, and in the case of youngsters, also from their parents.

Whether students are “transfers” or not, these basic ingredients of a positive teacher/pupil relationship underlie musical growth and development.

***

Please share your experience as a transfer student, or if in a role as teacher, how did you proceed with students from other learning environments?

RELATED LINKS:

The Neighborhood Piano Teacher Lives On

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/the-neighborhood-piano-teacher-lives-on/

How Long Should a Piano Student Stay with a Piece?

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/how-long-should-a-piano-student-stay-with-a-piece/

Pulls and Tugs between students/teachers/and parents in the piano learning cosmos

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/pulls-and-tugs-two-sides-to-the-studentteacher-piano-lesson-relationship/

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Warm-up routines with an adult piano student (Video)

This pupil is into her fourth year of study and plays the Chopin Waltz in A minor, and Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” Here is a sample of our weekly warm-up routine using pentascales (five finger positions) in Major and minor, followed by a designated 4 octave scale built up from quarters, to 8ths, to triplets, to 16ths and 32nds (legato) She continues with a pair of Staccato 32nds Forte and then piano. (soft) These scales are played in parallel and contrary motion and I’ve recently introduced 10ths for D Major.

Arpeggios are also included in the warm-up but not featured in this video.

The sequence of scale study is a Circle of Fifths journey, with Major and relative minors assigned. With advanced students the warm-up is more comprehensive with scale playing in 3rds, 10ths, and 6ths; Diminished and Dominant 7th arpeggios practiced in parallel and contrary motion–as well as in 10ths– Broken four-note arpeggios are added to the romp.

Here’s the less complex warm-up with my adult student:

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An Adult “Piano Student of the Week” lands the Gold!

Today, I launched the piano Olympics.. well not really. No one in this studio of hard-working adults and children is competing for a medal, but just the same, I have shimmering GOLD stickers that are individually awarded to deserving students.

Today, Marie earned her sparkling medallion and proudly displayed it after some prodding.

In addition she was added to my Wall of Fame at the entrance way.

Here’s Marie in piano karma. Oops, Aiden interrupted her meditation….

More photos at the Steinway:

The Backdrop:
Marie began piano studies at my current studio in approximately 2007 when I had just moved from a knee-crushing cubicle to a civilized space.

She’d taken previous lessons, but had a significant hiatus of unknown length. I remember her first lesson well. She had no specific pieces to play for me but was ready, willing and able to embark upon a musical adventure.

The enthusiasm was there and remains to this day.

Here’s the musical terrain we covered:

Pentascales or five finger positions in Major/parallel minor relationship–all keys.

Four-octave Major and minor Scales and Arpeggios in parallel/contrary motion around the Circle of Fifths. (We’re currently adding 10ths and 3rds)

Repertoire, following a review romp through the Faber Accelerated Adult Beginner Books–Lesson, Performance and Theory:

James Hook Minuet; Anna Magdalena collection, Minuet in G, attributed to Christian Petzold, and not J.S. Bach as formerly believed; Clementi Sonatina in C, Op. 36 no. 1, (all movements), “First Sorrow” and “Wild Rider” from Schumann’s Album for the Young, Rameau Menuet en Rondeau; Mozart Dance in F Major; J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor and Andante in A minor; Szymanowska Mazurka; Chopin Prelude in A Major; Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous; Beethoven “Fur Elise.”

Progress has been steady and satisfying. I enjoy Marie’s devotion to the piano, and laud her for acquiring a lovely, resonant Acrosonic Baldwin after letting go of her skittish Kincaid with its built-in handicaps.

The Acro is kept in tune, and has featured piano status as the centerpiece of her living room. A cage full of cackling parakeets is nearby, and a cat and dog who co-exist harmoniously, join in a chorus of approval while Marie practices.

I had the honor of presenting a concert on this very piano for Marie’s mother’s birthday. She was heading toward her 90th, but had a few years to go.

Apparently, mom had quite a musical background and taught Marie a bit of piano in Holland where the family lived.

I keep these as a reminder of Marie’s musical presence in between lessons.

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Piano Technique: chord playing with a supple wrist and natural, infused long breaths (Burgmuller’s “Ave Maria” as example)

Ilyana, 9, explored the supple wrist entry into chords at Forte (Big) and piano (soft) dynamic levels as the warm-up segment of her lesson. In addition she did some breathing exercises to give life and lift to her sonorities.

More about chord playing and the singing tone:

Playing through Burgmuller’s “Ave Maria” (from the Op. 100 Twenty-Five Progressive Pieces) on the singing nightingale Haddorff:

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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