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A 9-year old’s “complete” piano lesson integrates theory and ear training

After 9 months of study, “Liz” whom I’ve followed at regular recorded intervals since her first lesson in mid-February, has been exposed to multi-tiered music learning that’s incorporated a Theory and Ear Training dimension. (Note the choice of Frances Clark’s Time to Begin as a 6 month Primer, with my imposed creative modifications that expanded composing opportunities) Tonal explorations were built into my custom-made lesson design as well, offering pentachords, executed with divided hands in Major and minor “parallel” tonalities before I nudged the student into 8 note hands-divided scales. (Again it was my decision to alter the time worn approach where each hand is challenged to autonomously deal with complex thumb shifts before integrating both.)

Nonetheless, through a Circle of Fifths driven scale and arpeggio journey, my student acquired the ability to transpose, based on a solfeggio-framed moveable “DO” orientation which coexisted with alphabetically driven note naming. The latter is derived from traditional scale progressions that flow in “whole” and “half steps according to the alphabet. In this pursuit, Liz has nicely absorbed the structural aspect of scale construction and can easily navigate Major, and relative minor scales in three forms. (Adhering to the division of hands.)

This particular decision that alters traditional Major and relative minor scale fingering by dividing 4 notes between right and left hand in a one-octave span, was an intuitive gesture that I believed put a priority on phrasing and shaping a line, with supple wrist, and bigger, relaxed enlistment of arm energies. The one octave limit of the scale, implemented with an equality between the hands would ultimately provide a “natural” springboard to traditional parallel scale progressions over many octaves. The latter scale expansion would ensue after the pupil’s journey through the cycle of Major and minor keys had obtained completion. (clockwise motion in fifths, acquiring sharps, and counter-clockwise movement in descending fifths, accruing flats)

To travel around the WHOLE CIRCLE of FIFTHS, with an additional window into ENHARMONIC relationships (overlapping scales in sharps and flats) would be a tall order in itself that didn’t need the added complexity of multiple octaves with attendant thumb shifts “un-synched” between the hands except as applied to the pattern scales of B Major, F# Major and C# Major, that had thumbs meeting between the raised black notes in “mirrored” reciprocal fingering modality.

Liz, as it happens, is unusually equipped on a cognitive level to process the analytical (structural) dimension of scale-building where such an intense, layered exploration might be out of reach for many piano students. That’s why I’ve always supported a custom-designed music learning journey for each uniquely individual student–one that is not codified or based on a method book driven set of formulas. (Hence, my unabashed rejection of color sequenced method books through ponderously pretensive levels has been well aired.)


At this point in her piano study, Liz has practiced Major and relative minor scales through the keys of A Major and F-sharp minor. (From eighth notes, to 16ths to 32nds–legato to staccato) As pertains to F-Sharp minor, I’ve adjusted fingerings as illustrated in the attached Scale video with a particular change made in the Melodic form.

In the Arpeggio cosmos, I’ve supported hand-over-hand triadic movement that spans 4 octaves to prioritize agile shaping and contouring. (Historically, the student started with two-octave arpeggios and incrementally expanded to 3, followed by 4-octave travels.)

Through hand-over-hand transit, (LH fingers 5-3-1, and RH 1-3-5) Liz has learned to nicely “shape” the triplet flow of broken chords between the hands without the obstacle of bringing the thumb (root) under the “third” and “fifth” (middle notes)

In this arpeggiated endeavor, she incorporates PARALLEL minor practice by lowering the “third,” while scales flow in Major and relative minor relationships. (The AFFECTIVE contrast of Major to minor whether parallel or in relative minor relationship, has been amply explored.)


Prior to Circle of Fifths scale study, Liz was deeply embedded in “pentachords,” or five-note progressions, BUT NOT using fingers 1-2-3-4-5 in the Right Hand, and 5-4-3-2-1 in the Left Hand.

Instead, I had her divide the five-note progession between her hands.
(2 notes in the LH using fingers 3 and 2, and 3 notes in the Right hand, using fingers 2, 3, 4. This particular division nicely fleshed out the MAJOR and PARALLEL minor key relationships by having the critical and decisive THIRD note arrive as the first note in the Right Hand (finger no. 2) that altered tonality. In this regard, the student was repeatedly prompted to make an affective or “emotional” shift from Major to minor with “attentive listening” as an important underpinning.

While the pentachords proceeded through the Circle of Fifths, they could not realistically acquire sharps and flats that would attach to 8-note scale progressions. Still the journey, though attenuated, acquired an understanding of the Parallel Major/minor tonalities that integrated a companion EAR TRAINING experience.

Liz’s most recent lesson reveals how far she’s traveled over nine months time.
Following a stint with Time To Begin, I transitioned her to Accent on Gillock, Level 2, that has enticing character pieces with wedded musical and technique-driven goals.


In this vein, I’ve recorded two pieces from the collection–the first, “Splashing in the Brook,” is Liz’s newest assigned piece, though she’s simultaneously refining “Little Flower Girl of Paris.” (Following “Splashing in the Brook” we will embark upon the delightfully spun, “Sail Boats” that’s included in my recording)

The additional video below throws a spotlight on the most recent lesson segment that focused on “Little Flower Girl…” where the student has the challenge of fleshing out a cantabile legato melody in the Left Hand against Right Hand after beat harmonic thirds and seconds in staccato. The voices are inverted in the second section, along with a key shift from C Major to G Major. (Liz fully comprehends given her ongoing Theory exposures)


In the ear-training universe, Liz is learning to build and aurally identify Major, minor, diminished and augmented chords. To this effect, she has been given a chord sheet that tags these triads on every scale degree of C Major and ‘A’ Harmonic minor. (Theory and Ear Training are nicely interwoven)


In the attached recorded segment Liz specifically splits a triad in half, to construct a harmonic third between notes 1 and 3, and the same between notes 3 and 5. She has learned that a Major third plus a minor third equals a “Major” chord, and in reverse, a “Minor” chord. The “Augmented” and “Diminished” chords have also been carefully constructed with an integrated EAR TRAINING awareness. In this connection, I use “Do a Deer” from Sound of Music to track the first three notes of a Major progression from the Root to Third. (whole step/whole step) and then juxtapose the sad “Do a Deer,” (Whole Step/half step) through the first three notes of a MINOR scale. The pupil then splits a particular chord in half–analyzing the first to the third note as Major or Minor, doing the same from the third note to the fifth note. She then combines both to determine the identity of a chord. I’ve also exposed her to the instability of Diminished and Augmented Chords and how they have a pull toward “RESOLUTION.”

In summary, Liz has made enormous strides in cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic realms that span her 9 months of lessons. And even from the start of instruction, the fundamental focus on relaxed, “weeping willow” arms, supple wrists, and whole arm energies to advance a “singing tone” has been the underpinning of all her music-making.

Without doubt Liz has enjoyed a journey that has grown her sensitivity to tone production, dynamics (with weight transfer awareness), phrasing, and the ebb and flow of harmonic rhythm. In the Rhythm cosmos, the student understands the “color” of various rhythms and how BREATHING is intrinsic to well-shaped lines. Above all, ATTENTIVE LISTENING has been a central component of all her music-making that has a pivotal structural and aesthetic dimension.

Liz explores a Schoenhut Toy piano which enlisted an easy transfer of her Keyboard skills to a childlike universe.

P.S. Many of Liz’s lessons from Day ONE are available on you tube and these videos have been embedded into a series of blogs. (a few are sampled below)





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The business of copying the piano teacher: Who has the final say or PLAY?

The latest provocative teacher exchange is taking place on Facebook at the “Art of Piano Pedagogy” which has now become a private forum.

When it comes to teaching philosophies, many are intensely opinionated.

From my perspective, I passionately believe in sharing my ground-up musical insights with students to justify my presence at the lesson in the first place whether
“live” or by SKYPE.

That means I see my role as being a mentor and font of inspiration, while the student, on an equal footing with me, feeds back in kind what I have to carefully process and refine in my own studies so that we both come to common conclusions about phrasing and interpretation.

How often a student has “taught” me something that I would never otherwise have learned in my solo practicing cubicle.

Does that mean that I in some way, stored HIS idea and patented it as my own–copying him, in the negative sense?

In truth living life is copying others that came before us and likewise in the musical arena, gads of students will have studied the same pieces over decades, coming to varying interpretive conclusions with and without teachers.

Yet if I’m invited into a pupil’s learning environment, to be a guide or teacher, it’s my obligation to bring something original and unique, not carbon-copied, that ignites a student’s self-realization process.

So what is my teaching philosophy, and does it require a pupil to “copy” me?

1) I see myself as an eternal learner with a deep commitment to peeling away layers of a piece in a patient setting.

The student is simultaneously engaged, but may not have the experience to approach his music in a way that produces the most gratification for him.

He plays, I listen. I give something back about how to improve (from my perspective) a phrase or musical line. He may not have known there were three voices to isolate and study. I owe it to him to suggest that he delve into these separate lines.

He may not have realized that the fingering he has chosen has tripped him up. I feel obligated to offer a smoother fingering, while trying his out again. I watch him experiment with what I have in mind.

If it works for him, the music soars, not the teacher’s ego.

Which leads next to:

2) The music matters most, not who is leading or following.

I can be a follower if a student has a percolating idea that has enriched or changed my ideas about a phrase. At the same time, I can be a leader, helping a student map out the form, structure and harmonic rhythm of a piece.

3) The singing tone and how to produce it is my mantra.

I remember how I internalized the sound ideal I wanted from the piano as a young student but had no idea about the physical means to the end. My mentor led the way, working note-by-note, teaching me about relaxation, dead weight gravity, and relaxation. All sprung from the music itself and its organic substance.

In this creatively woven environment, I was not “copying” my teacher as a trade for self-initiated learning. I needed and hungered for direction and received it.

4) What about lessons and video follow-up?

I affirm that these amount to self-clarifications of my musical ideas synthesized with what “played” out during the lesson. In so many words, I can’t produce a custom-made video without having as its basis what the student “gave” me to work with.

Here again, I’m not on a podium of reserved perfection, but indebted to the pupil for stimulating thought about how to interpret, shape, or otherwise approach a piece so that it best realizes the composer’s intent.

To the contrary, here’s an example of a literal copying approach, that keeps the student in a boxed-in relationship with her teacher.

(The mentor is a fine pianist, and this example is not meant to discredit her playing samples)

On the positive side, the student and teacher are getting quite a bit of exercise in the spoon-fed, this-is-how-you-do-it, learning process.

To close here’s a sample of my conducting a student– an opportunity to teach and keep in shape.

Fundamentally, this interchange clarified the voicing of Bach’s A minor 2-part Invention, No. 13 on an animated level. In addition, the student had many videotaped lessons where she and I together explored counterpoint, and Bach’s various composing techniques that included inversion, modulation, etc. This was part of a layered-learning approach that increased the student’s playing enjoyment.

Lillian Freundlich, my most influential teacher was actively involved singing, conducting as I played and showed me piece-by-piece how to learn by increments. However, her biggest gift to me and all her students was how she imbued the singing tone through months of hands-on exposure. For her divine MODELING I am eternally grateful.

These videos represent the legacy she passed on to me.

The Art of Breathing and piano playing


Close-up playing models for J.S. Bach (over Skype)


To breathe is to “copy” every human being that ever came before us.

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Rina, 5, practices “The Hunting Call” by Gurlitt

Rina grabbed an opportunity to sit at the “big” piano yesterday afternoon to practice Gurlitt’s “The Hunting Call.”

A sparkling little piece, Gurlitt’s gem is the third in a sequence that I pulled from Faber’s Developing Artist series, Preparatory Piano Literature. The others have included Reinagle’s G Major “Minuet,” and Turk’s “Little March” that primed Rina’s appetite for the classics.

Hunting Call’s melody is very catchy, while the bass part is a sequence of two harmonic intervals, a third and fifth. To fit Rina’s small hands, I’ve re-fingered the left hand.

With new pieces, we sing letter names, use hand signals to trace melodic steps and skips, intone rhythms as “long” and “short sounds,” etc., and alternate bass and treble parts. It’s a process that takes time and patience.

As reference, the music page is on the rack, and slowly but surely Rina is transferring her knowledge of “floating notes” in space, marked off by “measures” to their finding a home on lines and in spaces.

Now one year into piano lessons, Rina continues to make nice progress, and her companion, Aiden cat is following along.

P.S. The question about solfeggio pops up here. My intention is to follow letter name assimilation with solfeggiated syllables. Many music schools in the area start with solfeggio, and delay letter name identification for too long. I’ve found that these students are resistant to naming notes, and have note-reading difficulties well into their studies. The same applies to the purist Suzuki method of teaching piano.

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Rina, 5, moves right along in her piano studies (Videos)

Rina takes to piano like a duck in water.

Yesterday, she began her lesson with a five-finger romp through D Major and minor, adding chords to her repertoire.

Did I say “chords?”

It’s every child’s dream to play more than one voice at a time, to fully appreciate the piano as an orchestral instrument.

I know, because at six-years old I longed to hear my two-note melodies bathed in rich sonority.

Mrs. Vinagradov, my weekly duet partner, raised the level of our music-making by several notches, but I had no patience to delay gratification between lessons.

In those days, young piano students were imprisoned in tiny instructional boxes, gasping for any signs of cosmic harmony. They were so fixated on Middle C that to drift elsewhere was anxiety-provoking.

Personally, I was over-burdened with monophonic Diller-Quaille and Diller-Page songs, illustrated with pics of children in high-button shoes beside bicycles built for two. Those archaic pics were re-published for decades beside colorless melodies. They begged for polyphonic enrichment!

Why students were placed in a restricted, No Harmony Zone, was beyond comprehension.

But to the good, it ignited a revolution among teachers who had been closeted rebels.


In our more pedagogically enlightened day and age, a fledgling can reach for the stars, playing more than one note at a time without a meltdown.

As an example, Rina plays a two-voice Minuet and March that produce ear-pleasing harmony. They fuel her enthusiasm from week to week.

Here, she practices her five-finger D Major/d minor warmup which leads to building chords in six voices. What a revelation, like the first sunrise.

Can you believe how far she’s come in less than a year’s time?

Part 2, Rina’s first piano lesson:

Flash forward 11 months:

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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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Rina, 5, plays “Little March” by Turk–10 months of piano lessons–and a flashback to my childhood

Rina marches forward making great progress. For a child of 5, her gains are remarkable. By comparison, my early piano studies were unremarkable.

When I embarked upon lessons at age 6, I lived in the Marble Hill Projects, (Bronx, New York) in a small apartment that had no piano. As a consequence, I had to take the elevator up three floors to practice at friend, Tanya’s place that had a stately old upright. Her Russian grandma, “BaBa,” whom I later learned was lobotomized, had been a concert pianist in the old country. When she played Chopin, the notes cascaded effortlessly from her fingers. I was entranced.

BaBa was a fixture at the piano bench so it was no easy task to grab just a few minutes at the keyboard. Her dazzling displays of virtuosity engulfed the living room space. My “Ding Dong” two-note Diller-Quaille melody died before the final cadence. The old woman shoved me aside, replacing her warm body where I had found a comfortable spot. I was embarrassed and stunned into silence.

Could I patiently wait for BaBa to excuse herself for a nap or to go to the bathroom? She looked brain dead away from the piano. Her two hearing aids insulated her from the world. Yet her soul poured forth through her fingers, making her a living, breathing musician.

At each visit with BaBa, I ended up complying with her wishes. Sheepishly, I retreated to the elevator that took me back down to the 9th floor.


Rina is more fortunate. She has a magnificent Yamaha console center stage in her living room and a wide space of time to practice. No one will interrupt her except for a reminder from mom that dinner is waiting. It’s been 10 months since her first lesson in August.

How time flies, measured by pieces studied. They come and go, but remain in the heart forever. A “Minuet” is followed by a “Little March.”

Rina plays, unabashedly.



Rina’s Progress after 6 months:


Flashback to Rina’s 9th lesson:

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Piano Lessons: Catching up with Rina, age 5

Rina has reached a turning point in her piano studies, just 10 months into them. She’s playing the Reinagle Minuet, coordinating bass and treble lines. This is NOT ROTE playing, or any Suzuki variant.

Rina knows the music alphabet forward and in reverse; understands up and down, steps and skips, and plays LEGATO five-finger positions in the Major and parallel minor. (She can identify sharps and flats and harbors no fears of them)

So far we’ve covered C Major/minor; G Major/minor. (In Parallel and Contrary Motion)

She also enjoys a C Major five-finger romp in tenths.

We’ve covered quarter notes, known as “short sounds,” half notes or “long sounds,” 8ths or “running notes,” dotted-half notes, “half-note dot,” and “whole note hold down,” whole notes.

Rina understands Forte, piano, mezzo forte and mezzo piano. She knows that poco ritardando means a slight getting slower.

Her second two-handed piece is Turk’s “Little March.” She separates out each part, bass and treble and follows phrasing, fingering and dynamics.

A Music Together grad, she had considerable exposure to singing and group rhythm activities which helped her transition to individual piano study.

I started Rina with Irina Gorin’s Tales of a Musical Journey and then branched off in my own creative directions that were tailored to Rina’s specific needs.

During these many months, she’s been imbued with sensitivity to the singing tone and the use of a supple wrist.

Today’s videotaping:



The Right Age for a Child to Start Piano Lessons