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Weaving Theory and Harmonic Rhythm into a piano lesson

The flow of harmony in and out of pieces should be a big part of a piano lesson. Yet it’s one thing to isolate chords in student a hand-out, but quite another to bring phrases to life with an infusion of harmonic rhythm awareness in the process of playing.

chords, Major and minor on every scale degree-2-2

In this video sample, a student who was previously oriented to the chords within C Major on every scale degree, phrased the opening of Mozart Sonata in C, K. 545 by blocking out the Left Hand and “feeling” the pull of dominant and sub-dominant chords. Their resolution respectively to TONIC, illuminated phrasing and line shaping.

These second video examples featured an overview of A minor chords within the natural and Harmonic form scales, and their relationship to each other as applied to J.C. Bach’s Prelude in A minor. Legato pedaling was an integrated dimension of the learning experience, though the student was not able to play during this class. Yet she still wanted to acquire a framing perspective of her piece to assist her practicing.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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Piano Instruction: Can we over-analyze a Bach fugue?

One of my Europe-based students bestowed the gift of J.S. Bach Fugue in C, BWV 952. He regarded it as a good springboard to learn the Baroque form. (The composition was not from the Well-Tempered Clavier, but it was one of the composer’s “LITTLE FUGUES.”)

For purposes of I.D., here’s Glenn Gould’s performance:

I had come to this FUGUE in a state of ignorance, though I’d been previously saturated with an excellent ONLINE analysis of WTC’s BWV 847 in C minor. (Jose Rodriguez Alvira)

And naturally, I expected to find an equivalent nit-picking probe of BWV 952 through a Google-driven search.

To my pleasant surprise, I found one produced by “Lance Walton,” an admitted “amateur,” that devoted a complete page to piecing out the Fugue, and in addition, had a PDF score link that led in scope to Alvira’s undertaking.

Only the standard FUGUE “vocabulary,” as I knew it, was modified, in places. (“Double Exposition” was a NEW term of art) And I didn’t see Counter-subject 1 and 2, or indications of Inversion, Augmentation etc. Well maybe they didn’t apply here. I was not prepared for any form departures.

Here’s the website and direct link to the PDF analysis.

The first three pages of six in living color:

Bach 942 revised p 1

bach 952 revised p 2

revised bwv952 p 3

I sent this Analysis to Jan Karman, a LINKED IN BACH GROUP member/composer/harpsichordist, for his response:

“Shirley, analysis is always arbitrary, and at any rate after the creation.

“The analysis is rarely the way a piece was composed.
One could carefully strip the theme from passing and changing notes and see
what remains.

“It’s also interesting to look at what types of changing note patterns Bach
is using, depending on which note the next accent would fall.

“In this rather simple fugue you may easily find the occurrences of the theme,
but also the sentences and even the motives, the latter of which Bach made
frequent use. E.g. there’s no mirrored or inverted theme, or complicated
modulations – the occurrences of the theme are mostly in neighboring keys.

“I think, as you stated in your previous mail, the flow in accordance
with the view and feeling of the performer, is very important, if not the only one
to hang on.”

Jan’s note was a wake up call. Though I knew myself to be obsessively preoccupied with form and structure as they applied to all the masterworks, and perhaps having been knee deep in BWV 847, I was looking for the same frame of reference in BWV 952: i.e. SUBJECT, COUNTER-SUBJECT 1 and 2, Inversions of, Augmentation, Diminution, and the rest.

To be initially immersed in a NEW landscape, without a specific mapping before I had embarked upon my journey with LITTLE FUGUE in C made me feel like I was walking in the wilderness. (Ridiculous, of course, since I’d been previously primed in my exploration of BWV 847 in C minor, WTC I)

Lance Walton’s own comments harmonized with Karman’s:

“Part of what this and other analyses have taught me is that Bach’s idea of a fugue was much richer than the textbooks. But that is always the case. We see the same attempts to systematize sonata form by theorists after the composers have been developing the ideas for a hundred years. I think it’s precisely the deviations from the theoretical standard that give us an insight into the thoughts of the masters.”

Elaine Comparone, world famous harpsichordist, chimed in:

“This kind of paper analysis may be useful for a “school fugue” but JS Bach fugues’ do not always fit into that kind of analysis. Basically, you want to HEAR the play of lines.” She’d made it a point to applaud Karman and Walton’s responses.

Here’s my second day READ of the Little Fugue in C with analytical commentary.

And what I had initially scribbled in the score: (excuse the illegible entries on page 1)

bwv952 fugue p 1

Bach bwv952 p2


When all is said and done, analyzing a Bach Fugue to the end of the earth is insufficient to render an aesthetically beautiful performance, though, not to be underestimated, are insights about how a composition is put together. A baby-step learning journey inevitably winds its way to a spiritual awakening through a sensitive process that has many creative ingredients.

Above all, we owe it to our students to be PREPARED to teach a composition if we expect our contributions to be of educational value.

LINKS: (as apply to Fugue in C minor BWV 847)




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Piano Lessons: Theory and Christmas Music interwoven (Videos)

It’s that time of year to roll out the Christmas music if there’s to be a greater learning benefit than sight-reading through a slew of carols

In my Bay Area studios, I’ve assigned “The Little Drummer Boy,” (one of my favorites) along with a Major Scale and Chord Degree Name Sheet.

Might as well clip them together. (Why isolate a mundane theory exercise naming “Major,” “minor,” and “diminished” from the universe of living, breathing music?)


Lesson plan: Chord Sheet

Play though a one-octave C Major scale up and down.

Build chords on each degree
EAR TRAINING TIME… What is “Major,” “minor,” and “diminished?”

My students have had plenty of exposure to Five-finger positions, Major and Parallel minor, so they’ve had an ear-sensitizing jump start.

Knowing the content, in whole and half steps of MAJOR vs. minor, doubles on what the ear perceives. (Cognitive dimension)

Building chords, and playing through them not just as skips but evolving from steps through five notes is very valuable.

The affect or color of Major vs. minor has been “drummed” into most of my students early on as I converted their primer pieces in method books to the parallel minor by lowering the third. (No reason why the method book community can’t detox from MAJOR, MAJOR and more MAJOR in the fixed positions) Or become more CREATIVE!

Once my pupils have played chords on each C Major scale degree (1, 3, 5 for Right Hand) (5,3,1, Left Hand) separate hands, they come to chord Vii and “sense” a change or departure from Major and minor. That’s when we discover that lowering what would be a minor Vii by half step on the top note will create DIMINISHED.

What I do is add another third to the diminished chord and reveal the suspenseful, mysterious feeling attached. Add some pedal and we’re in a diminished altered state. (a seance, perhaps?)

Students readily appreciate the mood swing.

The next part of our exploration in prep for “Drummer Boy,” is labeling the TONIC, Sub-dominant and Dominant chords while PLAYING THEM, of course.

They have already explored EVERY chord on each scale degree identifying Major, Minor or diminished.

And yes, they note the labels are Tonic, Supertonic, Mediant, Sub-Dominant, Dominant, Sub-Mediant, Leading Tone, and Tonic.

But for this undertaking, I’ve focused on the Primary Chords, I, IV, V and I, having my students jump from I to V and back to I, and then I to IV and back to I.. Not starting with INVERSIONS, which of course make voice leading smoother.
“Drummer Boy” will have inversions of primary chords where necessary so this is not overlooked. I show how chords can be inverted.

(Scale practice should include inversion of chords) Some students have not found the time to add. But we’re working on it.

The one NEW ingredient of “Drummer Boy” that needs to be isolated and integrated into Chord exploration relates to building a DOMINANT on different chords other than what’s primary to the KEY played.

So I have had students count five notes up in G Major, for example and build a chord on its DOMINANT, remembering that G Major has an F#… So it’s Dominant chord is D F# A.. this can be further practiced in the keys of D and A.. etc. (I know the sophisticated label is SECONDARY dominant, but don’t choose that vocabulary in the infant stage of learning chords) The exposure to DOMINANTS of more than one key, however, will fill in the learning gap at one of the measures in “The Little Drummer Boy.” (When a dominant is imposed on the IV chord to flesh it out)

NEXT: Students are challenged to build chords on every scale degree of F Major (The key of “Little Drummer Boy”)
Yes, they’re transposing, but this is nothing new. Students who play five-finger positions and scales, have been transposing for months and years.

They then pick out the PRIMARY CHORDS in F Major..

Pupils, by the way, will not be excused from NOTATING chords in F MAJOR. That’s their ASSIGNMENT with plenty of space on the Chord Sheet to follow through during the week.

Finally, they apply their chord explorations to “Little Drummer Boy,” with lots more to consider in a layered-learning experience:

Voicing and chords or the harmonic dimension are two facets. (playing the soprano and alto lines separately, for example is recommended.)


All in all, this piece remains appealing because of its harmonic richness and drum-like, repeated bass pattern. In the last analysis, students love having an orchestra at their fingertips!

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The importance of Sight-singing, Ear-Training, and Theory in Piano Study

During my years at the New York City H.S. of Performing Arts, I was thankfully exposed to a myriad of ear-training classes that provided a solid foundation for my piano studies. Without, sight-singing/solfeggio, keyboard harmony, and music theory, I would have skimmed the surface in all realms of music-making (Chamber music, solo performance, and accompanying)

When I continued my studies at the Oberlin Conservatory, these courses and more spanned a period of 4 years in each field of discipline. You can add eurhythmics, music history and piano literature to the mix.

Yet in the daily private piano teaching milieu, where students are strapped for time with a host of extra-curricular activities, sometimes ear-training and theory are overlooked, or relegated to a supplementary status in the total learning environment.

Not a good choice.

If children are to benefit from a complete, well-rounded music education, then the elements of ear-training must start at the very beginning of lessons.

For wee beginners, ear-training amounts to singing melodic lines, using hand signals in the spirit of Hungarian mentor, Kodaly, and absorbing the “singing pulse” as opposed to a metronomic, robotic rhythmic framing. Once notation is taught, an understanding of “skips” and “steps” must be internalized and reinforced by these very singing activities. All music must be living and breathing from the start to have meaning on a cognitive, affective and kinesthetic level. (three ways of “knowing’)

My pre-school music classes in the Bronx enlisted pitched and non-pitched percussion instruments for sound explorations (xylophones, marimbas, rhythm sticks, tambourines) And our teacher, centered at a grand piano, enriched our melodies with embellished harmonic support.

Piano lessons then followed two years of such group Music Appreciation, which today might have its equivalent in Music Together classes.


Individualized Piano Lessons

Intermediate and Advanced Students:

As pupils progress in their piano studies, theory, sight-singing/ear-training should be integrated into lessons–perhaps best applied in the analysis of a piece of music. But this undertaking is meaningless unless the pupil has a solid, continuous exposure to Major and minor scales in all keys around the Circle of Fifths. The foundation that feeds ear-training is scale study–which is the point of departure for learning about harmonic relationships. (The process is gradual and cumulative)

As an example, I’ve snatched a segment from a recent Skype lesson to England, where the student (late intermediate level) and I explore two melodic and harmonic intervals using solfege (syllables that replace letter names) The “DO” or first note of a scale is “moveable” allowing for an easier understanding of harmonic shifts in a piece of music.

(In my opinion, solfege, should follow music letter-name learning. In too many cases, beginning students who have transferred to my studio from Yamaha Schools or have been taught solfeggio exclusively for too long, experience difficulty making the transition to note naming. The same deficit results from a purist Suzuki teaching approach)


In the following Skype segment, the student and I worked on identifying a melodic and harmonic 2nd, followed by the same for a third.

Ideally, a portion of every lesson should be devoted to these ear-training/theory activities and then directly applied to repertoire. In this way a student grows and develops with a deeper understanding of the compositions he is studying.

P.S. I am now teaching piano in Berkeley California, with a second studio in nearby El Cerrito. Skype lessons are available upon request.


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Using piano repertoire as a springboard for a theory lesson: Major, minor and Diminished Chords (Videos)

One of my adult students is working on the gorgeous J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor which has a second page full of “Major,” “Minor” and “Diminished” chords. The sonorities progress in sequences, but they also have a secondary dominant relationship to resolving chords. The “harmonic rhythm” moves quickly.

While this particular pupil may not be ready to understand “functional” harmony or the “modulation” dimension of the broken chords as they occur in the B section, she could learn how to form “Major,” “minor” and “diminished” chords, and then appreciate their differences through ear-training exposure.

In this video, sent between lessons, I reviewed Major, minor and Diminished chords and their derivation from five-finger positions which she has been studying in the Major and Parallel minor. The fact that the chords (broken) moved in a sequence, or a pattern also helped her navigate this section.

The Secondary Dominant aspect had been briefly noted, but will be more deeply explored as the student’s scale work around the Circle of Fifths gives an opportunity to build chords on every degree of the scale, noting harmonic relationships, cadences, and modulations.

Teaching Video:

In part B, the music blossoms into a series of secondary Dominants against sobbing, sighing pairs of descending seconds, before it returns to a familiar revisit with part of the opening A section.

Sustaining a melodic line through recurring broken pattern chords is paramount to playing the Prelude poetically and musically. Varying dynamics and tapering phrases are woven into the artistic process.

Playing through entire prelude, first in chords, then as written in broken chord sequence.


Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery

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Piano Lesson Excerpts: Practicing the Bach Invention 13 in A minor (Videos)

This morning, Claudia, 11, practiced the J.S. Bach A minor Invention behind tempo, (in slow motion) to improve her musical/technical understanding of the composition.
She worked on “weaving”/shaping the main idea or subject, which is a broken chord figure. The interaction between hands or voices (there are two them) was a particular focus, as it represents a dialog or two-part counterpoint. Nuances, dynamics, and progression to the climax were explored in detail, with improvement being made by the lesson’s conclusion.

The student will do her follow-up practicing at home keeping in mind what we worked on today.

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Piano Technique: Using a spring forward wrist, and arc motions for hand crossovers in Scarlatti Sonata in A, K. 113 (three videos)

Every so often I revisit a composition I’ve previously studied applying a different perspective. In Scarlatti’s A Major Sonata, with its very demanding Allegrissimo tempo marking that makes the crossed hand sections seem impossibly difficult, I decided to parcel out pertinent measures in practice tempo. The goal was to inch up to a faster rendering as compared to my last. For the most part, a few months will pass before I set my mind to upping the tempo of a particularly challenging piece, and it’s because the ripening process has to be factored into all learning journeys. Arthur Rubinstein made it a point to underscore how a piece, mindfully practiced, will ripen in time.

Pianists of all levels eventually come to the realization that a composition patiently learned in layers will have the best chance of blossoming in the long term.

In two of three videos, I fleshed out what physical motions best helped me realize phrase shapes in the Scarlatti sonata so I could ultimately play the composition at the desired Allegrissimo. In exploring the physical aspect of piano playing, I found it best to tie everything together: phrasing, dynamics, and nuance– allowing for experimentation, self-analysis, and fine tuning along the way.

In the third video I raised the tempo.

Part 1: Spring forward wrist motion, and some crossed hand measures (with attention to shaping phrases)

Part 2: Isolating crossed hand measures toward the conclusion of the first section (arc motions)

Raising the Tempo: