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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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Playing piano and getting into the spirit (Video with Aiden cat joining in)

It’s holiday time, and we’re all eating with gusto. In honor of Thanksgiving, we completely let go, pardoning ourselves of any rigid diet that would preclude an all out splurge.

So now, enter the piano, as a feast of delights waiting for the player to partake without a hint of holding back. It seems like climbing a mountain.

Agreed that you must learn the notes carefully at first and parcel out the fingering, etc. It takes patience. A famous piano teacher, Irena Orlov, from the Levine School of Music in D.C. recommends that students master one measure per day, particularly when faced with technically challenging pieces. Just imagine how well a pupil would know the Mozart Rondo Allegretto K. 545 after just 76 days! Not an impossible task, considering that a baby needs more than a year to learn to walk.

It’s all relative….

Tonight I was shuffling between my Haddorff console and Steinway grand piano, deciding which instrument would best suit the Mozart I had previously mentioned, and then again, Aiden was bench hopping so I allowed it because of the holidays. I reasoned, why not include him in a recording session in between turkey treat nibbles. He needn’t be shooed into the bedroom in solitary confinement every time I attempted to capture some music on my Imac.

Sad to say, by lifting restrictions on his comings and goings, he killed two especially good readings of the Rondo. In one he managed to squiggle off the piano bench, meandering his way to the window sill where he orchestrated his usual racket. (When iMac is capturing an EVENT he knows just when to paw the shutters to bring any and all music to a grinding halt) Naturally, as soon as I sense his general direction, my playing begins to deteriorate. A glaring case of anticipatory anxiety.

Irena Orlov would have interjected in her Russian accent, but dorogaya moya, Дорогая моя (“my dear”) you hev to learn to concentrate.. and maybe you need to think one measure at a time.”

Redux: Aiden did it again, but on the third warning, he abandoned his monkey business and jumped off the piano bench and settled into his favorite chair. (off camera)

What has all this to do with playing piano and getting into the spirit?

The basic lesson to be learned is that you must find a place within yourself where music totally absorbs you and allows no room for distraction.

What other reason is there to take up the piano in the first place if not to be immersed in a spiritual process.

***

Tonight after I had gorged myself silly on turkey, homemade stuffing, and pumpkin pie, I wobbled over to the piano, and reclaimed my right to channel Mozart without a hitch. Aiden was hanging around being otherwise quiet until…

That’s in the past now, because the Mozart Rondo made it to You Tube while two other playings were “moved to the trash.”

Related:

Link to Documentary about Irena Orlov:

http://vkontakte.ru/topic-21909584_23795931#/video-21909584_159343755

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Practicing the Bach Prelude in C from the Well-Tempered Clavier, by a process of chord blocking (Video)

Blocking out the lush harmonic progressions of Bach’s C Major Prelude is an important first step in learning it. A melodic line that sings through these sonorities, albeit, in waves of broken chords, is the composer’s stroke of genius. The chord inversions are perfectly in place to flesh out a divinely “voiced” melody in the treble.

In the attached video, I focus on the value of listening from chord to chord; being sensitive to relationships between them as Dominant to Tonic, or to a Deceptive harmonic event, among others— “feeling” resolutions, modulations, suspensions, sequences, etc. that are part of the “Harmonic Rhythm.”

Shaping lines, in part, according to rhythmic flow enriches a player’s understanding of the composition, giving insights about its phrasing and interpretation.

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/19/a-different-view-of-bach-and-the-piano-prelude-in-c-video/


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/26/everyone-plays-the-bach-prelude-no-1-in-c-you-tube-video-embedded/

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A different view of Bach and the piano (Prelude in C) Video

On a whim, I decided to keep my Mac at a distance from the Steinway, walk over to the piano without being too conspicuous, and offhandedly play the Bach Prelude in C from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Since I hadn’t yet mastered the editing side of iMovie, I figured a majestic lead into the playing would still work even with my back turned to the camera as I made my way to the piano bench.

In any case, I would preserve unedited moments with the flick of my Sony Cyber-shot digital if I had successfully trimmed the footage.

The upper screen had the original frames before they were transferred to the editing arena down below.

So here’s how it played out after I had managed editing and uploading. (A sigh of relief!)

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/26/everyone-plays-the-bach-prelude-no-1-in-c-you-tube-video-embedded/


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/practicing-the-bach-prelude-in-c-from-the-well-tempered-clavier-by-a-process-of-chord-blocking-video/

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Skyped Piano Lessons: Using video supplements as reinforcement (Video sent to an 8-year old student)

Today I Skyped a third piano lesson between California and Oregon, and learned that the student I was mentoring was not 10-years old as I had thought all along, but only 8!

Dad told me she had 10 months of lessons altogether, wherein I became involved only weeks ago at the father’s invitation. But the first phase of my musical relationship to the child involved a video exchange through a common private You Tube channel.

That process remained in place after I purchased and set up my iMac 21 for SKYPE.

In the past few weeks, many videos have been uploaded and sent back and forth, which in my opinion have significantly advanced the student’s progress. The participation of the father has also been pivotal to gains the child has made. He is very involved in the real-time lessons, and in the video exchange.

When his daughter practices between lessons, I am sent a video(s) of her session, and will comment on various phrases, measures. I then shoot back a responsive video underscoring my points.

So far I have found Skyped lessons to be valuable in fostering progress in conjunction with video supplementation.

Today I sent the video below to dad as reinforcement of the five-finger technical work we commenced today. It is no.1 of Dozen a Day, Bk. 1 “Walking and Running.” (Edna Mae Burnham) I expanded the exercise to include 32nds legato followed by Staccato Forte/Staccato piano.

In general I use these Pentascales to advance the singing tone and a supple wrist, and I take the student through all keys, “Parallel” Majors and minors. (Not the “relative” minors for this routine) At today’s lesson we embarked upon C Major and minor in parallel and contrary motion.

The balance of the Skyped lesson focused on the Chopin Waltz in A minor, No. 17 and the Clementi Sonatina, Op. 36 no. 3, first movement, Spiritoso.

Down the line I plan to introduce TWO octave scales through the FJH Classic Scale Book (McArthur and McLean) alongside the pentascale warm-ups. These pursuits will be videotaped and shared.

This 8-year old is not typical of students I have in this age category. She is very focused, physically adept, and musically inclined. The lesson plan is therefore adapted to her specific strengths and weaknesses and not standardized.

Teaching that is standardized does not make adjustments for individual needs.

RELATED:
Correction needed below: student is 8 years old!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/29/an-8-year-olds-playing-before-and-after-skype-lessons-plus-video-supplementation-chopin-waltz-in-a-minor-no-19-videos/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/between-california-and-oregon-skyping-chopin-with-a-ten-year-old-student-video-of-lesson-in-progress/

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Piano Practicing: Re-doing and Refining

Studying piano, playing through the great piano literature, requires revisiting, re-doing and refining our work. This undertaking should not carry a value judgment that what preceded was poor or inadequate. Those adjectives do not belong to the process of learning. After all, we do not fault babies for crawling before walking because we realize it’s the natural flow of growth and development.

For me, revitalizing a piece with a fresh and enlightened perspective is what draws me back to the piano each and every day.

On this note, I sat down at my Steinway this morning and decided to re-record Robert Schumann’s first Scene from Childhood, “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples.” Promising myself to step back and listen attentively as well as objectively to each playback, I would discern as best I could what needed improvement.

After spending about 45 minutes playing so many consecutive 2:05 timed segments, (approx.) I realized that I was throwing a subtle accent on each quarter note following the dotted-eighth 16th figure that permeates this composition, and it was distorting the melodic line. The accent was not necessarily obtrusive but I quickly realized that I needed to shape down the quarter note to obtain what sounded better. To de-emphasize that bothersome note I used a subtle wrist dip, so I would enter the key more slowly, and that’s where the physical side of playing intertwined with the sound image. (what I had underscored in my blog on Weight Control and Voicing.)

The review process also involved self-analysis, muscle memory, and decisions about voicing.

The other plaguing part of the tableau, was a crescendo at part B that sounded premature and not swelled in the way I wanted. I heard a poke on the G in the treble clef that made me cringe.

But having at least defined what I thought needed revision, I proceeded to re-record and play back.

In truth, I was cutting myself some slack because of my piano’s regulation issues. The perception that some notes were not having good let-offs made me continuously compensate to an unreasonable degree in terms of weight application into these more unresponsive keys. The piano’s irregularities in the touch/feel universe required a personal psyching out process that posed challenges.
***
Finally, despite an individual piano’s quirks, re-playing and revising the interpretation of a piece as many times as needed, is part of the learning curve. Realizing its value and keeping a positive, self-nurturing attitude allows fresh ideas to filter in, enlarging one’s musical perspective.

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The Piano Universe of Discussion Boards, Digital Feedback, and Self-analysis (Video)

I love to scan the Boards at Piano World, UK Forums, Piano Street, Piano Addict, and other stop-off points such as My Music Life Blogspot and Color in my Piano to get a feel for the concerns of piano students at all levels of study. This form of feedback that flows in and out of cyberspace is invaluable given a growing population of individuals who are immersed in their piano practicing in solitary confinement. Many don’t have teachers and depend on the Boards for guidance as well as kinship.

Blogging about hot topics

On the day I had dismissed the metronome as a viable practicing tool, I received a well articulated opposing opinion from the lively hostess of My Music Life Blogspot. A cellist, she posted about her piano studies with refreshing candor.

From her Cybersphere to mine, came the following:

“I have to confess, I love practicing with the metronome — but not using it as a whip to get faster. I like to set it at very slow tempos so that I really understand and feel the beat physically — main pulse, subdivisions, and so on. And of course, within that try to play musically and with expression. Without doing at least some of this, it is so easy to deceive yourself that you are maintaining the tempo you want. The other benefit of using it is that you don’t have to even think about where the beat is and can concentrate on other things.

“Amateur musicians I know seem to hate it, though. It’s sad, because it’s really one of the best tools for self-teaching. That, and a good digital recorder.”

My Music Life Blogspot’s last few words jumped out at me.

I could endorse her use of the digital recorder in the piano learning environment, with a specific recommendation to aim the camcorder at the hands, with an intent to capture raw, uncensored musical footage.

The process amounted to mirroring back what transpired in auditory space, not necessarily matching up with what the player thought he had he heard while playing. The revelation, to be helpful, might require a bit of self-protective depersonalization.

Self-analysis would spring from this face-to-face confrontation with musical reality. It would require the piano student to step back, listen, evaluate, and notice what needed improvement.

Perhaps a series of conspicuously accented notes might have disturbed the flow of legato phrases meant to be played smooth and connected. Or a poky, percussive sound might have registered loud and clear on a videotaped replay. These alerts reminded a player to re-do, refine, and revisit a passage or two before the next take.

Action, Roll it!!

I admit that last night, I sat in the eye of my Sony Camcorder for hours, trying to successfully up the tempo of my current obsession, Chopin’s Black Key Etude.

While letting the tape roll for its 60 minute run, I played through the lightning fast composition time and again, only to tumble like Jill, down a hill of careening octaves at the end. Did I really want to re-live my own personal calamity on re-play? Well, I capitulated, because out of 25 attempts, two squeaked through as possibly satisfying playings. If I had to grit my teeth through the other mishaps, I would still learn from them.
***
Self-analysis turns out to be the best friend of the piano student between lesson times. And for those of us engaged in an addictive learning process fed by our love for the piano above all other instruments, we can spoon feed ourselves some words of wisdom with the help of digital technology:

Suggestions:

1) Notice what jumps out at you as not pleasing to your ears. What doesn’t sit well as an auditory experience, will usually spill into the visual realm. You will inevitably SEE something about your playing that affected the sound.

Log your observations on paper or store in your memory bank.

Experiment with a set of adjustments that might yield a better playing outcome. Explore what works, and what doesn’t.

2) If a passage was tangled or disabled, decide if it was a fingering issue. If so, revisit and revise.

3) Cue into any tension in your arms, wrists, or fingers that might have glitched a bunch of notes. With a reminder to step back as an audience member would, be sure not to vilify yourself. Negative reinforcement has no place on the learning stage.

If excess tension locked a passage, go back and try to enlist an image to relax yourself. Let go of your arms and wrists, feeling like a marionette dangling from puppet strings.

Sing through passages and shape with your arms.

The vocal model, even embraced by a student with an imperfect voice, can help contour a line, in the company of relaxed, deep breathing.

Go back to the camcorder with a raised consciousness and re-record, re-evaluate, and re-integrate.

4) Check the tempo of your video sample. Was the playing too fast? Did it “choke” passages you could more easily navigate with a slower approach? Was the pace erratic, not consistent throughout the piece? Such rhythmic related irregularities will come into sharp focus as the camcorder rolls through replay. Taking the information offered and processing it in baby steps is part of the analytical process.

5) What about dynamics? Did you get a digital composite of flat liners, or was your range of louds (fortes) and softs (pianos) fleshed out? Follow through on what needs amending, and make those revisions. Record again with an awakened consciousness, and re-assess.

Finally, as living proof of an eternal student (me) who relies on my digital recorder to flesh out what needs improvement, I’m coming out of the closet with my latest reading of Chopin’s Black Key Etude, Op. 10, No. 5.

In the aftermath of God knows how many crash and burns captured in living color, I decided that this piece had reached a technical and musical plateau but would grow incrementally in the future. (It’s about 20 seconds behind tempo)

If I could toss my Ego aside, I would share out-takes that would be amusing and ring chords of recognition among piano players. But for the moment, I’ll reserve those for another time.

In the last analysis, I allowed myself more than a birds-eye view of what was going on through each playing, assimilating what I saw and heard as my reference for improvement. It amounted to having a spying, in-house teacher, 24/7

If you’re a piano student taking instruction, or one who doesn’t receive weekly lessons, the time you spend alone in your individual practice environment is probably best utilized in a mirrored process of self-evaluation. So grab the video camera and keep it as your steady musical companion.

Recommended Link:
http://www.mymusiclifeblog.blogspot.com/