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Liz, age 8, has her second piano lesson! (With my interspersed thoughts about materials and teaching philosophy)

As I journey along with Liz, my newest piano student, I’m collecting insights about the nature of music learning from the perspective of a child. And by this most recent experience, I’ve come to realize that the choice of teaching materials is wedded to a mentor’s own philosophy about expressive music-making.

The samples below represent Liz’s second lesson exposure to the piano. Her initial introduction to the instrument was memorialized in a separate blog that’s linked at the conclusion of this post.

Thoughts on Teaching

Over decades of mentoring beginning students (in the 7 to 9 year old range) I’ve concluded that nearly all so-called “method” books have their set of strengths and weaknesses and each can be somewhat adapted to meet the needs of a diverse student population. But if pre-reading offerings that include staff-less, floating black key pieces, are quickly disposed of in favor of quick fix, Five-Finger position romps that over-generalize keyboard geographies, (and become addictive), then then I must draw the line about what I can in good conscience work with in my role as a front line, first responder to the musical needs of a fledgling.

Have I found a magic path in a published set of materials on the market?–not necessarily, but I’ll admit that Frances Clark, the original Mother of The Music Tree series never intended to woo students to the piano with “shortcuts” and Kool-Aid dispensing note-reading routines that pin the thumb on Middle C, and follow with a parade of invented “positions” that march laboriously through Red, Green, and Yellow “A,” “B” and “C” levels.


I tend toward being a repertoire-based teacher, though in the formative introductory period to the piano, I want to synthesize singing tone production, with cognitive and affective dimensions of learning within a balanced, educational framework.

So rather than nit pick this or that “METHOD” that could ostensibly work, or to the contrary, not be feasible for a particular student and teacher, I’ve made the decision to embark upon a collective journey with Liz, having an open mind.

In this vein, the student’s piano lessons will continue to be recorded and posted weekly on You Tube as my point of departure for review and evaluation. In this way, I’ll allow myself the unswerving freedom to modify any teaching material to meet the pupil’s individual needs.

What I currently favor, however, about Time To Begin, is its renunciation of the “position” route that forces too many pupils into a five-finger dependency rut.

Yet, I’m not unconditionally pleased with method book packaged pre-recorded accompaniments that are associated with the Music Tree Primer.

The companion Time to Begin CD provides the beginning student with a cushion of harmonic support and rhythmic framing in duo form, while it can be constraining for a pupil who has to fit into a “robotic” Midi generated Secondo.(Accompaniment) Between lessons he/she is unable to bend a phrase, contour or it, or “express” creative spontaneity while the disk is streaming. Nevertheless, I can still live with what I consider to be a CD generated- compensatory boon for early learners because of the disk’s repository of adventurous harmonies and basic framing “beats.” Eventually, these measured “ticks” should become internalized and ripened into a “singing pulse.”

I’ve already worked around the pitfalls of MIDI Secondo parts, by revisiting Time to Begin duets at the LIVE lesson, with my creative prompts. More specifically, I’ve “slowed” up the fundamental beat, while suggesting an array of “dynamics” that include “making a “crescendo” and varying “colors.” We have “floated the Canoe on gentle waters”–(“In The Canoe”) and made an “echo” on the repeat of “Inchworm.”

Liz, a bright and responsive child is flexible and malleable when taken off the CD track and placed in an imagination-rich zone beside her teacher at the piano.

So for the present, Time to Begin is working harmoniously for Liz and its pages have unearthed my own unique approach to mentoring the child with necessary, self-applied Add-ons. These expand the learning environment as I perceive it, without strictures imposed by Clark, Goss and Holland.

In the creative cosmos, I’ve even added a “composer” opportunity to Liz’s lessons, hoping that she can trust her own unique expression at this early developmental stage.

In time, as Liz progresses to the Grand Staff, not having been exposed to the same old fixed notes attached to specific fingers, (thanks to Music Tree) she’ll ultimately become a repertoire-based learner (with supportive technique-based regimens). Listening assignments, meanwhile have been added into the mix. (Teacher recordings and those of various pianists–i.e. Burgmuller’s “Harmony of the Angels” to illustrate “supple wrist” motions through seamless, rolling triplets; Duet playing examples such as a set of Haydn variations with ECHO phrases.


In the offing, hand-picked compositions of merit will draw upon the the works of Turk, Hook, Kabalevsky, Tchaikovsky, et al serving to emancipate beginners from the drudgery of pre-designed, one-size-fits-all, LEVELED books.


The post below contains LIZ’s first piano lesson, in THREE parts:


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One grand piano in, and another out, but not forgotten

My tiny Berkeley apartment had been shrinking by increments with its herd of tight-squeezed grand pianos and digital keyboards. Count in a Baldwin grand acquired in April, 2015; a medium size Steinway grand (5’7″) bequeathed by my father after Oberlin graduation, and two side-by-side digital keyboards–YDP 105, and Yamaha Arius 141. The electronics were fun to play in the wee hours of the morning, with a snug pair of earphones to ensure privacy.

In truth, I had no real need to seal off my practicing from an appreciative audience of neighbors. Many admitted to eavesdropping–pressing their ears against my door, to savor a “free” concert of diverse timbres.

Why, then would I want to add a 6’2″ grand to my overflowing, “colorful” instrument collection?

I had no intention of allowing a tenuous keyboard situation to spiral out of control, until one Saturday, a neighbor’s baritone voice boomed through my door, announcing with urgency that “a Steinway A grand piano” was the centerpiece of a nearby Estate sale.

Instantly, I recognized the Letter “A,” like a dog sniffing out and pursuing a tantalizing beef bone– the impetus of which triggered a Pavlovian response.

I sprang out the door, running like a fiend to the McGee Street framed house only a block away, in hot pursuit of a prized instrument that I’d fantasized about since adolescence.



The ebony grand with lid open, was a 1911 model, making a stately appearance, and begging to be sampled. In a heartbeat, I was seated at the piano bench, running my fingers over its immaculate set of original ivories that afforded a fluid passage from phrase to phrase.

Steinway full view

Ivory keys

The piano sang like a nightingale and was smooth as silk to the touch. It sparked an impulse to possess it that barred a shred of doubt and common sense.

It was a mad love frenzy that sent me scrambling for my check book.

But first I’d dispatch a technician for a piano inspection.

His thorough assessment came within hours, and was so remarkably positive, that I sensed the man’s imminent, if not fantasized desire to rob the cradle of my future piano-playing pleasure.

I responded with a hasty offer aimed to thwart a bid by side-by-side salivating contenders. A few had huddled around me as I sampled the ‘A,’ with servings of Romantic era repertoire– the last offering was the first tableau from Schumann’s Scenes of Childhood. (Kinderszenen, “Of Foreign Lands and People.” )

As I inhabited my ethereal playing universe, a Chinese couple had edged close to the keyboard, breaking a spellbound immersion with a barrage of questions about the ‘A.’ They wanted to know if they should purchase it.

With a tiny, transparent sales slip chugging slowly out of a machine, I quickly sealed my ownership of ‘A’ and promptly contacted the piano movers .

While the logistics of containing THREE grands in a pod-size space were beyond my comprehension, I chose to let my fever pitch excitement abate before making a final decision about the fate of my PIANOS.

Somberly, I concluded that Steinway ‘M’ had to go with its modest, though resonant voice that matched its “medium” size and proportion.

My ads for an adoptive family spread far and wide in neighborhood Online listings. ‘M’ would either be placed in a temporary home with a suitable environment, or be sent to climate-controlled storage in a bumpy ride to Oakland. The latter seemed like a death sentence.

Israel Stein, my retired technician had e-mailed me a set of valuable recommendations that supported the well-being of my ‘M.’ These were borrowed and inserted in my posts.

“1. Keep it out of direct sunlight – always. (“only an hour or so per day” is just as damaging).
“2. Keep it away from open windows and doors (especially in the winter)
“3. Keep it away from heat sources (radiators, heat vents, space heaters, etc.)
“4. Keep it away from steam, vapor, and other excess moisture (in today’s “open” floor plans, pianos often get subjected to kitchen steam and vapor).

“Unfortunately,” he emphasized, “people too often placed pianos in accordance with their home decor needs, not considering what was good for the piano.”

My ardent pursuit of a caretaker took many twists and turns.

One eager prospect, was a song writer with admirable credentials. She and her composer husband who lived about 2 miles from Steinway ‘M,’ almost became its temporary parents, but for their open kitchen in close proximity to the grand. The gas heat, and vapor would swell the soundboard, ushering in a compensatory contraction. Their bedroom was at first a possibility for containment, but ‘M’ could not fit into the small space.

Other wooing adoptive applicants were ruled out by radiators, and very young children. Still, I was clinging to the hope that perhaps my neighbors down the walkway would agree to take my ‘M’ in exchange for piano lessons bestowed upon their chirpy 8-year old daughter who sang past my door each day. It was her dad who had first alerted me to Steinway ‘A.’


Through this whole, foster care-seeking process, I felt more than a shred of guilt for abandoning ‘M’ though I knew that it was time for ‘A’ to claim the rightful space that had been taken up by ‘M’ these many years.

To my great relief, my neighbors came through in the wee hours of the morning with a text that they would take ‘M’! And that’s how the piano shuffle began.

(‘A’ now sits snugly beside ‘B’ (Baldwin) in my music room, as ‘M’ is resting comfortably in her neighboring abode)

side by side piano best


Finally, piano lessons will soon start where ‘M’ resides, and I’ll keep my ties to a piano that will not be forgotten.

Little girl in front of M


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Mirrors and piano playing

As we age, we’re reluctant to look at our reflection in the mirror, but as we grow over time as musicians, the mirror of our playing in recorded “reflections” can foster quality adjustments in phrasing and interpretation.

If we nudge ourselves to step back and be “objective” about what we’re hearing, we may try to amend our next playing so it’s not a static, unaltered repeat of the last.

When I observe my own false starts, phrase imbalances, thumb pokes, and breath-short measures, I aim to improve these shortcomings by studying physical and musical dimensions that must be intertwined and synthesized.


In a separate but related universe, Alfred Brendel, renowned pianist, puts a negative spin on the “finished” recording, while his comments upon careful scrutiny, support the self-educational value of making longitudinal student recordings. (While these exist in an “unfinished” form, being raw and home-based, they still have significant redeeming value)

In the following abridged paragraph of his newly released book, Music, Sense and Nonsense, the celebrated pianist bemoans the “impalement” by the public of renderings that permanently emblematize player. Yet amidst a string of professionally recorded efforts, Brendel appreciates an evolution of artistry that ripens over time– permeated by modified creative perceptions.

“But a recording is… simply the fixing of a moment.. so the artist should have the right to identify his work within a certain phase of his development… (And) it is only the continuous renewal of his vision – either in the form of evolution or of rediscovery – that can keep his music-making young.”

The last sentence fits perfectly into the paradigm of enlisting recordings to illuminate a particular developmental phase and to move it along to the next with sensitive adjustments and acquired awakenings. These flow through an artistically dynamic chain of youth-preserving efforts that should draw students toward recorded reflections of their playing, not away from them.

For piano teachers who evolve beside their students in a comparable growth process, home-created recordings can mirror efforts that are undergoing constant refinement without their needing “fixed” deadline arrivals, or contrived makeovers to mimic youth appeal that has no depth or substance. (i.e. fast and furious top-layer playing without thought, emotion or REFLECTION.)

As a footnote to this discussion on the value of recordings in the learning environment, I offer a Student/Mentor mirrored-back lesson sample. (In teaching this Bach Invention repetitively, I will, no doubt, alter my ideas in consonance with an ever-changing process embedded in refined artistic illumination. The same metamorphoses will apply to the student.)

J.S.Bach Invention 13 in A minor:



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Dining with musician friends at Bacheesos in Berkeley, CA

Friedrich and Rebecca crop

This was a happy reunion after many long months. The last I caught up with Friedrich Edelmann and Rebecca Rust they were returning from one of their European tours only to land one in Japan, playing for the Emperor and Empress. The happily married bassoon and cello duo, who sometimes add a pianist to the mix were in esteemed royal company.

The latest musical updates were imparted by Friedrich as Rebecca, Alana (a mutual companion) and I dove into our plates filled with salads, artichokes, salmon, seasoned chicken, pilaf, hummus, and infinite ambrosian delights:

“On our tour to Japan in July-August 2015 we played 15 concerts in Tokyo, Hamamatsu, Nagoya, Kobe, Kyoto, Oita, Tsukuba and others. The concerts were organized and supported by Mercedes-Benz, Japan, by Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corporation, Nagoya, and by the German-Japan Society, Kobe.

“On July 13th we were invited privately to the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, playing for the Emperor and the Empress of Japan, and Empress Michiko also played on the piano together with Rebecca on the cello.”

Rebecca and Friedrich touring Japan

What a unique musical journey among many this couple has taken around the world.

I took my own sojourn to the house piano, a satisfying Kawai studio upright with a lovely resonant tone.

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 7.42.12 PM

As an encore to this get together, note the riveting interview I’d convened with Friedrich that tied his 27-year Munich Philharmonic tenure to various adventures with piano soloists, Michelangeli and Barenboim.


And finally, not to overlook a fine dining Bacheesos hostess who made our musician family reunion a memorable one.





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Piano Maintenance: Resolving a weighty problem

Chuck at work (Crop)

Chuck Terpo, who continues to finely regulate my Steinway M grand, gave an encore performance yesterday, as he meticulously “lightened” some weighty bass notes. His nifty maneuvers on display in my iPhone generated video, revealed an analytic approach and smooth follow-through.

Watch Chuck methodically check the bass range, that was a bit too heavy for me by comparison to the balance of tenor, alto and treble registers.

Using the principle of the seesaw, the masterful tech applied a small lead weight to a particular juncture of the keys under evaluation, and made each one depress with less resistance.

The whole process, so riveting to observe, deserved exposure among teachers, students and piano lovers so here it is:


My evening piano lesson on forearm and finger staccato provided an easier “feel” terrain in the bass range.





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Getting immersed in LEARNING Bach’s F minor Fugue, BWV 881 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2)

My journey through the Baroque master’s Fugue no. 12 has been a labor of love though the form enshrined by J.S. Bach can be intimidating by its structural nit-pickings. Wikipedia, for example, cites BWV 847 in C minor, (the Fugue) as a model of internal order, with a carefully marked out Subject;  Answer (a fifth above the subject Key), and Counter-subject, all amounting to a well-defined Exposition. And as Episodes branch off (without the full Subject) though pieces of it, or motifs, (including that of the Counter-subject) will be included in so-called Subject departures, the learning process can eaily slip in Cognitive directions, bereft of soul and spirit.

Naturally, my teacher psyche has always had a significant influence on how I map out a NEW composition to alleviate, in this case, fugual anxiety. For one thing, I’m interested in finger choices, ways of grouping notes, and how to deal with finger switches or substitutions in order to be true to the score, or notation. If Bach wants a tenor voice to be held over another, and the only way to do this is by finger shuffling, then those key decisions have to be made early in the game. Yet these choices are considered in the context of three independent and co-dependent voices weaving in and around each other.  (Fortunately, my individual study of Two and Three Part Inventions and four Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 had provided a bedrock of contrapuntal exposure)

Therefore, in my early fugue-learning process, I meticulously studied each of three voices, so I could sing every one of them as a personal solo. I then nudged myself to learn every line by heart, so at any given point in the music, I could focus on a particular voice and flesh it out.

I will admit that this particular fugue was a hill to climb on the basis alone of having to devise a fingering for each voice that needed occasional carryover or division between hands, while in some measures the requirement to hold down notes with awkward finger switches might  guarantee a crash in tempo. Therefore,  I juggled fingering possibilities and eventually drew a few compromises.

As I traced the paths of Subject and Countersubject with interspersed episodes, etc. my cognitive examination fueled the affective dimension of Bach’s composition. An examination of tonal shifts, modulations, a deceptive cadence, and sequences struck a good balance with aspects of form.

Rather than drape my learning process in wordiness, I’ve created a video that demonstrates slow motion assimilation of the F minor Fugue.

The first video is an IN TEMPO reading of Fugue No. 12, BWV 881, followed by the tutorial.

Play Through:


In summary, I recommend VERY slow parceled voice practice when embarking upon learning the Fugue.  

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GRAND comparisons

It’s always telling to compare a piano’s tone, resonance and decay in the showroom where purchased to its performance in one’s living space. Unfortunately, one cannot transport the piano to one’s home while evaluating it at the store. In this regard, I can share a pertinent experience where a 7′ ft. Grotrian grand whose bass resonated off the roof in a Los Angeles warehouse environment, died in my arms, or shall I properly say in my hands when it arrived in my small piano room. The question remains, should the room have killed the bass? (while other ranges of notes were quite pleasing)

My new Baldwin 165 (5’5″) was a feminine piano from the start, but its bass and tenor had a more defined presence, boosted by a LIVE acoustic at the piano dealer’s space. Again, it was impossible to factor in the acoustical shift in my box-size apartment notwithstanding its hardwood floors and 1950’s era plaster walls.

Beside the NEW Baldwin grand sits my OLD Steinway M, (5’7″) 1917 that’s about to have two days of meticulous regulation. And despite its current land mines, it has more definition and reverb in all ranges, though I’ll concede that Baldwin 165 has a superior, to-die-for shimmering upper treble and touch perfection along with note-to-note perfection.

Enter, Baldwin Hamilton 1929 that was recently bestowed upon one of my students. It was my Blind Date piano that I purchased after a phone interview. Its profoundly long decay made it an instant Valentine’s Day addition to my piano collection.

Just a snatch of Hamilton reveals a lovely, defined and resonant piano with a decent bass and loving alto/tenor. Its upper range treble however, not sampled in the video below, was like glass due to hammer felt thinning, so it didn’t round out at the peak. Yet it had more character and personality than many shiny new pianos on display in showrooms around the country–(i.e. those nameless cookie cutters that are mass-produced)

Judge for yourself what resonates for you in these Grand comparisons, and add in my student Judy’s Steinway A, 1911, 6’2″ for good measure.

Note in particular, the Bach Invention 1 side-by-side samples.

Bach played on Steinway M (No pedal used)

Bach played on Baldwin 165 (No pedal used)

Same Invention on Steinway, M (No pedal used)