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Piano Technique: The dipping wrist, and how it defies convention (Videos)

One of my adult students echoed a belief that has resonated for generations in piano studios across the country, if not the world. The OLD school of thought was that you played piano with a rigid, arched hand, and if you slipped into a longer, relaxed curve, or dared to DIP your wrist below the level of the key slip that boxed in the keys, you might as well find yourself another teacher. (In fact, a rejecting mentor would have gathered up all the pennies that fell off your” imbalanced wrist,” and stashed them away as proof of your transgression)

I remember clearly that my second New York City piano instructor, Ethel Elfenbein, (in the early 60s) was ironically a dipping-wrist player from start to finish, and her tone reflected the beauty of this approach, though for some reason, she couldn’t communicate to me exactly what worked so beautifully for her. (I spent too much time in the kitchen copying fingerings for pieces that were way above my head!) Try the Chopin Scherzo in Bb minor, when I could barely read a Bach Little Prelude.

Just about that time, I suffered the pangs of a piano-related depression and needed some guidance about the fundamentals of tone production.

Lillian Freundlich was the first singing tone-focused mentor, but she didn’t particularly work on wrist flexibility–or isolate the role of wrist motions in piano playing. (She spent inordinate time on relaxation and building up phrases in groupings)

On to Oberlin, her alma mater, and a regression to Schmitt exercises with a stiff hand position. I couldn’t stand it! A typing course would have reaped more benefit.

Fast forward the clock to California and Ena Bronstein, a fluid player, with an immense reservoir of motions through relaxed arms into supple wrists–and to her credit, she showed me some circular elbow motions that I readily ingested. Here’s a snatch of her Liszt Transcendental Etudes that reflects poetry in motion:

Not to forget, Seymour Bernstein’s video tutorials, one of which zoned in on the dipping wrist, Part 4. The undulation slowed up entry into a note, or chord, etc. and created a honey-dipped resolution, or magnificent phrase-tapering. You couldn’t miss the beauty coming from “his” own two hands.

Part Four, “You and the Piano”


A few years ago, I spotted an incredible You Tube video in Hungarian, that magnified Livia Rev’s approach to the piano. To notice a DIPPING wrist would be an understatement. I copied the thumbnail as a graphic example:

And here’s Irina Morozova in motion at the piano with her fluid wrist.

Do I dare follow these great artists with a sample of my dipping wrist in this short, but charming Mozart Minuet.

I can “sculpt” phrases with my “spongy” wrist, and create nuances that are otherwise unavailable if I adhere to the Old convention of keeping an up and perfect hand position:

That’s why I advocate its flexibility in my teaching–even with a child as young as Rina who started lessons with me 8 months ago at the age of 4.

Here’s a flashback to a very early lesson where she’s tapping one note to a CD selection from Irina Gorin’s Tales of a Musical Journey instruction. She had been imbued with the “spongy wrist” image as she played her detached notes, one finger at a time. (This was her third month of study)

As it happens, I’m now working with a new Skype student from the Alaskan frontier, who’s learning about the dipping wrist to warm up her playing.

Here are some pics:



RELATED: https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/piano-instruction-a-beautiful-mozart-minuet-in-f-major-k-5-not-often-played-video/


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The joy and value of teaching a piano student over many years

Claudia, age 6 playing a duet with me

I recall Elaine Comparone, the renowned harpsichordist having described a student she had mentored for 35 years before a move cut short a lasting musical relationship.

“She was the real deal,” the musician insisted.

Seymour Bernstein, author, With Your Own Two Hands, often shared the joy of teaching a child into adulthood, expressing pride in the work accomplished in steady increments. He proudly watched a beginner blossom into full grown maturity, often as a performer.

Quite by chance, I’d noticed Lydia Seifter, pianist, featured at Bernstein’s You Tube Channel and the name rang a bell.

I remember her as an Oberlin Conservatory student during my years there, enjoying membership in our Jack Radunsky rat pack–a group that met in the Con lounge to rhapsodize about our teacher. We’d tell jokes that rang familiar, sharing our sometimes awkward efforts to please him. If nothing else, the camaraderie was endearing.

I’m guessing that Lydia eventually wound her way back to the East Coast after graduation and began study with Seymour. Perhaps they shared a professional association for at least a decade or more. Certainly her playing revealed a depth I had not known when she was at Oberlin.


I always felt short-changed that I only had three years of study with the late and beloved, Lillian Freundlich. By an accident of fate that I would meet her in the first place. The Merrywood Music Camp in Lenox, Massachusetts produced a friendship with her young nephew, Douglas, who steered me to his aunt during my period of despair.

At the time, I was at an extreme low point in my piano studies. Frustration enveloped me due to lack of insight about how to prepare a piece of music, and where to begin in the creative process. The fundamentals of producing a singing tone and the physical means to achieve it were sorely missing.

Often, I pondered how it would have been if I’d studied with such a gifted teacher as Lillian from my earliest years, growing into blossoming musical maturity in the long term.

Murray Perahia, poet of the piano, was mentored by one teacher, Jeanette Haien from age 3 to 18, and when we met at the New York City High School of Performing Arts, he was well formed as a pianist. No doubt, it was in large part due to instruction that was consistent, inspired, and devoted in the course of 15 years.

Most piano teachers relish such a long-range opportunity to nurture a student, and in my own experience, I can wax poetic about one particular enduring musical relationship.

Paul, the son of a University Nursing Professor, came to my piano studio when he was a cute, little 8-year old. In third grade at the time, he’d previously taken about a year of lessons in another city.

Nevertheless, as Paul’s new teacher, I had a ground-up instructional challenge before me.

I remember how I set aside his method books and embarked upon a repertoire-based learning journey with integrated five-finger technical regimens in all Major and minor keys. Imbuing the singing tone was my priority and it nourished his earliest pianistic efforts.

The first book I ordered was the Royal Conservatory of Music, University of Toronto Level 1 Piano Repertoire Series. During his early months of study, Paul learned “Minuet” by James Hook, Schein’s” Allemande,” and Haydn’s “Country Dance” among selections that encompassed the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary periods.

After the child’s first exposure to pieces that had substance and beauty, he progressed to compositions with more technical challenges, such as Burgmuller’s 25 Progressive Pieces, Op. 100. These moved quickly from late elementary to early advanced levels, appearing deceptively easy. Yet the art of phrasing and nuance had to be learned, along with cultivating a broad dynamic palette and singing tone legato to realize Romantic period expression.

Over years, Paul graduated to playing Chopin Nocturnes, and Waltzes, having a bit of a starring role at student recitals. Most other pupils looked up to him, giving the youngster an iconic status. Yet in the glow of adulation, he always remained humble and self-effacing.

When Paul left my piano studio at age 17 to enroll at UC Berkeley, it was with a gulp of emotion. By this time he’d grown by leaps and bounds as a musician and was ready to leave the nest.


Currently, I teach two adults and one 11-year old who’ve been my students for over five years. In these relationships, there is not a trace of possessiveness or smothering.

Ideally, we can grow together and learn from each other as a plethora of ideas filter in.

Such is the joy of a long-lasting association that benefits two people committed to working in harmony toward the common goal of making beautiful music.


(Claudia, having grown taller than her teacher in this photo taken October 2011)


A Piano Student’s Milestones and Memories in Photos and Video


Taking Piano Lessons: Skimming the Surface, or Getting Deeply Involved


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Practicing knotty piano passages, and tips on how to avoid fatigue while boosting technique (Videos)

At my You Tube Channel site, I routinely pick up comments daily, and the majority center on piano technique. While I lay no claim to being an expert in this complex universe, my trial and error practicing over decades has come with insights that I enjoy sharing.

Earlier today, I’d noticed the following note posted at my site that referred to a devilish strings of repeated notes found in Scarlatti’s D minor Toccata, K. 141:

“My God!

“I can’t believe I’ve found this video—I’ve been killing myself trying to loosen up my 3-2-1 repeated notes for this EXACT piece!

“You’ve helped me to try out new ideas because I was about ready to give up as I no longer take lessons and kept tensing up. I just couldn’t figure out just how to fix myself.”

He referenced one of my comments in passing.

“You mentioned getting fatigued doing the repeated notes later on in the piece…do you think that no matter how loose you are you will eventually get somewhat fatigued by the end of this piece?”


Naturally, I answered his final question, emphasizing the dangers of over-practicing knotty passages, especially those with redundant motions that could cause an overuse injury.

It becomes quickly apparent that if you keep playing 3-2-1 repeated note combinations for hours on end, even if you execute them with a supple wrist and relaxed, flowing arm, the oxygen to the cells is going to give out at some point.

Veda Kaplinksy, a Juilliard School Professor of Piano, had driven this point home loud and clear in one of her media interviews.

From ingesting her words of wisdom, it followed that a player should know when it’s time to take a breather. A few hours or more of needed break time would allow the muscles a period of rest and repair.

In the meantime, I had revisited two of my posted videos that might help those agonizing about those time-worn, bummer sections that required renewed fuels of relaxed energy.

The first dealt with those dizzying repeated notes in the Domenico Scarlatti Toccata and how to approach them. I used Martha Argerich as my role model, watching her motions as she generated perfectly formed scads of them. It looked like she was sweeping or dusting the keys.

You can be sure after watching the You Tube video following mine, that her arms, wrists, and hands were very relaxed to pull off such an amazing performance!

In my second instruction, I used Burgmuller’s “La Chasse” as a springboard to explore ways of dividing the hands to advance articulation as well as an effective crescendo in an Allegro vivace frame.

After the introductory measures, I examined the repeated broken octaves in staccato and how to play them easily without tiring.

Amidst this whole terrain of practicing passages that require redundant motions with regular infusions of supple wrist-generated energy, I noted my last night’s revisit of Chopin’s Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1.

Having already exhausted everyone’s patience obsessing over the “killer” MIDDLE SECTION, I still enlisted it as a potential overuse injury stimulant–that is, if rest and repair breaks were not taken, one’s hands could feel like they were about to fall off.

But before I was completely shut down at my sixth playing, I preserved the first, and uploaded it to You Tube, feeling some progress had been made.

There will be further attempts to unshackle the death-defying mid-section as time permits.




"When do I Play my Best" by Seymour Bernstein, arioso7, authorsden, blog, blogger, blogging, blogs about piano, Chopin, Chopin Nocturne in F Major Op. 15 No. 1, Chopin Nocturnes, Chopin Piano Concerto in E minor, classissima, classissima.com, Frederic Chopin, how to review an old piano piece, how to review an old piece, Irina Morozova, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, pianist, pianists, piano, piano addict, piano instruction, piano instructor, piano lesson, piano lessons, piano playing and breathing, piano playing and phrasing, piano playing and relaxation, piano practicing, Seymour Bernstein, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, shirley s kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, With your own Two Hands by Seymour Bernstein, You and the Piano Seymour Bernstein, You and the PIano Seymour Bernstein on You Tube, you tube, you tube video

Accept where you are in your piano studies, know your limitations, but still strive to improve (VIDEO)

This is my credo or philosophy that allows for imperfection without self-punishment. Yet students of all levels tend to invalidate their own performances despite growth spurts springing from dedicated practicing. Many have done all the layered learning steps, but have come to a plateau in a particular piece which is perhaps where that composition will remain for a while, but not permanently.

There are also the realities of technical challenges that may or may not be met in this lifetime, and I’m the first to admit them. I’ve had to accept physical short-comings associated with any number of so-called bravura pieces.

Other players, in mellower moments, have likewise made peace with themselves.

In many cases, technical problems as they occur in sections of pieces, may relate to an individual’s built-in limits of what his hands, fingers, arms, wrists can produce. Some pianists have the gift of a genetically rapid trill. Others can practice their hands off, and still not create a shimmering ornament.

When I studied violin I had a natural vibrato and beautiful singing tone, but no matter how much I slaved over exercises for the left hand, I could not amble up and down the fingerboard with strength and certainty. Even having had the best teachers, I had to admit to myself that an astounding left-hand technique was not within reach. Still, I played for hours on end and improved, but fell short of my goal to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Instead, I gracefully settled for performing the Vivaldi Violin Concerto in A minor and lots of chamber music from the Baroque and Classical eras.

A number of violinists that I’d encountered in my musical journey had a slower, wallowing vibrato and less than ideal tone, but they had astounding left-hand agility with excellent bow technique that landed them in the finest symphony orchestras.

Back to piano..

and speaking of physical prowess,

Just the other day, I decided that I would confront my demons head on in the the Middle section of Chopin’s F Major Nocturne. In the past I had dodged any opportunity to post a reading on You Tube, let alone try to teach it in full view of an Internet audience. I was always stopped in my tracks by interminably long strings of broken chord patterns at forte level jumping from hand to hand. Some taxed my small fingers by their big spreads (another limitation that had to be reconciled)

But as I shrunk from a full-blown dive into the work, I approached the difficult section behind tempo, inching my way around familiar landmines.

And while it was all well and good in a slow rendering, what would play out in the big boy universe of in tempo, CON FUOCO? (with fire!)

Seymour Bernstein was listening from the sidelines as I shared my step-wise efforts with him. His full-blown, uncensored comments lit a fire, but not enough to adequately ignite bands of 16ths!

Once my personal bonfire had been smothered by tiring hands, Seymour chimed in with assistance:

Shirley, there are many things to discuss about that passage from the F Major Nocturne. The most important thing concerns the r. h. It would seem that the choreography is down-up for each pair of double notes. Yet my theory is that all double notes are wrist-arm activities with each tone going up (prepare)-down (play), as though we were playing non-legato. In fact if you practice those double tones at first non-legato and then legato with the same wrist-arm movements (but always leading with the fingers), you will see how much more comfortable they are to play and how evenly they sound. The other way requires crab like movements of the fingers alone which creates arm tension.

“Now, having said that, the l. h. can’t choreograph as though you were playing a scale. So because the r. h. goes up-down for each tone, so, too, must the l. h. do the same on each tone of the scales. So practice both hands non-legato to get the correct choreography, and then play legato. Those hairpins are not only dynamics, but, more importantly, tempo fluctuations (see my book entitled INTERPRETING CHOPIN’S NOTATIONAL SYMBOLS). As hairpins open, I suggest they mean to broaden out the tempo. The dynamics must be of our own choosing. I play the passage beginning with an accented forte, drop to piano as the scales descend, and then make a
cresc. together with broadening out the tempo on the ascending scales. The requirement of double notes in the r. h. and single notes in the left occurs on the opening page of Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise. In that piece, the l. h. appears like a simple short chromatic scale. Yet if each tone doesn’t go up-down with each double tone of the r. h., the body goes into shock. In short, both hands make the same movements on each tone. The feeling when you go fast in all such passages is like a vibrating shiver.

“In the final analysis, we all have our pet ways of solving difficulties. If something works for you, certainly adopt it.”

(The last line was diplomatic. It was a bone thrown to me in my dogged despair)

Nonetheless, I took Seymour’s advice.

My next try was abbreviated with its focus on his recommended STACCATO strategy followed by a Legato playing.

Two brief uploads tumbled out evincing sedated cheers from him. He was both encouraging and once again, diplomatic:

“That’s the idea,” he said. But be sure to play with the dynamics I suggested. Now do the same shivering motions fast and legato with vibrato pedal and it should sound terrific.”

A second pianist and teacher with singular gifts and achievements, added her own two cents:

“Feel very strong support in your palm, in the knuckles, and try putting your wrist down every bit lifting it a little higher toward the end of each group of 6 intervals, (every BEAT)”

That would have worked if I could do it consistently over long spans of measures, not in bite-size chunks. (A goal to strive for)

Seymour Bernstein added his final comments to my growing collection:

More suggestions about the middle section: stop concentrating so intensely on the r. h. and focus exclusively on the l. h., especially the eruptions at the ends of the ascending scales. You must broaden out the tempo and make a decided cresc. as you approach those rests before the final quick repeated tones. The feeling should be energy going to the key bed in the l. h. and a floating, surface approach to the double notes in the r. h., shimmering, so to speak, only to the escapement level of each key and not to the key beds. In fact, practice this section sounding the l. h. and simulating the correct touch with your r. h. only on the surface of the keys without sounding them. Then gradually allow a few tones to sound in the r. h. until you hear a fast murmur of those double tones. This way you will gain speed and make progress.

Incidentally, these discussions suggest another blog on preferred tempo. I noted that Livia Rev had a playing time of 5:24 (Nocturne in F Major) so the middle section perhaps was played on the moderate side of the metrical spectrum. In its divine simplicity, the reading was for me very appealing.

(I’ve heard from many towering pianists/teachers that a slower tempo can still have the vitality or spirit needed. I tend to agree)


When all was said and done, I recorded the complete F Major Nocturne, with a few prayers said before the camera rolled.

While the performance was not stellar, the playing showed marked improvement compared to my efforts years ago.

If nothing else such progress was worth celebrating.

And that’s what I’ve always said to my piano students as they advance along in baby steps…





Seymour Bernstein, Video 4, You and the Piano


Boris Berman Masterclass, Emotion and Meaning in Music, Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney-Chase, Leonard B. Meyer Emotion and Meaning in Music, Seymour Bernstein, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, With your own Two Hands by Seymour Bernstein, word press, wordpress.com, You and the Piano Seymour Bernstein, you tube, you tube video

Horowitz plays Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 and why it’s so beautiful to our ears

Every so often a performance like this pops up on You Tube that allows the listener to reflect upon why the playing is so moving.

This Romantic era composition, in slow tempo is no race to the finish line. The pianist is challenged to sustain a singing line without losing a thread of connection from note to note, phrase to phrase, harmony to harmony.

For me, the beauty of this reading resides, in part, in the performer’s ability to listen attentively from the end of one note to the next. (Horowitz’s wide palette of color contrasts and dynamics feed into this extraordinary performance)

In Just Being at the Piano, Mildred Portney-Chase expands upon an important dimension of “Tone.”

“Listen to the sound as it fades and let your hand tune into this sound. Your hand should float slowly up on the same path which it went down…Imagine that the tone rises like warm air and follow its path upward with your hand. Your hand rides on the sound.”

Attentive listening is pivotal to creating a beautiful tone, but it must be intertwined with a relaxed, physical approach to the piano that creates the Oneness of which Portney-Chase weaves throughout her book.

Horowitz is the epitome of this floating, flowing connection between an artist and the piano, but he’s also attuned to unexpected harmonic shifts that Leonard B. Meyer references in his book, Emotion and Meaning in Music.

Meyer emphasizes that what’s “unexpected,” harmonically or melodically as a piece unfolds creates an “emotional response.” A composer might have written a phrase ending in a dominant to tonic progression, and then repeat the same phrase but for a surprising landing on the VI chord, that elicits a “Deceptive” cadence of magical audible consequence. (Just one brief example)

While one can get overly analytical about modulations, noting them in the score in a pedantic fashion, the true artist “feels” the emotional impact of these as a performance unfolds because he has become “aware” of them in his practicing. “Unexpected” changes cannot be contrived or preplanned. (Boris Berman, master teacher reiterates) Rather, in the moment of being at the piano, certain harmonic events may be experienced with a poignancy that radiates out to an audience of listeners.

Perhaps it may not be easy to specifically explain why a sonority resonated in a different way from the others, but still, the effect is unusually divine.

Seymour Bernstein, pianist/teacher/philosopher explores “voicing” in part 4 of his series, You and the Piano. He says, “To experience polyphony with your own two hands is one of the privileges of being a pianist. Like the converging rays of sun, each voice of a chord fuses into a radiant hall.”

Bernstein illustrates radiance as he performs “The Poet Speaks” from Schumann’s Kinderszenen. (“Scenes of Childhood”)

Portney-Chase and Bernstein both explore areas that are vital to practicing from day-to-day.

We need only revisit Horowitz’s ethereal reading of the Liszt Consolation to learn by example that music-making is a synthesis of listening, feeling, and physical oneness with the instrument.


Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney-Chase at Amazon.com

Seymour Bernstein, Video Part 4, You and the Piano


Emotion and Meaning in Music by Leonard B. Meyer


Inspiring Masterclasses of Boris Berman