Learning J.S. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” (Egon Petri piano transcription)

Egon Petri offers a transcription of J.S. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” (based on the Baroque composer’s “Birthday” Cantata) and it’s drawn a cult of admirers, mostly adult students begging to learn it. The work originally scored for two flutes, soprano and continuo, comes a close second in popularity to “Flight of the Bumblebee,” with its enticing stream of breakneck speed chromatics, evoking the buzzing insect.

Not unexpectedly, one of my students who’s deeply immersed in J.Bach’s Prelude in F Minor, BWV 881 (Book Two, Well-Tempered Clavier) happened to bring a fresh copy of Petri’s “Sheep…” saying she wanted to “read” through it, and might I insert fingering in the virgin score.

My undertaking, therefore, required careful screening of various lines, with recommendations for an optimally smooth journey through a chord laden terrain with some challenging, treble range parallel sixths, etc. (In this regard, there were measures that included intervals over the octave, where the player is given the option of eliminating a note or two.) In truth, given the transcription landscape, the player has a guilt-free, creative license to make sensitive changes that serve the smooth rendering of a phrase without doing an injustice to the COMPOSER’s work.

During my 4 page finger-assignment, I found that the experience sparked a deeper journey of discovery. Therefore, as follow-up, I carefully examined my own learning process, and uploaded a tutorial that focuses on the relaxed floating arm and supple wrist as aids to navigate various awkward sets of measures. (I also emphasized the relaxed, featherlight thumb in practicing pertinent measures well behind tempo.)

An earlier tutorial provided an optional fingering here and there with attention to an inner alto voice in the first section of Petri’s arrangement.

Other Helpful Sources

1) The Cantata excerpt as originally scored by J.S. Bach

2) Egon Petri plays his transcription with the manuscript scrolling through.

3) A pleasingly tranquil reading by Italian pianist, Alessio Bax

Murray Perahia analyzes and then renders “Sheep May Safely Graze,” during an interview broadcast from Israel with Arie Vardi.

Start 20:42 in the track below:

P.S. The whole program, centered on the works of J.S. Bach, is worth watching.

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An adult and child share common goals in playing piano artistically

There’s no big ocean of divide in working with children and adult piano students. In fact, today I found common threads running through two lessons: one with a local beginner, age, 8–the other, a seasoned adult.

Liz, 8, completed her fifth week of instruction, with my imbued emphasis on how to produce a singing tone. From day one, I’ve nurtured a relaxed funnel of energy down her arms, through supple wrists, and gently curved hands. This same fundamental lesson framing applies to Sam, a much older student who resides in London, takes lessons Online, and is practicing “Fur Elise.” (He’s about three years into his studies.)

The following lesson samples were nicely paired with common goals of creating beauty. Sam’s challenge today was woven into his D Major Scale in 10ths. He worked on ORGANIZING it–discovering symmetries between the hands in mirror images, while maintaining a natural flow of energy down his arms, wrists, and hands. Curling fingers under in a block practicing segment impeded its smooth octave by octave course, and grabbing notes would cause the same interruption of well-breathed out sequences. The remedy proved to be thoughtful repetitions, that gradually eliminated these impediments.

For Liz, whose lesson I re-capped in a summary video, I illustrated the very concepts that were woven into Sam’s lesson, but in a different context.

The child is studying short pieces in Frances Clark’s Primer, Time to Begin, but she’s also given composing assignments that tap into her creativity with an embedded alliance to the singing tone. The earliest exposure to the piano is probably the most critical in furthering the development of attentive listening; a physical/emotional connection to the instrument, and a cognitive framing that reinforces the practicing phase. (Not to overlook the imagination and its profound influence upon musical expression.)


SAM: Playing the D Major Scale in 10ths

A Summary of Liz’s 5th lesson–correction from “4th” mentioned in the video (in part)

Liz’s previous lesson segments have been recorded in progress:





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Deviating from the Piano Method Book to custom fit the child

In the course of page turning through The Music Tree, Time to Begin, I’m in agreement pedagogically with the early exposure of twin black note playing, enlisting alternating hands, using fingers 2 or 3. This route also provides a sound vehicle for teaching fundamental note values: quarters and half notes, with a pre-notational designation of hand use by stems up (RH) and stems down (LH).

However, after observing my piano student, Liz, during the course of three lessons, my inclination is not to dwell too long on TWIN black note playing with fingers 2 or 3. Instead I’ve decided to branch out and introduce three-black note combinations that include finger 2, 3, 4 in each hand. To this effect, I’ve borrowed a few pieces from Faber Piano Adventures: “The Walking Song,” “The I Like Song,” and “I Hear the Echo.” I plan to record teacher accompaniments for the child to enrich her practicing with a harmonic underpinning. (She will do introductory clapping to introduce tempo and a steady pulse)

As a warm-up to the aforementioned pieces, I’ve created a “Stepping Up” piece on twin black notes, (fingers 3,2 LH and 2,3 RH) dividing the keyboard in half to comport with a bass/treble division, and “Stepping Down” that reverses the direction of notes. This exercise, rhythm-framed, uses a LEGATO touch between consecutive fingers. (a new undertaking)

The same approach applies to traversing the keyboard over triple black notes using fingers 2,3,4 in the RH, and separately 4, 3, 2 in the LH. Again a framing rhythm and legato touch are the goals of this excursion. Built into this exercise is an inversion of the notes in a DESCENDING journey)


Today the student explored the musical alphabet. (ABCDEFG).

In both Time to Begin and Piano Adventures (“The Pecking Hen”) there are ample opportunities to name the sequence of 7 letters in repetitions all over the keyboard. (the word “octave” is introduced in this exploration).

Today Liz played C, D, E using fingers, 4, 3, 2 (LH)
and separately 2, 3, 4 (RH) during a four-octave span–She then reversed the journey in the opposite direction.

The same occurred with the balance of the musical alphabet as follows:
F G (with 3, 2 LH), A B (with 2, 3 RH) played LEGATO in quarter notes with a hand over hand progression. The exercise became a springboard for a second composing opportunity that included discovery and use of the sustain pedal.

Liz’s initial composing activity continued with an enlarged framing.

My teacher accompaniment had been added to the student’s piece that is shown below in a pre-notational representation that inserted the names of white notes.

Liz piece notation

We also experimented with an alternate style of accompaniment that complemented the rendering of the same short composition with staccato articulation on the quarter notes. (giving it a Spanish flavor)

Future Composing Activity:

I’ve assigned a two-phrase piece, that should be in groups of 4, using quarters and half notes.

FG AB: LH 2, 3, RH 2,3 (The piece is to encompass “two octaves,” use quarters and half notes; and should contain an echo.)

Given this student’s current musical knowledge, she will be able to float and name the notes while also notating the rhythm on paper.

Finally, in composing and other activities, the singing tone is emphasized and reinforced with demonstrations of the supple wrist, relaxed, floating arms, and a framing pulse.

OVERALL plan: To move to the partial staff sooner than later. I favor this Time to Begin approach as compared to the content of most Method Books that prematurely present the complete Grand Staff, and habituate students to five-finger positions that often compromise note reading progress.

Nonetheless, I’m not averse to borrowing parts of teaching materials that have pedagogical value and make up for the shortcomings of one or another piano “method.”





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The “upper arm roll” and undulating wrist in piano playing

Many piano teachers call the same physical approach to various passages by a different name. I find myself in harmony with author, teacher, composer, Seymour Bernstein when he demonstrates the “upper arm roll” in Part 4 of his recorded series, “You and the Piano.”

As it plays out in one my teaching videos, I similarly refer to an “arm roll” that has a continuum of funneled energy through undulating wrists.

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I also emphasize that the fingers have to be draped in a relaxed way, so as not to impede the smooth flow of energy down the arms into wrists, hands and finally into the fingers. This energy delivery should be without tension-related interruptions at any juncture.

In addition, I advocate the use of “rhythms” to activate these bigger energies where they apply. For instance in the Coda section of J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor, (end of measure 22 through m. 25), many students get “locked up,” as a stream of Subject fragments pile up at close intervals. Often these notes within such sub-sets flow out of Dominant harmonies and land with ACCENTS instead of tapering according to harmonic rhythm.

To avoid such unmusical emphases, I suggest grouping notes in rhythmic segments with a natural arm roll into flexible wrists.

In the attached video, at the juncture where the A minor Invention spills into a climactic convergence of voices between the hands, commencing at measure 19, and continuing through an intensified spill (Treble 16th notes, against bass 8th notes) I further recommend a “rolling” or “wavy” contouring in groups of 8.

Bach A minor Invention p. 3

Finally, in reference to the uninterrupted flow of energy funneled down the arms, I urge students to preserve a mental image of “hanging arms, hands, and fingers.” By standing upright and then bending over in a relaxed way, they can simulate this “feeling.”

Even while seated at the piano bench, this same sense of “hanging” in relaxed abandon can be imagined and put to good use in piano playing, along with the related mental image of Puppet String Arms.


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Liz, age 8, composes a piece at her third piano lesson

giant Catapillar and Music Tree

Creative explorations are intrinsic to musical growth at all stages of learning, so piano teachers should encourage students to compose at every opportunity.

Liz rose to the occasion and shared her first creation that followed a lesson segment that focused on echo phrases. She had watched a you tube video of duo pianists, Arie Vardi and Yeol Eum Son playing a set of Haydn variations that were permeated with echoes, and these turned out to be a nice springboard for understanding form and aesthetic. The listening example also had the dual effect of inspiring Liz to try her own hand at composing that was followed by analyzing what she had played so she might teach it to others.

The process of “organizing” notes in groups; discovering symmetries between phrases, and exploring rhythm/dynamics proved to be a valuable learning experience.

For the teacher, the activity provided a challenge to “compose” a Secondo to enrich the student’s Primo with a bed of harmony.




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Fluid Arpeggios: No hand twisting, with floating arms and an economy of motion

Piano Technique: Arpeggios
From: Berkeley, California

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Berkeley near Spring

To: Sydney, Australia

Sydney Harbor
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I continue to learn from my students as I view close-ups of their arms, wrists, hands/fingers in motion across the keyboard. Most of my epiphanies occur over Skype or Face Time where I pinpoint technical problems that are MAGNIFIED by the webcam. I might use a LOCAL Full Screen view over CALL RECORD to model an economy of motion through arpeggios, and then switch to a Split Screen to assess the pupil’s improvement in keyboard transit. I’ll use prompts that are specifically physical, and others that are in the mental image realm, not overlooking “phrase-shaping” through broken chords in slow and brisk tempo: legato and staccato. (A melodic thread is always preserved.)

In the attached video centering on the D Major Arpeggio, a student had a conspicuous hand “twist” that was impeding what she imagined internally as a smooth musical flow of notes, and it was no surprise that she had to brave certain technical challenges to get to the “heart” of her playing. As an example, when I was 13, I came my teacher, Lillian Freundlich, knowing what I wanted to hear, but yet, I hadn’t the “tools” to put into motion what I had imagined and internalized. Some students are not sure what they want to hear, so this presents still another dimension of the learning process.

The adult pupil practicing the arpeggio, however, is “musical” and intuitive, so our focus in the technical segment of lessons, has been how to navigate through scales and arpeggios with ease and FLUIDITY.

In our partnered journey, we’ve discovered along the D Major route, that the sensation of a “floating arm” is pivotal to creating a horizontal LINE. But that’s not enough. The thumb should not pull the hand down, or force a twist in the hand just because it cruises under finger “tunnels.” In a previous blog, I referenced the thumb’s tendency to usurp more rule or power than it was entitled to. It must be especially ARTFUL in not making a ponderous presence. From another perspective, it’s a “ruler” in the sense of being a “measuring” rod not an oligarch. Wherever it goes, the family of fingers drape around it creating balance and alignment. Framing this aforementioned assertion is the need for an overall “economy of motion” that affords speed, agility, and fluid playing.

Finally, in the Arpeggio cosmos it’s very satisfying to produce a floating, flowing, rippling set of broken chords that are well-spaced, and without thumb-heavy intrusions.

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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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