An Adult Piano Student who builds pianos and restores planes”

David dog 1My adult student, David, is a man for all seasons! He not only studies piano, with a penchant for the works of Bach, but he restores antique airplanes, and builds pianos. Add into the mix, his taking a ride in one of his personal airborne creations with a J.S. Bach soundtrack to accompany his soaring adventure! Take a look!

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A recorded conversation with David revealed more about his background in the piano technology field as well as his retirement activities that include planes, pianos and lots more.

Note that in the spirit of cruising through the skies, David takes his piano lessons in cyber, though he formerly drove about 300 miles from Chico to Berkeley, just to stop off at the Roma Cafe for a snack or two.

An Excerpt from a Skype Lesson with David: (He restored the vintage Steinway model ‘A’ he plays)

KEEP FLYIN’ at the piano and in the air!!! You Go, David!

David’s Self-built Grand Piano in Progress

“Shirley, here’s a couple pictures of the McPiano in progress. At the moment, I’m in the process of applying the last mahogany outer veneer to the outer rim. It is done in 2′ sections. The 1st one is a section glued and clamped on the curved section of case. The 2nd, snapped today, is a section glued and clamped on the straight part of the case.

The Piano is 7’4″ long (Steinway C size). I’m also taking videos of construction sessions and will edit them and produce a little video over time. I have 2 more sections to glue on to complete the outer case rim veneer.”

David piano in progress 1

David piano in progress 2


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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)

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Piano Technique: Trills and the vocal model

Joyce Di Donato, “lyric-coloratura mezzo-soprano,” is my model for trilling. In an embedded you tube video, the opera singer emphasizes the undulating character of a beautifully executed trill that leans on the upper note. (Too often pianists deliver a robotic stream of alternating notes that’s shapeless and out of breath, ignoring an internal flow and contour.) If we listen to birds chirping with their never-ending auditory appeal, we might gain valuable insight into trill production.

Here’s Joyce working on trills with a student at the Royal College of Music in London. It’s a nice point of departure for a musical transfer to the piano.

Below is a brief supplementary trill instruction followed by my teacher snatches from a LIVE interchange with an adult student at her Walnut Creek home. In the latter, I demonstrate on her magnificent vintage Steinway A. (1911)


My teacher examples, that are LIVE lesson recorded excerpts are meant to assist the student’s practicing during the week:

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An afternoon with piano student, Judy and her Steinway ‘A,’ in nature’s paradise

How many piano teachers are invited to a student’s lakeside home nestled in verdant beauty?! It was a splendid display of trees, including pines, cedars, spruce, casuarina, maples, birches, poplar, locusis, and sycamores, as well as native oaks.

River otters, deer, and exotic birds, such as egrets and herons are known to inhabit an awe-inspired Walnut Creek, California natural environment that frames a home bundled with a generous serving of early California history. (“Land and water rights in the area were acquired in 1908. Two years later the reinforced concrete dam was built at a cost of $80,000 creating the beautiful lake.” Road construction followed in the course of Lakewood community’s birth)

Better screen shot lake

To add to this gorgeous nature-draped backdrop, a soulfully resonant Steinway A, 1911 grand drew me into its playing universe the moment Judy sampled a few Mozartean phrases for me. While she’s been practicing the Exposition of Sonata K. 545 for less than three weeks, it’s nicely forming with contoured phrasing in back tempo.

best Judy at the Steinway A

After Judy’s dip into a pool of resonance, I was wooed to play a “chorded” version of J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C, followed by my extemporaneous lesson on trills that seemed to lighten up the space.

What an extraordinary piano to explore!


The afternoon had begun with a tour of Judy’s place, an incredible lunch, followed by the centerpiece display of her family’s heirloom grand piano in the “adobe room.”

Judy’s dad, who attended Juilliard, played chamber music with a string of fine musicians on the East Coast igniting his daughter’s interest in music, though ultimately Judy doted upon the oboe.

For a time she studied with Jean-Louis Leroux at the San Francisco Conservatory before embarking for France to become a pupil of her teacher’s mentor.

As Judy’s journey played out, her musical connections led to artistic trysts in Paris with some of the most regaled performance artists of the Twentieth Century, one of which was pantomimist, Marcel Marceau whom Judy met and worked with. He was a source of inspiration for her interest in helping children, in particular, to learn early reading skills in a creative framing.

If we fast forward the clock over decades of Judy’s life, we see how she was drawn into the educational realm, branching out into the universe of helping youngsters with basic reading fundamentals. (Wrap up 40 years of teaching experience and you have a vision realized)

Not surprisingly, a dynamic and creative App, Bam Boomerang evolved for which Judy, her son, Keenan, and assistant Beth became intensely engaged. Over years, they developed and refined what is a well-established and highly regarded teaching tool.

Over a delectable lunch prepared to the last meticulous detail, both Judy and Beth served up a mouthful of valuable information about their reading-based activity that’s obviously their labor of love.


For more about Bam Boomerang, the app that gives kids personalized feedback while they play games and learn to read, check out the Direct Download:

“Bam Boomerang is an engaging app where kids read words into a microphone and get one-on-one feedback while having a blast playing games, earning trophies and buying things for their own animated world.

“No other app gives personalized, effective feedback to students!”

Download and get started free:



Posted in Bam Boomerang, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Lakewood Estates, learning to read, piano, piano blog, reading tools, Shirley Kirsten, Steinway A grand piano, Walnut Creek | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Playing Musical Chairs with my new Hidrau, hydraulic piano bench

hydrau hydraulic

Welcome to a whirlwind round of musical chairs, with a good, healthy workout thrown in.

Never expected the Valencia, Spain import to challenge my athletic prowess. But for certain, I’d been primed for this bench press Olympiad having done my daily Gravitron, along with pull-ups and push-ups at the Downtown Y. My daily training should have amply prepped me for the Hidrau descent with side bar assists that amazingly resisted every one of my ergonomic push-downs. Compared to assembler, Arrion Brown who weighed in at a muscular 210 lbs, to my measly 112, I was a puny push-over! Call it a 100 lb. difference! That’s how Ari had the necessary clout to get Hidrau to cooperate on the downslide. I might add that this male powerhouse happens to be a Jiu Jitsu champ which puts him in the winner’s circle when it comes to ENDURANCE.

I’ll let my homegrown video speak for itself.

Once I finish my next two nocturnal piano lessons, I’ll add Arrion’s nifty Hidrau assembly according to specs. Note that he’d successfully put the last Chinese Stagg Hydraulic together, though it squeaked its heart out, while Hidrau is a silent, squeak-less success, locked right now into one perfect height at my Steinway grand. If I need to lower it, I’ll scream for help and either 911 will send out a team of paramedics, or my neighbor, Art will heed my cries and get the darn bench back in balance.

Judge for yourself:

The Assembly

And now compare to the STAGG hydraulic that’s been retired as a computer accessory doing its job well with attendant noise that’s not a problem but would be a menace if stationed at my grand during a recording session!

I’m getting a fair exchange with a pre-tested Hidrau (according to my weight needs) so I am happy that the business is honoring its product. It seems this was an atypical stiffness in my particular delivery as it has been satisfactorily used by musical institutions and fine pianists. Can always happen, but one doesn’t want to be singled out by chance for such an uncommon occurrence. Onward and upward.. with a margin of ease in the opposite direction.

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“Counting Correctly, but Playing Un-rhythmically”

“The habit of counting correctly but playing unrhythmically develops easily in the beginning and is too often overlooked.” – Richard Chronister (A Piano Teacher’s Legacy, Ed. Edward Darling)

I love this quote, because many students count out beats quite methodically but without musical meaning. Their metrical repetitions serve little purpose if the goal of study is to communicate an art form that is embodied in rhythmic framing with threads of melody weaving through a “singing pulse.”

Dimitri Kabalevsky’s “Clowns” piece from the composer’s Op. 39 Album of Children’s pieces, is the perfect springboard for practicing (behind tempo) with an animated, “living, breathing,” framing pulse that ignites the very mood and affect of the composition right from the start.

In this regard, my Face Time student in London, in his second year of piano study, has made nice gains playing rhythmically and musically. Here he takes a baby step journey in his early exposure to “Clowns,” with a keen awareness of buoyant rhythmic energies that propel his practicing in a chosen, steady, embracing tempo.

Kabalevsky Clowns p. 1


In this sample, the pupil practices a five-finger C# minor penta-scale in double tempo starting with 8th notes, to 16ths to 32nds..(ending with staccato, forte and piano)


P.S. I always recommend that students enroll in a Jacques Dalcroze Eurhythmics Course. As it happened, my most influential teacher at the Oberlin Conservatory was Eurhythmics mentor, Inda Howland.


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Piano Technique: Playing scales without bumps or accents

Laura screem shot B minor scale

It’s common for piano students to divide their scales into well-boxed rhythmic compartments, emphasizing the fundamental beat that interrupts a smooth flowing legato (connecting from note to note). Sometimes players are unaware of their reinforced “beat” counting impulses and need occasional reminders of what’s communicated to the listener. (who happens to be the innocent bystander piano teacher) The most important “listener,” of course, is the player.

Unwanted accents or bumps usually occur when the thumbs, in particular fall down hard on the keyboard during shifts. In most cases, the thumb is not advanced early enough in its passage, or it’s not imagined as a “light” traveler through many octaves. I tend to think “feather” thumb when I play it, or prompt myself to feel the “up” instead of “down” when it arrives.

But the thumb isn’t the only nemesis in scale playing, especially where unwanted emphases disturb an octave by octave flow. Once the cycle of bumps is instigated by the first thumb poke in the opener, (1, 2, 3, 1) the ensuing octaves become infected by a military drum beat on every 5th note in the parade.

No doubt, in the old days, beat-whipping pedagogues insisted that students KEEP in STEP through myriads of octaves, but thankfully these churned out pedantic exercises with predictable accents, have flowed into an awareness of scales as curves and waves within a legato framing.

(This is not to discount the value of recurring accent practice when a completely different landscape is desired–for instance, where measures of a composition demand notational punctuations.)

But in this particular lesson sample, the student embodied the singing pulse after she had consciously eliminated unwanted scale-wide accents.

The other dimension of our exploration was making a smooth TURNAROUND in B minor right where finger 5 in the right hand at the peak, often makes an angular POKE instead of a “loopy” or rounded corner of the scale. Attentive listening, imagination, hearing it before playing it, fused with a physical awareness of the supple wrist to cushion the finger at the top, helped in smoothing out the scale from “roll in” beginning, to loop around and return to home note. The same applied to staccato playing where shape and contouring were equally desired. (Emphasizing a horizontal, breathed through rendering)

All these areas were explored in this short segment. (“Smoothing out B minor scales”)


A related mentoring by Face Time transmission

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