The earliest steps in piano learning

The earliest dip into piano study includes many ingredients some of which are overlooked or minimized. When mentoring a young child of 6 or 7, or a beginning adult student, sensitivity to tone/touch seems very basic to making music, yet it’s underplayed. While assigning finger numbers to notes and absorbing letter names are fundamental to note reading, one can’t casually move away from an attentive listening focus on a note, or two that links directly to the tactile “feel” of its ping, or “centered” resonance. This physical fusion with an imagined tonal ideal is the beginning of a focal musical journey that should be patient, persistent and perpetual. (It includes the nurturance of free flowing relaxed “weeping willow” arms, supple wrists, and gently curved hands/fingers.)

Unfortunately, beginners of diverse ages, grab and squeeze notes in their earnestness to land the RIGHT ONES. And where children are concerned, who are immersed in the current public education system, being RIGHT is more often rewarded than delving deeper into a zone of creativity and expression that is abstract and intangible.

An applauding classroom of listeners will reinforce with approval, a piece played or even pounded out note perfect, although it lacks color, shape, expression and engagement. Perhaps the listeners’ consciousness has not yet been awakened which results in a mutual oblivion to aesthetic possibilities.

Regardless of the performance milieu, the beginning student faces common specific learning challenges:


Given most of popular method books abounding, the piano teacher and student are confronted with a dearth of holistic approaches to piano learning.

In truth, most of the hot-selling, mainstream method books offer quick gratification five-finger pieces, (after a short stint with two and three-black key experiences) And even if the white note pieces are transposed from artificially constructed, “C Position” to “G Position,” they come with a built-in set of crutches. The student will fill in any missing finger numbers on the printed page, and might even write in the letter names he has learned from among seven in the alphabet. Each time he plays the piece, he relies on the finger numbers or inserted letter names, though finger number retention seems easier. (Manipulations of the alphabet that require reversals of letter names, when notes descend can be tricky, especially minus the BLACK INK reinforced reminders.)

I personally reject materials permeated with five-finger pablum. Instead I embrace Pre-notational symbols that are best absorbed and synthesized in baby steps with touch/tone sensitivity. And I embrace the floating, staff-less notes that show movement up and down or on the same level for repetition, while my singing voice prompts the student to join me with phrase sensitivity. We add Hand Signals to reflect melodic movement in space that’s borrowed from the teachings of Kodaly.

The black note experiences, incidentally, can be prolonged, and not inserted briefly as a form of anti-discrimination tokenism.

These twin or triple black key phrases don’t leave the child or beginning adult saddled with more than they can handle in early stage learning.

COMPOSING is a nice adjunct to Note name LEARNING and READING.

What better way to assimilate note names, movement in space, and meter, than for a student to create his own piece at each learning juncture.

Case in point, “Liz,” age 8, composed two pieces that included two groupings of notes that required an echo on the repeat. Her initial composition was framed in 3 using quarters and half notes at her discretion. Her second, most recent composing experience, was based on learning to play a sequence of whole tones, hand over hand, F,G, A, B, that provided a “watery” atmospheric. (It invited submergence with sustain pedal which was enticement enough to encourage daily practicing.)

The student notated her own piece with stem up and down quarters and half notes of which she had considerable book exposure, and I expanded upon it for the upcoming lesson. Tomorrow I will attach one chord per phrase in graduated steps through the morsel’s development, not using three different chords that I’d inserted in my playing and on paper. The child will continue to practice a relaxed physical relationship to the keys with supple wrists, that will be reinforced at each lesson. She, like others, need continuous work on the synthesis of touch and tone that’s not an overnight accomplishment.

Maeve's piece  Final April 3, 2016

(My notation of the pupil’s piece does not include inserting letter names or finger numbers in the direct score except for the starting finger, though there’s a map of the three-black keys and their relation to white notes.)

In playing through the short phrase, musical rhythm counting is encouraged by singing, and the same will ensue with LETTER NAMES, absent inked in CRUTCHES within the score.

Frances Clark’s Time to Begin, delays use of the complete GRAND STAFF, as it feeds the floating staff-less notes for a considerable time using the black keys, but it simultaneously offers opportunities to identify white notes in relation to blacks by suggesting composing activities.

(In the realm of composing, a child or adult is motivated to create a collection of their pieces and even illustrate them. In 1985 I published an album of students compositions that included my added teacher accompaniment so that composing became a mutually satisfying adventure.)

composing children


As far as published piano methods are concerned, none is perfect, in my opinion, with pitfalls abounding, but the fact that Clark resists the five-finger exposure ad nausea, and introduces the STAFF in an attenuated form with a line to space fragment of the whole, is laudatory.

In the course of Clark’s inspired Music Tree series, that integrates words and music, different fingers are assigned to notes that are related to LANDMARKS: Treble G, Middle C, Bass F, etc. which I find to be pedagogically sound, though sooner than later, my beginning student will be exposed to repertoire-based learning as a substitute for Method Book addiction of any kind.


Adults and children alike will memorize parts of their pieces while learning them, so they lose their place as eyes veer from the score to hands, or to another fleeting internal or external cosmos. I discourage the dualism of memorization and note reading-in-progress, by focusing attention on the touch/feel/attentive listening triad of music absorption, with eyes riveted to the score. The transfer of visual note movement on the staff to relaxed arms, wrists, hands, and fingers, draped naturally over the keys, reinforces note reading, synthesized with musical expression.

The eventual mastery of a piece leading to memorization should ideally have an analytical foundation where beginning students find patterns, sequences, repetitions, within a composition that support its retention as it ripens over time.

Recommended examples of early pedagogy:

Irina Morozova teaching a 6 year old

Irina Gorin teaching a transfer student

Liz has first piano lesson, Part 2

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When Upbeats have a new meaning and importance

For most piano students, an upbeat is considered a lighter springboard to a more predominant DOWN-beat, as if the UP in music should always be taken LIGHTLY. (except in Jazz framings where syncopations are characteristic of the genre.)


We can universally agree that in the patriotic Star Spangled Banner, the dotted 8th/16th upbeat is conspicuously wedded to the baton assertive first beat of whole measure one, but this will not be set in stone, as exemplified in Schumann’s “Curious Story.” (Kinderszenen, Op. 15, no. 2)

The Romantic composer’s second tableau turns the upbeat cliche on its head, prodding the student to rethink his weak mindset. If he persists in embracing the subservient upbeat mantra that it must be a co-dependent partner to a domineering downbeat, the player will be headed in unmusical directions. In fact, as a practicing experiment, the pupil can downgrade the anacruses in the first 4 measures of “Curious Story,” to experience its effect.

Curious Story

During a piano lesson with an adult student, we UPGRADED our upbeat conscious-raising journey. In fact, it helped us to clarify phrasing and attendant choreography. (Use of the springy, supple wrist, for example.) Such rhythmic phase focus was just one of our examinations, since we also delved into section contrasts, breathing, and harmonic rhythm as they influence phrasing. (inclusive of Major/parallel minor emotional shifts, etc.)

One pertinent practicing tool is to LIGHTEN the load of voices, and pick out the uppermost soprano line to realize the buoyancy or LIFT of the upbeats, and to understand their importance and value in achieving the whimsical/childlike nature of the opening measures. They are quite motivic to the character of the piece as the composer envisioned it.

Play through

Practicing routines

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Piano Technique: Shaking out Bach Ornaments! and the influence of Claudio Arrau

When working on executing ornaments with an adult student as they appear in J.S. Bach’s Prelude in F minor, I thought instantly of Claudio Arrau’s allusions to “shaking” these out, without having a thread of tension in the arms, wrists, and hands. One of his biographers, Joseph Horowitz, profiled the pianist in an extensive interview that drew out many of the virtuoso’s ideas about technique, of which ornaments were a particular focus. (Conversations with Arrau)

A central aspect of Arrau’s playing is arm weight technique as taught to him my Martin Krause: “Relax and let loose, never be stiff of cramped in any joint. Krause even recommended that pianists should engage in sports.”

It was no surprise that I had for years integrated the whole arm, “shake” out recommendation as it permeated Arrau’s teaching, and related it to playing long trills. (in Mozart sonatas, concerti, etc.), and then through years of studying the Classical repertoire, along with Baroque and Romantic era compositions, I drew upon Arrau’s resonating quotes, to unkink my Bach ornaments, freeing them of tension.

Rather than dissect the physical ingredients of the SHAKE ’em out approach to ornaments as they appear in J.S. Bach’s F minor Prelude, BWV. 881, I decided to let a lesson video illustrate the main points.

P.S. As it happens, one of Arrau’s proteges via his assistant, Rafael De Silva, was Ena Bronstein, who perhaps influenced MY SHAKE IT OUT, FREE THROW, ARM LOOSE, WRIST SUPPLE, ORNAMENT GRAPPLE. She was my teacher in Fresno, California for about a year before relocating to Princeton, New Jersey.

The following sources contain Arrau’s ideas about piano technique:

Piano Lessons with Claudio Arrau: A Guide to his Philosophy and Techniques by Victoria A. Von Arx. A book preview is found via the link below.

By the same author from her Dissertation: The Teaching of Claudia Arrau and his Pupils: Piano Pedagogy as a Cultural Work (2006)

“Arrau explained relaxation as avoidance of stiffening within the joints that impair the body’s ability to move freely. Freedom of motion would allow the realization of musical impulse, the transmission of musical intentions through the body to the keyboard. The freer there body, the more the piano would be experienced as an extension of the player’s body, converting musical impulses into sound.”

Essentially Arrau “expressed the importance of experiencing mind and body as an integrated whole.” (There’s a substantial section on the maestro’s “Piano Technique” that’s easily accessed within the Von Arx Dissertation.)


Conversations with Arrau
Conversations with Arrau

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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.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 12.54.43 PM

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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