A balanced piano lesson of Technique and Repertoire

If a student is well-prepared, having devoted quality time during the week to practicing scales, arpeggios, and pieces assigned, a lesson can contain a nice balance of ingredients.

Barring holidays, long distance travel and time zone changes, most pupils will devote 15 to 20 minutes of their lesson to technique, and the remaining 40 minutes to repertoire.

Today, one of my Online students based in Scotland for the moment, (destined for Australia) had a well-rounded lesson that began with a focus on the E minor Melodic minor scale. She attentively worked on making a crescendo to the peak in Staccato while the companion Arpeggio drew upon a related practicing strategy at the final octave. Increased dead weight, rotation, and relaxation were required to achieve a convincing climax in both, while blocking techniques firmed up hand centering and related finger geography.

In the repertoire realm, J.S. Bach’s Little Prelude in F Major, BWV 927, and Schumann’s “Of Foreign Lands and People,” Kinderszenen No. 1, Op. 15 capped the lesson, with a common exploration of phrasing and its relationship to harmonic rhythm and counterpoint. In both compositions, line parceling in slow tempo was of particular importance.



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When Your Song Breaks the Silence: A book about Franz Schubert

One of the fruits of forming a Short Story Book group, is meeting people who not only share an embrace of fine literature, but who might also enjoy a strong connection to the music world.

Judith and Stan Jacobs fit nicely into this dual universe, having become members of my shrinking degrees of separation literary and musical repository. Their emigration from Ann Arbor Michigan to the East Bay (CA) last Spring had released my welled-up memories of the Interlochen Arts Academy that drew my interest as a 1960’s era violin student. At the time, I’d thumbed through colorful brochures with appealing photos of uniformed Junior Orchestra members who tapped into my ardent desire to attend the Ann Arbor-based summer camp, but tight finances impeded a journey to the Midwest. As it happened, I traveled to Oberlin, Ohio five years later which encapsulated my Midwestern experience. (Degrees of separation seemed to vanish when Judith Jacobs mentioned a forte pianist and a harpsichord professor who were her personal ties to the Oberlin Conservatory)


My eventual emigration to Berkeley came with an outreach to the social/literary realm of MEET-UP, and by a quirk of fate, my newly arrived “friends” Stan and Judith Jacobs, drawn to my Short Story group, brought an additional gift the table.

Stan a retired, Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, University of Michigan, and his wife, Judith, a digital artist, bestowed a living literary tribute to their late daughter, Natalie, who authored a beautiful tome dedicated to the life of Franz Schubert.

Natalie Jane Jacobs

When Your Song Breaks the Silence is a lyrically written book in the creative nonfiction genre that is without doubt, meticulously researched and wrapped in finite detail, yet it remains a marvel of inspired artistic creation.

One of my favorite quotes:

“Reimagined as music, Wilhelm Müller’s twelve poems sang in twelve different voices, telling the story of love frozen and shattered on the hard stone of winter. “Winterreise,” “Winter’s Journey,” they were called, and the first song set the pace with its walking rhythm that took the angry and bitter wanderer from the door of his former lover’s house. From there, the wanderer pushed on further and further into the cold and dark, and the music froze and wept and whirled like the bitter wind.”

Natalie Jacobs book cover

Judith provided a beautiful AFTERWORD about her daughter’s life, and how her Schubert-framed writing was discovered posthumously on a computer that a friend acquired and downloaded.

“Natalie Jane Jacobs was a gifted writer from a very early age. She once confessed a special affinity “with Franz Schubert.”

“When she was eleven, she wrote a story about the composer as a young child trying myopically—she too was very nearsighted—to interact with his family and surroundings. Like him, although confident of her creative gifts, she was unsure of herself and hesitant to bring her writing to a wider audience.

“While writing was always very important to her, she did not intend it to be a career. Instead, she completed several years of midwifery training and planned to practice it.

“Natalie died suddenly of viral myocarditis in 2008 at age 35. After her death we gave her computer to a longtime friend in Portland, OR where Natalie had moved from her native Ann Arbor, MI. A short time later, her friend told us of a body of writing she had discovered on its hard disk. To our great surprise, Natalie had left the manuscripts of several short stories, a novella set in contemporary England, and a full-length historical novel about Schubert…”

(Excerpt From: Natalie Jacobs. “When Your Song Breaks the Silence.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/L_CiG.l)

Enriched by my friendship with Natalie’s parents, and having enjoyed the posthumous acquaintance of Natalie through her beloved writing, I can confidently recommend this dip into Schubert’s life, wrapped in unswerving love for the composer and his music.




Natalie’s mother’s artistic universe:


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Piano Teaching: Diagnosis and Treatment in Cyber

The miracle of technology allows a micro-review of a student’s physical relationship to the keyboard, magnifying problems that need thoughtful remedy. Today, I felt akin to a radiologist examining x-rays in great detail, looking for areas of concern, if not glaring pathology.

A student whom I teach Online, was having difficulty playing a D Major scale.

Staring at me in full screen mode, was his skittish relationship to the whole tonal landscape: Given the pupil’s un-centered hands, with some fingers curled in and going shallow on white keys, where others headed toward the blacks with an edgy gesture forward, the scale was impaired.

Without a geo-CENTERED approach, the player would be eternally frustrated.

In a miraculous click of a mouse, the student was sent a video of his scale travels that pinpointed problem areas.

The curative phase ensued, focused on blocking out chunks of notes with featherlight thumbs passing through them. The “blocks” or “chunks” were well-“centered,” forming “tunnels” through which the thumbs would pass swiftly and unpretentiously.

(Too often, students allowed the thumb to pull down their hands, interrupting singing legato streams of notes in the scale frame, with toxic consequence.)

Gradually, the pupil applied significant adjustments to his scales (and arpeggios) that improved them.

In the final analysis, technology afforded a necessary examination of the hand/finger/keyboard triad that benefitted both teacher and student.

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Bruce Loeb: A Silent Film Accompanist and much more!

Bruce Loeb at the piano

Berkeley, California boasts a repository of uniquely talented musicians some of whom have a wide array of interests and activities that elevate them to renaissance status. Bruce Loeb is one of those exceptionally diversified, high achievers with a C.V. to substantiate. His vast list of identities includes silent film accompanist, vocal coach, piano teacher, composer, and recitalist.

It’s mind-boggling!

To my delight, within a matter of minutes of having phoned him, he amiably squeezed me into his crowded schedule of Bach Invention and Fugue transpositions, piano practicing, private teaching, journal writing, avid reading, concert and movie-going. The last endeavor requires his immersion in silent era movies as preparation for his appearances at the Nile Film Museum in Fremont, California. As accompanist he devises a “schema” for well-known favorites starring Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks and a host of silent era luminaries. He’ll also accompany comedy shorts featuring Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, et al.

A DVD (Her Night of Romance) with a printed acknowledgment of Bruce Loeb having “composed and performed the music,” gives testimony to his expertise in a creative realm that may be of niche market interest, but nonetheless underscores Loeb’s originality and enterprise.

Her Night of Romance

DVD reverse

The Interview

Once I was led into Loeb’s sprawling creative universe by way of a Baroque era collaboration between us at the Knabe grand, he became instantly embedded in his art, sharing hands on knowledge with precise verbal articulations and demonstrative keyboard samples.

Two grand pianos Loeb

Here’s a sprinkling of Bruce Loeb’s musical sources for his silent film “schemas.”

Songs of the 1920s

American Fiesta album

Chansons Francaises

Schubert shorter works

Bruce Loeb is seen playing at a Silent Film event: Musica Marin–Belvedere, CA

Featured movie: The Docks of New York (1928)


Bruce’s website


Niles Film Museum


Sent from my iPhone

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A piano that DRAWS is a sacrilege: or how I otherwise spent Christmas Day

As a prelude to my bottomless pit experience at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco that featured the desecration of an upright piano, I’ll first provide readers with the necessary back story….

Following 8 days of Chanukah candle lighting, I found myself in search of meaningful things to do on Christmas day, knowing full well that virtually everything would be shut down on this nationwide holiday. (Count in corporate coffee centers such as Starbucks and Peet’s.)

On top of this slam dunk 99% draw down of eating out opportunities, I had to contend with a cultural cliche surrounding Jews like me, that we should go to the Chinese restaurant and celebrate a uniquely permanent welcome mat. (But to my dismay, many Chinese proprietors who were not of Buddhist persuasion, joined the masses, celebrating the birth of Christ, or they just didn’t think it worthwhile to stay open on a day when business drastically dwindled.)

As validation of the vast climate change in restaurant accessibility on the biggest holiday of the year, San Francisco’s Chinatown displayed countless signs of restaurant closure, while novelty shops were lit up and doing brisk business.

San Francisco Chinatown

Meandering to the Hyatt Hotel on Market Street for a pit stop during the Chinatown romp that eventually produced a below street level Mandarin repast, my daughter and I were greeted by a colorful lounge-displayed Christmas tree. While it begged to be the centerpiece of a photo shoot, we were both plainly distracted by rotating hues of light beamed on a neighboring “ECLIPSE of anodized aluminum.” (This second floor light show was produced by Charles O. Perry–circa 1973)

Pink Eclipse

orange Eclipse cropped

Green Eclipse

Such artistic satiation should have been enough for one day, but we tempted an Ecumenical God of grace, by venturing over to the Jewish Contemporary Museum that was a stone’s throw from the AMC movie theater where we’d earlier taken in the film debut of JOY.

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, a film goddess who’s likely to land an Oscar nomination for her riveting performance, the movie was for me a cinematic work of art.


To fast forward the narrative to its riveting climax, I’ll admit that the most insalubrious escapade of the day was our DESCENT to the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s “interactive art exhibit” that enlisted an old upright piano, gutted of its strings–reduced to a basic typewriter. With each key stroke of its dead keys, a sterile set of percussive taps were produced that activated ink blots on a rolling paper canvas.

Screen Shot 2015-12-25 at 11.32.18 PM

Witnessing this soul-less instrumental conversion was a “sacrilege” not worthy of a legitimate “musical” critique, though in fairness to Museum curators, there were a host of redeemed exhibits (in my opinion) that merited commendation. (These included early 20th Century labor struggles realized in lithographs and framed by the heading, “Chasing Justice.”)


On the opposite end of the spectrum, the ionic, bionic, and robotic displays interspersing those that fleshed out pioneers of labor and even the Rock n’ Roll era, were frankly a retread of a period when Milton Babbit, for example, put a generator on a concert stage absent a performer, and let it grunt away!

One might also lump into the scrap heap, three look alike vertical vacuums that were programmed to dance and drone through finite computer programming.

Finally, when all was said and done, a pleasing set of holiday adventures drowned out the type-written cacophony of a stringless piano, and a higher level substitution encompassed eye-catching displays of ECLIPSED color and cinematic technicolor that made our day memorable!

Merry Christmas to all!

me in front of Christmas tree

Aviva in Front of tree

The Contemporary Jewish Museum
Jewish Museum

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Putting Slow Practicing to good use in a J.S. Bach Fugue Analysis

I’ve been my own mentor to the exponential these past intensified 48 hours as I immersed myself in a slow, deep-layered analysis of J.S.Bach’s Fugue in Ab, BWV 862 (Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1) The detailed exploration not only heightened my understanding of this ingenious composition, but it increased my love and reverence for it.

So without waxing poetic about the longing that’s expressed through a chain of emotion-gripping modulations, I will defer to my Two Part introspection of this Fugue that’s the beginning of my immersion. Awakenings and epiphanies ensue once the solid foundation of analysis with cognitive, affective and kinesthetic dimensions are integrated.

Finally, in a slow practicing frame, the Subject/Countersubject interaction that includes fragments of each and inversions therein in partnership with a divine set of harmonic progressions, affords a learning process that brings fulfillment with each incremental and parceled out discovery.

J.S. Bach Fugue in Ab analysis

J.S. Bach Fugue in Ab analysis p. 2

Part ONE:

Part Two:


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Why is practicing slowly so unpopular?

There appears to be a stigma attached to parceling out a brand new piece in deliberately slow tempo, where a player threads through separate lines with a commitment to expression framed by an ultra-relaxed singing pulse. In the best realization of such immersion, the music becomes magnified to a new level of awareness, albeit in the incipient learning stage. (Fingering decisions are made; phrases undergo slow motion contouring, and a deep key/weight transferred relationship to the notes is explored, avoiding a top of the keys haphazard glide.)

Such slow but engaged practicing as described, sets a foundation for added layers of learning on progressively deeper levels.

In light of this truth, a substantial proportion of nay-sayers still view “slow learners,” as cognitively impaired, further stigmatizing the pupil who labors against premature piece-turnovers, and stays deeply affixed in moto lento. That is, until the time is right and ripe for a graduated tempo advancement.

More often, students who are asked to pull back from a tempo that is racing out of their control will resist the push back to a near heart-stopping pace. Or at minimum, they will re-try a separate hand reading at the tempo set by the teacher only to deviate from the agreed upon “beat,” as if the mentor would hardly notice.

Face the music, practicing at a snail’s pace, but preserving the player’s “high” inside a MAGNIFIED musical bubble, still attaches a Western cultural taboo allied to our fast-paced existence with its built-in upward MOBILITY frenzy. (“Getting there fast is half the fun,” blasted at fever pitch in carry-over-to-life auto advertising, is pervasive!)

Add in cell phones grunting out instant message alerts amidst unwanted calls interrupting piano lessons, and it’s no wonder that peace of mind needed to inhabit a retrograde inversion of time is a foreign and ill-timed request.

Still I refuse to surrender my commitment to time-honored teaching that is in defiance of a Beat the Clock, 1950’s era mantra. As antidote to the culture of cramming, crowding, and herding notes in a cadential stampede, I underscore my own SLOWED down approach to all my music from Bach to Blues.

“If I can practice my pieces slowly, so can you.”

I’ll admit that there’s a bit of guilt sandwiched into my haughty, authoritarian push back, but it works, at least for 15-minute chunks, before an iPhone breaks the mood of a higher Power tempo-suspended intervention.

By example, I will rehash one of my classic learning journeys and how it advanced from a heightened back tempo approach to a smooth and satisfying outpouring. That usually gets my adult brood going, at least for the time being.


(Below is a J.S. Bach Prelude that I allowed months to grow from carefully spaced-out seeding to its eventual maturation.)


An Adult Student exemplifies slow practicing in Turk’s “Happiness”

The steady progress made over time:

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