Creating a seamless, singing tone legato through arpeggios and scales

My students are often amused by my prompts that frequently include “oohs,” “ahhs,” and “wah’s,” among other spaced out sounds, to prevent consonant sounding notes or hard-liners from interrupting a smooth, “sighing” stepwise descent to the tonic. And from this universe of impromptu effusions, I’ve created a self-styled language, that, at times, has incorporated barnyard vocabulary to the smiles of impressionable pupils (The “cluck, clucks” of Black note passage in staccato arpeggios, for instance, will assist students who tend to give the thumb more assertion than it deserves: i.e F# minor, Eb Major, etc.)

But for a seamless legato, (smooth and connected playing), the clucks are replaced by a soft and responsive cushion of keyboard support that precludes finger-poking or incongruous accents.

To think “slower” into notes by “dragging” them are a few of my favorites. Naturally these suggestions are meant to acquire “density” in the playing and to discourage a hard turf beneath the hands. They’re also employed to inhibit anticipation and note crowding. In this vein, a note coming a “hairbreadth too soon” can imbalance a phrase. (Mildred Portney Chase, author of Just Being at the Piano, poetically frames a singing tone legato through pages of inviting prose.)

Listening for the “decay” from the previous note to the next is another effective prompt. It invites a particularly riveted attention to sound as it “floats seamlessly” from one note to the next. (Singing, of course, is of great assistance in producing the imagined sequence of notes with shape and beauty) Often when a student sings, he can better imagine the sound image before playing the very first note.

All the aforementioned suggestions are, naturally, not enough. If a student is tense in the wrists, arms, fingers, he/she has to be made aware of barriers to a free-flowing, stream of scales and arpeggios that should transfer fluidly to compositions. If tension is tied to faulty breathing, then the BREATH must be explored as a partner to musical expression. Breathing deep, but natural breaths should infuse all music-making while weight transfer, or energy coming down relaxed, “buoyant” arms into supple wrists must be synthesized into fluid playing.


During recent piano lessons, two of my adult students separately explored the challenge of playing arpeggios and scales in a smooth, legato stream. (One of them “snipped” her improved legato arpeggio into a “horizontally” pleasing staccato.) Some of these prompts and suggestions seemed to be a springboard to a deeper imparted vocabulary that nourished limpidly played phrases. And the “memory” of these prompts partnered with a physical sense of the legato has continued to advance musical growth and development.

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Transit among adult piano students and teachers

Many in the piano teaching universe KEEP a special sanctuary for adult pupils who rekindle an interest in music study. These pupils, of diverse ages and levels, often come with an initial spurt of enthusiasm to learn, grow and develop. Yet, like any demographic or body of new learners, their length of stay or commitment to practicing and taking lessons are not always predictable.

To deal with a stash of unknowns associated with a newly launched musical journey, a preliminary set of questions might be invaluable.

These would encompass a pupil’s expressed goals, aspirations, repertoire interests, and how much time he can realistically allot to the piano.

Still, lurking beneath the surface is the more important inquiry about a student’s self-regard, self-acceptance, and patience threshold for spurts of progress and periodic setbacks. Will he/she be willing to bear periodic frustrations that are part of the learning process or will the pupil be a harsh, unforgiving self-critic.

In my experience, most premature drop-out rates relate to self-invalidation. A student believes he/she is just not the perfect player and won’t go further despite the best confidence dispensing infusions of the teacher. A downward spiral of hyper-self-criticism nips a musical partnership in the bud.

Some adult students expect a smooth, and unencumbered journey without a hitch. If pieces require an incremental approach within a layered learning paradigm, they might not choose to form a longterm, deep relationship with a composition. What amounts to touching bases music study, as a top layer sightread with a big turnover of pieces is the pupil’s preference. Boredom otherwise characterizes his/her pursuit of one or two compositions.

A top layer, espresso learning paradigm might be agreeable to some teachers, especially those willing to bend with the breeze and go with the flow. But others will feel the match-up is not one that will harvest the full potential of the student and essentially goes against the grain of his/her teaching philosophy. (It’s therefore incumbent upon the teacher to describe her overall philosophy and approach before lessons get underway. In fact, some students will make this inquiry in a written or telephone communication that precedes the first lesson.)

In my own teaching practice, I’ve come to the realization that if a student at the outset prefers a superficial spin through Bach, Mozart, Chopin and any number of masterworks, I will immediately suggest another teacher.

A complementary issue relates to repertoire choices. While some teachers will only adhere to the mainstream Classical repertoire, others are more flexible and will work with a student in popular music genres including jazz and musical theater, etc.

If a student is intent on studying jazz only, then a Classically oriented teacher is clearly a mismatch, and any attempt to forge a musical partnership under these conditions is doomed from the start.


As lessons take their course

Over time, a mentor can acquire a more detailed picture of a student’s attitude toward learning; assess his strengths, weaknesses, and discover the nature of his commitment to practicing. He can then more effectively address a pupil’s technical/musical needs while getting a feel for the chemistry between learning partners.

(In the long run, piano lessons will have a built-in embryonic development unique to each individual that require sensitive adjustments as needed.)

The most important ingredient, however, to the success of a musical partnership will be a mutual devotion to the music without built-in deadlines of achievement and harsh criticism. The respect accorded a teacher and student must be mutual and ongoing.


Once both partners are fully embarked on a shared musical journey, the question will remain whether lessons are a long-term engagement or a passing through encounter. (This can be one of the questions posed in a general sense before instruction gets underway but it might yield a premature answer if the student is not sure about how the lessons will play out with a particular teacher.)

A student’s musical background shared before the commencement of music study, should include a history of prior lesson experiences.

While I don’t like RED FLAG-driven conclusions or prejudices, there’s some degree of truth embedded in the student’s past associations with previous teachers if there were any. (The same applies to RED FLAG warnings about teacher behaviors and practices as they have impacted students.)

Question: If a pupil is making a mentor change, what was it about the previous instructor that did not work out for him. Here a set of answers I’ve collected over the years.

1) “She didn’t teach me the right hand position.”

2) “He took telephone calls during my lesson.”
(I had more than one transfer student who verified this behavior about a particular instructor)

3) “The teacher canceled my lessons too often.”

4) “I was charged for lessons I had to cancel because of sport events.” (It turns out the student sometimes gave the teacher 30 minutes notice)

5) “I was going nowhere after 3 months of instruction.”

6) “I didn’t like the pieces I was given.”

7) “The teacher’s piano was unplayable.”

8) “Everyone in the studio played better than me.”

9) “I couldn’t afford the lessons.”

10) “I wasn’t able to take weekly instruction, so I wanted to pare down to every other week. My teacher couldn’t accommodate the change.”

11) “We could never agree on the right day or right time for lessons.”

12) “The teacher never played once for me or demonstrated the whole time.”

13) “The teacher gave up all her adult students, providing a list of those taking transfers.”

(Sometimes a student will be at the mercy of consecutive mentors who release a slew of older pupils because they just don’t want to teach adults, sending them scrambling into an intimidating universe of the unknown. These students may have trust issues, so they may start lessons with a new teacher harboring fears of impending abandonment.)

14) “The instructor was overly critical of me on a personal level.”

15)”My last two teachers died.”

Additional situations and reasons why music study is cut short:

1) Family circumstances and changes: the arrival of a new baby that demands increased time and attention to child care needs, impedes practicing. Exhaustion associated with a newborn’s erratic sleep and feeding schedule, stunts mindful, directed practicing if it can occur at all. The flow of life with a new member of the family is drastically altered.

(I had one student who confessed that he lost all motivation to continue lessons given his changed life circumstances. His wife was already off to work, and baby-sitting needs were a challenge. He appeared lethargic and bleary-eyed. Sadly, he would not return to lessons, given his plan to have more children, and yet he had made amazing progress in the two years before his son was born. To some extent it was heartbreaking for both music partners.)

2) Private entrepreneur/Business development as a side bar to lessons that requires road travel and cross country flights, is a deal breaker.

Jet-setting, or on the road students are likely to CANCEL their piano lesson reservations without predictable makeups. Long stints of absence inevitably lead to a point of NO RETURN. (If frequent breaks are not disclosed prior to instruction, they can leave a wave of ill-feeling behind.)

3) Changes in lesson scheduling from weekly to bi-monthly, and sometimes to very much longer intervals between meetings, usually lead to the demise of instruction. It’s a no-win for student and teacher alike particularly if the structure is agreed upon from the outset and is suddenly shifted. While very advanced students might benefit from less frequent lessons, most adult beginners and intermediate level students need weekly lessons to make satisfying gains. A vicious cycle of setbacks associated with absences catapults into lesson dropping due to a crescendo of student frustration.


Already mentioned but needing emphasis:

4) Intolerance associated with specific, wishful gains that are not made in a personal deadline capacity, is sometimes a reflection of a student’s self-deprecation and lack of confidence. Unrealistic goal attainment within a fixed, inflexible schedule, infused with a negative attitude impedes if not sabotages movement forward.

Often, during periods of exasperation, a student plagued by insecurities and unrealistic goal-setting, will look over the fence, thinking there’s a better teacher on the horizon. Yet despite hopes for the divinely inspirational nymph from the forest, like Terpsichore, to arrive on the scene as a saving grace, the student will more than likely never be satisfied with any mentor.

5) Teacher student burnout: an eight to ten year instructional relationship can run its course needing a new infusion of energy from another source–meaning that CHANGE is indicated. Both partners should be willing to embrace a healthy transition without remorse.

6) The right fit is just not there, tested over months, so both teacher and student need to recognize the mismatch and move on. A more suitable learning partnership can result in a positive musical journey without adding in a truckload of baggage.

7) Policy conflicts can send students scurrying, so it’s best to clarify fees and cancellation guidelines before lessons are set in motion. This whole arena can be the source of anger and resentment if learning partners are not on the same page and in agreement from day one.

On a personal note, I’ve whittled down my studio to a small number of adult students whom I consider KEEPERS, in the same way, that I hope they regard me to be committed to their musical development in the longterm.

Today, I was especially moved by a student’s words that resonated with special meaning:

“Thank you for taking seriously those of us who begin piano as an adult but who really want to learn. You could easily dismiss us, as I think some other teachers of adult beginners might do.”

The premise of wanting to work with adult students is of paramount importance in making the teacher/student relationship work. A mutual love for music unencumbered by value judgment, harsh criticism, and fixed learning deadlines all synthesize together to create a harmonious learning environment.

Today I enjoyed a particular lesson with an adult student who’s studying the Mendelssohn Venetian Boat Song, Op. 30 No. 6. It was our shared adulation for this composition and our common understanding of what it takes (in slow practice tempo) to deeply absorb the composition that made the experience mutually gratifying.

Finally, we both realize that the creative process embedded in our lessons, will evolve and develop over time with unswerving patience.


Are Adult Students Stigmatized

Adult student Themes and Issues

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“Great pianists speak about imagination and the singing approach”

I’m grateful to Pianist/Teacher Emma Leiuman for posting this recorded ensemble of inspired voices.

Leon Fleisher, Daniel Barenboim, Gyorgy Sebok and Arthur Rubinstein share an approach to music-making that is devoid of mechanics, didactics, and methodology. They speak about a cosmos of internally imagined tonal images, emotions, colors, and orchestration that spring from the keyboard’s vast repository.

For Sebok, contouring of lines with shapes, swells, nuances, have a group dynamic that reflects in freedom of the arms, hands and wrists, as opposed to restricted finger-centered activity. (The pianist’s influence on my own teaching cannot be overemphasized as my students constantly hear me rhapsodizing about playing well beyond the fingers.) Too often pupils think of “hitting” the right notes as being the centerpiece of learning, without allowing the breathing space to hear before they play (Fleisher), to take the time to practice silently with a sense of inner calm and contemplation.


In the late 1960’s, I was privileged to attend one of Sebok’s Masterclasses at the Oberlin Conservatoy, where his fluidly expressive relationship to the piano drew on the imagination as well as upon the physical resources that freed the arms, wrists and hands of tension. Each stroke of the keys had a follow-through as if he was mesmerized by the very rainbow he envisioned in the video collage. It was an illusive reference, but nonetheless an important ingredient of poetic expression wedded to the singing tone.

Sebok’s philosophy and demonstrations were most memorable as he sat beside a student who was trapped in a self-made, note-perfect, finger-generated speed zone, only to be enlightened by the maestro, who effortlessly breathed out a set of phrases, with groupings that flowed through his hands in a sculpted manner. He then modeled how one can enter a note with a delay, giving the illusion of the very glissando that pianists believe is out of their reach.

I often use the violin or the human voice as an analogous to playing beautiful phrases at the piano.

With a bow, one can apply pressure to the string or lighten it to vary dynamics and phrasing. And with vibrato, one can intensify a note or notes. A string player can control the speed of the bow which can be physically observed. (Pianists can think about the violin when phrasing– bowing with their right hand, applying various weight transfer into the keys, even thinking about vibrato in an abstract way. There are cello sections in Bach’s Keyboard Prelude in F minor, BWV 881, for instance, that evoke deeply drawn “bowed slurs” in two, that if consciously explored in the BASS, can expand the depths of interpretation.

In the vocal universe, singers control their breathing and infuse notes with increased or less air flow, and though their internal apparatus is not visible to the listener, they nonetheless display organic/biological, respiration dependent resources that we can more readily appreciate than that which pertains to a pianist who’s often short shifted as deprived of a “real connection” to his instrument. (It’s based on the distance of the player from from the strings, and how hammers must be activated by finger-generated efforts) But pianists must be eternal SINGERS and not be dismissed as technique bound, keyboard wizards.

In this regard, I watched a Masterclass with a celebrated trumpet player who winced when looking over at the accompanist (collaborator), saying that pianists don’t have the ability to express what brass and woodwind players can via their instruments. (Naturally, I didn’t hesitate to email the Masterclass Foundation CEO about my disagreement and offense, after which I received a note of apology)

Pianists are full-breathing, expressive musicians when they become aware of their potential to Hear before they Play; to appreciate the “illusions” that are embedded in a beautiful performance, and to cultivate their imaginations allied to physical movement, shapes, forms that are born of supple, relaxed, uninterrupted fluid motions whether in Legato, staccato, or combined, articulations, etc. But like all musicians, they have to explore their inner consciousness and rise above the mechanics of their instrument, imbuing a “singing” model in their playing, even when detractors insist otherwise. (I refer readers to my blog posting on Emanuel Ax’s view of playing ONE note and whether a pianist can vary it through various physical approaches.)


Finally, as a coda to the inspired words of the masters as expressed in this posting’s opener, I add this personal favorite:

P.S. Reprised gratitude to Emma Leiuman for posting the you tube video of Great Pianists’ musings.


Emma Leiuman: The Art of Piano Technique

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Tchaikovsky’s “Sweet Dream” requires a balanced synthesis of voices

At first glance, most piano students will not realize the amount of detailed work and analysis that applies to learning one of Tchaikovsky’s most endearing miniatures from his Op. 39 Children’s Collection. However, after an initial reading and overview, it becomes crystal clear that each voice must be parceled out and then re-integrated in a layered manner to satisfy a balance of counterpoint in the soprano and bass, with harmonic enrichment in after beats folded into the texture.

Sweet Dream p. 1 1

Naturally, flowing, relaxed arms, supple wrists, effortless breathing, and HORIZONTAL motion are embedded in all learning stages to best produce the desired singing tone that’s wedded to the music as it floats in Dream sequence. (Mental imagery certainly feeds the imagination but it cannot be solely relied upon without a deep and dedicated learning foundation.)


Most often the tendency to undermine Tchaikovsky’s delicate framing of voices occurs when the after beat intervals in 2nds, thirds, fourths, etc. start popping out, causing an incongruous, imbalanced mosaic. This is why isolating them, and subduing their impact with a supple wrist, and lighter weight transfer where needed is helpful.

As well, the outer framing voices (soprano and bass) can be discovered first alone and then together, while the student can also permute the harmonic alto afterbeats with either the bass or treble. All voices can be shuffled around in practicing before they are synthesized, noting that the contrasting middle section of “Dreaming” amounts to a prominent melodic shift where a cello line in the bass is fleshed out against chordal after beats in the treble. The player, therefore, has to deal with an inversion of voices and altered weight transfer.

Sweet Dream p. 2 1

The idea of listening for decay after a preceding cadence is also a significant component of shaping lines in an aesthetically satisfying way. It requires reading between the lines in a score, and not plunging into a raised dynamic under a note, but factoring in what came before and how it affects what comes later. (It might mean entering a note or phrase by picking it up on the decay of what preceded.) To this end, hyper-attentive listening is part and parcel of a thorough learning process that will ultimately produce beauty, nuance, and poignant responses to harmonic rhythm. (Harmonic mapping, incidentally assists phrasing and interpretation)

Finally, in my teaching video, I was able to define the necessary ingredients that most favored a growing relationship to the piece over time, and many students who had joined for me for the adventure, provided even more enlightenment as we shared back and forth.

Play Through

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The Primer Piano Learning Environment and being Creative

As so many teachers know, there’s no foolproof method or material that will encompass the needs of all beginning piano students. And for some mentors who’ve grown frustrated with what’s available on the commercial market, they’ve responded by creating and self-marketing their own approach.

Yet, regardless of what primer package ensues with a personal autograph or not, the teacher must at some point deviate from a pre-fixed path, and imbue lessons with creative, dynamic activities that spring forth at spontaneous junctures of study. The child in effect becomes the impetus for what will nudge him/her forward with captivated interest. (The teacher should therefore be on high alert for signals that could indicate a detour from a preconceived, printed page parade of pieces/exercises)

I use as an example, Frances Clark’s Time to Begin, the earliest launch of the well-known mentor’s Music Tree series.

Right Side up Music Tree

One of my colleagues called it “too dry,” but through its earliest short phrase exposures that reject stunted five-finger positions, its secondo parts (teacher accompaniments) combine rich harmony and interwoven contrapuntal lines that are wedded to imaginative titles. Such ear-widening introductions to the musical universe, minus the cliche tonic/dominant underpinnings, capture youthful enthusiasm and interest. But such exposure is only the beginning of the adventure that must make twists and turns to heighten and sustain a dynamic learning process.

Here are samples of favorite ear-catching pieces in duo form from the Clark primer. They provide generous opportunities to teach the singing tone via supple wrist, relaxed arms, weight transfer, etc., and afford opportunities to shape phrases by singing them. (Playing Parallel minors by inserting a flat is also an important tonal variant in the march of pieces.)

These early primer explorations are also great springboards for composing activities and allied listening recommendations (you tube and other) that expand the student’s horizons from week to week between lessons.

In this video, my daughter assists me, though the 8-year student who has been journeying through this particular book, has advanced to the point of attaching chords to her own creations.

Currently, after eleven lessons, my pupil is learning about melodic and harmonic seconds that invite an allied composing activity.

At this juncture of Time To Begin, the partial staff is introduced showing simple line to space movement, with a companion activity of playing 2nds divided between the hands. Thirds follow in sequence. Had I simply page turned from one lesson to another without any innovative and creative side-trips, the student and teacher would likely have become “method book” dependent. (In this regard, I find that most method books’ suggested composing activities are far too limited in scope)

While I set boundaries in this particular composing exercise, it also became a nice segue way to companion listening assignments:

Harmonic seconds

(The student will play her piece in Staccato and will use the “8ve” sign which had been amply inserted in preceding pieces.)

Listening tie-ins include “Playing Hobby Horses” by Tchaikovsky Op. 39 (She will be given the score to follow and will circle harmonic 2nds and 3rds as a companion written exercise) and she’ll write a few sentences about her response to the piece.

The second listening recommendation is Couperin’s “Tic Toc Choc” (for animated staccato combined with legato) performed by a young Russian pianist in a picturesque setting.

There are so many imaginative and stimulating piano learning routes that benefit both mentor and student as they share a common journey of discovery.


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The piano playing speed zone: Letting Go but Staying in Control

At some point, piano students will face the challenge of playing a super fast-paced piece without having it fall apart. And while such a task may seem daunting, the player can begin to allay his fears by devising a parceled out practicing strategy.

The best panic attack prevention, (at the sight of a MM quarter= 138) is a measured approach that should include crowd control: spacing notes in incremental tempo settings; anticipatory anxiety relief (when bursts of energy follow tapered cadences); relaxed breathing at climactic junctures, intensified crescendo sections and poignant harmonic moments.

If the score is permeated by insanely driven staccato notes that are interrupted by sudden outbursts of obtrusive accents (sFp’s), these mood-triggered shifts must at all costs, not ignite a fight/flight reflex.


The mood state duality

Robert Schumann’s “Hasche-Mann,” (“Blindman’s Bluff”) from the composer’s well spun Kinderszenen (“Scenes From Childhood”) begs the player to inhabit a dual universe.


Framed as a very short, energy-packed tableau, it requires a face-off between a pianist’s sensibility and his propensity to fly off the handle.

If the latter prevails, the piece collapses like a house of cards.

However, where unabashed freedom of expression is allied to technical control,(Horowitz’s “Fire and Ice” analogy) the pianist will have mediated a potential conflict between the two.

In the attached video, I walk through a stepwise process of desensitization that enlists back tempo practicing, and draws on legato playing as the model for shaping lines in a CALM frame, before “snipping” 16ths into staccato. I also pinpoint the most vulnerable, anxiety-provoking measures, using mental prompts and chord “blocking” choreography to oppose frenetic tempo spurts.

An examination of harmonic rhythm also helps to clarify dips in phrases that flesh out deceptive cadences, and Neapolitan to Dominant progressions.

In summary, capturing the spirit of a piece in the fast-lane must exist side-by-side with impeccable control so that practicing should encompass both.

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What should be natural is hard for many piano students

I often think about artificial barriers that many students erect when practicing. Of the adults whom I’ve mentored (and learned from) over the years some have had a formidable line of defense against “hitting” wrong notes.

In many cases they’ve lifted action verbs from the battlefield zone, transferring them to the keyboard conquering turf.

Such an aggressive and unnatural approach that basically ignites gripping tension in the arms, wrists, and hands, inevitably results in hapless, keyed-up repetitions that have no value. Certainly in this “call to charge” mode, students will keep “misfiring” to a point of mental and physical exhaustion.

But why should any player take a hard as nails approach to practicing?

Might it derive from the NO PAIN, NO GAIN, gym workout/weight training paradigm?

From my perspective, a great workout is a mind and body expanding experience minus grimaces and grunts. It’s an emancipation of the breath that feeds the muscles.

Stretching and relaxed breathing, therefore, in synch with repetitions become my specific consciousness-raisers that I transfer to the piano.


Mental prompts aid the physical…

Without doubt, mental imagery plays a significant role in one’s whole attitude toward practicing. Fluidity requires a visceral sense of LETTING GO. The arms need to swing breezily while the wrists like sponges, are pliant.

The hands and fingers flow from relaxed funneled energy down the arms.
If there’s tension anywhere along the spectrum, the player is in opposition to his instrument, not in partnered harmony.

Teacher demonstrations, bundled with pertinent “verbal suggestions” can ameliorate a combative/self-competitive climate, and effectively turn the tide.

In this vein, I’ve observed some remarkable turnabouts in the course of 5 or ten lesson minutes if a pertinent image can filter down to the level of awakened physical/musical awareness. It’s in this touch/tone sensitivity universe that a satisfying co-dependent mind/body relationship ideally exists to nourish practicing and growth.


In the attached video sample, an adult student, although boxed into the Skype screen, experienced a pertinent shift in consciousness as she worked on a C# minor arpeggio. While initially her wrists and hands were visibly filled with tension, I watched a gradual transition to a more relaxed approach that produced an audibly pleasing result.

Key words:
“springy, spongy, flexible wrists.. hanging hands, hanging arms.”

Roll toward the black notes that are your center of gravity.”

“Hang wrists and hands off the arms.”

(Revisits of recorded segments between lessons are invaluable for students.)

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