piano, piano blog

Piano Pedagogy article by Byron Janis in the Wall Street Journal


This latest piece on how to teach piano (creatively) is gathering attention far and wide, most notably as an eye-catching feature in the Wall Street Journal. And if I’m not mistaken, an article on the joys of returning to the piano as an adult accorded a similar flood of adulation and empathy in this same media universe.

The Janis contribution, packed with pedagogy-related shoulds and shouldn’ts, includes a tribute to Vladimir Horowitz as the ideal mentor. His imparted words of wisdom about how a pianist must evolve on his own terms, without copying, or God Forbid asking his teacher how to turn or shape a phrase can be framed on the wall as the ULTIMATE arrival of the individualized, ripened artist, of whom Mr. Janis might have exemplified. But by the time Janis had arrived at the door of Volodya, the pianist/virtuoso would have been well schooled in the ART of PIANO Technique integrated with the how-to of producing a singing tone. (Supple wrists, relaxed arms, bigger energies feeding the hands and fingers)

In addition he would have had continuous, deep exposure to the Theory of music with its invaluable application to phrasing as it’s wedded to harmonic rhythm: how Deceptive and other cadences/resolutions help shape a musical line; or what it means emotionally to transit from the MAJOR tonality to parallel minor. (Add in voicing, balance etc.) Compositional studies, without doubt, further enriched Byron’s musical passage. (Why not ask students to COMPOSE along their creative travels. Janis sadly omitted in his text.)

Basically, one does not play piano in a bubble of ignorance. And for this edification, a teacher is needed who TEACHES and does not necessarily send the student home with the vague prompt that something is NOT right, so go figure out what it is, and come back with the CORRECT PHRASING.

What fledgling does not hunger for direction in this vast universe of learning so he can begin to play expressively. Piano playing does NOT necessarily come NATURALLY. We are not born pianists. We come into the world with developmental hurdles to overcome in specific, graduated stages. We cannot be propped up on a piano bench and instinctively produce a beautiful set of tones.

Unfortunately, Janis goes to great lengths to eschew COPYING, as if our lives are in fact NOT copies of others who breathe through decades of existence. We might go to concerts, operas, etc. and subliminally internalize how great musicians and singers turn a phrase. If we have a favorite recording of the Brahms B Flat piano concerto as I have (Richter with the Chicago Symphony) we often find ourselves adopting in our own playing what was musically engaging. I certainly look for great recordings, and attend performances by pianists and singers who inspire me. And I dare say, I might warm up to the tempo of a Chopin Mazurka, and overall style communicated by Ashkenazy or Perahia, and borrow it as my own.

Does this mean I am NOT creatively driven as a player, and by association as mentor? Have I lost my individualism through exposure to many influences?

Since I deal mostly with adult students, even those who have returned to the piano years following their studies as children, need specific guidance in the basics of piano technique wedded to tone production. (Phrasing is an outgrowth of merged skills) Otherwise fledglings and beyond, are lost, and ask, rightfully, for direction.

Finally, each pupil has particular strengths and weaknesses that need to be sorted and addressed in a pedagogically sensitive environment without framing lessons with a bunch of cliches or doctrinaire assertions that the teacher and pupil must embrace.

And in this wrap-up, I embed a video that has experienced wide popularity. For me, this is the gold standard in teaching the singing tone. Go ahead and COPY. It’s the best thing you can do for your playing and ultimate development.

And here I’m helping a student phrase Robert Schumann’s “Curious Story,” Op. 15, no. 2. Both teacher and pupil learn from each other in the creative learning cosmos. (Sometimes the teacher might “copy” the way a student phrases a line, because it is beautifully rendered)

SINGING, SINGING and more singing is the best nurturance of gorgeously spun lines. Both mentor and student should SING expressively through a fulfilling piano learning journey.

And that’s where Janis and I wholeheartedly AGREE!

Here I’m singing through a lesson: Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72

My late, beloved teacher, Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich drowned out my playing with her singing during our 3-year musical association.

Richard Goode profusely SINGS during his masterclasses while he DEMONSTRATES at the piano for a student, and it’s a joy to behold.

PS MY Comment at the WSJ article site
“This is a praiseworthy article where it concerns an ocean of repertoire study where a student is able to integrate the art of piano technique with aspects of interpretation. The challenge many piano teachers encounter, even with students returning to the piano as adults, is that the very basics of acquiring a singing tone with supple wrists, relaxed arms, and enlisting energies beyond the fingers, require down to earth emulation, demonstration and to a large extent, copying. At the level Janis addresses, it makes sense to harvest individual imaginations in phrasing, etc. but in my own experience with pupils of all levels, they are needing HANDS ON knowledge of how to create the singing tone–and what physical ingredients are involved. (Yes of course to mood-setting, emotional expression being intrinsic to the creative process, of which mental prompts and images can afford.)”

pianists and overuse injury, piano, Uncategorized

Piano Technique: Selective, MINDFUL repetition to avoid overuse injury

After decades of observing students practicing their scales, arpeggios, five-finger positions, and myriads of permutations (parallel/contrary motion, longs strands of 10ths, 6ths, etc) I’ve observed many jumpstarts, anticipations, and anxious out-of-synch doubling of tempo on the turnarounds in scales, that if repeated over and again in haphazard ways will put a student at risk for injury.

Getting on the frantic, frenzied practicing bandwagon is a big, definitive NO!

Remediation, however, is best accomplished with presence of mind and focused, relaxed approaches to repetition with a FRAMED singing pulse and spot practicing emphasis. The latter involves calm, objective analysis of what needs to be improved. Rather than practicing a long strand of notes, not proximate to the site of a glitch or mishap, the student should consider bracketing off measures that lead in, and out of the finger trap. If the problem is fuzzy rhythmic perception in doubling tempo within a contrary motion scale, for instance, then practicing INTO the turnaround and OUT from, provides the fractioned part of the scale that needs work. (again within a framing, relaxed pulse)

Overuse injury can occur when continuous UN-mindful, shot-in-the-dark practicing occurs. In particular, if stock is not taken of what is causing playing irregularities, then self-devised meaningless repetition that seems to have a life of its own, can cause undo physical harm. I’ve watched LIVE students and those on Face Time and SKYPE create an unrelenting juggernaut for themselves that if uninterrupted leads to undo tension and pain.

When I send students recorded lesson segments, I try to edit out their myriads of frenzied repetitions, substituting their best efforts with some of my interspersed corrections. (so it shouldn’t seem like I’m eating up their lesson time with showboat demonstrations) To the contrary, I’m trying in the most focused amount of time to exemplify a more relaxed and mindful approach to the problem at hand.


BREATHING natural, full breaths is so pivotal to practicing and it ties in with AVOIDING injury. Anxiety infiltrates muscles and blocks fluidity, so that anything like meditation or related, can assist with remediating measures, phrases, etc.

In the attached video, particularly in the second part where a student works on the scale turnaround to double tempo (A minor melodic form in contrary motion) I have him SPOT practice the octave leading in and out of the turnaround with a consciousness of how to avoid the JUMPSTART or anxious anticipation of the rhythmic shift.

What isn’t seen are the pupil’s multiple repetitions that were getting him tangled in KNOTS–a feverish pursuit that had to be examined and amended.



The first segment focuses on playing parallel thirds, B Major with a recommended legato, side-to-side traction movement in preparation for snipping into legato.

What is not seen were the multiple efforts that were taxing the student, not allowing a funnel of relaxed energy, in its most economical form to accomplish the playing goal. With our focus on side-to-side motion, and mental imagery infused, (“caterpillar along the keys”) the student began to work with improved channeled energy. Making him aware of what WORKED as a substitute for haphazard repetition, improved the playing landscape as it likely will impede injuries.

I always tell my students: leave a memory in your practicing of your best, most fluid and relaxed effort. Once you have accomplished what you want, preserve a muscular memory and mental image that should linger into the next practicing session. Don’t keep hammering away after you have attained what was desired because it will otherwise lead to the very tension that took prescribed measures to relieve.

In this second video, some of the same referenced issues arise as a student practices scales and arpeggios with a remedial spot practicing emphasis. (Note that a “the floating arm” mental image proved to be valuable.)