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Our individual musical study grows our piano teaching

For the past year I’ve devoted many daily hours to the study J.S. Bach’s six French Suites while simultaneously keeping pace with my students’ passage through diverse repertoire. The decision to take on this additional musical challenge apart from meeting my basic teacher obligations of being present at lessons; knowing the material assigned, and dispensing meaningful suggestions, is to advance my own personal musical development. By growing my technique and musicianship; organizing music with a theoretical lens; getting deeply embedded in form, harmony, phrasing, and noting the very steps taken in my early learning process, I grow my teaching to the benefit of my students. This message I gladly send along to colleagues who enjoy comparable journeys of self-discovery.

A few weeks ago, I received a pertinent message via You Tube from an adult learner in Israel who was challenged by the Allemande of the B minor French Suite No. 3, BWV 814 and wondered if I’d a posted a tutorial about ways to approach the opening dance movement. Although I had studied the Sarabande, Anglaise, and Minuet/Trio of this work, I hadn’t yet commenced an examination of the Allemande. Her request, therefore, was perfectly timed to nudge my practicing of this movement with an enlisted analytical approach–breaking down the “subject” or main germ cell, and discovering any and all fragments of the smallest idea that unraveled in two-voice counterpoint (and inversion) through the binary form. (Fingering naturally factored into foundational practicing along with the preservation of a “singing” tone.)

The video that I uploaded just three days into my exploration, contained the basic elements of structure/counterpoint that fed the musical/expressive side of interpretation and spawned an early play through that reaped the benefits of my self-driven pedagogical analysis.


Play Through

I continue to make challenges like these for myself, not just through deep explorations of Johann Sebastian’s Bach’s music in its many forms (Fugues, Gigues, Allemandes, Courantes, etc.) but by stretching the mind in expansive directions: studying repertoire from various historical periods; exploring harmonic flow, rhythm, and theoretical framings that are in the service of how to phrase and imbue emotion governed by what is expected and unexpected in the course of a composition.

Finally, this investment in individual study is not only a promotion of self-growth, but it becomes a gift to our pupils to whom we are teaching the very rudiments of learning so they will become truly independent in their own study as it matures, and ripens over time.

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Practicing Challenging Pieces: If we’re over a barrel, we can still learn something valuable

I’m the first to admit that not every learning journey through a particular composition will produce results we might have hoped for. After weeks or even months of methodical practicing in baby steps, we can find ourselves literally over a barrel, wading through ornaments, for example, that are crystal clear in slow tempo, but suffer paralysis otherwise.

I came up against this very wall of resistance when I dared to take on J.S. Bach’s Gigue from the composer’s C minor French Suite No.2, BWV 813. Mordants and trills permeate treble and bass, and these dare-devilish ornaments must often be executed simultaneously without taking an easy way out. In my case, after weeks of hand parceling, enlisting various articulations and rhythms in back tempo, I couldn’t clearly realize all the indicated ornaments within the ideal brisk, animated pace I’d internalized.

Immersed in a frustrating journey through a difficult dance movement, perhaps a maiden voyage at best, I refused to give up hope that in time I would integrate a plethora of ornaments into a resilient, energy-driven Gigue. Most importantly, it was during my period of introspective practicing, that I gained valuable insights about wrist spring forward motions that permitted trills and mordants to roll out without keyboard impact. Such suppleness of movement freed up energy in an uninterrupted flow down my arms. This particular insight, alone, could fuel further advances through this piece without a time deadline attached.

Because all piano study has a positive dimension regardless of short-term outcome, it’s valuable to record epiphanies as they unfold. These feed our future learning challenges and they trickle down to our students who share their individual awakenings with us.


Practicing the Gigue movement from J.S. Bach French Suite No. 2 in C minor, with a focus on wrist spring forward motions:


Exploring modulations, secondary dominants and sequences in a J.S. Bach keyboard learning journey

Without doubt, the French Suites and other keyboard works of J.S. Bach require a multi-dimensional learning approach. It’s not enough to enter the universe of the great Baroque master with a singular intent to absorb counterpoint, or parcel voices, sing them, juggle them, properly finger each hand, and in some cases divide one voice between two hands. Even with a two-voice Allemande that resembles a two-part Invention, it’s of necessity to map harmonic movement, study modulations brought about through the use of secondary dominants, and assimilate sequences, in both melodic and harmonic appearances. Yet the true value of detailed theoretical analysis is its direct application to musical expression and beautiful phrasing.

In my recent journey through the J.S. Bach Allemande of French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817, I was immersed in several tiers of learning:

1) I learned each line separately with attention to fingering, though I knew from past experience, that when parts are combined, or interact, that what might be a practical fingering when hands are played alone, would not necessarily work when they played together. So this preliminary fingering gradually firmed up as layered learning unfolded.

Part and parcel of studying each line, is to actively SING either with the same deeply embedded familiarity. I always test this absorption, by prodding myself to sing either line out loud while playing the other. Such an ability bodes well for fleshing out the contrapuntal dimension of the Allemande. (In this learning phase my tempo is regressed, but it’s still framed with a singing pulse and imbued with expressive phrasing.) I don’t hesitate to deeply connect into the keys with ample arm weight, and I ply phrases with a supple wrist and relaxed arms.

Once I put the hands together, I refine fingering, make certain adjustments, and insert options in parentheses where they apply.

At this juncture, how I GROUP NOTES in a Baroque framing is a big part of my exploratory process. Such decisions evolve from experimentation with various articulations, as there are numerous possibilities that can preserve the style, mood and affect of Bach’s music.

2) When both hands actively interact with a modicum of ease, I carefully map out HARMONIC transit. With two parts running horizontal and vertical at same time, the dimension of underlying Harmony again furthers musical expression.

As melodic segments in the treble appear in sequences, I make note to intensify threads that ascend, and relax those that descend. The same will apply to sequences in the bass. How simultaneous sequences in both hand interact, is still another dimension of exploration and experimentation.

Naturally, an understanding of modulations that are driven by “Secondary Dominants” offers the player an opportunity to respond to the leaning effect on the DOMINANT to the resolving, dissolving Tonic. And then any chain of modulations in close proximity prompts a decision to make a crescendo, or in some instances to do the reverse, especially where a deceptive cadence might intrude. Then again, the undulating nature of phrases in the Allemande doesn’t encourage a flat dynamic by any means.


Learning the Allemande comes with a Multi-dimensional understanding of its essence. In fact the journey of discovery is only at its beginning, and a ripening process often brings changes in articulation, voicing, dynamics, and fingering that individually and collectively further the realization of beauty.

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J.S. Bach Prelude in Ab, BWV 862: A Fresh Start for Student and Teacher

In the course of teaching, a situation may arise where a particular favored piece is requested by a student that I’ve never studied–which means a deep-layered journey is ahead of two learning partners.

And given that J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Ab, (Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1) requires thoughtful fingering choices; an awareness of Baroque era ornamentation, phrasing/articulation/voicing, and a knowledge of counterpoint/harmonic movement/structure, the undertaking requires a baby-step advance.

Therefore, one of my learning reinforcers is to create a self-made tutorial early in the assimilation process, well before I’ve had significant exposure to a composition. The goal is to exemplify a parceled practicing approach that is stacked heavily in the direction of gaining mastery, or relative fluidity when the piece ripens to tempo.

The big embracing mantra, however, is Patience un-enslaved to any Deadline because learning and growing into a desired tempo has no marked out notches of predictable progress. Yet one has to have a heap of confidence on credit to keep optimism in high gear.

With that said, one pivotal aspect of the learning journey is setting a good fingering and in the case of Bach’s Prelude in Ab, a separate hand approach becomes only one dimension of the undertaking. In truth, there are more than two steps to be taken in determining a workable fingering.

1) I assigned what I thought were reasonable choices for the Right Hand in a slow tempo frame.

2) I did the same for the Left hand.

3) The above first and second steps had to be refined if not revised significantly in certain measures, when hands were played simultaneously.

And this is an epiphany that most students will have as they explore a new score. Where fingering might work separately for each hand, it will not necessarily comport for both. (This explains the current adjustments I’ve made since I last e-mailed my student)

Naturally, the Baroque style of phrasing is the other important universe of decision-making, and all that follows in relation to harmonic rhythm, modulation, and the contrapuntal cosmos must be part of a nit-picking, ground-up exploration.

So in the spirit of step-by-step learning, the video below should be foundational and of particular assistance to my student and others taking this common journey.

Bach Prelude in Ab WTC revised p. 1 revised

Bach Prelude in Ab WTC revised p.2

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Getting immersed in LEARNING Bach’s F minor Fugue, BWV 881 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2)

My journey through the Baroque master’s Fugue no. 12 has been a labor of love though the form enshrined by J.S. Bach can be intimidating by its structural nit-pickings. Wikipedia, for example, cites BWV 847 in C minor, (the Fugue) as a model of internal order, with a carefully marked out Subject;  Answer (a fifth above the subject Key), and Counter-subject, all amounting to a well-defined Exposition. And as Episodes branch off (without the full Subject) though pieces of it, or motifs, (including that of the Counter-subject) will be included in so-called Subject departures, the learning process can eaily slip in Cognitive directions, bereft of soul and spirit.

Naturally, my teacher psyche has always had a significant influence on how I map out a NEW composition to alleviate, in this case, fugual anxiety. For one thing, I’m interested in finger choices, ways of grouping notes, and how to deal with finger switches or substitutions in order to be true to the score, or notation. If Bach wants a tenor voice to be held over another, and the only way to do this is by finger shuffling, then those key decisions have to be made early in the game. Yet these choices are considered in the context of three independent and co-dependent voices weaving in and around each other.  (Fortunately, my individual study of Two and Three Part Inventions and four Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 had provided a bedrock of contrapuntal exposure)

Therefore, in my early fugue-learning process, I meticulously studied each of three voices, so I could sing every one of them as a personal solo. I then nudged myself to learn every line by heart, so at any given point in the music, I could focus on a particular voice and flesh it out.

I will admit that this particular fugue was a hill to climb on the basis alone of having to devise a fingering for each voice that needed occasional carryover or division between hands, while in some measures the requirement to hold down notes with awkward finger switches might  guarantee a crash in tempo. Therefore,  I juggled fingering possibilities and eventually drew a few compromises.

As I traced the paths of Subject and Countersubject with interspersed episodes, etc. my cognitive examination fueled the affective dimension of Bach’s composition. An examination of tonal shifts, modulations, a deceptive cadence, and sequences struck a good balance with aspects of form.

Rather than drape my learning process in wordiness, I’ve created a video that demonstrates slow motion assimilation of the F minor Fugue.

The first video is an IN TEMPO reading of Fugue No. 12, BWV 881, followed by the tutorial.

Play Through:


In summary, I recommend VERY slow parceled voice practice when embarking upon learning the Fugue.  

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Domenico Scarlatti’s music that’s within reach of the Intermediate level student

Scarlatti Halford better

Margery Halford via Alfred publications has compiled a nice assortment of Domenico Scarlatti’s Menuettos and Sonatas (essercizi) that’s a satisfying “Introduction” to the Baroque era composer’s music. (Scarlatti, An Introduction to his Keyboard Works)

In fact, I snatched at least five of these binary form sonatas for my two-part disc in 2007, combined with the more technically challenging ones I selected from Vladimir Horowitz’s treasured Scarlatti CD.

Horowitz championed Domenico Scarlatti’s works during a time when many concert pianists were not programming the composer’s body of works, so Domenico’s rebirth was a blessing to performers, teachers, and students who realized not only the beauty of his music but its relevance to developing technique and musicianship.

Scarlatti, in fact, is considered the forerunner of the virtuoso school of keyboard playing, and in these less complex examples from Halford’s collection, one can readily flesh out arpeggio and scale passages that easily transfer from Circle of Fifths Scale and Arpeggio study. (Note Scarlatti’s own translation of his Sonatas as Essercizi per Gravicembalo–or exercises)

The other day, I sent this particular gem to my students with the tag, “That’s why we study arpeggios!” Surely such an exemplary beauty cross-fertilizes and enriches their daily technical regimen.

In this second example from the Halford edition, more arpeggios and broken chords permeate, but there are a few selected arpeggio and scale-like passages that are worth examining for their focus on particular wrist forward motions that I will separately examine in my attached sample:

First, a play through:

Snatching measures from this sonata for technical study and fluency:

Scarlatti segment from Sonata in G


A most recently learned delightful miniature:


Here’s annother Halford selected gem (a Menuetto, once again) that was rendered on my formerly owned Baldwin Hamilton grand piano (known as the “blind date” beauty) To be sure, it had a brighter timbre which proves that each piano has its own unique character.

(I’m definitely enjoying my new Baldwin 165 model grand with its more mellow character)


Not contained in Halford’s collection, but snatched from James Friskin’s edition, is the celebrated C Major Sonata L. 159 that my late teacher, Lillian Freundlich gave me to study decades ago when I first began lessons with her. (At the time, I was about 13, enrolled at the New York City High School of Performing Arts)

This certainly poses a challenge in the universe of trills, providing an ample practice opportunity for a student needing such focus.

Scarlatti’s LIFE, CAREER, and MUSIC

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J.S. Bach Prelude No. 1 in C, Voicing and Harmonic Rhythm (my ideas and Seymour Bernstein’s)

J.S. Bach

A musician’s understanding of a masterwork is a composite of ideas derived from many sources. In the course of piano study, perceptions change and grow, enlarged by a combined theoretical and musical examination of a composition that invites mentors into the mix.

In this tutorial, I realized how I synthesized the contributions of harpsichordist, Elaine Comparone and pianist, Seymour Bernstein (with whom I conversed about the Bach Prelude in C, BWV 846–WTC Book One) with my own, coming forward with a “voiced” harmonic/musical portrait.


Flashback: October, 2012

My visit with Seymour Bernstein at his Manhattan apartment and our interchange about Bach’s ethereal Prelude No. 1 (Well-Tempered Clavier)

Love the Second Time Around