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Phrasing at the Piano: Direction and Destination

Often I query my students about the “destination” and “direction” of phrases within a particular composition. Naturally, my questions are a reflection of a need to clarify what arrivals are significant in the transit of notes.

Part of this exploration encompasses the awareness of sub-destinations that are on the way to the peak or climax of a phrase. In addition, bundled into the journey is a framing singing tone, that requires a supple wrist, with a natural, unencumbered flow of energy through relaxed arms into the hands and fingers. (Needless to say, attentive listening is at the heart of sensitive playing, and “singing” helps to clarify shape and contour of lines)


Today, two pupils were grappling with essential elements of beautiful, well-shaped and directed phrasing as they respectively rendered a Chopin Waltz and Nocturne.

The Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, no.2 and the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 were both noteworthy for challenging the individual player to examine phrase relationships and the influence of harmonic rhythm, voicing, melodic contour, innate rhythmic flow, dynamic variation, nuance and more.

Mood-setting and changes that occurred in various sections of these compositions were also pivotal to fluid renderings.

In both these examples below, “destination” was a particular lesson focus.

Chopin Waltz in B minor

Chopin Nocturne in E minor

(Videos are edited for teacher demonstrations)

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The Ingredients of beautiful phrasing

In the course of three piano lessons, spacing, shaping, voicing/balance, grouping, harmonic rhythm analysis, relaxed breathing, singing tone and pulse, etc. were resonating interdependently through beautiful phrases. And with the introduction of two minor scales as a springboard to the repertoire segment, the SPACING of notes, without anticipation or anxiety with a lightness of being dimension, (think “clouds under the arms”) encouraged a limpid expression of horizontally floating notes in legato. (smooth and connected)

Because a step-wise progression in D-Sharp minor (contrary motion) required a preparatory BLOCKING phase that encouraged Note GROUPING, as opposed to up/down, single note-note vertical playing, the student could transfer this particular awareness to her Chopin Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2. The Relaxed breathing aspect of playing scales without a temptation to grab, squeeze, lunge at or ANTICIPATE NOTES, complemented expressively rendered, poetic lines that permeate Romantic era compositions. (The SINGING TONE as the underpinning)

A video evolved as a synthesis of ideas that arose from an initial exploration of SPACING that enlarged upon itself as various elements of phrasing flowed together in harmony.

PS An added extract from the technique portion of a piano lesson that addressed SPACING.

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Piano Lesson from the Big Apple by iPhone!

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It’s one thing to fly from California to New York, taking in awesome views from the plane.Over NYC JFK But would I lay back and lapse into surrendering a week of piano instruction just because I had a NYC based family obligation? No way! As long as I had my iPhone as backup, I would try to teach my North Carolina student from my landing on West 97th.

My best friend, Laura, Oberlin alum and ex-Big Apple roommate had given me her West Side digs that came with a rebuilt Steinway B, so I could play away and teach a lesson or two.

Steinway B at Laura

Using the iPhone with its Face Time application was a first for me! Would the tiny mic properly amplify my voice, demonstrations, and could the internal speaker provide the right volume as the student played? It seemed there were many variables to worry about.

Well, not a problem! Everything worked with a couple of shutdowns since I didn’t have my router or hard wire cable which seemed the best hardware for Online lesson transmission.

Some adjustments, however, seemed to improve the iPhone cyberspace: I reduced my USB extensions and switched to cellular, not relying on the local Wi Fi provider. (Different rooms had varied reception, some better than others)

Overall, I think the undertaking was a success– well documented by my tripod mounted camcorder that captured the whole lesson on video.

Here are a few samples:


An adult piano student explores phrase shaping in Chopin’s A minor Waltz, Op. Posth.

I’m always warmed by lovely, contoured phrasing, especially when it’s produced by an adult student who’s reached a new level of aesthetic consciousness through especially attentive and consistent practicing.

This particular player has increased her sensitivity in shaping the Chopin A minor Waltz melody with curves, dips, loops, and tapering, while her left hand that lifts on every beat is not interrupting a pervasively horizontal note progression in the treble. (This is a challenge)

The patience she’s applied in her earliest efforts–parceling out the melody; fundamental bass; and after beat chords, before layering them in baby steps into an integrated mosaic, was no doubt the biggest factor in her leaps of progress.

As an example, she experiments and refines various measures through a spot practicing process. (behind tempo) that’s particularly valuable.

Recording these efforts and forwarding them along is always a practice-framing reminder.

A teacher and student can revisit earlier recorded renderings to appreciate gains a pupil has made.

Such a peek into the past can validate how far a student has come giving him/her affirmation while boosting self-confidence.

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“Clouds,” “cushions,” and “veils” permeate a Chopin Lesson (Waltz in A minor)

Floating arms, supple wrists, delicate relaxed ornaments and trills, and an oxymoron-driven, perfect parachute landing flowed into a lesson last night with a musically responsive adult student.

The keyboard was transformed into a soft cushion receiving fingers energized with bigger channeled energies traveling down buoyant arms through springy wrists.

Most of all, imagination fed a phrase-loving lesson exchange that brought heightened musical pleasure and awareness.

Parts 1 and 2 follow:

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Aiden cat, our loving companion and musical mascot

He might as well be human. Left with me by one of my daughters over 4 years ago, this atypical cat had a history of jumping into the shower, then going to sleep on his owner’s head. When brushed, he molded himself in his caretaker’s lap, enjoying each of her lavish strokes. A pedicure that followed drew no resistance. He purred to the sound of a nail clipper with its clean, staccato effect.

Aiden arrived here at my place when he had just turned 3. Greeted by a much older cat who’d taken up all the piano benches, he had to settle for much less space. But after Tugs, a female, passed away at 17, Aiden laid claim to two entire floors, making it his business to attend any and all piano lessons from his box seat, front and center, facing keyboard. He bench hopped, landing where a particular student was perched. Since the very young ones played Haddy, (my Haddorff console) Aiden snuggled in, enjoying the feel of its smooth mahogany finish, sometimes edging a player off-center.

In between lessons, he’d take a break in the upstairs sink, snuggled perfectly into its contour. Sometimes, I’d dress him up in cute attire and snap him with my digital camera. Here he’s photographed after a long morning of cheer leading.

Last night, Aiden swished around a pile of sheet music that I’d left on the living room rug after my return from the Bay area. A bit frisky, like a scrappy Fido, he cajoled the music, and then settled upon page one of the Chopin Waltz in C# minor, smothering it with his warm belly. In an instant, he switched gears.

As I approached my Steinway grand, he leaped to the occasion, beating me to the bench in time to flirt with my iMac’s nearby built-in camera. With his cat sensitive eyes and ears, he knew that I was about to record a Scarlatti Sonata.

More often, he disrupts any and all iMovie related activity the moment I tap “capture.” He’s faster than lightning to the window sill where he makes a racket tussling the blinds.

On this occasion, Aiden had something quite different in mind. As it turned out, he just wanted some well deserved heavy petting at the end of a long day.


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The very first Chopin Waltz that I teach: #19, Op. Posth. in A minor (Video instruction)

After decades of teaching the Chopin Waltzes, I’ve come to the conclusion that the A minor, No. 19, Op. Posthumous is the best student introduction to the form as the composer cultivated it. While many other Waltzes in Chopin’s collection are far more substantial and technically challenging, No. 19, is in my opinion, easiest to assimilate, study, and play. In part, it’s because the harmonic structure is very straightforward, leaning toward tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chord relationships. In addition, a frequent interchange occurs between the tonic A Minor in which the piece is written and its relative C Major. (Good material for introductory theory) Finally, there’s an abundance of thematic repetition.

The big climax of the piece, on the third page, (measures, 33-40) is a modulation to the Parallel A MAJOR, which makes a conspicuously audible impression. This section also has the most notes phrased at a Forte dynamic level.

Following the composition’s peak, the composer returns to the opening theme, which is in the home key of A minor.

Palmer Edition, Chopin Waltzes:

About the Composer, Frederic Chopin

Chopin lived during the height of the Romantic Period, and composed very expressive music that included free flowing phrases, ornamented notes, a colorful harmonic palette, and a tempo rubato (flexible, borrowed time that if taken too far, is a bit of a parody of itself) The pedaling for this music is rich, but tasteful. (The player should not over use the sustain)

The Way to Practice:

1) First, trace the path of melody through the opening section, (measures 1-16) in SLOW motion, following the phrasing very carefully. Chopin was very much a molto cantabile composer, who stressed the singing tone capability of the piano. In this first section, the composer offers the preponderance of material for the complete Waltz. Note that ornaments are played on the beat and with good directions in the editor’s annotations.

2) Continue by separately practicing the fundamental bass of the first section. (only the first beat of each measure, known as a “downbeat”) Draw each one out with a deep, resonant stroke.

3) Then play “after beat” chords only–the two sonorities following the downbeat. Isolate them from measure to measure and notice the voice leading. Knowing they are neighbor chords will make the jump from the downbeat bass notes seem less awesome. Lighten the third beat or chord in each measure. Approach with a flexible or spongy wrist. (The wrist is the great shock absorber)

4) Next play the downbeats followed by the after beat chords in each measure. Draw out the downbeats without poking at them. You want a rich bass, not an accented one.
The after beat chords should be lighter, as previously mentioned.

5) Finally, put hands together for the first section. The melody should be very singable and prominent. The fundamental bass gives the ground energy; the after beat chords fill in with colorful harmony. The balance between the melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords is very important.

Part II (Measures 16-24)
The same advice for part one applies here. Keep to the order of practicing separate hands, with an awareness of balance between right hand and left hand.
Notice that this part of the composition is more extemporaneous, and feels improvised. It begins in the Melodic form of A minor and lets go with a DOMINANT key arpeggio (E Major) If you’ve been conscientious about practicing arpeggios, this passage should not be too difficult to execute, but consider it a freely rendered figure and not meant to sound forced, regimented, or robotically played. Remember that the Romantic style is characterized by a sense of freedom and improvisation.

The next section is a return of the opening phrase in A Minor. (measures 25-32)
Follow the method of practicing separate hands, as introduced in the beginning of the work.

The Climax: Measures 33-40 The longest phrasing in the piece and in A MAJOR (The Parallel MAJOR) with a Forte dynamic.

Practice with the same parceled out approach as the beginning.

Finally the opening section returns in Measures 41 to 52 with a Codetta (small, modified ending) as the last line.


The Waltz played in tempo: