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No dumbing down piano study for adult students

I’m ready for a shower of criticism on this one. After all, some adults want their favorite transcription of the Elvira Madigan theme song, (aka Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 in C, Andante) to encapsulate their musical journey—at least for part of the time. And that’s OK if the transcription route of top ten, poorly transformed (rotten tomato) versions of the Classics doesn’t squeeze out real deal pianoforte masterworks in unadulterated form.

On that pessimistic note, one of my students from the Central Valley, (aka agriculture’s West Coast heartland) had studied with me for 6 years before I escaped to pesticide-free Berkeley CA. Thinking she might be a carry-over on SKYPE, I’d already planned her next deep-layered musical exploration: Chopin’s B minor Waltz which would have been a logical follow-up to the less complex Waltz in A minor, No. 19, Op. Posthumous.

But no sooner than my pupil showed a lack of enthusiasm for ONLINE instruction, I had referred her out to a seasoned Valley mentor who’d graduated from one of the most distinguished European conservatories and made no bones about her “superior” training.

With such a self-ignited reputation, one would have expected a sequence of lessons on an exceedingly high level.

No such luck. The progression of selected works was tantamount to a poorly transposed, two-page FUR ELISE reduction, minus the meaty middle section and chromatic bridge to final theme.

It wasn’t the Beethoven Classic that was CUT to unrecognizable form, however, but a Chopin substitute that might have been as harmful as a banned artificial sweetener.

In short, the student was given an impossible remake of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude in Db Major, transposed to the key of G, with more technical land mines than the original. Certainly, the overwhelmed pupil was not ready to tackle the URTEXT edition or a shoddy substitute.

The good news is that she grew so frustrated with the roster of fakes, that she headed over to SKYPE in sheer desperation. Now two years later, she’s back to basics and deep-layered learning…

Which brings me full circle to the solid journeys my adult pupils are taking minus God forsaken short-cuts.

Case in point:

One student embarked upon the Schumann “Traumerei,” No. 7 from Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood) and has realized how fingering choices and voicing are pivotal to the initial learning stage. If fingering is haphazard, then a seamless legato line is unattainable.

Schumann Kinderszenen Urtext

To assist her study, I prepared a video that draws on the URTEXT edition, with recommended finger-switching maneuvers that will aid smoothly connected lines.

But her first assigned goal this week is to thread through the treble melody without adding the balance of voices.

Such a study model is shown in the video below:

And here’s my play through:

In summary, it all hearkens back to the meaning of piano study and its serious ingredients. If a student wants to read through fun transcriptions in his/her own spare time, I have no objection, but when lessons roll around each week, it’s most valuable to pursue compositions that have been time-tested for their substance and beauty. And as a direct benefit, they seed technique and advance musical growth.


PS: There are finely composed Jazz pieces, contemporary literature, etc. that can be integrated into the curriculum. These should be assessed for relevance to a student’s level of advancement.

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Practicing a Mozart Andante movement, using a “singing pulse”

Murray Perahia clarified the “singing pulse” when he discussed a form of rubato, or flexible time that he believed could apply to Classical era repertoire. In an interview conducted by Sir Dennis Forman in the 1980s, the pianist, known as a formidable musical poet of his generation, discussed the Mozart Concerto No. 21 in C, interspersing playing samples. Some he imparted at the Bosendorfer, while others were streamed in from Perahia’s rehearsal with a European chamber orchestra.

(Unfortunately this treasured exchange has been taken out of circulation)


Perahia’s artistry has been a pervasive influence on me. In the realm of phrasing, his vocal model playing is my learning springboard through layered stages and I carry it over into my teaching. In particular, I had applied his mantra to the middle movement of Mozart Sonata K. 281, to gain insights about phrase shaping and contouring. Even by counting in ONE beat per measure (with a 3/8 time signature) I still managed to make space for responses to harmonic shifts, modulations, deceptive cadences and metrical variations involving triplet figures and two against three.

The videos below demonstrate the aforementioned singing pulse approach to practicing and what can be gained from it.

Add Murray Perahia playing Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, K. 310, Andante for a glimpse of his artistry. (This Sonata movement is more complex than the Andante Amoroso, and has its own distinctly impassioned character)

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A Well-known Haydn Piano Sonata is pinned!

I don’t mean to inject pins into this post, but it amply introduces Haydn’s vibrant Sonata no. 35 in C Major.

Yesterday, as I diligently embarked upon learning this masterpiece, I had to deal with basic housekeeping matters: How to practice the pages-long first movement without breaks in continuity?

My short-term solution:

Harpsichordist, *Elaine Comparone e-mailed a quick reply:

“You either hire a page turner or turn them yourself. Or you can memorize the whole damn thing! Pinned up that way, only a giraffe could read it.”

My response:

“I’ll grow into it.” (like a giraffe, maybe?) even though I had an ELEPHANT (grand piano) in my room vying for undivided attention. (pun unintended) The place was turning into a zoo!

Elaine was painfully right, however, that Haydn’s pages were PINNED so high that my neck got a major workout. And besides, all scores PINNED before it, were demoted to sub-bench status. (My Little Bach Preludes? where were they? .. the ones delivered in break speed by an industrious Greek Skype student who kept me on my toes! Even on my toes I could barely reach the Haydn to make proper eye contact!)

But, resoundingly, I said, NO to an Ipad-driven page turner as recommended by a few tech-crazed nerds. As it was, my Berkeley apartment was over-run with computers, accessories, mics, video cams, etc. that ate up its precious space. Besides, my budget could not absorb more hardware?

So in a compromised spirit, I settled down to learn the Haydn Sonata, and in my baby-step journey set out to impart a few tips about tackling the Exposition:

The Development, Recap and Coda will soon follow, still pinned, until memory better serves me.

*P.S. A big thumbs up to Elaine Comparone for her index of ornament executions (directly applicable to the Haydn score)

“With turns and trills, they INVARIABLY begin on UPPER note (DCBC) so one less note for your turn. This ornament practice holds true through Beethoven and beyond— but I can’t personally vouch for later than Ludwig. The only ornaments beginning on main note are:

“1. Mordents (trill sign with a slash–usually one shake but can be more and they begin on main note and alternate with lower: e.g. CBC.
“2. Main note trills which are very long notes—at the least a half note.(CDCDCD…) These perform a different function than normal trills, which ALWAYS begin on upper note (appoggiatura) (DCDCDC).”

Comparone highly recommends CPE’s Treatise on Keyboard Playing


How to improve Memorization at the piano

Excerpted CPE Treatise on Keyboard Playing:

Piano Lessons by Webcam:

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Quality spot-practicing by an adult student: Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” (Video)

Marie, a motivated adult student, revisited piano studies after a decades-long hiatus. When she resumed lessons about 6 years ago, she made “Fur Elise” her goal-setting piece.

Following long-term scale and arpeggio exposure accompanied by a detailed focus on minuets, short character works, sonatinas and the Chopin Waltz in A minor No. 19, Op. Posthumous, Marie made a smooth transition to learning one of the most popular pieces in the piano literature.

Here’s a snatch of her spot-practicing tricky measures 68-69 in the “stormy” C section of the composition.

Quality time spent isolating voices in slow tempo, listening attentively, and sculpting phrases with relaxed arms and a supple wrist advances fluidity and a beautiful singing tone.

Spot-practicing measures that need extra work and refinement, gets to the heart of learning, moving a student into a new universe of enjoyment.


“Fur Elise” at POWHOW: LIVE webcam piano classes

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Piano Instruction, Part FOUR, Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 (measures 55-93)

This tutorial references measure 55 to 93.

The composer settles into A minor through these measures and reinforces the A minor tonic to Neapolitan progression. (A minor to Bb Major chord) He elaborates, varies, and introduces a beautiful contrapuntal interplay of voices between treble and bass in measures 69-87. (All in A minor)

With a touch of majesty, Beethoven sneaks in a G7 chord that terminates the chromatic (half-step) movement in measure 69, leading to C Major, though not for long. A minor is promptly reinstated with a lovely dialog transpiring between treble and bass. (In counterpoint)

Not soon enough, the composer meanders back to the opening ROLLED chord which is the Dominant of D minor, the home key –and we are at the beginning again, with a REPEAT.


Part ONE: Beethoven Tempest Sonata in D minor

Part TWO Instruction

Part THREE Instruction

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In the Piano Universe: Two You Tube Treasures not to miss!

Every so often, I stumble upon an uploaded You Yube performance that grabs my ears. In this instance, it was a Mozart encore offered by pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, that led straight to a compelling videotaped interview with her. With my antennae up and ready for more sparkle to light up my day, I was amply rewarded.

I must admit that when I surveyed first movement readings of K. 545, the “Drawing Room” sonata, I was less intrigued by Uchida’s interpretation (employing a clipped staccato) than by what I found as an afterthought to a concert she had given at an unspecified location. (her short notes, were refined in a portato-like rendering through a soulful Andante)

First, to celebrate an artist, who does not feel obligated to reel off a show-stopping transcription as a tour de force ending to a concert, but instead chooses a slow movement to cap the evening….

I remember how satisfying it was to hear Horowitz bless his audience with Schumann’s “Reverie” as the ultimate conclusion to his recital. (He would precede this offering with virtuoso displays, but not leave the stage without making a peace with himself and his listeners)

And so, Uchida, in this spirit played the second movement of Mozart’s well-known Sonata in C, which by serendipitous opportunity, led to a prized interview that provided an intimate glimpse of her inner thoughts, ideas and philosophy.

Be inspired:

Interview (It’s in English)


Compare readings of Mozart K. 545, Allegro

BIO from Uchida’s Official Website:”>”>

“…whatever she plays, you always sense that Uchida has thought through the reasons for everything she does, but always in the best interests of communicating what she feels is the emotional essence of the music. It’s a rare, and very precious gift.”
The Guardian

“Mitsuko Uchida is a performer who brings a deep insight into the music she plays through her own search for truth and beauty. She is renowned for her interpretations of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven, both in the concert hall and on CD, but she has also illuminated the music of Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez for a new generation of listeners. Her recording of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra won four awards, including The Gramophone Award for Best Concerto. Amongst many current projects, Uchida has recently been recording a selection of Mozart’s Piano Concerti with the Cleveland Orchestra, directing from the piano. The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote of their performances of K.466 and K.595 in April 2010, ‘Uchida turns in readings of such eloquence, one has no trouble understanding why they’re also being recorded for posterity’ and The Times wrote of the disc issued in October 2009, (K.491 and K.488), which won a Grammy award, ‘Did even the great Clara Haskil play Mozart’s piano music as wonderfully, as completely – with intelligence and instinct perfectly fused – as Mitsuko Uchida?’

“Highlights this season include performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic and Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Philharmonia Orchestra and Salonen, and the continuation of the Beethoven concerti cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis. Uchida will perform chamber music at the Mozartwoche festival in Salzburg, with the Hagen Quartet in a tour of Japan, and with Magdalena Kožená in Europe. She will give solo recitals in Tokyo, Salzburg, Berlin, Paris, London, Chicago and New York.

“Mitsuko Uchida performs with the world’s finest orchestras and musicians. Some recent highlights have been her Artist-in-Residency at the Cleveland Orchestra, where she directed all the Mozart concerti from the keyboard over a number of seasons. She has also been the focus of a Carnegie Hall Perspectives series entitled ‘Mitsuko Uchida: Vienna Revisited’. She has featured in the Concertgebouw’s Carte Blanche series where she collaborated with Ian Bostridge, the Hagen Quartet, Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as well as directing from the piano a performance of Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Uchida has also been Artist-in-Residence at the Vienna Konzerthaus, and with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, where she performed a series of chamber music concerts and a Beethoven Piano Concerti cycle with Sir Simon Rattle.

“Mitsuko Uchida records exclusively for Decca and her recordings include the complete Mozart piano sonatas and piano concerti; the complete Schubert piano sonatas; Debussy’s Etudes; the five Beethoven piano concerti with Kurt Sanderling; a CD of Mozart Sonatas for Violin and Piano with Mark Steinberg; Die Schöne Müllerin with Ian Bostridge for EMI; the final five Beethoven piano sonatas; and the 2008 recording of Berg’s Chamber Concerto with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre Boulez and Christian Tetzlaff. Uchida’s most recent releases are CD’s of Mozart’s concerti K.488 and K.491, and a second disc of K.466 and K.595, both with Uchida directing the Cleveland Orchestra from the piano; and an acclaimed disc of Schumann’s solo piano music, featuring the Davidsbündlertänze and the Fantasie.

“Mitsuko Uchida has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to aiding the development of young musicians and is a trustee of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust. She is also Co-director, with Richard Goode, of the Marlboro Music Festival. In June 2009 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.”

December 2011

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Practicing tips for Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, Op. 31 No. 2, Part ONE: (Video)

Because I found myself rambling on and on about the first page, I decided to compartmentalize the instruction to make it easier to absorb.

And since I played the “Tempest” years ago, the surest route to my restoring the piece to a respectable performance level, was to practice it from the ground up in slow tempo.

As I re-approached this Sonata, I relied heavily on CLUMPING or CLUSTERING groups of notes.

The opening two measures that resonate with a peaceful broken chord in the Dominant, are followed by a rapid stream of melodic seconds in a tempestuous descent. (The duality of the motif is clear)

In the video, I demonstrate a wrist forward motion as I clump the seconds which embody non-harmonic upper neighbor tones that are passing dissonances.

Clumping these 2nds (appoggiaturas) and throwing the wrist forward for each group of two allows a bigger and more effective energy to mobilize the passage.

It also helps with developing a “feel” for the composer’s keyboard landscape before advancing tempo.

The Video Instruction further amplifies: Part 1


PART TWO, Instruction, Beethoven “Tempest” Sonata

Another Beethoven Sonata landscape: