Here she is on DISPLAY playing Chopin
Thank You once again to McCrea’s AA Piano Moving
Here she is on DISPLAY playing Chopin
Thank You once again to McCrea’s AA Piano Moving
Often contemplative, lyrical pieces like lullabies, are bigger challenges to play than lightning bolt fast and furious etudes, final sonata movements etc.
“Sleeping Child” is its own poster child for fostering relaxed breaths, flowing musical poetry, and bigger energies beyond the fingers. It’s essentially a task not to wake the baby, with obtrusive, unwanted accents. (The flexible wrist is a shock absorber when needed)
In the videos below I divide Schumann’s masterwork into three parts, and consider fingerings, keys, harmonic surprises, inner voices and much more.
There’s infinite beauty contained in the composer’s short one page plus of music, but to experience heights of pleasure learning it, requires a patient, step-wise, non-judgmental approach. Toss in inspiration, enthusiasm commitment, and the journey is worth time invested.
I met 80-plus, sparkling Sonya recently at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists, and discovered that her son, Renato, graduated Oberlin– small world.
It wasn’t long before my new-found friend invited me to join her as a choir concert companion to Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley campus.
It was my first formal musical touchdown post Bezerkeley arrival, and I knew Sonya, with her cultural savoir faire, would lead me to the best seat in a modest, but intimate musical space.
She’d tipped me off about the most prime acoustical location in an early bird communication sent the night before.
“I prefer to sit in the center of the back row whenever a choral or symphony work is performed, because the voices blend better there.
“Also one is not regaled by the sight of mismatched socks &/or shoes of the musicians (;-)”
Sonya had pretty much taken everything into consideration in her seating plan, except for this:
We were square center, last row, happily anticipating “Songs of Spring, Songs of Praise,” offerings from the University and Chamber Chorus, when about 10 minutes into the program, an eye-catching visitor sat squarely in front of me, obstructing all but a trail of second violins and cellos.
Needless to say, I lunged for the nearest empty seat, and spared myself further distress. (a concert-goer to our right, was hangin’ loose, oblivious to any shuffling except for her disapproving glance at my friend for using a micro pen-light to peruse the program)
The concert proceeded on wings of heavenly song. Marika Kuzma, Director, was so innately musical, drawing impeccable nuance and phrasing from a chamber chorus of music, science, philosophy and undeclared majors. (They’re invited to perform in Carnegie Hall this summer, with a stopoff near ground zero)
The nicely diversified choral roster included the works of J.S. Bach, Richard Feliciano, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Benjamin Britten, David Wikander, Jorge Liderman, John Lennon/Paul McCartney, Paul Hindemith, Claude Le Jeune, and Poulenc’s tour de force, Gloria.
Sonya and I noticed that the young man who’d blocked a lion’s share of the stage as an audience member, had moved into choir-ranking status following intermission.
Here’s what we saw from our plum perches:
The well-capped fellow sang in the grand finale, Poulenc’s Gloria! earning the choir a roar of applause at its conclusion.
In retrospect, my seat was indeed the best in the house, beating out any keyboard-side pick over decades of concert-going!
I did a double take watching footage of yesterday’s lesson in the El Cerrito Hills. Seeing two arms, one half-sleeved, and the other firmly wrapped in olive green, made me wonder if an alien from Mars had landed squarely at the piano.
Upon closer inspection, the camera had played tricks on me, creating an optical illusion.
In real time, I invited my adult student to divide the bass and treble between us, in Chopin’s Waltz in C# Minor, Op. 64, No. 2.
And here’s the flipso chango version:
Since the pupil had some footing in the piece, no pun intended, it was nice to do reverse role playing. Or was it ROLL playing?
The adjective inspired the lesson opener with its introductory C# minor scale.
My pupil breezed through C# minor (natural) in floating form.
(Notice her flexible wrist)
The icing on the cake, Chopin’s C# minor Waltz was perfectly sequenced to draw in and apply c# minor topography– but it was only the tip of iceberg, if one considers modulations and the inherent “surprises” by chromatic movement that permeate this composition (with the exception of its piu mosso, B section)
Nonetheless, an awareness of ensemble in a duet partnership, made us listen more attentively to each other while we considered balance, voicing, dynamics, and a cohesive singing pulse as important musical ingredients of our collaboration.
Of most importance, was the student’s baby step advance in her learning process. (She had already parceled out the fundamental bass, after beat chords, soprano line and inner voices) in the first section before we became duo partners.
It’s amazing that at 3 a.m. in the morning, I’d be fussing around with the Chopin Nocturne in E minor (Op. 72, No. 1) that I’d previously embedded in a blog about revisiting old repertoire. Either my kind neighbors love classical music, or they’ve managed to double pack their ears with spongy stopples. (These can be permanently “embedded” if one is not careful)
So lucky for me, with my unplugged, wide open ears, I had the benefit of a long distance communication from Seymour Bernstein (author, With Your Own Two Hands) who emailed me constructive criticism related to the Chopin. Basically, he zeroed in on what I knew in my sub-conscious to be on point–but because of my DNA connection to the piece, I was just too embedded in it (not that word, again, please consult a Thesaurus)
It was one of those situations, where I knew that I’d over-exaggerated my rubato, perhaps, but of more concern was my tendency to play unsynchronized bass/treble notes. You know what I mean, when the right and left hand should come together and not be schmaltzed up to high heaven, and divided all over the place. It’s what Liberace might do, or the celebrated hypochondriac pianist, Oscar Levant, who played Gershwin. He made it a point to exhibit all his illnesses on 1950s TV, kvetching the whole time on the Jack Paar Show, sniveling, snorting- about to pass out before a commercial break.
My family had an old 78 of his Chopin which I’ll have to dig up. In those days, the vinyls were very long-lasting, like some of Liberace’s half cadences, rolls and flourishes.
I’d imagined a less mannered interpretation as had permeated my last reading, and having Seymour Bernstein’s long-distance coaching would level me out. It was nothing short of a mitzvah (blessing in Hebrew)
But before I go further, here’s a comparison of conditions for each home-based recording of the Nocturne.
1)The first performance, previously embedded, was rendered at a civilized hour so my fingers didn’t feel like icicles. Here in Fresno, it’s dipped below 32 degrees at night so we’re having a honeymoon, of sorts, because the next season is our normally sizzling summer, with 100 degrees in the shade. (We are basically bi-seasonal with the help of global warming.)
2) In the second recording made at 3 a.m., my hands were ice balls, so forget the trills, if you can manage to find them–For relief, I’d shoved my bare hands in front of a portable heater, blocked by Aiden Cat who didn’t appreciate being pulled from his sun bath. He would otherwise be rattling the blinds, or tipping over nick knacks.
To be more precise about what I was thinking about before I attempted a Chopin Nocturne MAKEOVER, here’s what Seymour Bernstein recommended after hearing my first performance:
(I hope this advice will help others who are studying the composition)
“Some theorists hold to Chopin always beginning trills on the upper note. But that practice ceased with late Bach and Mozart. It comes down to personal choice. And choices are usually made on what the melody is doing”.
My comment: Bernstein is spot on. I appreciated the advice that the trill should preferably start on the principle note. (If you can bake your hands in a warm oven, you have a shot at playing any trill in the dead of winter) I ended up reducing my first few to upper neighbor ornaments. Don’t copy me.
“I like your new fingering. I divide that passage rhythmically as follow: 123, 1234, 1234.” (He’s referring to measure 37 with those 11 insanely bunched up treble notes crowding into one beat)
My chosen fingering was 1,2, 1,2, 123, 1234
“If you record it again, be sure to play your hands together more often, especially on downbeats. Of course one divides hands for special moments.”
In my first reading I had too many special moments, so don’t copy me. I made it a point to have less of them in the second performance.
Second, improved reading: I’m not gloating over this one, but it’s on the way to the next, which will be followed by another. The process is never-ending. (But I’ll admit to being in a happier place listening to this rendition)
Mikhail Pletnev, the great Russian pianist, always bemoans the existence of recordings, comparing them to mirrors of fixed, undesirable images.
I like to think of them as springboards to improve one’s playing and to grow as a pianist over time.
About Oscar Levant:
A reminder that the man’s celebrity was based upon his reputation as a pianist. He studied with Sigismond Stojowski, a friend and student of Paderewski. He also was a member of George Gershwin’s inner circle.
Levant was considered a genius by some, in many areas. (He himself wisecracked “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity.”)
I was reminded by a reader of my post titled, “When love for the piano dies..” and in that particular writing I focused on situations where certain pressures brought by parents and/or the piano teacher can trigger practicing avoidance, leading to the obvious, piano lesson termination. In these scenarios, mom or dad may live through the successes of their children, and make the process of learning another test driven arena. The child, in particular, just starting a musical adventure, will worry about “wrong notes” that have acquired a negative association, causing her to tighten up to avoid them, when in reality, it’s the opposite– a relaxed flow of energy is needed to play the correct ones on the page. Musical study, otherwise, becomes just another tense universe to prove a child’s worth that leads to a downward spiral, with lots of learning resistance and an eventual sensory turn-off.
This original discussion, however, did not focus upon the student who might not be working at his full potential even within a friendly, nurturing environment, with parents as part of a wholesome support network.
By way of example, in the past year, I’ve had two students in the 9 to 10-year old range who came to lessons without having prepared their assignments during the week, and this was becoming a redundant problem. Each had a bounty of musical talent that wasn’t being realized. The parents were affirmative about lessons, and wanted their children to make progress and enjoy the musical adventure. They were not “stage” parents or particularly judgmental.
It wasn’t a question of repertoire choices because each was excited by pieces drawn from Burgmuller, a wonderful Romantic era composer of colorful character pieces, and William Gillock, who had made quite a name for himself as the modern day master of melody and captivating harmony. His pieces are a wonderful panorama of cultures with something for everyone. I particularly love “Flamenco” which one of my Hispanic students doted upon, though she could have moved forward in her practicing at a better pace. (and I’m not one for hastening the learning process, which flows in increments, but students can sometimes think the piece will be practiced for them exclusively at lessons, and the in-between follow through is not necessary or required)
Let me hone in on the last part of the preceding sentence, because I’m sure many of my colleagues can relate to this particular circumstance.
By way of graphic example, I once wrote the following note to a parent AFTER we had gone over the same points at the lesson with the child present. (the name of the student has been changed for privacy reasons)
“As we discussed at Susan’s piano lesson, a few requirements and suggestions are offered to help your daughter realize her full potential so she can better enjoy the creative process of learning piano.
“Susan is very musically gifted. But as we both know, unless a student practices conscientiously and thoughtfully each day, progress is not made, and interest wanes.
“The first thing is to enlist energy and commitment to playing with an engaging tone which we work on each week in detail. If I filmed each lesson, we would get a glimpse of what we are doing. And in the past I have done this as a reminder and reinforcement of the baby steps needed to nurture along a piece to a level of playing satisfaction. When a student works steadily and carefully, she can ultimately savor the fruits of her labor. That’s our common goal in this collaborative teacher/student learning environment.
“And I’ve made sure to select a lovely piece of music that’s a treat–a nice departure from what’s going on in the method book. Repertoire of this caliber presents unique challenges that are well within your daughter’s reach if she would set aside time each day to explore this newest selection that is just four lines, but packed with beautiful melody and sonority. Susan loved it from the start and now needs to give the piece the caring attention it deserves so it can blossom and grow.
“There’s a rhythm to lessons and we want to establish this soon enough. It requires a slow framing tempo, a “feel” for legato that we work on at each lesson, the patience to find notes on the staff and setting a good fingering.
“We make sure to go over each and every step in the process with our metaphorical magnifying glass so each detail is expanded. Susan seems to engage well at the lesson with this framing, so it should be impetus to send her home to emulate what we have done at her lesson.
“If you could remind her of daily practicing with this mindset, I think we can regain the tempo of learning that will keep her interested in playing piano and looking forward to each new landmark she will reach as she explores the repertoire.
“Susan is very bright and once she sets her mind to a task, she develops a nice connection to it.
“In fact at our last lesson we spent the whole 45 minutes parceling out four lines. But this is the launch for her to continue the fine-tuned practicing at home, with attentive ears, relaxed arms, wrists, and a regular flow of energy. Maybe I’m being redundant so please excuse the re-emphasis.
“Just to remind: the nails are too long to allow the round, relaxed hand position that affords contact with the fleshy part of the fingers. So if Susan could make sure to have them trimmed it would allow the practicing to be more satisfying. She could then more easily find the center of her sound, with a nice settled in point of gravity that promotes the singing tone.
“Because Susan loves her ballet classes, I try to relate the piano to dancing that evokes flowing arms and grace of movement. We try to apply the dance metaphor to piano and your daughter relates well to it.
“For the time being, I am going to assign ONE piece until we get back into rhythm and that will be the Gillock selection along with her five-finger warm-up in E Major and minor (Legato to staccato)
“Note-reading skills should also improve with the daily, parceled approach to practicing that I’m recommending. It will take patience and attentive listening.
“Just 30 minutes a day will suffice as long as quality time is invested. Consistency, by the way is all important. Skipping days, and not practicing sets progress back.
“If you have any questions, feel free to call.”
I’m sure the contents of this note is familiar to many piano teachers, and perhaps it needs to be a reminder of our lesson paradigm even with its variations in studios across the country.
I would love to hear from parents and teachers about their own experience with energizing practicing when the doldrums set in.
Recital scheduling is a motivator, and always helps, particularly having “themes” that embrace various periods of music. But in between these events, we still need to encourage a satisfying practicing equilibrium that moves a student along.
To be sure, the over-scheduling of pupils in after school activities is an impediment we have no control over. That matter would require still another e-mail that might sound a bit too controlling and invasive.
Nevertheless, within the bounds of our teaching universe, we do the best we can to help our students realize their full potential.
Skimming the Surface or Getting Deeply Involved
Frustrated piano teacher-Frustrated student-what to do next?
Out of a Rut with Spot Practicing
In a Piano Teacher’s Arsenal: The Magic Bullet Piece
Piano Lessons, Long Nails, Peer Pressure
From Pop to Bach, a 9-yr old makes it over easy
Individualizing Piano Study: How to Avoid Method Book Dependency
About twenty years ago, before I was enlightened about the risk of injuries when I practiced and how to avoid them, I sustained a ligament tear of my ring finger, right hand. It was while playing the Schumann Carnaval, and just before it happened, I had held my hand in a rigid arched position anticipating a stretch of notes well beyond the octave. It was definitely a suicide gesture to attempt to accommodate the large spread of keys with a traditionally, boxed in, ultra round-shaped hand.
After my ordeal I no longer advocated a “fixed,” unaltered hand position, and I made sure to teach my students ways to protect themselves from practice-related injuries. (I recommended “Warming” up gradually– playing scales and arpeggios in slow motion, breathing through groups of notes, and enlisting a rolling, curving motion)
To prevent finger tears, carpal tunnel and the rest, I advised that students should have very pliant, flexible wrists and hands. If there’s a big keyboard span to tackle, it’s best to use ROTATION without tightening muscles. Gently ROLLING between notes over an octave is the best approach as I demonstrated in the embedded video.
Using longer or broader fingers when attempting to play large intervals, is a hand protector.
Having natural follow-through motions while navigating the expanded intervals is another way to lower the injury risk.
As for over-practicing day in and day out, such excess might lead to nerve damage, carpal tunnel, etc.
I’d once practiced the same trills for hours at time, having to seriously consider a red flag warning: achy hands.
Once the body is telling the player to give it a rest, he/she should heed what’s in his best physical interests.