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Hand-switching and Chopin (making a piano duet out of a solo)

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.

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Rekindling ties with a dear NYC friend, her 1893 Steinway B, and piano tinkering grandbaby


All said in one gulp– A treasured visit with “Laura,” an Oberlin classmate and NYC roommate who’s the sister I never had. In the Big Apple you can make friends for life on the ‘A’ train.

(The jazz favorite, played by Duke Ellington, pulsates with city life and it’s serendipitous events.)

My brother, recently betrothed in a Central Park West location, a mere 8 blocks from the 59th St. Columbus Circle A train stop, met his wife-to-be on the ‘A,’ rode to the last stop with her, and took it from there.

While I didn’t meet Laura through the subway system, the story of our first encounter and its twist of fate are worth recounting.

Flashback: Oberlin Conservatory in the late 60’s. The place was ringing off the roof with VESPERS. I didn’t know what hit me! A Bronx bred child who went to shule (Yiddish school) and had minimal exposure to churchly environments, I couldn’t easily acclimate to a place, where “Father, son and holy ghost” was the mandatory intro to sit-down meals at May Cottage. Saturated with prayers interspersed by tornado warnings, I went scampering down to the basement in hysteria.

Needing relief, and a dose of cultural kinship, at least, I made friends with a composition major named “Laura Jacobs,” whose father sent weekly care packages of lox and bagels plus other deli delights from Zabars, on W. 80th St. and Broadway (Laura had been raised on W. 86th off Riverside Drive. Like me, she was in a morbid state of culture shock) So the two of us, at our wit’s end regularly consoled each other in her dorm room amidst a stockpile of chocolate bars.

As conservatory life took its course, I found myself sauntering across campus to attend Theory Class, when suddenly I spotted “Laura” a few short steps ahead of me. “Hey Laura,” I called out, in my informal Big Apple style of greeting friends. She turned around instantly but was not whom I expected. The young woman facing me was a complete stranger, but owned the NAME, “Laura!”

Quickly, I learned that new found LAURA hailed from NYC—Central Park West and 103rd, and graduated the High School of Music and Art which merged with my alma mater, Performing Arts High to become Laguardia in the heart of Lincoln Center. And while she and I didn’t attend the same Jewish School in the North Bronx, we were both rooted at the piano and had a common secular upbringing with the usual exposure to Passover, Chanukah and other Jewish holidays.

Now with TWO urban Lauras to comfort me, I could survive my four years in the Midwest. (two in the company of L. Jacobs who finally ran away in desperation, hopped a plane and returned to the West Side)

Laura Goldberg, in the meantime, had more in common with me than Laura Jacobs who composed wildly orchestrated atonal compositions. In one, I winged it at the celesta, overwhelmed by complicated entrances between screeching brass, tremulous tympani rolls in poly-rhythms, and tubas droning deeper and deeper. A “Birds” selection of obscure origin had infinite sound effects. Bottom line, our performance crashed with the force of a tsunami! Con jury members looked aghast when I played an impromptu glissando after the composition ended. Laura J. had forgotten to cue me in at the final cadence. (but where was it?)

Laura G., meanwhile practiced piano in one of those claustrophobic white, stacked cubicles in the “Con,” hating every minute of it. I felt the same. We both couldn’t stand hearing our pieces played above and beside us, not to mention the grueling repeats of Schmitt five-finger exercises pumped out to dissonant levels!

As time passed, Laura G. left the Con, and found the COLLEGE, a redeeming educational sanctuary. For me, it was stick to the program– grin and bear it, no matter what it took.

Laura continued to study piano at the CON (where “connies” dwelt) in the studio of Freeman Koberstein, a Baroque ornament specialist, while I whizzed through 4 instructors, one being a violin teacher. At my peak point of despair, I’d switched my instrument major to keep my sanity, but managed to graduate the Conservatory as a born again pianist, to the delight of my mother-in-waiting former NYC teacher, Lillian Freundlich.

Fast forward to post Oberlin graduation: I was back in NYC, looking for a job and roommate and who should pop up, but Laura Goldberg! She’d been working at Columbia Artists Management, hobnobbing with snarky administrators that insulted the lowly employees while aggrandizing the big name, musical giants. My poor friend was in agony!

Meanwhile, I’d landed an assignment at the very earthy W. 90th Street Household Office of the NY State Employment Service, where I sent maids of color to lily white employers residing in plush apartments on either side of Central Park. To my surprise, complaints multiplied to skyrocketing levels! Bab-o and Comet soaked ladies came back from bourgeois locations wreaking of detergent. Some did a great job, others scrubbed the finish off mahogany tables and raided liquor cabinets. I never heard the end of it! “This is Mrs. Jason Robards Jr.–please don’t send Nellie, Lulu, Edna or Missy.” Give me a break!

In those days, conservatory grads took these meaningless, unmusical jobs to earn a buck while waiting for part-time piano students to show up. Or they prolonged their education, pursuing more degrees that had below zero value in the job market. My framed Master’s is gathering silverfish.

As life played out, Laura Goldberg and I roomed together in our one bedroom on W. 74th overlooking beautiful Needle Park, where I discovered drug dealers and addicts in window gazes through tree branches. Not a pretty sight.

(In a recent photo, you see me standing beside a bench in newly named “Verdi Square” that honors the composer) Boy, how they’ve cleaned up the neighborhood!

Verdi  Square

Laura left our West Side apartment after five nesting years in the hub of Amsterdam Avenue drug raids. She departed to wed Steve, the love of her life, while I stayed until my marriage sent me scampering off to California.


My East Coast exit ushered in an unprecedented three-thousand mile separation between Laura and me. Yet our ties in spirit remained permanent, as New Yorkers know, Friends are forever!

At my most recent reunion with Laura, we enjoyed her creative cuisine, sampled the amazing 1893 Steinway B that sits regally in her living room,DSC05332 and watched videos of my dear friend’s first grandchild. The little one played the piano from Laura’s lap, and cavorted around her nursery tapping a Schoenhut piano amidst screams of delight.

Judging by the quality of the toddler’s playing, she’s destined for a glittering piano career. After all, her grandmother is a fine pianist. Her physician mother, is an accomplished cellist, and the oncologist dad, played with the Berlin Philharmonic.

So face the music, it’s all in the family, and I’m glad to be part of it.


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An exceptional set of piano “arrangements” for Intermediate Level students (Carnival of the Animals) VIDEOS

In the past, I’ve ranted against giving piano students “arrangements” of celebrated compositions like Fur Elise and Chopin’s Waltz in Eb Major. The latter appears, significantly reduced, in the Faber Adult Accelerated edition. It’s a token Classical music offering interspersed by Boogie Woogie snatches. Oh, I forgot the revised Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and a curious transposition of Mozart’s Theme and Variations Sonata, K. 331.

(The above prejudice does not circumscribe well-regarded, advanced level transcriptions by Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, and others. Examples: “Liebestraume,” and “Flight of the Bumblebee,” to name a few)

In the realm of elementary and intermediate level piano studies, however, transcriptions or arrangements as found in method books, can be easily replaced with comparably leveled music in original form that has greater musical and teaching value.

Examples: Minuets by Hook, Mozart, J.S Bach, Rameau, et al.

Having said that, I’m going to depart from my well-known inflexibility and praise a collection of Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals “arranged” for piano by Hans-Gunter Heumann.”

I stumbled upon this treasure trove of miniatures after my Intermediate level students had been saturated with the Rachlin ensemble’s performance of Carnival on You Tube.

A feast of wondrous tableaux, it was my student’s entree into the colorful cosmos of French composer, Camille Saint-Saens. Yet, I hadn’t known at the time that my recommended listening assignment would be followed by a hands-on journey through his music in a reduced but appealing form.

As a preliminary, here’s the roster of Rachlin’s You Tube offerings that my students sampled before their playing adventures. (Roger Moore, narrator, serves up delightful Ogden Nash verses as accompaniment)

Now here are selections from Heumann’s colorfully illustrated collection that contains 14 pieces:

Introduction and Lion

This tableau was the springboard for a teaching opportunity:

The Aquarium

The Elephant

RACHLIN sample on the double bass:

Wild Asses


Composer, Camille Saint-Saens (1835 to 1921)

“Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) is a musical suite of fourteen movements by the French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The orchestral work has a duration between 22 and 30 minutes

“Le carnaval was composed in February 1886 while Saint-Saëns was vacationing in a small Austrian village. It was originally scored for a chamber group of flute/piccolo, clarinet (B flat and C), two pianos, glass harmonica, xylophone, two violins, viola, cello and double bass, but is usually performed today with a full orchestra of strings, and with a glockenspiel substituting for the rare glass harmonica. The term for this rare 11-piece musical ensemble is a “hendectet” or an “undectet.”

“Saint-Saëns, apparently concerned that the piece was too frivolous and likely to harm his reputation as a serious composer, suppressed performances of it and only allowed one movement, Le cygne, to be published in his lifetime. Only small private performances were given for close friends like Franz Liszt.

“Saint-Saëns did, however, include a provision which allowed the suite to be published after his death. It was first performed on 26 February 1922, and it has since become one of his most popular works. It is a favorite of music teachers and young children, along with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. In fact, it is very common to see any combination of these three works together on modern CD recordings.”

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The Chopin Bb minor Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 1, and arm/hand rotation/phrasing (Video)

Chopin’s Bb minor Nocturne (Night Piece) requires a player to use a full arm rotation to fluidly play the arpeggios in the left hand that span over an octave. These broken chords which fill a large space by their expansion, create a Romantic underpinning for the molto cantabile heart-rending melody in the treble.

If the wrist, hand, and arm don’t work in unity to execute the bass figure which permeates the whole composition, then the player will quickly tire and the tone will become inhibited.

When I rotate my arms in the course of playing this work, I feel like I’m swinging them toward and away from my body. My elbows with their curvaceous movements, in particular, have wide a wide range of motion. Intertwined with the arm and hand movement is the undulating or flexible wrist. It’s suppleness advances phrase-sculpting and shaping, and its follow through motion allows a player to “breathe” through a composition. (both treble and bass lines)

A pervasive feeling of TWO impulses per measure further lifts the music, so it’s not bogged down in six. (6/4) This rhythmic adjustment helps the player float more naturally in half measures until the final cadence. It’s with a unity of hands, wrists and arms nursing phrases along.

Seymour Bernstein talks about an “upper arm roll” that allows a pianist to have more control over phrasing, dynamics and nuance. He encourages the use of large levers–not just fingers down playing.

Mildred Portney Chase, in her book Just Being at the Piano explains how she focuses on a “release” motion when practicing.

“I may play a short phrase and in the release, allow my hands and arms to move away from the instrument and then back again as a dancer would, with a feeling of grace and fully in contact with the last sound played. Or, I may simply move, using the gesture in choreographed movement to a musical phrase. This may undo any tension that might bind the fingers in playing out the phrase.”


I like to think of the arms as playing the fingers, perhaps like by-passing the keyboard, drawing music from the strings inside the piano.

The only way perhaps to begin to illustrate what often seems a bit beyond words to describe is to embed an example.

In this reading, I make it a point to study phrases that had particular flow and nuance, and store these in my muscle memory bank.

The touch/feel part of music-making is often under-played (pun intended) Notes only have meaning as musical ideas drawn from inspiration allied to fluid movement.

Learning individual notes in the early learning process, should be wedded to the singing tone– to beautiful phrasing and nuance. From the very first exposure to a new piece, ( as Mildred Portney and Seymour Bernstein wisely say) the savoring of each musical moment is a treasured one.

This tableau posted by Seymour Bernstein nicely frames the process of reaching deep down into oneself for musical inspiration:

The backdrop: Aria from J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations


You and the Piano, A Lesson With Seymour Bernstein, Part 4