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Sound imagination and tactile, tonal expression at the piano for diverse compositional eras

Often a posted comment about a You Tube video inspires a blog topic that is of interest to pianists and teachers. One such public addition to my Channel quickly streamed into a comparison between two well-known compositions in the piano repertoire.

The commenter was asking about the grade “level” of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair as compared to Schumann’s Traumerei from Kinderszenen. She asserted that it was “easier” to read through the Romantic era character piece based on her supportive reasons.

“Would you recommend this piece for an Intermediate student (grade 4-5)? I had a very hard time even reading through it! (The Debussy) I learned Schumann’s Traumerei pretty quickly to a decent level, so I thought La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin was going to be feasible too, since the difficulties are more musical than technical. But just figuring out the fingering is proving more challenging than I thought.”

Initially, I’d planned to underscore my reluctance to comparatively “level” the pieces, having to spell out too many variables bundled into an assessment of each composition from distinctly different eras. (Romantic and Impressionist) In addition, by enlisting a narrow focus, I would pin myself into a rigid pedagogical corner.

Instead, I set out to explore the separate challenges of each work, fleshing out the expressive vocabulary that best realized each individual period of composition in partnership with its composer. My demonstration would incorporate a desired tonal palette that called for an imbued physical approach at the inception of study. It would encompass sound imaging springing from the imagination, reinforced by physical suppleness and weight transfer. Qualitative differences unique to the cosmos of each piece would be a pivotal dimension of my recorded reply.

While teachers can take a circuitous route in their mentoring, drawing on mental prompts to engage an internal representation of sound or tone, they must naturally be equipped to demonstrate what works choreographically, if you will– not proposing fixed motions in musical space, but engaging the student in what physically advances various forms of musical expression. (Naturally, fingering decisions are part and parcel of the journey.)

Mood sets, internal harmonic shifts, and structural considerations unique to each composition, must be at the fore in the developmental learning process regardless of suggested leveling. (And it’s a given that a mentor should not recommend pieces that he/she deems significantly out of reach for a particular pupil.)

Finally, in the attached video below, I synthesized in physical and musical terms, what words alone could not amply express.

adult beginner piano students, adult instruction

Piano Student: “I don’t know what I want to hear?”

A commonly registered concern among my brood of adult students circumscribes an uncertainty about phrasing and overall musical expression. Many don’t trust their native musical instincts as they might apply to practicing fledgling pieces that are in early stage development. Yet a good sample of these self-doubters often have a natural inclination to shape lines as an outgrowth of choir experiences, or from vocal interactions with family members during growing up years.

In my particular childhood household, the exposure to poetically exemplary musicians came through a perpetual turntable of 78s that spun around, circulating concertos, operas and choirs through the tiny air space of a one-room flat in the Northeast Bronx. A life draped in recordings of Arthur Rubinstein, Leonid Kogan, Michael Rabin, a Russian Orthodox vocal ensemble, and Jan Peerce, among others, was a constant source of inspiration without educational pretension. Beautifully expressed music was organic to the home environment.

My parents (with no formal musical training) also plucked folkloric vinyl disks from sidewalk sales. I heard the South African duo, Marais and Miranda sing emotionally moving songs with tantalizing lyrics about childhood activities, while Burl Ives and Peter Seeger/The Weavers added to a repertoire of soulful melodies with captivating verses. The street singer, Edith Piaf sobbed through La Vie En Rose with impeccable phrasing and a tremulous vibrato. These artists left deeply embedded emotional impressions upon me from my earliest years.

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If I tapped into my studio of piano students, I know they could retrieve similar memories of songs, instrumental performances of one kind or another that had a pervasive influence on them, inspiring an echo effect, or a contagious affection for tunes in various genres: pop, classical, semi-classical, folk, rock, jazz, etc.

***

Drawing upon these early exposures as they apply to the study of piano surely cannot be underestimated.

Yet, there’s always more to consider when examining the ingredients of developing a piece of piano music to a player’s full creative potential.

I realized such complexity in this process when one of my earliest piano teachers failed to mentor me about “how to learn,” despite my abundance of native musical instincts.

While I knew “what I wanted to hear,” I had insufficient knowledge/skills to develop a piece of music from a seedling stage to full blown ripening. At one particular piano lesson, high up in an apartment building on W. 103 and Broadway, my teacher had me copy pages of her fingerings for the Chopin Scherzo in Bb minor in the narrow vestibule of her musty kitchen, while a very advanced student was playing effortlessly though the Chopin Etudes. The disparity in her knowledge as compared to mine was too great to imagine.

And that’s when I broke down and cried at my last lesson, as if I was ready to give up unless rescued by an able mentor who would understand my need to be guided sensitively and with great care to a semblance of graduated independence–to a level where what I wanted to hear could be realized.

This very model of imparting basic musical skills and direction to my own pupils was channeled through life saver, Lillian Freundlich who was the singing tone messiah. She sang over my playing, conducted me with her hands, always responding viscerally to the music. She took me to performances of Richter and Gilels at Carnegie Hall, following the urtext editions, pointing out poetically rendered passages.

What I had innately within me, she was able to draw out and grow to new levels of creative awareness and expression–always in baby steps. It was back to fundamentals to my relief. Her resonating words, “I will teach you how to learn,” was exactly what I needed in my time of despair and frustration.

If I fast forward the clock to the present, I respond to queries that are familiar: “I don’t know what I want to hear.”

It’s then, that I urge my pupils to sing with me, and develop an allied sensitivity to tone production. To create a beautiful sound, one must imagine it at first and then learn to produce fluid physical motions that breathe life into music. (supple wrists, relaxed arms, rotations–these skills must be rehearsed and refined–along with an awareness of the BREATH) Then there’s context given to phrases that involve a harmonic orientation; an attachment of practical and musical fingerings; how to communicate a mood-set; how structural knowledge aids interpretation–voicing, balance, historical period. The list goes on with deep layers of immersion that a teacher should nurture along, acquiring additional insights and epiphanies.

As an example of such a satisfying exploration that incorporated many enumerated ingredients of musical expression, today’s lesson (Debussy Reverie) reassured me that my student felt a bit more confident about what she wanted to hear: Her playing became more expressive during the time we spent together.

Claude Debussy, piano

Teaching the Language of Debussy in Reverie

Yesterday afternoon I found myself mentoring a student about the nuances of a composer’s language and style in the Impressionist genre.

Claude Debussy’s Reverie, with its palette of blended colors was on display–naturally intoned in vowels rather than consonants, while its liquid phrases begged for supple wrist and relaxed arm infusions of energy. My pupil’s steely bright Yamaha upright piano which was far from the purr–fect vehicle for the creation of a veiled effect, had to be “tamed” through compensatory physical motions. These precluded any form of an articulated legato that would upset the outflow of horizontal lines.

As the lesson unfolded, the activity of SINGING–(myself and pupil echoing measures between California and North Carolina) provided the most significant translation of how we could shape notes/phrases without obtrusive accents. Through many repetitions in the opening bars and a bit beyond, we accomplished incremental refinement that was satisfying for its progress toward natural grace and fluidity. In addition, prompts fueling the imagination filtered down to the keyboard in soft, cushioned landings, advancing expressive playing.

The exchange, captured on video, communicated far more than words could express.

Below is a prior “dreamy” teaching encounter that explored rolling arpeggios in Reverie’s bass, with an infused harmonic analysis.

***

Finally, here’s an additional sample of Debussy’s veiled expression wrapped in tonal colors:

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.

Claude Debussy, Debussy, piano blog

Reviewing Debussy’s Arabesque 1 with its Impressionist palette

It’s been years since I learned Claude Debussy’s coloristic Arabesque No. 1, so my recent revisit was a reminder of how a solid learning foundation can deepen a musical reconnection.

Reviewing an “old” piece brings a renewed opportunity to delve into its character, form, structure, harmonic flow, phrasing, etc. while keeping an open mind about fingering choices. Fundamental “housekeeping” revisions may spring from experiences with music of diverse eras that have widened a music learner’s horizons on technical and musical levels.

The counterpoint of J.S. Bach, for example, spills into the “voicing” arena, even as we advance the clock 200 years to a musical period that embraces moods, colors, and blurred harmonies. We cross-reference and cross-fertilize as we practice Baroque Inventions, Preludes, Fugues; Classical era sonatas; Romantic period repertoire, and explore a rich repository of tonalities intermingled with dissonance. The journeys, regardless of historical period, are complementary.

Naturally, teaching a particular composition is another form of revisit that stretches our perspective and ripens our understanding of a composition.

The Debussy Arabesque No. 1, has been part of my learning and mentoring archive for years, yet this latest dip into its palette of colors produced new awakenings. With a long held embrace of layered learning, that included very slow tempo practicing, framed by a singing-tone, and seamless legato, I savored this latest journey of discovery.

Play Through:

Claude Debussy, Debussy, Debussy Arabesque no. 1, El Cerrito piano studio, piano, piano playing, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, you tube, you tube video, you tube.com, yout tube, youtube.com

Debussy Arabesque No. 1 blends well with East Bay seascapes (Video)

I couldn’t resist the temptation to embed Bay panoramas in a Debussy soundtrack. It followed my journey along the scenic Amtrak 711 route.

A new set of vistas were framed by a whizzing train’s marred window. Yet the mood paintings managed to sift through an imperfect lens.

Once I had settled into my El Cerrito piano studio, I played the exquisitely formed Arabesque No. 1 on my Hamilton Baldwin in readiness for a music/photo art match-up.

About the Composer:

From Wiki:

“Achille-Claude Debussy (22nd August 1862 – 25th March 1918) was a French composer. He was one of the most important figures in music at the turn of the last century; with his music representing the transition from late-romantic to 20th century.

“Debussy’s most dramatic contribution to music history was his disregard for traditional chord structures and tonality. An exponent of the whole tone scale, his pieces would also not adhere to a strict meter or rhythm. They flowed extemporaneously with suggestions of extra-musical images.

“Adventurous harmonies influenced the rise of jazz music later in the 20th century.”

**

The Arabesque No. 1, Debussy’s earliest composition, together with its companion no. 2, enliven the imagination with an overlay of clouds, mist–a wash of color, and rolling, wavy phrases that intermingle with oceanic currents.

Yet ‘Arabesque’ specifically “referred to undulating, tendril-like ornaments of Arabic and Islamic art which coincided with an age in which this form was in full flower. It obeyed the laws of beauty inscribed in every movement of nature.” (Notes to Barenreiter edition)

(The melody with its improvised character, is richly embroidered. Triplets against four 8th notes in the bass, create a dualism of pleasing contours, though the figures are difficult to realize.)

Finally, Debussy, a harmonic innovator, used the whole tone scale, as well as 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and more compounded chords to engage the listener and draw him into a universe of rich sonority and color.

My mixed-media sample:

Claude Debussy, Debussy, Debussy Preludes, Ena Bronstein, Ena Bronstein Barton, word press, word press.com, wordpress, wordpress.com, you tube video, yout tube, youtube.com

Ena Bronstein, pianist, plays Debussy’s “Feux D’artifice” (recorded “live” in concert)

A further blend of music and seascapes, not to mention muted swans.

Ena Bronstein was my former teacher in Fresno before she departed for the East Coast. Currently, she’s on the faculty of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, Princeton, N.J.

LINK:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/virtuosity-and-poetry-in-motion-hallmark-ena-bronsteins-musical-return-to-fresno/

Ena Bronstein, Ena Bronstein Barton, Ena Bronstein pianist, pianist, piano, playing piano

Virtuosity and Poetry in Motion hallmark Ena Bronstein’s musical return to Fresno

Mister Rogers would have welcomed Ena Bronstein back to the “neighborhood” that she left over 25 years ago. He’d say that she planned to honor her friends, former neighbors, and piano students by giving them a very special reunion concert wrapped in love.

And so it happened that our Fresno “neighborhood” piano teacher who had emigrated to the East Coast, returned “home” to her roots to bestow a musical gift that left an indelible memory.

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With my video camera mounted on a delicate tripod, I wound my way to the balcony of First Congregational Church, finding a snug space, keyboard-side for my film landing. From this vantage point, I could zoom in on a 9-foot grand that was pea-size to the naked eye.

It evoked my childhood seat in Carnegie Hall’s last row– with its dizzying gaze upon a stage that hosted Ashkenazy, Richter and Gilels. Their delicate pianissimos were melted pin drops of musical pleasure.

Ena, too, would feed the soul of listeners at the Old Red Church on Van Ness with an expressive palette of tonal colors and textures, framed and styled for each of three composers: Liszt, Debussy and Beethoven.

From the very first silky sound emanating from a well cared for piano, she riveted her audience to every nuance, sculpted phrase, and expressive possibility of all programmed works. It was playing permeated by seasoned maturity, finesse, mood painting and heightened expression. (For students learning about the unity of physical movement with fluid, emotional musical expression, Ena’s supple wrist and flowing, relaxed arms were exemplary models)

An excerpt from Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Etudes

In the culminating Beethoven Sonata, op. 111 the artist left us in spellbound silence at the last fading cadence, needing no encore to disturb a purity of contemplation.

I barely held back tears.

***

Ena celebrated the birthdays of Liszt and Debussy in a personalized performer to audience soliloquy, then continued to play her heart out.

Pour Le Piano: Debussy Toccata

Prelude: Voiles (with my photo seascapes along the Bay)

For her generosity, and singular benefit performance to restore the Church’s Casavant pipe organ, she was rewarded by large servings of love that circulated through the reception area following her concert. I was one of many former students who begged for a photo with her:

As icing on the cake, I was granted a brief interview with my “neighborhood” piano teacher who, despite her farewell decades ago, will always have an eternal presence in my life and those of others she touched in a unique way.

Ena, please come back home again, soon!

PROGRAM

From 12 Etudes Transcendantales
Harmonies du soir Liszt

Preludes – Voiles Debussy
Feux d’artifice

Etudes – pour les Arpeges composes Debussy
pour les Degres chromatiques

Pour le Piano
Debussy
Prelude
Sarabande
Toccata

Intermission

Sonata Op.111 Beethoven

Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato
Arietta – Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile

BIO:

Ena Bronstein-Barton Bio:

http://www.rider.edu/faculty/ena-bronstein-barton

“Born in Santiago, Chile, pianist Ena Bronstein Barton began her career in South America, touring her native continent. After winning a national piano competition she traveled to New York to study with Claudio Arrau and Rafael de Silva. Her New York debut at Town Hall was received with critical acclaim. Since then, Ms. Barton’s career has taken her across the United States, back to South America, to Europe, the Near and Far East, Australia and New Zealand. Among her engagements abroad was an extended tour of Israel and Europe, highlighted by performances as soloist with orchestras in Jerusalem, Luxembourg and Rome.

“Ms. Barton has received many honors throughout her career, including an invitation to attend the Casals Festival, a 1976 Martha Baird Rockefeller Grant which resulted in a solo recital at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, and the 1996 Distinguished Artists Piano Award by Artists International. Her chamber music performances have included appearances with violinist Jaime Laredo and the Guarneri Quartet.

“Ms. Barton taught at California State University-Fresno for 13 years. She was artist-in-residence at Monterey Peninsula College in California and has conducted master classes at the University of Veracruz in Xalapa, Mexico, and in Santiago.

“Recently she gave a recital and master class as part of the centennial celebration of Claudio Arrau’s birthday being held in New York City at the Greenwich House Music School.

“Currently, Ms. Barton is head of the piano department at the Westminster Conservatory of Music, the college’s community music school. She is also a member of the piano faculty of Westminster Choir College of Rider University.”

Links:


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/my-neighborhood-piano-teacher-will-return-to-fresno-for-a-benefit-concert-video/

Donald Munro’s Fresno Bee interview with Ena Bronstein:

http://www.fresnobee.com/2012/04/26/2815277/pianist-ena-bronstein-returns.html#storylink=misearch#storylink=cpy

The Neighorhood Teacher Lives On:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/the-neighborhood-piano-teacher-lives-on/