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:

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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:

"Just Being At the Piano", 19th Century music, 20th Century music, arioso 7, arpeggios, arpeggios for the piano, Claude Debussy, Debussy, Debussy Arabesque no. 1, Impressionistic music, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase, Mildred Portney Chase, pianist, piano, piano lessons, piano teaching, piano world-wide, playing piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, word press, word, wordpress,, you tube, you tube video, yout tube

Piano Technique: Playing beyond the fingers to sculpt beautiful phrases (Debussy Arabesque no. 1)

Many piano students who practice Debussy’s Arabesque no. 1 tend to grab and articulate notes, rather than let them flow from energy streaming down relaxed arms into supple wrists.

Reliance on fingers-down playing becomes the panacea for accuracy, while it sacrifices poetic musical expression.

In the video below, I demonstrate how phrases can be sculpted with a relaxed, supple wrist, that moves up, down, and rotates from side-to-side when needed. It can even draw little circles of motion to curve musical lines.

Above and beyond the wrist is the central fuel provider: arms free of tension.

In harmony with undulating wrists, they realize an Impressionistic palette of rolling arpeggios and melted cadences that characterize Debussy’s music.


One of my favorite quotes from Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase pertains to beautiful phrasing:

“You can learn much from nature. Take a moment to look at a tree. Find the branch that is moving the most quietly. Feel how it might feel, as though a gentle breeze is moving your hands. Your hands may sway gently, back and forth, similar to the way a branch moves. Let this feeling move into your arms, enabling them to increase their span of movement and change direction. Imagine that the breeze is carrying your hands on gently curving paths of air currents. You are releasing your expression through your own individualized choreography of movement.”

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Nikolai Lugansky, pianist, plays chess and loves poetry

The nearly 7-minute You Tube interview was telling. Luganksy waxed poetic about poetry, and recited one of his favorites by Boris Pasternak. It was in Russian, but it’s lyrical lines stole the show. No translation needed.

He was seated beside a conductor named Petrenko, and both were being queried by the first bassist of the Israeli Philharmonic.

Lugansky: “In poetry and music there is no win, no loss, it’s like life….chess, it’s a game.”

Location: Israel, where a good percentage of the population speaks Russian.

I must admit that I was led to the You Tube interview after sampling Lugansky’s artistry on Facebook. (I can hardly summon the right words in English to describe the listening experience)

Perhaps an ever flowing reservoir of emotion and nuance: когда-либо проточном водоеме нюансов и эмоций

If pressed to further enunciate what I loved about the playing, I would say the pianist’s phrasing is liquid, and overall his approach is magical. It’s one of those rare encounters with the soul of a pianist and composer meet.

Debussy’s Arabesque no. 1

And as icing on the cake, Seymour Bernstein forwarded me this link to the Brahms Intermezzo, Op. 118 no. 2:

If this isn’t heaven on earth, then what is:


Nikolai Lugansky
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Nikolai Lugansky

“Nikolai Lugansky (Николай Львович Луганский; born 26 April 1972) is a Russian pianist from Moscow. At the age of five, before he had even started to learn the piano, he astonished his parents when he sat down at the piano and played a Beethoven sonata by ear, which he had just heard a relative play. He studied piano at the Moscow Central Music School and the Moscow Conservatory. His teachers included Tatiana Kestner, Tatiana Nikolayeva and Sergei Dorensky.

“During the ’80s and early ’90s, Lugansky won prizes at numerous piano competitions. At the same time he began to make recordings on the Melodiya (USSR) and Vanguard Classics (Netherlands) labels. His performance at the Winners’ Gala Concert of the 10th International Tchaikovsky Competition was recorded and released on the Pioneer Classics label, on both CD and video laser disc formats. This was followed by more recordings for Japanese labels. He went on to make recordings for Warner Classics (UK), Pentatone Classics (Netherlands), Onyx Classics and Deutsche Grammophon.

“Lugansky has performed together with Vadim Repin, Alexander Kniazev, Anna Netrebko, Joshua Bell, Yuri Bashmet, Vadim Rudenko and Mischa Maisky, among others.

“In addition, Lugansky has collaborated with conductors such as Riccardo Chailly, Christoph Eschenbach, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Valery Gergiev, Neeme Järvi, Kurt Masur, Mikhail Pletnev, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Yuri Simonov, Leonard Slatkin, Vladimir Spivakov, Evgeny Svetlanov, Yuri Temirkanov and Edo de Waart.

“As well as performing and recording, Lugansky teaches at the Moscow Conservatory.”


About Lugansky’s teacher:

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The Cult of Haddy Haddorff, her dual personality, and lovesick owners


Serious, but exalted in Bach..

Affording a dreamscape of beauty in Debussy

These are her remarkable polarities.

Depending on the weather, and internal environment, she can either raise you up, or let you down. But even with her intermittent note-lazy landscape, she will always sing heart songs.

I happen to be in the exceptional company of two singular owners of Haddorff pianos who form the Cult of Haddy. One of these infatuated lovers of the nightingale voice posts regularly at the Piano World forums as “Cinnamon Bear.” A flamboyant character by all accounts, he has a 1903 Haddorff upright that is personified in his self-produced radio dramas that he calls “Postcards.”

He sent me links to these that evoke the 50’s soap operas with those creaky doors and exotic sound effects. I’ll share Postcard 8 with Bach snippets and a Haddorff Christmas Carol.

But first, Cinnamon Bear (aka Andy Strong) does it up to the hilt in this opener, as he introduces one of his rescued Haddy’s that he claims Ragtime Composer Scott Joplin played and composed for. (The piano was Cinnamon’s for a mere $225!)

In this audio sample, he showcases the old world twangy Haddy, and the history of its Rockford, Illinois based manufacturer. Note the Swedish antecedents.

And here’s a display of the internal workmanship:

Cinnamon Bear greeted me with this message after my Haddy console, (not a spinet, by the way) was safely nestled in my living room. (It followed a hand pushed street ride to my abode in Northwest Fresno)

“Congratulations on your recent acquisition! Haddorffs are, indeed, lovely, solid, dependable, well-built pianos. It looks like what you have is a spinet rather than a console? Does it have a drop action? Or, does the action rest on top of the keys? (Just curious…) I believe that by 1951, the Haddorff Piano Company was controlled by Kimball, though the pianos were still made to Haddorff specifications at the factory on Ethel Ave in Rockford, IL. Haddorffs have such a rich, full sound because of their unique soundboard design, and because of their large cast-iron plates that are mated to the pin-block in a special way (source: internet research, plus corroborated first-hand experience!… smile ).

“It seems like every Rockford native that I’ve talked to who is over 60 years old has a Haddorff story to tell! I would love to collect some of these stories, and hope that I have time to collect them before that window of opportunity closes.

“Did you happen to follow, or find, any of my series of “Haddorff Postcards” that I made last year? They were all posted in the Pianist Corner Member Recordings sub-forum.

“If not, you can follow the un-folding drama by listening to these links (in order is best– wink ):
Haddorff Postcard [No.1] with “Deep Purple”
Haddorff Postcard No.2 with “I Love Her”
Haddorff Postcard No.3 with “Yes, Sir! That’s My Baby”
Haddorff Postcard No.4 with “Mistress Murphy’s Chowder”
Haddorff Postcard No.5 with “All Alone”
Haddorff – (no postcard) with “He Wipes The Tear From Every Eye” played on the Haddorff
Haddorff Postcard No.6 with “Constantinople”
Haddorff Pictures (no postcard, yet)
Haddorff Postcard No.7 with a couple of Scriabin Preludes
Haddorff Postcard No. 8 with Bach Snippets
Haddorff Postcard No.9–A Haddorff Christmas Carol

“Best wishes to you and your new find! Let me know how things turn out!

–Andy Strong
Rockford, IL, Home of the Haddorff Piano Co. from 1901-1960

“P.S., I also “brokered” the acquisition of a Haddorff console for a friend of mine whose daughter is going to start lessons soon. It is a relatively un-adorned model from the 20s or 30s era, but still a very handsome piano.”


The other member of the Haddy Haddorff cult is a new owner who commented at my blog site after I posted my first Haddy tribute.

“Don,” from the West Coast, sang Haddy’s praises:

“My Haddorff Vertichord arrived yesterday afternoon in relatively good tune. It plays great and has that natural reverb or resonance that I was looking for. It looks good too, although the reddish tint of the mahogany has faded except for on the keyboard cover which didn’t get exposed to 70 years of light. I am the 2nd owner. This piano was purchased new in Ohio and taken to Europe for 20 years and then back to California. There is only one key with some slight ivory damage and I will take your advice and have it repaired and tuned and regulated by one of our local local RPT’s. I would send a pic of “Haddy” (yes, I named the piano) from my I phone but I’m not sure how to post it unless I’m sending to an email address.

“BTW, there is a really nice looking Haddorff upright for sale locally on Sacramento Craigslist for $385.00 (!). I have $385, but I have no room for it. There is a great video on you tube of Deep Purple being played on a 1903 Haddorff upright that is exquisitely out of tune with just the “right” amount of sour (does that make sense?).” (He must have been talking about Cinnamon Bear’s rendition that comes straight from one of his Postcards, titled “Deep Purple.”)


As always, this cult welcomes new members, so if you own a Haddorff, please join us, and share your story.


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Debussy Arabesque No. 1 and the back story (Video)

Speaking of pianos, and decisions about which to use, I decided to give Haddy Haddorff another opportunity to sing like a nightingale. This was a late-into-the-night sound exploration following an earlier trip to the Mac Store at Fresno’s Fashion Fair Mall. The Yeti mic was not registering–no sound–no explanation, though it was properly connected.

So I shut down the computer, re-booted and checked for updates. It didn’t matter. Still mute despite visual sound waves galore.

Another lingering problem– the intermittent though disturbing, out of synch frames–an issue finally acknowledged by a Mac technician, who declared, “It may be related to the iMovie program.”

So what’s next?

I guess I’ll wait for the next update as I watch my hands and the music run off in different directions.

Meanwhile, I was given a new Yeti Mic, since the older one didn’t register at the store.(better than a squeak in a pedal disappearing when the tuner waltzes in) This time I had the upfront and personal evidence.

I came home, practiced, and found myself wandering from the Steinway back to Haddy playing the Debussy Arabesque 1.

The grand piano afforded a nice work-out because the action is stiff by comparison to Ms. Haddy. So if you hang around the Steinway long enough and then mosey over to the second piano, the playing is a piece of cake by comparison. It resulted in a smooth transition to the Debussy Arabesque No. 1 without instrumental resistance.

Maybe it’s not a bad idea to have a work-out piano until the knots are addressed. (I’m waiting for the Magical Messiah tech to appear)

Next year in Jerusalem?


It was well after midnight when I managed to upload the Debussy.

Yeti mic was humming, though a tad out of synch with my arms and hands.

Up at 5 a.m., I hoped nothing had imploded during my zzzzzs, and was pleasantly relieved to see the posting. It came with some kind of message that the rights to the Debussy were owned by some entity and such.

“GoDigital MG For a Third Party Content Type: Musical Composition”

You just never whose domain you’re trampling on.

It’s getting so bad now that these companies own Chopin and other composers who died over 150 years ago.

That’s worth another blog and a half.

So stay tuned….


Debussy Arabesque Instruction

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Jello and other mental images for pianists

Here comes the jello again. I thought I was the only one swimming around in it until I found the good company of Irina Gorin, piano teacher and author, who served what amounted to a jello substitute at her piano lessons. She had packed away a small tub of colorful putty that she dispensed to her very beginning students when they occasionally pounded the keyboard like it was concrete. Ouch! The impact alone should have stopped them in their tracks.

Tracks could have been another tone booster, if thought of as soft tracks of silky snow, before the meltdown or freeze! Better yet, Molasses would work wonders for an image starved pianist, without all the artificial coloring.

With a collection of volume enhanced images, a pianist could milk the piano for its singing tone while sculpting phrases par excellence.

The music of Debussy is sampled below:

Following this musical snippet, I’d skimmed the surface of a Scarlatti sonata, replacing jello with yet another image. Bouncing through light and lively staccato in K. 159, I imagined my springboard trampoline fueling my duetto in 3rds, 4ths and 6ths as it spilled into a shimmering trill.

After a fanciful display, I shifted my landscape in the first section of Mozart’s Sonata, K. 545 in C Major.

All I could think of was beautifully spun out operatic lines that the composer embraced. As a singer, first and foremost, I would shape phrases with the assistance of a supple wrist. Molasses and jello would support an outpouring without intrusive accents.

Mental images are always helpful to a pianist. Best integrated into a program of daily practicing that is mindful and phrase attentive, they fuel the imagination and allow the spirit to soar.

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