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Beyond Leon Fleisher’s riveting words about pianists and vocal modeling

Pianist, Leon Fleisher has given us his notable artistry over decades, while his insights about practicing and teaching have been invaluable for a vast community of mentors and students.

In his latest interview that coincided with the release of a new album, All the Things You Are, Fleisher spoke eloquently about the intrinsic relationship of vocal modeling and beautiful musical expression at the piano:

“I think, possibly … especially for pianists, to think in terms of ‘vocal.’ If you can sing something, and I don’t mean to sing all the notes, because the range of the piano is way beyond one person, but if you can sing the music, articulate it, then you can play it.

“One of the great challenges of a pianist is that every other instrument (I discount mallet instruments), violin to double bass, piccolo down through tuba, they have three things to think about: they have to think about how they attack the note; they have to think about how they support the note; and they have to think about how they stop the note. Most pianists just think of the first of those three, how they are going to attack the note, and not even all of them think about that. If they can expand their approach, new revelations will appear. You would be amazed how seldom one comes upon somebody who thinks in those terms or makes music on the piano in those terms.”



Fleisher has also given us the mantra, “Hear it Before you Play It,” which is an internalization of what the pianist imagines in sound before placing his fingers on the keys. (The opening notes of a composition are not haphazard, but instead, are planned in advance in the psyche.)

While the aforementioned ideas (including vocal modeling) are essential to a well-meaning approach to the piano, a student journeying through the masterworks with the counsel of teacher, needs MORE than a vocal paradigm to make significant progress toward sensitive music-making.

For example, once a pupil can “sing” what he wants to produce at the piano, he needs to know HOW to realize his own model which will encompass a host of ingredients that are included in the following set of questions:

1) What are the physical means to the end? Are there blocks to freedom of expression because of tension in the arms and wrists that need to be identified? What about the breath? Does the vocal model suggest places to breathe in the natural ebb and flow of a phrase? Is the breath short due to tension which inhibits free expression?

What about the nuts and bolts of playing staccato, legato in complex strands of notes? These surely warrant modeling by the teacher at the piano. (How are notes “grouped,”or “spaced?”) What about “Rotation” and its effect on phrasing. etc. A pupil, needs hands-on knowledge that a mentor needs to provide. These encompass issues of traction and weight transfer into the keys, etc.

What role does the pedal play in beautiful phrasing? These require demonstrations as well. (Again, vocal modeling is not enough, but ATTENTIVE LISTENING and harmonic understanding are a must.)

2) Is faulty rhythmic framing blocking the flow of what is internalized? Are legato triplets, for example sounding angular and choppy? If they are, then it follows that a teacher must enlighten a pupil about the “color” and motion of these threads and how they can be liberated in a seamless, horizontal flow. (Teacher demonstrations at the piano can include supple wrist grouping of notes.)

If a fundamental beat is non-existent, or if a true “singing pulse is absent,” a student needs to understand what is causing note crowding, undirected accelerations, or interludes of lagging. Often a teacher will remedy such problems by “conducting” the student, simultaneously instilling a sense of shape and contour to musical lines.

3) Does a pupil comprehend the relationship of harmonic rhythm or flow of harmonies to phrasing? (cadences, modulations, etc.) Even with a well-defined vocal model, a student would still need to realize the dips in phrases that occur with various progressions (like Dominant to Tonic), or to understand the emotional ramifications of Deceptive cadences, parallel minor/or Major transitions.

Decays of notes also factor into phrasing. Is the student keenly aware of how what comes before affects what follows? What about sub-destinations and full destinations in a chain of measures?

How do dynamics, crescendos and decrescendo’s contribute to the sculpting of lines?

4) How does the historic period of a composition influence the whole approach to sound imaging? (Debussy vs. Bach; Mozart vs. Chopin) This opens up a universe of tonal variation and exploration. (Mental imagery contributes to a realization of a sound ideal.)


In truth there are so many ingredients in an artfully sensitive music-making process that just one central focus, like vocal modeling, is clearly not enough.


In exploring my archive of videos, I found two that resonated with a multi-dimensional approach to creating beauty at the piano.

1) Footage from the first sample is derived from my 2014 visit to New York City where I filmed Irina Morozova teaching one of her young students. (Franz Liszt La Leggierezza) The Special Music School/Kaufman Center.


2) Excerpts from an ONLINE lesson to Scotland: Felix Mendelssohn Venetian Book Song Op. 30 No. 6. (The split-screen recording is a valuable playback reference for the student)

piano, Romantic era

Two Romantic era piano lessons are wedded beautifully together

Why not pair Mendelssohn and Chopin in a harmonious duo.

Two piano lessons transmitted over the Internet were framed by the same period expression: mellifluous melodic threads against relentless rocking motions in the bass. A Boat song and Nocturne respectively swayed in TWO, requiring an examination of recurring bass line arpeggios that frequently spanned beyond the octave. These enlisted a ROTATIONAL approach for a smooth, seamless rendering while preliminary BLOCKING techniques acquired a sense of distance and transit.

Rotations, in particular, discouraged twisting associated with thumb shifts. And traveling through various harmonies in arpeggiated form, developed a pupil’s awareness of bigger GROUPINGS of notes as they moved through a horizontal landscape. Finally, infusions of dips and swells through various DESTINATIONS nourished well-shaped lines along with an awareness of harmonic rhythm and cadential sequences.

It was uncanny, though quite predictable that both lessons, one to London, the other to Australia, would form a happy alliance providing a dual opportunity for two students to grow their artistry by watching the other practice in similar framing modalities with a resonating SINGING Tone. (Don’t forget supple wrists and relaxed arms)

Here’s how each lesson unfolded:

To Sydney, Australia

Mendelssohn Venetian Boat Song in F-sharp minor, Op. 30, No. 6

You Tube Video Description
Published on Jan 18, 2017

“We worked on phrasing in slow practice tempo; smooth transit of broken chords in Bass (using rotation)- Feeling a sense of TWO beats per measure. (Duple Compound meter) Shaping and SINGING lines; understanding HARMONIC relationships that influence phrasing; voicing and balance; relaxed, measured trill practice.”

Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No. 1

To London, England

Video Description:

“Romantic era phrasing; Think in TWO impulses per measure; Use Rotations for relentless Left Hand broken chords; Enlist blocking techniques in this regard; Play with a SINGING tone legato; Be aware of harmonic rhythm or harmonic progressions/cadences as they influence phrasing. Work on shaping lines and balancing voices. Observe dynamics and use various weight transfers to realize them.”

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Transit among adult piano students and teachers

Many in the piano teaching universe KEEP a special sanctuary for adult pupils who rekindle an interest in music study. These pupils, of diverse ages and levels, often come with an initial spurt of enthusiasm to learn, grow and develop. Yet, like any demographic or body of new learners, their length of stay or commitment to practicing and taking lessons are not always predictable.

To deal with a stash of unknowns associated with a newly launched musical journey, a preliminary set of questions might be invaluable.

These would encompass a pupil’s expressed goals, aspirations, repertoire interests, and how much time he can realistically allot to the piano.

Still, lurking beneath the surface is the more important inquiry about a student’s self-regard, self-acceptance, and patience threshold for spurts of progress and periodic setbacks. Will he/she be willing to bear periodic frustrations that are part of the learning process or will the pupil be a harsh, unforgiving self-critic.

In my experience, most premature drop-out rates relate to self-invalidation. A student believes he/she is just not the perfect player and won’t go further despite the best confidence dispensing infusions of the teacher. A downward spiral of hyper-self-criticism nips a musical partnership in the bud.

Some adult students expect a smooth, and unencumbered journey without a hitch. If pieces require an incremental approach within a layered learning paradigm, they might not choose to form a longterm, deep relationship with a composition. What amounts to touching bases music study, as a top layer sightread with a big turnover of pieces is the pupil’s preference. Boredom otherwise characterizes his/her pursuit of one or two compositions.

A top layer, espresso learning paradigm might be agreeable to some teachers, especially those willing to bend with the breeze and go with the flow. But others will feel the match-up is not one that will harvest the full potential of the student and essentially goes against the grain of his/her teaching philosophy. (It’s therefore incumbent upon the teacher to describe her overall philosophy and approach before lessons get underway. In fact, some students will make this inquiry in a written or telephone communication that precedes the first lesson.)

In my own teaching practice, I’ve come to the realization that if a student at the outset prefers a superficial spin through Bach, Mozart, Chopin and any number of masterworks, I will immediately suggest another teacher.

A complementary issue relates to repertoire choices. While some teachers will only adhere to the mainstream Classical repertoire, others are more flexible and will work with a student in popular music genres including jazz and musical theater, etc.

If a student is intent on studying jazz only, then a Classically oriented teacher is clearly a mismatch, and any attempt to forge a musical partnership under these conditions is doomed from the start.


As lessons take their course

Over time, a mentor can acquire a more detailed picture of a student’s attitude toward learning; assess his strengths, weaknesses, and discover the nature of his commitment to practicing. He can then more effectively address a pupil’s technical/musical needs while getting a feel for the chemistry between learning partners.

(In the long run, piano lessons will have a built-in embryonic development unique to each individual that require sensitive adjustments as needed.)

The most important ingredient, however, to the success of a musical partnership will be a mutual devotion to the music without built-in deadlines of achievement and harsh criticism. The respect accorded a teacher and student must be mutual and ongoing.


Once both partners are fully embarked on a shared musical journey, the question will remain whether lessons are a long-term engagement or a passing through encounter. (This can be one of the questions posed in a general sense before instruction gets underway but it might yield a premature answer if the student is not sure about how the lessons will play out with a particular teacher.)

A student’s musical background shared before the commencement of music study, should include a history of prior lesson experiences.

While I don’t like RED FLAG-driven conclusions or prejudices, there’s some degree of truth embedded in the student’s past associations with previous teachers if there were any. (The same applies to RED FLAG warnings about teacher behaviors and practices as they have impacted students.)

Question: If a pupil is making a mentor change, what was it about the previous instructor that did not work out for him. Here a set of answers I’ve collected over the years.

1) “She didn’t teach me the right hand position.”

2) “He took telephone calls during my lesson.”
(I had more than one transfer student who verified this behavior about a particular instructor)

3) “The teacher canceled my lessons too often.”

4) “I was charged for lessons I had to cancel because of sport events.” (It turns out the student sometimes gave the teacher 30 minutes notice)

5) “I was going nowhere after 3 months of instruction.”

6) “I didn’t like the pieces I was given.”

7) “The teacher’s piano was unplayable.”

8) “Everyone in the studio played better than me.”

9) “I couldn’t afford the lessons.”

10) “I wasn’t able to take weekly instruction, so I wanted to pare down to every other week. My teacher couldn’t accommodate the change.”

11) “We could never agree on the right day or right time for lessons.”

12) “The teacher never played once for me or demonstrated the whole time.”

13) “The teacher gave up all her adult students, providing a list of those taking transfers.”

(Sometimes a student will be at the mercy of consecutive mentors who release a slew of older pupils because they just don’t want to teach adults, sending them scrambling into an intimidating universe of the unknown. These students may have trust issues, so they may start lessons with a new teacher harboring fears of impending abandonment.)

14) “The instructor was overly critical of me on a personal level.”

15)”My last two teachers died.”

Additional situations and reasons why music study is cut short:

1) Family circumstances and changes: the arrival of a new baby that demands increased time and attention to child care needs, impedes practicing. Exhaustion associated with a newborn’s erratic sleep and feeding schedule, stunts mindful, directed practicing if it can occur at all. The flow of life with a new member of the family is drastically altered.

(I had one student who confessed that he lost all motivation to continue lessons given his changed life circumstances. His wife was already off to work, and baby-sitting needs were a challenge. He appeared lethargic and bleary-eyed. Sadly, he would not return to lessons, given his plan to have more children, and yet he had made amazing progress in the two years before his son was born. To some extent it was heartbreaking for both music partners.)

2) Private entrepreneur/Business development as a side bar to lessons that requires road travel and cross country flights, is a deal breaker.

Jet-setting, or on the road students are likely to CANCEL their piano lesson reservations without predictable makeups. Long stints of absence inevitably lead to a point of NO RETURN. (If frequent breaks are not disclosed prior to instruction, they can leave a wave of ill-feeling behind.)

3) Changes in lesson scheduling from weekly to bi-monthly, and sometimes to very much longer intervals between meetings, usually lead to the demise of instruction. It’s a no-win for student and teacher alike particularly if the structure is agreed upon from the outset and is suddenly shifted. While very advanced students might benefit from less frequent lessons, most adult beginners and intermediate level students need weekly lessons to make satisfying gains. A vicious cycle of setbacks associated with absences catapults into lesson dropping due to a crescendo of student frustration.


Already mentioned but needing emphasis:

4) Intolerance associated with specific, wishful gains that are not made in a personal deadline capacity, is sometimes a reflection of a student’s self-deprecation and lack of confidence. Unrealistic goal attainment within a fixed, inflexible schedule, infused with a negative attitude impedes if not sabotages movement forward.

Often, during periods of exasperation, a student plagued by insecurities and unrealistic goal-setting, will look over the fence, thinking there’s a better teacher on the horizon. Yet despite hopes for the divinely inspirational nymph from the forest, like Terpsichore, to arrive on the scene as a saving grace, the student will more than likely never be satisfied with any mentor.

5) Teacher student burnout: an eight to ten year instructional relationship can run its course needing a new infusion of energy from another source–meaning that CHANGE is indicated. Both partners should be willing to embrace a healthy transition without remorse.

6) The right fit is just not there, tested over months, so both teacher and student need to recognize the mismatch and move on. A more suitable learning partnership can result in a positive musical journey without adding in a truckload of baggage.

7) Policy conflicts can send students scurrying, so it’s best to clarify fees and cancellation guidelines before lessons are set in motion. This whole arena can be the source of anger and resentment if learning partners are not on the same page and in agreement from day one.

On a personal note, I’ve whittled down my studio to a small number of adult students whom I consider KEEPERS, in the same way, that I hope they regard me to be committed to their musical development in the longterm.

Today, I was especially moved by a student’s words that resonated with special meaning:

“Thank you for taking seriously those of us who begin piano as an adult but who really want to learn. You could easily dismiss us, as I think some other teachers of adult beginners might do.”

The premise of wanting to work with adult students is of paramount importance in making the teacher/student relationship work. A mutual love for music unencumbered by value judgment, harsh criticism, and fixed learning deadlines all synthesize together to create a harmonious learning environment.

Today I enjoyed a particular lesson with an adult student who’s studying the Mendelssohn Venetian Boat Song, Op. 30 No. 6. It was our shared adulation for this composition and our common understanding of what it takes (in slow practice tempo) to deeply absorb the composition that made the experience mutually gratifying.

Finally, we both realize that the creative process embedded in our lessons, will evolve and develop over time with unswerving patience.


Are Adult Students Stigmatized

Adult student Themes and Issues


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Capturing the rocking motion of Mendelssohn’s F# minor Venetian Boat Song

In Felix Mendelssohn’s Op. 30, No. 6 Gondola Song, the very character of the lilting motion is sustained in the Left Hand with a metrical awareness of Two beats per measure, not 6. The composition (from the Songs Without Words album) is in 6/8 but translated as duple compound, giving a leaning emphasis on the first of two/3-8th note groupings. In the opening bass measures, rotation of the arm also assists the floating, flowing nature of the music, making the journey down a Venice canal a peaceful one.

Page 1:
Mendelsson Venetian Boat Song p. 1

This is a wonderful learning experience on so many musical/technical levels as I demonstrate in the attached video. Very slow practicing preserves all nuances of phrasing while a student manages the lighter half of each measure with arm weight transfer and a supple wrist.

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When sight-reading is not enough: Learning a new piano piece from the ground up so we can teach it to our students (Videos)

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Sviatoslav Richter when asked how he approached a challenging new composition of virtuoso proportion:

His reply– “I read a new piece and then start practicing the place that irritates me the most. After learning that one I move to the next irritation, etc.”

Well, most of us would die to have such comparable talent, but our perfunctory read of a new composition only skims the surface, requiring our deeper commitment to musical and technical discovery.

I will admit that earlier today I dove into a virgin piece, submerging myself for greater than two full hours as I refined fingering, mapped out harmonic rhythm, probed voice layering, and the rest. It was in readiness for my video tutorial of Mendelssohn’s Children’s Piece, Op. 72 No. 1.

This composition, with a hymn-like, singing tone quality, happened to be the second one brought to me by my “new” Bay area adult student. As it turned out, she was very committed to hard work and personal musical development which was one of the rare blessings to come my way over a long teaching career. For me, this was an opportunity to grow along with her and expand my pianistic horizons.

In the embedded video offered, I literally approached the Mendelssohn work as if I were a maiden voyager on a musical journey, wanting to make my student’s foray a bit easier.

Along the way, I encountered a perfectly heart-warming character piece that looked deceptively simple, but wasn’t. And as I dealt with a choir of voices, with a few inner ones needing to be fleshed out, I re-fingered measures that had poor editorial choices, and examined harmonic rhythm and phrasing to ensure a depth of learning that would be long-lasting.

Previously, I’d studied many of the composer’s “Songs without Words” which provided a good Romantic era underpinning for this undertaking, but still, I required quality time to examine a brand new composition that was not in my repertoire. (Separate hand practice could not be avoided)

The video instruction contained baby-step advances that would bode well for a progressive learning and ripening process, and in this effort, I would partner with an enthusiastic adult student who was on the same page with me.



The very first lesson with a new Intermediate or advanced piano student: thinking creatively on your feet