adult piano studies, adult piano teaching, piano teacher, piano teaching, piano techique

Piano Technique: Practicing well-shaped scales and arpeggios (videos)

It’s always disheartening when students forego their scales and arpeggios at lessons, choosing instead, to dive immediately into repertoire. In their zeal to immerse themselves in the Masterworks, they neglect a pivotal Circle of Fifths journey that’s wedded to keyboard geographies, key relationships, and much more.

As a child, I reviled scales like most beginning piano students, and I relied on the faulty memory of my German mentor, Mrs. Schwed who heard me churn out the same C Major scale week after week– month after month. For me it was like taking uncoated cod liver oil pills cold turkey without a malted milk to wash it down. But at least I outsmarted my mentor in my one key-centered perseveration. (Ironically, C Major was probably one of my most unwise choices because it had no black key landmarks.)

It’s been decades since scales were hard to swallow, and over the years I’ve grown to love their ingestion. I will spend the first 45 minutes of my practice time, plying and shaping myriads of scales and arpeggios through Major and minor keys: in legato, staccato; by tenths, thirds, sixths. I will immerse myself in well-phrased note-rollouts in parallel and contrary motion with varied dynamics, feeling a kinesthetic and emotional connection to the “music” I make through these important preliminaries. Mindfulness, concentration, and a keen awareness of the breath converge in these keyboard-wide escapades. They’re intrinsic to a “centered” learning process.

One of my adult pupils who concurs that a scale-wise prelude to the repertoire segment of her lesson is relevant to her musical growth, shares her sprees through the key of G-sharp minor. Though my keyboard is under the webcam, one can feel a collective interaction of well-shaped scales and arpeggios par duo.

Over the past several months, this adult pupil has wedded her technique to the following repertoire:

J.S. Bach Prelude in F minor, WTC Book 2
J.S. Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847
Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72
Chopin Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64, No.2
Claude Debussy, “La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin” (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”)

***

Bonus video: Distinguished pianist and teacher, Irina Morozova mentors a student as he plays scales during his lesson at the Special Music School/Kaufmann Center in Manhattan. (His initial choice of “C Major” was instantly aborted)

piano blog, piano blog by Shirley Kirsten, piano blogger, piano blogging, piano blogs, piano instruction, piano instructor, piano learning, piano lesson

Trading places with our piano students

As teachers, the empathy we have for a pupil’s budding learning process with its slips and slides, is at the foundation of good mentoring. By remembering what it’s like to be in the student’s position, sitting at the piano under a professional gaze, we can increase our pedagogical effectiveness.

If we revisit our own early student experiences in the riveting capsule of a mentor’s examination, we can extract what worked to improve our playing or what sadly drove a passage further into the ground.

Yesterday, I met Online with a student who prepared her scales beautifully but had a glitch in the Harmonic form (A-sharp minor/Bb minor) It occurred when I’d asked her to replay the peak 16th note rendering to remedy a perceived overcrowding or acceleration in the initial outpouring. In her repetition effort she tightened up and lost more notes than previously, saying “I guess I’m just good for the first effort.”

In truth, she tried a bit too hard the second time, tightening up in her earnest determination to improve the peak speed staccato. It was an approach that had the opposite effect than intended, funneling tension through the arms and wrists that impeded a naturally paced flow of notes.

At this juncture, I found it helpful to personally identify with the same propensity to recycle glitches and how I found a way to unravel them: This was about taking pause, restoring natural respiration, and freeing arms and wrists through mental imagery.

Ultimately, my experience resonated with the student who benefitted by a changed consciousness. (a NONjudgmental approach) In a resumed effort, she acquired presence of mind, regained equilibrium, and created an interval of calmness and contemplation before she rippled through her third repetition.

The scale portion of this student’s lesson continued with the Melodic minor which was on a more even keel. A sensible, relaxed application of spot practicing removed a minor snag in the last two octaves.

This particular pupil, based in Scotland, has made big strides over the past two years in the technical/musical cosmos. Her peak tempo 32nds through scales are quite pleasing as she contours them in a breezy flow. (So nicely revealed in the first video segment.)

In the second portion of the footage embedded below, I worked with another student on body movement in contrary motion scales and arpeggios. In the arpeggio segment, where the student had practiced a different fingering for E Major in 10ths, I didn’t dismiss her choice but rather took the position that we should try both fingerings to see if one or the other could be reliable in triple speed tempo.

An objective examination of fingering allowed for student input, narrowing the distance between mentor and pupil. It precluded an authoritarian model of teaching–where one individual becomes the singular font of knowledge without challenge.

By such an example, we can examine, modify and refine our attitude toward a student so that it maximizes his/her musical growth and development. Periodic self-reviews bundled in empathy will definitely improve our own playing and teaching as well.

***
Link:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2017/03/18/student-i-get-so-nervous-when-i-play-for-you-the-teacher-responds/

piano, piano student, piano teaching

Student: “I get so nervous when I play for you!” The Teacher responds!

As mentors, we can easily recall our student days when well-practiced pieces tanked upon arrival at our piano teacher’s home. Even ascending the staircase to the threshold of the apartment, our heart rate quickened, and we felt cold, clammy and faint. It was automatic over-drive for the first 20 minutes–an adrenaline crisis of magnitude.

Yet the stimulus, our kind-looking, empathetic mentor who appeared in the shining glow of her Zen-like environment, welcomed us with unconditional love and acceptance. She was draped in a HERE and NOW, mindful learning mantra, leading us to a grand piano, with neatly stacked, Blue urtext editions that she embraced with reverence and affection. At least, when she thumbed through its pages, locating the Mozart amoroso we had practiced– propping it neatly on the rack, her warm, inviting gesture should have transported us to a peaceful cosmos of awe-inspired music-making.

But we resisted, embracing our own enslaving mindset regardless of what existed in reality. And with a self-imposed distortion of what a lesson should be about, we were guaranteed a disappointment universe, bundled in autonomic jitters and keyboard-plagued land mines.

***

From my perspective, these tension-loaded recollections had been associated with a time when lessons were LIVE and bristling with person-to-person interactions. These would be tempered by a wise and patient teacher who walked us down from our mountain top of anxiety to a level ground of relaxation: In a gradual decompression, we became detached from our EGO-heavy, high expectations– wooed, instead, into ONE-ness with the creative process.

My most beloved NYC based-teacher, Lillian Freundlich, who’d mentored me with this very approach, knew, like a psychotherapist, how to refocus my attention on the music and not MYSELF. Her nursed immersion was progressive, in baby steps, as she shook the kinks out of my shoulders, forearms, wrists, and ushered in the second twenty minutes of my lesson, with natural, effortless breaths fueling a resonating singing tone. By her persistently patient efforts I was able to flow quite naturally through my scales and into the loving lap of Mozart’s middle Sonata movement. (K. 281)

***

Today, decades past my early student experiences, and in full bloom as a piano teacher of adults, I often find myself sitting thousands of miles from the epicenter of a pupil meltdown, wondering why my ONLINE presence can instigate a volcanic eruption!

It’s of concern because I’m NOT a looking-over-your-shoulder, or IN YOUR FACE mentor by any stretch of the imagination!

Nevertheless, this important glance at the world of teaching from near or far readily exposes the same issues of how we relate to our music and creative selves. Do we stunt our own growth with learning DEAD-lines and unreasonable EXPECTATIONS? What unattainable STANDARDS do we affix to each lesson that portend our own sense of FAILURE, when failure is our particular invention.

I certainly don’t view any part of a musical journey as a “failure” of any kind.

And here’s where I’ll defer to a well-written blog, (though I would have omitted any reference to “failure” within it.) The “guest” creator, known as the “Cross-eyed pianist,” sets forth a self-compassionate framing for music learning and performing that I’ve forwarded to my gaggle of ONLINERs who often shake in their in their booties the moment we’re face-to-face on FACE TIME! (Should I exit to the next room, at the next SIGN ON, listening to a pupil from a dark, hidden closet?)

Regardless of my on or off-screen persona, a distressed student is often heard moaning a familiar chant via her Internal Mic: “You must have told me to dip that cadence a thousand times, and I’m still at it! Maybe I should just quit the piece.. But, I’m not a quitter! You know that, so let me try it again!”

This soliloquy may play out with innumerable repeats and variations as I sit under a webcam, wondering if I should put an end to the perseveration that’s going to sabotage each and every subsequent hit the dirt effort.

It’s a no-brainer that if a student is playing with a loaded gun of confidence-shattering bullets, there’s no way that she’ll settle into a judgment-free, safety zone of ONE-ness with her J.S. Bach Sarabande.

And Who’s Counting my suggested revisions to a phrase, or the reminders to a pupil about fingering, etc.? It’s not I who’s in the Accountancy Office!

This is where fact and fantasy need separation, just like blaring FAKE NEWS demands a constant REALITY CHECK!

So I happily refer to the previously referenced blog that puts everything into perspective:

https://pianodao.com/2017/03/13/the-pianists-self-compassion/

My favorite quotes:

“Self-compassion can protect us from the negative thoughts, self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy that the life of the musician may provoke, but it can also encourage us to open ourselves up to the full spectrum of our experience which is the starting point for truly compelling and mature musicianship.”

“…Mindfulness helps us to be non-judgmental and to take a balanced approach to our emotions. Being mindful allows us to observe our thoughts and feelings from a distance, and for the musician it encourages a positive attitude towards mistakes (learning tools) and setbacks.”

An Online student in Kentucky responded positively to this posting:

“Perfect! I love it, self compassionate. My new mission!”

“Amen,” I replied, from my bunker in Berkeley.

adult instruction, adult piano pupils, adult piano student, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano, piano teaching, piano playing, Uncategorized

Centering the beat for cohesion in scale playing

“…No matter what the mood to be conveyed, or how sensitive the playing, it is the rhythm that binds the expression.” Mildred Portney Chase, Just Being at the Piano

Most students, including myself, sometimes find ourselves running away from our initially centered, fundamental beat through scales, which causes an uncomfortable disruption of the phrase. And yet a micro metric change in the “singing” pulse can alter our sense of being rooted in the here and now.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 8.31.56 AM

The challenge, then, is to re-center ourselves when we veer off our rhythmic course, absorbing the organic sense of the beat without sounding robotic or metronomic.

In the video attached, one of my pupils was kind enough to participate in an exploration of internal rhythmic consciousness.

Playing Eb minor scales in legato 16ths, he transitioned to staccato.

Breathing and contouring are big ingredients of preserving a rhythmic thread, and while our focus was to identify rhythmic instability and re-establish a fundamental consistency in the singing pulse, our work continues on multiple, co-existing levels that have had generous exposure in many of our collectively created videos.

For example:

More Rhythmic cohesion scale practice:

Laura aces it!

Leveraging weight through F# minor in crescendo, using finger staccato within a steady rhythmic framing. (Descend in diminuendo)