adult piano lessons, adult piano students, piano teaching, piano teaching repertoire, Romantic era piano repertoire, Romantic era repertoire, Romantic music, Schumann, setting a good piano fingering

A deep immersion in Schumann’s Wiegenliedchen, Cradle Song No. 6, Op. 124

Who would have thought that a Romantic era character piece of short length could have so much to savor on multi-tiered levels? Relentless triplets with double stemmed quarters, seemed at first glance to direct the player toward a horizontal rendering of a conspicuous melodic thread that’s reinforced by the highest notes in the Right Hand. It’s clearly a vocal line that requires a singing tone wedded to a seamless legato.

But the more one delves into the score, an awareness of note groupings, within phrases, requires the player to breathe as a vocalist would, with an attendant understanding of how fingering, harmonic analysis, rotational motions, and exploration of the bass line all factor into a deeper rendering of the composition.

While the piece only landed in Berkeley just two short days ago, having been emailed in attachment form from a Scottish Isle, it was “cradled” with great care upon its arrival in the Berkeley flats–having passed through an embryonic stage of discovery to a more heightened level of understanding.

Since a tutorial is like a diary of epiphanies, the one I’ve included below, is a springboard to further learning discoveries that grow from repeated exposures and more intense scrutiny of what the composer, Robert Schumann, intended.

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Practicing Challenging Pieces: If we’re over a barrel, we can still learn something valuable

I’m the first to admit that not every learning journey through a particular composition will produce results we might have hoped for. After weeks or even months of methodical practicing in baby steps, we can find ourselves literally over a barrel, wading through ornaments, for example, that are crystal clear in slow tempo, but suffer paralysis otherwise.

I came up against this very wall of resistance when I dared to take on J.S. Bach’s Gigue from the composer’s C minor French Suite No.2, BWV 813. Mordants and trills permeate treble and bass, and these dare-devilish ornaments must often be executed simultaneously without taking an easy way out. In my case, after weeks of hand parceling, enlisting various articulations and rhythms in back tempo, I couldn’t clearly realize all the indicated ornaments within the ideal brisk, animated pace I’d internalized.

Immersed in a frustrating journey through a difficult dance movement, perhaps a maiden voyage at best, I refused to give up hope that in time I would integrate a plethora of ornaments into a resilient, energy-driven Gigue. Most importantly, it was during my period of introspective practicing, that I gained valuable insights about wrist spring forward motions that permitted trills and mordants to roll out without keyboard impact. Such suppleness of movement freed up energy in an uninterrupted flow down my arms. This particular insight, alone, could fuel further advances through this piece without a time deadline attached.

Because all piano study has a positive dimension regardless of short-term outcome, it’s valuable to record epiphanies as they unfold. These feed our future learning challenges and they trickle down to our students who share their individual awakenings with us.

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Practicing the Gigue movement from J.S. Bach French Suite No. 2 in C minor, with a focus on wrist spring forward motions:

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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.

piano

The Importance of Analytical Practicing

Needless repetitions that are unfocused, without attaching an analysis of what requires improvement will impede a piano student in the advancement of a composition. And while a tricky, isolated passage or complete section of a piece may have been carefully learned by layers in slow tempo, the very same area of the piece can develop finger traps, stumbling zones, and voicing problems as the tempo is inched up.

This is when the teacher patiently intervenes to clarify what retro-baby steps must be taken to smooth out shaky measures so the march toward more brisk playing is an attainable goal.

Unfortunately, many students will say, “You must have told me about that same problem in those measures a 100 times, and I just haven’t paid attention.” Added to such a pupil’s self-humiliation, is the belief that he/she is being LEFT BACK or is not up to the challenge of GOING FORWARD at the pace expected. EXPECTATION is the pupil’s self-made burden that inhibits progress and growth.

To bring a self-punitive, guilt-ridden pupil back to reality is to reassure him/her that even the most advanced players BACK UP, and revisit passages that can become riddled with unexpected glitches. The difference is, they usually have the insight from experience to apply an objective, methodical approach to extricate themselves from the doldrums of despair.

In so many words, there’s always a way dig oneself out of a pit if presence of mind and thoughtful analysis are applied.

Today, I worked with a student who’d been nicely upping his tempo in Fur Elise, until he reached the “stormy” tremolo framed section through measures 61-77. At this point, he lost the thread of the melody through the chords, and muddled a few measures by over-pedaling them. The arms and wrists also needed enlistment in a way that prevented tension and tightness. (Some of the movements were jerky inhibiting a GROUP flow of notes in horizontal procession while shaping of lines through dynamic swells was inadequate.)

Naturally, I reminded the student that unfocused repetition would not accomplish the improvement he desired.

Rather than extract footage from today’s lesson, I chose to make a short video that zoned in on the crux his problems in order to aid practicing during the week. These lesson supplements are always valuable for both pupil and teacher.

Edinburgh Scotland, piano, Sydney Australia

A Motivated adult piano student with an International profile

Right now, as I’m posting these words in Berkeley, CA, my student, Claire, (an international lawyer) who avidly practices the piano in two different time zones, is perched high up in her apartment overlooking Sydney Harbor. It’s 19 hours past Pacific Standard Time over there, or the next day in Australia. As a consequence, we have to factor in the time disparity when she leaves Edinburgh, her home base, to avoid its bitter winter. At the Scottish location, we’re distanced by 8 hours.

In Sydney, I greet Claire with a paradoxical ‘top of the mornin'” though I’m in fuzzy culture shock even at 3 p.m. my time, and 9 a.m. hers, the following day. In Edinburgh, it’s a hearty “good afternoon,” as the time zone is reversed, but without an extra day hanging out.

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Claire’s Sydney apartment overlooks the Harbor with a breathtaking view:

Sydney Harbor

In Edinburgh, her neighborhood is speckled with historical architectural edifices that she showcased in a post-lesson webcam-guided tour.

Claire’s colorful Scottish brogue, so conspicuously revealed in the narrative, reminded me of percussionist icon, Evelyn Glennie as she delivered a TED TALK. Yet it took several senior moments, bundled in associative strategies, to make the “connection.”

During our Australian cycle, I might be exposed to a distinctly different ambiance:

One week, Claire had taken an interval to visit a friend in a more rural part of the country, so I was treated to a LIVE kookaburra concert as a bunch of colorful “native” parakeets settled onto the porch.

This particular location had introduced a “third” piano into the prior mix of two.

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Claire hosts a wonderful Yamaha grand in her Edinburgh apartment while a Clavinova graces her place in Sydney; finally, a loaner piano turns up wherever her extra travels take her.

About two years ago, I received a lesson inquiry from Claire that was very detailed. Her MOTIVATION to learn resonated, and she had a nice prologue of experience at the piano and in a choir, the latter that I sampled on You Tube. It turned out to be a group with an able choral conductor who selected diverse repertoire of many eras. The level of musical expression was at its peak.

Claire had also offered a Wish of List of pieces she wanted to learn in her introductory letter that included the works of Beethoven, Burgmuller, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Mendelssohn among others.

From there, a progressive journey ensued that has accrued shared epiphanies about:

Tchaikovsky’s “Sweet Dreams”
Schumann “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples,” “Traumerei,” “A Curious Story”
Beethoven Bagatelle, Op. 119 No. 1
J.S. Bach Little Prelude in F
J.S. Bach Invention 8 in F Major
Burgmuller “Tarentelle,” “Tender Flower”
Mendelssohn Venetian Boat Song in F-sharp minor
Chopin Waltz in B minor, Op. 64

Here’s Claire watching the proceedings during one of our International Skype beamed piano recitals. She’s was settled into her Australian hub readying to play the Beethoven Bagatelle in G minor, Op. 119:

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Not to forget that this very devoted student is immersed in Scales and Arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths and has developed an enviable supple wrist, relaxed arm technique.

You can easily discern her fluid approach in this most recent lesson sample beamed from Australia.

Technique snatches: (from Edinburgh)–Yamaha acoustic grand piano

From Sydney Australia Yamaha Clavinova


Back to Edinburgh
on the grand piano.

Claire is a JOY to work with, along with my lovely group of ardent piano lovers!

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When the flu hits or the weather tanks, ONLINE piano lessons preserve progress

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Here in California we’ve been blitzed by pounding rain, gusty winds and the inevitable round of flu. In the midst of bad weather conditions and the flight of viral illnesses, piano lessons are often suspended, as students are immobilized and lose ground. But to the happy rescue is the Internet that affords ONLINE instruction by Face Time, Skype, or any other nifty provider that ploughs through piles of natural obstacles.

This past week I was able to teach via webcam from my safe, insulated bubble at home as my 9-year old student was protected from my contagions. It can obviously work in reverse when a pupil is afflicted with the latest bug, and is in the recuperating stage, but still contagious.

For teachers who travel, ONLINE transmission is a particular lesson-saver as rip-roaring hurricanes, snowstorms, etc., tie up roads and public transportation.

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As it played out here in Berkeley:

A FACE TIME activated lesson focused on composing, practicing chord inversions, and exploring repertoire. The hour sailed through smoothly without a hitch, while the use of FACE TIME RECORDER afforded a valuable split screen playback. (I chose the Overhead Keyboard view)

Liz, 9 years old responded well, and continues to make progress. Having completed about 11 months of piano lessons, she grabs every opportunity to compose and experiment. Naturally, her composing exercises are devised to weave in theoretical and musical goals that advance artistry.

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.”