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Piano Instruction: Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18-Using a supple wrist follow through motion, and parceling out voices (Video)

The Schumann Arabesque is a heartfelt character piece from the Romantic era. It requires the player to have a very supple wrist to realize the lilt of buoyant, legato dotted eighth/16th figures that permeate the music.

Though the composition is in C Major, it has interludes in the minor, that are somber and impassioned.

I chose to flesh out the opening section of the Arabesque for my current instruction. And in keeping with my assertion that learning should begin with baby steps, I isolated each of 4 voices, individually playing and contouring them.

Starting with the soprano (uppermost voice) I used my spongy, supple wrist to shape redundant rhythmic figures that would otherwise have sounded typed out and monotonous with a stiff wrist. (Breathing natural, full breaths were part of the process)

When I next identified the tenor, then alto voice, I gave myself the opportunity to combine the alto (and tenor, which was double stemmed) with the soprano. I then played bass and soprano lines together. This specific undertaking was a challenge because the alto figure along with tenor doubled notes could not overshadow the soprano line. The thumb also needed to be subdued so it wouldn’t intrude upon the uppermost voice that contained a very fluid melody.

The bass provided the underpinning for the composition, and was learned as thoroughly as the other voices.

Combining the bass with the tenor/alto voices, or separately playing this line with the soprano was an important ingredient of thoughtful practicing.

Putting all voices together with sensitivity to the balance between them, provided the necessary foundation for the piece to grow and develop.

Adding pedal was the final touch giving the composition nuance and polish.


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Piano Instruction: The Virtues of Slow Motion Practicing and Attentive Listening

It takes patience to approach a piece well behind tempo, tuning in to every nuance and turn of phrase. With ears alert and sensitive, the player tries to create a feeling state where he’s submerged in sound to the exclusion of all else. At the pinnacle of concentration, he’s “in the zone,” attaining Maslow’s “peak experience.”

A practicing Utopia, for sure.

In reality, most piano students, especially the younger ones, race to the instrument when they can–sandwiching in twenty or so minutes between sports practice and homework time. (Don’t forget the quick snack on the run) And when they finally sit down in front of an assigned page of music, they’re stressed, hurried, and far from having presence of mind.

In a frenzied state, the pupil races through a scale or piece, gets trapped in a note, stops, and immediately lunges to play everything over. The results are predictable. The same crashes and new problems.

Adult students, equally stressed out by their busy and crowded work schedules, might come to a lesson so wired, that it takes the first twenty minutes of lesson time to slow them down. And the key word is slow.

In our technological age with high speed connections encompassing all communications, to think below the radar screen at a more relaxed pace is not considered a virtue. Everyone wants to depress a key and move on to the next image or application.

In the practicing environment this fast and furious rate of transition will not apply because piano study demands a parceled, step-wise approach to each piece that has its own unique learning curve. You can’t bundle it, stamp it and send it off perfectly packaged with an overnight deadline. Operating in the Beat the Clock mode is counter-productive.

SLOWING DOWN and savoring each note is true gratification, not delayed or postponed, unless the player believes that rushing achieves something better, and I can guarantee that in most instances, it doesn’t. In this “connection,” students will insist that they can play a piece well very fast but not slowly. Having heard the results of a briskly played piece that hadn’t had a step-wise, graduated preliminary approach in slow motion, I found that phrases were not shaped, depth into keys was lacking, and the music whizzed by without making an emotional impression. That’s not to mention, starts and stops caused by slap dash fingerings.

So what does slow motion, attentive practicing involve and accomplish?

1) It requires relaxation, and a calm, patient, non-judgmental frame of mind.

2) It presumes an acceptance of where the player is, without a value attached. Not knowing a piece as yet with a firm knowledge should usher in a period of wide-eyed exploration, ear opening, and full body awareness. Evelyn Glennie, percussionist, said it well. “Whole body listening” is the desired paradigm for music learning and expression.

3) An attentive listener molds phrases in slow motion with an underlying beat that is steady but sized down. He gets “in touch” with shapes and contours that would otherwise elude him. The finger tips, wrist, elbows and arms form a continuum of uninterrupted motion. The player tunes in to what it “feels” like to achieve a comfortable depth into the keys, sensing his connection to each and every note while dynamics are explored with weight transfer and a supple wrist. “Muscular memory,” a concept I will explore in another writing, has its best chance to take hold and permeate each and every practice session in a relaxed tempo environment.

4) Slow motion practicing gives ample space and time to assign fingerings that realize what is notated in the music. Experimentation with different fingerings gives a clearer idea of what best realizes a smooth, legato line, a crisp staccato section or a combination of both.

5) In a relaxed time frame, a student can study individual voices, shape and balance them, and be aware of their melodic and harmonic dimensions.

6) Playing well behind tempo means that time is suspended, and there are no deadlines to meet. This should reinforce a presence of mind that allows for information to flow into consciousness, be processed and then synthesized with the affective way of knowing. (emotional expression)

7) Achieving “oneness” with the piano, is part of the slowing-down process. Breathing long breaths as phrases unfold, and experimenting with breath control at cadences help nudge a student into the “zone,” at the peak of musical gratification.

Slow, whole body, attentive listening lays down the foundation for advancing tempo when the right time comes, not one note too soon. It should be a joyous and pleasurable journey when it begins and as it progresses along.

Recommended: Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase

Video: Evelyn Glennie on “Whole Body Listening”

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The Emotionally Abusive Piano Teacher and Suggested Rehab

Over the years my ears have been pinned back by stories from students who experienced emotionally abusive teachers. One who transferred to my studio from another, described her head having been shoved into the music after striking a wrong note.

In biographies of well-known performers, strands of anecdotes about foot-pounding, screaming master instructors remind readers that the learning landscape can be marred by personal invectives hurled at students for imperfect playing. There have even been cases where ultra strict pedagogues have cracked hands into rigid positions with rulers and other hard objects. It’s all very disconcerting.

If studying piano is a growth and development process nurtured along by a caring instructor, there’s no basis for attacking the student personally (or physically) just because the expectations of a teacher are not fulfilled.

The music is clay in the hands of a fledgling who looks for guidance in shaping it along the way. He needs assistance learning to communicate what’s beyond the printed notes on a page. If a few “wrong” ones are produced and a teacher allows verbal wrath to pour out as a consequence, then negative reinforcement becomes the standard tone at lessons. Notes that are correct become self-limiting rewards as they are tagged and separated from the whole learning experience. Anxiety- attached note errors are the seeds of performance nerves and overall aversion to taking lessons.

A teacher has to train himself to step back and put music above and beyond his need to vent frustration through it. If the instructor has dealt with his own relationship to music-making and practicing, cleansing it of self-punishment and deprecation, then he is on the way to relating to students with a healthy attitude, eschewing verbal abuse of any kind.

Affirmations for teachers that promote a nurturing learning environment:

1) Patience is valued. A student who doesn’t “get it” right away is not reprimanded. Instead, he’s taught to calmly walk through a set of steps that will smooth out a line of music. It might involve slow, separate hand practicing under the advice and guidance of the teacher.

2) Deadlines about playing difficult music up to tempo are discarded.
The teacher realizes that pieces with technical challenges ripen over time and should not be prematurely pushed in directions unnatural to the flow of learning.

3) Making memorizing demands on a student who has difficulty in this region of learning are ill-advised. Allowing memory to flow out of practicing over a lengthy period of time without a fixed, assigned end point, is encouraged. If memorization doesn’t happen, let it be and move on.

Warnings to heed:

1) A teacher does not live through a student. He is not realizing his dreams of performance grandeur in any shape, sense or form by using his pupil as such a vehicle.

2) The teacher does not insult a student for a performance he disagrees with on an interpretive level. Instead he shares ideas based on sound performance practices and integrates these into lessons, allowing the student to engage in an interactive, productive dialog.

3) An instructor welcomes questions from a student. He encourages inquiries about practicing techniques, phrasing, fingering, performing, and problem solving. He is never threatened by inquiries even he is not equipped to answer all of them satisfactorily. Any gaps in knowledge should not make him feel like less of a teacher. Similarly a student shouldn’t be penalized for not knowing everything.

4) A piano instructor does not force or coerce a student to participate in a student recital or competition. There are no threats attached to these opportunities. Framing the event as a sharing occasion will go a long way to remove feelings of dread and anxiety. Still, the right of a student to decline participation is respected.

5) There is no teacher/student–dominant/submissive relationship.
The teacher and pupil are partners in learning, with one having more experience to impart knowledge meant to expand the universe of the other.

The instructor realizes that teaching a student of any level is a valuable learning opportunity. It helps him fine tune his teaching and gain insight into remedies for technical and musical problems.

Finally, the piano teacher respects and observes boundaries. He will not get involved in volatile family situations and divorces with pulls and tugs of fathers and mothers using piano lessons as dumping grounds of anger.

Cleansing piano instruction of extra-musical contamination goes a long way to purify it, paving the way for a positive and productive journey.

Above all, the teacher/student relationship is bound by mutual respect making the experience of giving and taking lessons a joyful one.

FEEDBACK from a reader:

“The piano is difficult enough without adding a hostile and destructive relationship. My latest teacher (from Russia) was offended when I asked her what pieces she had studied when she was a student at the Conservatory, jumping up from her seat and saying she refused to teach me anymore. I pondered that long and hard, and could only think my inquiry somehow was a challenge, (or a crime against authority) which someone raised in a more authoritarian environment could not tolerate.”

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How to Improve Sight-reading at the Piano

A universal complaint among piano students relates to sight-reading. They find themselves stumbling through the first playing of a brand new piece, not knowing if an end is in sight. The faltering, (wrong note, right note in treble and bass clefs) can keep a “reader” so contained in one measure at a time, if not one note at a time, that a crash and burn feels imminent. Psychologically, the player has boxed himself into an all or nothing retrieval of “right” notes, eye- jumping from the page to his hands and back, often losing his place in the process.

By the last bar of music, the “reader” may be a sum total of jangled nerves combined with a never again attitude. (especially if featured as the life of the party, pressured to play a pop tune that everyone wants to sing around the piano) Imagine the crush of cocktails, shuffling, cigarette smoke swirling around the poor sight-reader–A guarantee of night sweats, hand trembling, and an imminent emergency appointment with a shrink. (Might that, by chance, be the piano teacher?)

To avoid crippling anxiety associated with losing one’s musical virginity with each “new” piece of music, or with any score a teacher, neighbor, friend, colleague (at a cocktail party) places on the rack, I have a few suggestions.

1) Before “reading” the very first note of music, have the presence of mind to scan the composition starting with the very first notation of Key and Meter, found to the extreme left of the beginning line.

Review the content of sharps, flats, or “Key signature.” It’s always beneficial to know the progression of Major and minor keys around the Circle of Fifths, and to have explored all scales and arpeggios in these tonalities. But even without a solid background in this complex universe, knowing the key autograph of a piece or what sharps or flats permeate it, is a good head start. It’s a form of MAPPING that begins before the very first note sounds.

Knowledge of the Time Signature goes hand in hand with Key awareness–It’s an orientation that relates to a piece’s rhythmic framing.

With these two bits of rudimentary information consciously stored, the sight-reader can move forward with less trepidation, but still needing more assists.

Oh, and while visually perusing the music, the sight-reader should review it for sections that REPEAT themselves. That’s always a relaxant before giving it a roll.

2) Approach the “new” score with an attitude that you can enjoy the “spontaneous” adventure, without ever having rehearsed a herd of notes in a laborious practice session, congested with fingering, counting, and coordinating challenges. You should “let yourself go” to the moment, without making strict self demands to be perfectly accurate. Even if you’re crowded in by party goers, the background noise will probably drown out your clunkers, and the most important ingredient of your “read” will be to move along, and keep the festivities rolling.

Okay, so you’re not at a party with “noise” cover, and you find yourself in the light of day, “reading” the piano part in a chamber ensemble, or accompanying a singer who threw a score at you without notice. Back in the hot seat?

Same advice applies in these situations. Enjoy the ride, and hedge your bets for a positive journey by adding the following to your sight-reading skills arsenal.

3) Take big gulps of music. (in slow motion, if possible) Don’t play note by note, or even measure to measure. Ingest two measures at a time, by being simultaneously in the here and now and in the future. Of necessity this means you can’t look down at your fingers and up at the music as the piece moves along. Train yourself to focus exclusively on the printed page, “feeling” your way through the score with the guidance of notes mapped out on the staff for your visual disposal. In this regard, an understanding of SKIPS and STEPS, up and down, helps. If you can translate the motion of intervals between notes on the page into your fingers, you’re ahead of the game. Internalizing their sound helps. (More about this in the paragraph on EAR TRAINING)

Repeated notes are always a blessing amidst those accursed leaps of hemi-demi-semis (really scary fast notes) Take a deep breath with these, and ride the waves, gathering as many little devils as you can, keeping a steady, underlying beat.

A side bar: EAR TRAINING is of great assistance to sight readers. Take the time apart from your impromptu reading adventure, to play MELODIC 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc. and listen carefully to them. For 2nds, 3rds, 6ths and 7ths, you can learn about their MAJOR and minor forms. Again, condition your ears to the content, sound and color of these intervals. These same distances can also be sampled vertically with a harmonic dimension, acclimatizing your ears to their sound, color and MAJOR/minor quality.

I recommend Solfeggio study that goes hand in glove with ear training. (Use Do re mi fa sol la ti do as syllables of a scale) Being able to sight-sing (to yourself) what is on the treble staff, if not almost simultaneously in the bass, helps with internalizing the shape of the melody and other musical lines. I use a movable DO, so as keys shift or change within the music, there’s a newly defined tonal center.

In an ideal world, a sight-reader should be armed with knowledge of theory encompassing chords, intervals, etc. and their relationships, (functional harmony) If he has studied piano in-depth, going around the Circle of Fifths playing scales, arpeggios, chords, and cadences, he would have had HANDS on EXPERIENCE with tonal geographies that would further enrich his reading experience, but the vast majority of sight-readers will not have had this deep exposure to music.

4) Without the benefit of substantial ear training and theory grounding experiences, you, the humble sight-reader can still move along with grace and dignity. If your particular weakness is bass clef note recognition, focus more on the lower staff as you “read” with a simultaneous gulp of the treble clef notes above. I like to flesh out the bass as a remedial step in my general practicing, but as a sight-reader, I might do the same, if I know this will hold the piece together without sacrificing a rich bass musical dimension.

5) Observe FINGERING as best you can. If the editor did a good job, it will help your “read” along. If not, any scale patterns or open five-finger positions on the printed page should lead you in sensible directions. (Better if you have had generous exposure to playing scales and arpeggios along the way in your studies–your fingers might flow more effortlessly and in the right directions)

6) Be attentive to phrase markings. These notations should help music flow in larger groups and not as compartmentalized note-to-note progressions. Throw in observance of dynamics, and you’re on the way to a nice listening experience for yourself and those in close proximity.

7) For the more advanced player and sight-reader, be aware of “voicing,” counterpoint and harmonic rhythm. Draw on fingering from scales, arpeggios, and chordal exposures. Be attuned to parallel and contrary motion of notes and attentive to overall form: A B A (ternary), Rondo, etc. Spot melodic and harmonic sequences going up or down. Scanning the piece prior to the sight-read with attention to all these elements, should go a long way in making it a continuous, satisfying flow from beginning to end.


Make daily sight-reading experiences for yourself. It takes PRACTICE to improve your skills. If you have the time and inclination, broaden your horizons with ear training and sight-singing activities, scale playing, and theory study. A firmer bed of knowledge in these areas should assist your whole musical growth process.

Enjoy your Sight-Reading by Paul Harris (Faber edition)
(in various levels)

John Kember – Piano Sight-Reading – Volume 1

A Fresh Approach
Series: Schott
Publisher: Schott
Composer: John Kember

An approach based on self-learning and the recognition of rhythmic and melodic patterns.

RELATED: Why Play Scales?

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Piano Instruction: Flexible wrist, rolling forward motion for shaping groups of notes in Burgmuller’s “Inquietude” (VIDEO)

I’ve chosen Burgmuller’s E minor “Inquietude” (Restlessness) from the composer’s Twenty-Five Progressive Pieces, to demonstrate a spring forward movement of the wrist used with groupings of three slurred 16th notes that permeate the selection.

I also enlist syllables, “da-lee-dle” to assist with shaping the 3-note figures.

The Schirmer edition is below. I use Palmer/Alfred which doesn’t have accented notes in the bass, just staccato entries.

(Note that the Left Hand plays through the treble rests on the first and second beats) “da-lee-dle” refers to the three note right hand, slurred figures that occur between beats.

TREBLE LINE: rest da-lee-dle, rest da-lee-dle rest da-lee-dle rest daleedle, etc

There’s a slight leaning on the second syllable (lee)

Practicing should begin in slow motion.

(When all is said and done the piece will fly by rapidly, but just the same, in the fast tempo, there must be phrase shaping, an understanding of harmonic rhythm, and a supple wrist motion propelling the music along)

The Left hand triads are springboards into the three note 16th figures so the interdependency is evident. Chordal resolutions from Sub-dominant to Tonic, or from Dominant to Tonic suggest a shaping down. Think LEAN/resolve in these measures.

In the video I demonstrate the need for a supple wrist that should move forward through the three note 16th groupings. It should start its motion from a lower position in order to move forward. (but not too low) If the wrist is too high, there’s no room to go forward. That’s why self analysis is an important component of practicing.

I often recommend starting with the Bass (left hand), being aware of the flow and resolution of chords. The tonic “e” minor chord followed by the sub-dominant “a” minor (in second inversion) suggest a LEAN on the sub-dominant and a relaxation to the tonic (e minor)

In the G Major middle section, a G Major chord is followed by a G diminished chord, which suggests a slight leaning on the diminished and a relaxation to the G Major triad.

After concerted slow practicing, a faster tempo should be approached GRADUALLY.

Even up to tempo, wrist pliancy is always needed and the forward motion remains, though attenuated.

Intertwined with the technical demands of this piece, is the requirement to play expressively in the Romantic genre.

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To use or not to use a Metronome in the piano studio

There’s no doubt that one of the biggest challenges in teaching piano students of all ages is imbuing a rhythmic or metrical consciousness.

In my experience, younger students, especially, at the primer level of study, want to race off like there’s no tomorrow. They might begin a piece in a steady rhythmic frame but succumb to a certain impetuousness at any point in their playing, finishing more quickly than they had started. The beat has gone out the window before it had a chance to stick around and make a friendly impact on the music.

Many adult students as well as pupils of all ages, seem to have a universal resistance to sustaining a unifying beat in their scales, arpeggios, and pieces, and as a teacher, I’ve grappled time and again with how to fix the problem.

First off, I’m opposed to using a metronome to treat any student with rhythmic issues. It’s because the device produces robotic pulses that have little relationship to the organic flow of musical phrases. Perhaps the metronome would keep good company with a generator like the one I’d seen onstage during a Milton Babbitt concert at the Oberlin Conservatory. I recall the little old ladies turning down their hearing aids, and individually filing out of rows during the contemporary festival, nick-named the “contemptible” festival because of the droning, impersonal music of that particular era. A synthesized beat went along with it.

To catch up with a metronome every measure or so requires that all energy be directed in that pursuit, rather than permitting the music, with its natural ebb and flow, to permeate the consciousness. (Think about what the metronome would do to a Chopin Nocturne where tempo rubato–a form of relaxed time, is intrinsic to the composer’s style)

As one remedy for rhythmic uncertainty, a teacher can conduct as a student plays, but without instilling a “metronomic” beat. She can help to shape a line and its underlying pulse with her voice intoning beats while assisting with her hands and arms. She can enlist a student to sing “beats” with her, as he plays. If she can help frame music without stultifying its flow, she has gone a long way to liberate it from the shackles of any stringent time calculator.

For pieces with a combination of quarters and eighths, for instance, a teacher can sub-divide the larger note value by inserting ands following the principle beats. But the same rhythmic ambivalence can occur, unless the expanded beats are spaced, breathed through, and not crowded into a tiny space. A metronome will not remedy faulty sub-divided beat counting any more than it did when ticking off primary pulses.

I’ve watched some of the greatest teachers in filmed sequences, working with advanced students, and on a rhythmic level they not only demonstrated phrases vocally, but they conducted, and simultaneously intoned syllables.

Conductors steer orchestras in desired directions with all kinds of syllabic babbling. I tend to fall into this vernacular when I teach, and I’m convinced that it’s helpful.

In an initial warm-up of the five fingers, where a pupil plays up and down in steps from quarters, to 8ths, to 16ths, I start with sub-divided counting, but inevitably when arriving at 16ths, I sing, double-eedle twodeleedle, threedeleedle, fourdeleedle and it holds the music together.

In a scale of four octaves in rapid 32nd notes, I might encourage a student to think in larger groupings of notes, perhaps in a sequence of 8s, so as not to encourage TYPED out playing. In this instance I would also intone syllables rather than numeric beats.

If I do this enough times over the course of weeks and months, the student naturally absorbs the routine by osmosis. He internalizes a rhythmic frame.

Since children, in particular, learn language by this very same process of mimicry and assimilation, it’s probable that rhythmic cohesiveness can be conditioned by an adult early in the learning process.

When I think of tribes in Africa, where complex rhythms and meters produced by native percussion instruments are transmitted from generation to generation without metronomes, I have my answer.

In general, students who have difficulty with rhythmic unity can benefit from teaching that encourages relaxation; focuses on the flow of notes in a melodic and harmonic context, and reinforces resilient beats. Each of these pulses must of necessity blend with the form and content of music.

Where a teacher sings and conducts through an adagio (a very slow movement) of a composition, she may encourage a flowing pulse, that would not apply to a brisk and cheerful Rondo. The character of a movement or composition would also dictate the type of beat that would underlie it.

I’m sure there are many fine piano teachers who use metronomes and believe in their efficacy. Though I might not be a proponent of its use in the studio except when needed to consult on the overall tempo of a piece, I’m all ears when it comes to receiving other opinions.


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Piano Lesson: Fritz, Age 7, performs his composed piece, “FINDING GOLD” (Video)

Over a period of three weeks, seven year old Fritz, who’d been taking piano lessons for about 7 months, composed a piece that he titled, “Finding Gold.”

The student has been using Faber Primer Piano Adventures, with my inserted modifications. He warmed up this past Monday with Lesson Book p. 24, C-D-E-F-G March transposed to A Major followed by A minor, in Parallel and then Contrary Motion. The consciousness of “minor” occurred way back at the very beginning of study when he played “Balloons” (floating notes) with a the black key Eb inserted. Ever since he has been playing Major and minor when any opportunity presents. (He is reading music proficiently for his level of study, and has reached p. 59 in the Lesson Book)

Fritz is a very imaginative child who was enthusiastic about creating his own music.

On 3/21 I asked him to compose a four-measure treble melody in C Position, in 4/4 time using any combination of quarter notes, half notes, dotted quarter notes, and whole notes.

He was then asked to play the second phrase in the PARALLEL minor.
(He is familiar with this vocabulary as it has been used redundantly when he plays his Primer pieces in Major followed by minor)

His melody was completed on 3/21 at his lesson, and I helped with notation.

As part of Fritz’s assignment for the following week, I asked him to compose a bass line, placing his hand in C position. He could use single notes, chords, ties, whatever he chose. (He was aware of the parallel minor in the second phrase)

3/28: Fritz played his piece with an added bass line, which I helped him notate on manuscript paper. He surprised me by ending his second phrase with a C MAJOR chord. For the following week I asked him to title his piece, add dynamics, words, and an illustration.

4/4/11: Fritz brought his composition with dynamics and words inserted.
He had also included an illustration. His words matched the emotional content of the music. The second phrase in minor had a sad lyric, but the final measure with the C Major Chord reflected the celebration of FINDING GOLD.

I made the connection to the great composers, such as Handel who carefully realized the text in his Messiah!

Fritz’s words:
I like walking in the woods, It feels nice to me (first phrase)
Sometimes I feel lost and scared, but I find GOLD! (second phrase)

Fritz recorded his piece for You Tube on 4/4/11

Composing activities can be integrated into lessons periodically, and over the long term a student can produce a bound collection of pieces with accompanying illustrations if desired.

It’s not only a creative exploration but it advances knowledge of notation, form, and harmony. (A theory lesson is built into the activity)

Location: El Cerrito, California