Claude Debussy, piano

Teaching the Language of Debussy in Reverie

Yesterday afternoon I found myself mentoring a student about the nuances of a composer’s language and style in the Impressionist genre.

Claude Debussy’s Reverie, with its palette of blended colors was on display–naturally intoned in vowels rather than consonants, while its liquid phrases begged for supple wrist and relaxed arm infusions of energy. My pupil’s steely bright Yamaha upright piano which was far from the purr–fect vehicle for the creation of a veiled effect, had to be “tamed” through compensatory physical motions. These precluded any form of an articulated legato that would upset the outflow of horizontal lines.

As the lesson unfolded, the activity of SINGING–(myself and pupil echoing measures between California and North Carolina) provided the most significant translation of how we could shape notes/phrases without obtrusive accents. Through many repetitions in the opening bars and a bit beyond, we accomplished incremental refinement that was satisfying for its progress toward natural grace and fluidity. In addition, prompts fueling the imagination filtered down to the keyboard in soft, cushioned landings, advancing expressive playing.

The exchange, captured on video, communicated far more than words could express.

Below is a prior “dreamy” teaching encounter that explored rolling arpeggios in Reverie’s bass, with an infused harmonic analysis.

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Finally, here’s an additional sample of Debussy’s veiled expression wrapped in tonal colors:

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.

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:

Burgmuller, Friedrich Burgmuller

How to stay calm in the Eye of “The Storm”- Practicing Burgmuller’s L’Orage, Op. 109, No. 13

Most piano students are familiar with Friedrich Burgmuller’s set of Twenty-Five Easy and Progressive Studies, Op. 100, that are tasteful Romantic era miniatures with appealing programmatic titles. “Tender Flower,” “The Little Party,” and “The Wagtail,” to name a few, are far from dripping with the excesses that one might encounter in the manuscripts of Romantic era contemporary, Franz Von Suppe, who orchestrated thunderous music that ceaselessly gallops to final cadence in The Light Cavalry Overture.

Such exaggerated musical forays, though instantly ear-catching, would inevitably invite well-recognized eyeball-rolling among listeners who absorbed a stash of rhythmic and melodic repetitions.

Burgmuller, no doubt, must have possessed a keen ear to the pulse of such 19th Century musical culture, responding with a markedly colorful piece that would earn instant popularity among advancing piano students.

Though the composer’s “L’Orage” elicits a reserved nod of approval, it will nevertheless remain a signature piece for students who want to ride into the “eye” of the storm without being overcome by the force of its technical challenges.

To tame gusty winds and rain rising to climactic levels, one must, therefore, examine ways to practice the piece so it does not overwhelm, intimidate, or imperil the player.

Braving the natural elements, I set out to plan a video built around slow practicing Op. 109, No. 13, using big arm energies, supple wrists, weight transfer and rotation, framed by attentive listening.

Instruction

L’Orage (Baldwin piano)

L’Orage (Steinway piano)

LINK:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/piano-instruction-burgmuller-the-storm-lorage-op-109-no-13-expect-turbulence/

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Schumann’s “Almost Too Serious” (Kinderszenen No. 10) requires get serious, step-wise practicing

When I first looked at a “seriously” complex page of dizzying tied-over (syncopated) notes in Schumann’s “Almost Too Serious,” (Fast Zu Ernst) I had a knee-jerk avoidance response–that is until I tapped into a permeating melodic thread that I isolated and wooed from its conspicuous alliance to myriads of off beats.

Fast zu ernst p. 1

Fast zu ernst p. 2

In other words, I simplified my journey in a baby-step voice parceling manner, de-intensifying a threat to learning a gorgeous harmonic mosaic that’s spun from broken chords and affectionately supportive syncopations. (I’m sure the composer’s passionate unraveling harmonies were a reflection of his love for a uniquely beautiful, self-created outpouring in the somber chosen key of G# minor)

First things first in approaching the tableau:

A behind tempo practicing approach to what looks rhythmically challenging is the only sensible antidote to anxiety that many adult students have when they perceive a score riddled with unusually foreign-looking notational strands.

And to allay their fears as well as my own, I set out to piece out “Almost too Serious” in a purposeful step-wise manner with a learning guide intention, blazing a trail that my students and others could follow without trepidation.

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Various practicing constellations are explored in my video

1) Identify a treble line melodic thread–and practice in slow tempo with relaxed arms, supple wrists and a permeating singing tone.

2) Isolate (play) the alto line notes

3) Play the fundamental bass notes throughout the composition

4) Block three-note 16th groupings in the bass, that appear after the downbeat in each measure. (These will eventually unfold in broken-chord fashion, using ROTATION to avoid tension, and to play musically.)

5) All through the step-wise learning process identify keys and harmonic transitions (or modulations).

6) Listen for and tab suspensions/passing dissonances and how they resolve.

7) In the course of layered-up practicing, examine the BALANCE of voices as they are sewn together.

8) Explore the ritardandos at various cadences and practice relaxed breathing at bridges across measures with fermati (extra holds), to avoid “gasps” between phrases.

9) Pedaling as the final polish should be sensitive to dissonances, not causing conspicuous blurring of harmonic resolutions.

The aforementioned are suggestions that can be “seriously” supplemented along the way, but always with a defining awareness that the Romantic era singing approach to this music is at the core of practicing it.

My Instruction:

Play Through:

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Exploring Mozart Sonata No. 5 in G, K. 283 (First movement, Allegro)

The learning exchange between student and teacher is heightened when a new piece is introduced. In the case of Mozart’s charming, early period Sonata no. 5 in G, it became a revisit for me that brought new revelations that I shared during the course of weekly lessons.

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Mozart presents a challenge in capturing a singing tone that is emblematic of the opera. (From Wiki: “The work was written down during the visit Mozart paid to Munich for the production of his La finta giardiniera from late 1774 to the beginning of the following March.”)

At least when playing the opening allegro of K.283, even the Forte-pianos (f-ps), that might suggest more abrupt and decisive accents in Beethoven’s mid-period sonatas, are far more elegantly played in Mozart’s early sonata vocabulary so one should be able to sing them.

Bass notes in a parallel octave progression moving in an intensifying fashion seem to be yielding to those doubled in the treble, lest they sound too ponderous for the period. Therefore, one must respect a fine line of sensitivity in their execution.

Pianist, Murray Perahia speaks of the singing pulse in Mozart works, and I must agree. He states that a rubato lives within the composer’s music but not necessarily taken with such liberty as would apply to Chopin and the Romantics.

Finally, in my tutorial, I try to apply educated instincts and intuition to my exploration of the opening Allegro, K.283, with a focus on the singing tone, phrasing, harmonic rhythm and form.

The Exposition is naturally a springboard for my analysis of the whole movement that weaves in motivic and harmonic tie-ins.

Mozart Sonata K283 p. 1 Allegro 1

Mozart Sonata K283 p. 2 Allegro

Play Through:

Instruction:

From Wiki

“Piano Sonata No. 5 (Mozart)

“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 5 in G major, K 283 (189h) (1774) is a piano sonata in three movements:

Allegro
Andante
Presto

“This sonata is part of the earliest group of sonatas that Mozart published in the mid-1770s. The first movement is a sonata-allegro movement that is concise, with an economy of materials. The development section is a mere 18 measures long. The shorter length and moderate technical demands make it an ideal piece for early-advanced study and performance.

“A typical performance takes twelve to eighteen (Richter) minutes.”

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Applying technical skills to sensitive music learning, and reading between the lines

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 2.41.07 AM

Just when I thought my wellspring of blog inspired ideas had endured a drought, I had a nagging thirst to explore how technical tools (playing scales, arpeggios, chords, octaves, etc) are woven into music study. Allied to this undertaking, was the idea of inferences and how we make certain decisions about phrasing, articulation, etc. based upon a firm bedding of knowledge wedded to intuition.

So having introduced this post cloaked in abstraction and a degree of eclectics, I'm coming down to earth, digging deeply into an exemplary composition that's packed with inferences, (reading between the line opportunities) while it has a touch/tone universe of color and expression worth sampling.

W.A. Mozart’s final movement, Allegro Assai of Sonata No. 12 in F, K. 332, is a gorgeous mosaic of Classical era expression. The composer runs the gamut from impassioned strings of 16ths careening down in the opener, to sudden coquettish interludes with varied detached notes, some of which are press-lifted, and not calling for crisp finger releases. To complicate matters, both hands playing together, are not always synched in with matched detachments. Even the Urtext edition may not give precise directions about execution of staccato, non-legato, potato, or tenuto, etc.

And that’s where inferences and good musical instincts kick in. (Performance practice is without doubt a vital ingredient in the mix)

In my examination of this final movement, I explore more than what exists between the lines. My focus is primarily how our technical repository feeds repertoire–how we must take our well honed skills and apply them to our pieces so they have relevance to our total musical journey.

Rather than write about aesthetic decisions and the intertwined skills we need to grow as musicians, I will reference the video below as the best living, breathing example of satisfying a personal quest for knowledge.

Instruction: (Technique, inferences, etc.)

Play Through:

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Getting immersed in LEARNING Bach’s F minor Fugue, BWV 881 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2)

My journey through the Baroque master’s Fugue no. 12 has been a labor of love though the form enshrined by J.S. Bach can be intimidating by its structural nit-pickings. Wikipedia, for example, cites BWV 847 in C minor, (the Fugue) as a model of internal order, with a carefully marked out Subject;  Answer (a fifth above the subject Key), and Counter-subject, all amounting to a well-defined Exposition. And as Episodes branch off (without the full Subject) though pieces of it, or motifs, (including that of the Counter-subject) will be included in so-called Subject departures, the learning process can eaily slip in Cognitive directions, bereft of soul and spirit.

Naturally, my teacher psyche has always had a significant influence on how I map out a NEW composition to alleviate, in this case, fugual anxiety. For one thing, I’m interested in finger choices, ways of grouping notes, and how to deal with finger switches or substitutions in order to be true to the score, or notation. If Bach wants a tenor voice to be held over another, and the only way to do this is by finger shuffling, then those key decisions have to be made early in the game. Yet these choices are considered in the context of three independent and co-dependent voices weaving in and around each other.  (Fortunately, my individual study of Two and Three Part Inventions and four Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 had provided a bedrock of contrapuntal exposure)

Therefore, in my early fugue-learning process, I meticulously studied each of three voices, so I could sing every one of them as a personal solo. I then nudged myself to learn every line by heart, so at any given point in the music, I could focus on a particular voice and flesh it out.

I will admit that this particular fugue was a hill to climb on the basis alone of having to devise a fingering for each voice that needed occasional carryover or division between hands, while in some measures the requirement to hold down notes with awkward finger switches might  guarantee a crash in tempo. Therefore,  I juggled fingering possibilities and eventually drew a few compromises.

As I traced the paths of Subject and Countersubject with interspersed episodes, etc. my cognitive examination fueled the affective dimension of Bach’s composition. An examination of tonal shifts, modulations, a deceptive cadence, and sequences struck a good balance with aspects of form.

Rather than drape my learning process in wordiness, I’ve created a video that demonstrates slow motion assimilation of the F minor Fugue.

The first video is an IN TEMPO reading of Fugue No. 12, BWV 881, followed by the tutorial.

Play Through:

TEACHING video:

In summary, I recommend VERY slow parceled voice practice when embarking upon learning the Fugue.