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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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The value of studying short Romantic era Character pieces

Piano teachers often welcome the opportunity to use student repertoire requests as a springboard to nourish new learning adventures. Such pupil-driven musical endeavors can lead to deep-layered immersions in short, Romantically framed character pieces.

The value of dipping into miniature variety compositions encompasses taking on a learning challenge in compact form. For example, Schumann’s Album for the Young Op. 68 has a repository of picturesque musical samples that have dual artistic and pedagogical merit bundled into a page or two. The same economy of space/expression applies to Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Pieces Op. 39. Burgmuller, Dvorak, and Shostakovich, join many other composers in this genre, who have produced anthologies of program music in attenuated form.

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In both the Schumann and Tchaikovsky collections, colorful titles inspire the imagination while requiring a satisfying fusion of affective, kinesthetic, and cognitive approaches to learning. The process of absorption is still layered and developmental but it must be focused on a mood-set that is promptly captured and sustained. (Contrasts in middle sections must include a shift in affect, and an alteration of tonal expression within a short musical space.)

Schumann’s “The Reaper’s Song,” Op. 68 no. 19, is a pertinent reflection of piano study that requires an in depth examination of “voicing” despite its brevity. This particular learning dimension includes an awareness of how an opening thematic melodic line in 6/8, (duple compound meter) meanders from the “Soprano” range into the “Alto,” while the bass line provides an important fundamental underpinning. One might consider the interweaving of voices as reflective of Romantic era “counterpoint.”

In addition, there’s a syncopated rhythmic dimension that evokes the machine-like mechanism of the reaper that appears initially in the bass, but fans out to the upper voice.

Finally, any and all key changes, though ephemeral, must be noted and assessed for emotional/expressive impact.

In summary, this particular musical undertaking via “The Reaper” requires an attendant balance of all voices as they interact and move along with the enlistment of an expressive “singing tone.” (Arms must be relaxed, while wrists are supple in order to realize vocal modeled expression)

A “counter-melody” springs up, (though not readily apparent), that if fleshed out, will relieve thematic repetition and provide more nuanced artistic expression/phrasing. Rubato and dynamic variation also become integrated components in this learning venture, while an embracing rhythmic flow in TWO is musical wrapping.

As contrast to the opening fabric of voices that supports a singable, meandering theme, Schumann inserts an Interlude of rolled out UNISON triple-grouped 8th notes in Forte that smoothly transition back to the initial theme. Repetition of this particular mid-section with a doubled VOICE octave spread between the hands affords an opportunity to nuance it differently, perhaps with a less intense dynamic upon the second playing.

At the piece’s conclusion, the composer charmingly adds a Coda of lighthearted staccato chords in choir where the soprano remains, without doubt, the lead voice. A parallel harmonic third to fifth to sixth sequence in this addendum hearkens Schumann’s signature “hunting horn” motif, though I’m not convinced that the REAPER, relentlessly harvesting crops would have stumbled into this particular milieu. (but who knows?)

Other samples of short character pieces that require in depth probing of voicing/phrasing/dynamics etc. include these two gems that I’ve recently learned.

Robert Schumann

“A Little Romance,” Album for the Young, Op. 68
(This miniature requires playing after beat chords as harmonically rich supports, but not intruding upon an impassioned melodic line. Once again, “voicing and balance” considerations are pivotal to playing this piece expressively.)

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Antonin Dvorak

“Grandpa Dances with Grandma” (No. 2–Two Little Pearls)

Lots of thematic repetition requires expressive and dynamic variation. In a relentless 3/8 meter frame, a player must resist the temptation to sound mechanical and metronomic. A contrasting middle section that’s homophonic and in a modulating KEY, demands a shift in mood, needing prompt awareness and attention to tone/touch shifts. A Voicing dimension expectedly permeates the entire tableau.

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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.

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Pianist, Seymour Bernstein revisits the Schumann Arabesque at the age of 90

As I grappled with matters of tempo, mood, and interpretation in learning a Baroque era work, I found a kindred spirit in Seymour Bernstein who openly shared his introspective thoughts about re-thinking a well-known composition in the piano literature.

Encapsulated in an e-mailed communication to his league of followers, Bernstein addresses the common temptation among musicians to check recordings of other pianists to validate personal and individualized interpretative choices. His words are sobering and candid as he explains how he has come to choose a “new” pace and affective interweaving of emotions through various sections of the Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18. His enlightening revisit is a tribute to his evolving understanding of music that has grown by steady increments over decades. It suggests a creative point of departure from which we can derive great benefit.


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Dear friends,

“Schumann’s Arabesque is among the romantic works that elicit a wide variety of interpretations. I, personally, don’t like to listen to performances of the pieces I study. I prefer to come to my own conclusions, and then listen out of curiosity to see how other pianists interpret the compositions I am working on. In terms of tempo, Arthur Rubinstein and I are the only pianists I have heard who take the opening theme of Arabesque leisurely. Everyone else races through it with breathless intensity, even though the English translation of Schumann’s indication is “light and tender.” More curious is that most pianists play sections B and C faster in contradiction to Schumann’s “etwas langsamer” (“somewhat slower”). I’m no exception. I confess that I did the same in my first performance of this work on You Tube, which I now will remove.

“Perhaps it’s the age of 90 that has inspired me to probe this work with far greater introspection than I have in the past. Now that I know that most “hairpins” in romantic music mean rubato, and not cresc. and dim. I take more time whenever they appear. Moreover, I like to play the coda, Zum Shloss, Langsamer (“slowly”) as Schumann indicated.

“Finally, the question is “How fast is fast, and how slow is slow?” It is the human condition to respond as we see fit. There are no rules concerning tempo, even though composers often leave Metronome markings. But through the years, composers have come to place the word circa, meaning around, or approximately, before the Metronome number. Beethoven said it all when Schindler asked him “Master, how fast is this Allegro?” Beethoven’s response must have amazed Schindler: “Allegro doesn’t mean fast,” Beethoven replied; “It means “merry.” The lesson we learn from this is that tempo indications are feelings, and not simply mathematical equations. Because we all think that the composers whisper their secrets in our ear, it is small wonder that there is an interpretation for all seasons.”

Seymour

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Piano repertoire: Review and Refresh

Striking a balance between learning new pieces and keeping a connection to older ones, requires a commitment to well-parceled, organized practice time. It presents a challenge that invites a particular focus on preserving familiarity with repertoire that can easily slip into obscurity during months or years of neglect. As time passes, tactile estrangement grows.

A review and refresh approach can therefore morph into Repeal and Replace if older compositions had been incompletely learned or prematurely abandoned. In their resuscitation, they will need additional fingering adjustments, introspective harmonic analysis, phrasing revisions, and altered practice routines. Oldies, on the other hand, that had enjoyed embryonic growth to full development in layered stages, will experience a smoother transitional review with the added crossover effect of simultaneous, infused NEW repertoire exposure.

In short, a harmony of new and older pieces in a reciprocal developmental relationship, will enrich a musical journey.

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One of my adult students, who appreciates the review process and its enduring musical value, requested a reconnection with Schumann’s “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples,” Kinderszenen 1, Op. 15. When I suggested a first step parceling of voices, with a plan to permute them in various combinations as we had done before, the task became daunting. Yet such a roadblock simply meant that although the pupil’s initial learning experience had been thorough and layered, a revisit might take a bit longer, requiring a dose of patience and self-compassion.

Second and third reviews of a piece over time, help solidify learning gains and insights, making retrievals less cumbersome and quite natural. In addition, a REVIEW having been built on a solid foundation, even if shaky in the early phase of re-exposure, will attach a deeper understanding of structural, harmonic and affective dimensions in the RETURN.

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In a video summary of ingredients attached to a Kinderszenen 1 Review, I drew upon the tenets of the original approach that added a few epiphanies.

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In a separate, “new” learning journey undertaken by a student, (Beethoven, Adagio Cantabile, Sonata Pathetique in C minor, Op. 13), a voice-parceling approach, comparable to that which applied to Kinderszenen 1, is valuable in the PRESENT, while it’s equally beneficial for a future revisit.

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Piano Pedagogy article by Byron Janis in the Wall Street Journal

http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-power-of-pedagogy-1472507353

This latest piece on how to teach piano (creatively) is gathering attention far and wide, most notably as an eye-catching feature in the Wall Street Journal. And if I’m not mistaken, an article on the joys of returning to the piano as an adult accorded a similar flood of adulation and empathy in this same media universe.

The Janis contribution, packed with pedagogy-related shoulds and shouldn’ts, includes a tribute to Vladimir Horowitz as the ideal mentor. His imparted words of wisdom about how a pianist must evolve on his own terms, without copying, or God Forbid asking his teacher how to turn or shape a phrase can be framed on the wall as the ULTIMATE arrival of the individualized, ripened artist, of whom Mr. Janis might have exemplified. But by the time Janis had arrived at the door of Volodya, the pianist/virtuoso would have been well schooled in the ART of PIANO Technique integrated with the how-to of producing a singing tone. (Supple wrists, relaxed arms, bigger energies feeding the hands and fingers)

In addition he would have had continuous, deep exposure to the Theory of music with its invaluable application to phrasing as it’s wedded to harmonic rhythm: how Deceptive and other cadences/resolutions help shape a musical line; or what it means emotionally to transit from the MAJOR tonality to parallel minor. (Add in voicing, balance etc.) Compositional studies, without doubt, further enriched Byron’s musical passage. (Why not ask students to COMPOSE along their creative travels. Janis sadly omitted in his text.)

Basically, one does not play piano in a bubble of ignorance. And for this edification, a teacher is needed who TEACHES and does not necessarily send the student home with the vague prompt that something is NOT right, so go figure out what it is, and come back with the CORRECT PHRASING.

What fledgling does not hunger for direction in this vast universe of learning so he can begin to play expressively. Piano playing does NOT necessarily come NATURALLY. We are not born pianists. We come into the world with developmental hurdles to overcome in specific, graduated stages. We cannot be propped up on a piano bench and instinctively produce a beautiful set of tones.

Unfortunately, Janis goes to great lengths to eschew COPYING, as if our lives are in fact NOT copies of others who breathe through decades of existence. We might go to concerts, operas, etc. and subliminally internalize how great musicians and singers turn a phrase. If we have a favorite recording of the Brahms B Flat piano concerto as I have (Richter with the Chicago Symphony) we often find ourselves adopting in our own playing what was musically engaging. I certainly look for great recordings, and attend performances by pianists and singers who inspire me. And I dare say, I might warm up to the tempo of a Chopin Mazurka, and overall style communicated by Ashkenazy or Perahia, and borrow it as my own.

Does this mean I am NOT creatively driven as a player, and by association as mentor? Have I lost my individualism through exposure to many influences?

Since I deal mostly with adult students, even those who have returned to the piano years following their studies as children, need specific guidance in the basics of piano technique wedded to tone production. (Phrasing is an outgrowth of merged skills) Otherwise fledglings and beyond, are lost, and ask, rightfully, for direction.

Finally, each pupil has particular strengths and weaknesses that need to be sorted and addressed in a pedagogically sensitive environment without framing lessons with a bunch of cliches or doctrinaire assertions that the teacher and pupil must embrace.

And in this wrap-up, I embed a video that has experienced wide popularity. For me, this is the gold standard in teaching the singing tone. Go ahead and COPY. It’s the best thing you can do for your playing and ultimate development.

And here I’m helping a student phrase Robert Schumann’s “Curious Story,” Op. 15, no. 2. Both teacher and pupil learn from each other in the creative learning cosmos. (Sometimes the teacher might “copy” the way a student phrases a line, because it is beautifully rendered)

SINGING, SINGING and more singing is the best nurturance of gorgeously spun lines. Both mentor and student should SING expressively through a fulfilling piano learning journey.

And that’s where Janis and I wholeheartedly AGREE!

Here I’m singing through a lesson: Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72

My late, beloved teacher, Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich drowned out my playing with her singing during our 3-year musical association.

Richard Goode profusely SINGS during his masterclasses while he DEMONSTRATES at the piano for a student, and it’s a joy to behold.
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PS MY Comment at the WSJ article site
“This is a praiseworthy article where it concerns an ocean of repertoire study where a student is able to integrate the art of piano technique with aspects of interpretation. The challenge many piano teachers encounter, even with students returning to the piano as adults, is that the very basics of acquiring a singing tone with supple wrists, relaxed arms, and enlisting energies beyond the fingers, require down to earth emulation, demonstration and to a large extent, copying. At the level Janis addresses, it makes sense to harvest individual imaginations in phrasing, etc. but in my own experience with pupils of all levels, they are needing HANDS ON knowledge of how to create the singing tone–and what physical ingredients are involved. (Yes of course to mood-setting, emotional expression being intrinsic to the creative process, of which mental prompts and images can afford.)”

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The piano playing speed zone: Letting Go but Staying in Control

At some point, piano students will face the challenge of playing a super fast-paced piece without having it fall apart. And while such a task may seem daunting, the player can begin to allay his fears by devising a parceled out practicing strategy.

The best panic attack prevention, (at the sight of a MM quarter= 138) is a measured approach that should include crowd control: spacing notes in incremental tempo settings; anticipatory anxiety relief (when bursts of energy follow tapered cadences); relaxed breathing at climactic junctures, intensified crescendo sections and poignant harmonic moments.

If the score is permeated by insanely driven staccato notes that are interrupted by sudden outbursts of obtrusive accents (sFp’s), these mood-triggered shifts must at all costs, not ignite a fight/flight reflex.

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The mood state duality

Robert Schumann’s “Hasche-Mann,” (“Blindman’s Bluff”) from the composer’s well spun Kinderszenen (“Scenes From Childhood”) begs the player to inhabit a dual universe.

Hasche-Mann

Framed as a very short, energy-packed tableau, it requires a face-off between a pianist’s sensibility and his propensity to fly off the handle.

If the latter prevails, the piece collapses like a house of cards.

However, where unabashed freedom of expression is allied to technical control,(Horowitz’s “Fire and Ice” analogy) the pianist will have mediated a potential conflict between the two.

In the attached video, I walk through a stepwise process of desensitization that enlists back tempo practicing, and draws on legato playing as the model for shaping lines in a CALM frame, before “snipping” 16ths into staccato. I also pinpoint the most vulnerable, anxiety-provoking measures, using mental prompts and chord “blocking” choreography to oppose frenetic tempo spurts.

An examination of harmonic rhythm also helps to clarify dips in phrases that flesh out deceptive cadences, and Neapolitan to Dominant progressions.

In summary, capturing the spirit of a piece in the fast-lane must exist side-by-side with impeccable control so that practicing should encompass both.