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”)

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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)

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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.

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

piano, piano blog, piano instruction, piano scales

Two-timing scale practice

I appreciate two-timing piano students who practice their scales with acutely sensitive ears. They are made keenly aware of what it takes to repeat a faulty step-wise sequence that’s been thrown out of rhythmic alignment along a 4-octave route. (Auditory memory is a vital ingredient through repetitions that require retrieval of a consistent underlying pulse.)

In a journey from 8ths to 16ths to 32nds, many pupils will underestimate the end game tempo, losing technical control in the final spill. To avoid a pile-up in the speed zone, they will put on the breaks, losing their initial framing beat. Ironically, a good proportion of two-timers who find themselves in such a jam will “think” they’ve doubled-up in the 32nds range, only to discover by a teacher’s real-time demonstration, that 16ths to 32nds were out of synch. (A metronome can be just as helpful in clarifying rhythmic disparities.)
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Ways to deal with rhythmic disorientation

I prompt students to back up by “half” from what they can realistically manage in 32nds. After a few retrograde repetitions in this practicing mode, they can revisit 8ths and then move forward in doubled sequence to peak destination. In most cases, a pupil comes to grips with what he can safely control at the 32nds level, knowing that the underlying pulse will increase through incremental learning stages.

A recent lesson sample illustrated rhythmic disproportion and remedy. (It’s excerpted at the juncture where a student zoned in on 16ths to 32nds in a D-sharp minor Harmonic form scale) A brief second segment focused on a “rolling into” effort in a more fast-paced staccato-rendered scale in Melodic form. It was a confidence-building effort that represented a “rite of passage” for this pupil who realized that she could, in fact, play brisker 32nd notes without faltering. Breathing, pacing, mindfulness, and lack of PANIC all kick into controlled, peak tempo playings.

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Piano Technique: Soft staccato scales with projection, springboard energy, resilience, and shape

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One of the biggest weaknesses that present in soft dynamic range staccato scales, is a lack of projection. Students often snuff out notes, play them in a whisper without a tenacious spring UP character, or a necessary rebound effect from note to note. Instead, they become inhibited and constrained. Yet even at the Forte level, their staccato rendered scales may lack definition, animation, adequate SPACING, and overall shape/direction.

In an attempt to remediate lackluster scales that transition from smooth and connected legato to staccato, particularly in the soft cosmos, I suggest mental images to frame the sound, while also demonstrating the springing UP character of these detached notes to create an ear-catching environment.

Two Sample Lesson Excerpts:

B minor

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C-sharp minor (Melodic form)

In the second example, the student also worked on intensification of the Melodic minor ascent (staccato), in contrast to a relaxed descent. (i.e. Naturalization of the C-sharp minor scale) Finally, she rendered the C-sharp minor Arpeggio, refining a Forte/Piano staccato transition in triplets.

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Additional:
A wrist generated approach to staccato, to relieve tension, and improve projection.

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Piano Technique: Working with the character of rhythms

It’s easy to assess a student’s difficulty with navigating scales in progressive tempo framings from quarters to 8th notes to 16ths, etc. as being the result of shortcomings in rhythmic perception, when a larger cosmos of awareness is lacking.

I think immediately of the Eurhythmics course I took at the Oberlin Conservatory, taught by the legendary Inda Howland. It was not a doctrinaire approach to realizing the individual character of rhythms according to the tenets of Jacques Dalcroze. Instead, it was in part an imagery fed environment that supported the motion of the body in understanding the flow of notes as it also nourished relaxed breathing tied to the vocal and movement model. Triplets were expansive, rolling, and unrelenting, never crowded into a narrow space. They had to “breathe” in concert with our organic sense of them. (Think “vowels”) To experience the breadth of these notes, we grouped them in a horizontal procession, swaying, and physically ingesting their uniqueness.

In a transition to 16th notes, we realized a new character framing, a different “inner speed motion.” Our mentor spoke of “density,” unswerving “energy,” and lack of inhibition. She referenced “shape,” “contour,” “freedom” of physical and emotional expression.

If I tried to cram all that I absorbed from my Eurhythmics experience into a piano lesson, it would be a formidable task. Yet, I find myself prompting my students, not just with mental images, but with conducting motions, singing, demonstrating, and opening the piano technique portion of the lesson to a wide universe of personal/physical/musical discovery. (Choreography at the keyboard is a vital ingredient of rhythmic realization, but it’s always at the service of what’s “natural” or “organic” to the outpouring of notes)

Therefore, a metronome, per se, will not “correct” rhythmic weakness. Instead, an integration of ideas that harnesses the imagination, relaxes the body/mind and opens the student to experimentation and self-analysis, can go a long way to stimulating an awareness of how notes “breathe” in groupings to phrase peaks and resolutions.

Two examples

A local interaction with an adult student (B minor arpeggios and scales)

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My “Rhythm Rehab Lab” centered tutorial that followed a lesson with a pupil in Australia

LINK:
About Eurhythmics

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/eurhythmics-a-whole-body-listening-experience-video/

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Creating a seamless, singing tone legato through arpeggios and scales

My students are often amused by my prompts that frequently include “oohs,” “ahhs,” and “wah’s,” among other spaced out sounds, to prevent consonant sounding notes or hard-liners from interrupting a smooth, “sighing” stepwise descent to the tonic. And from this universe of impromptu effusions, I’ve created a self-styled language, that, at times, has incorporated barnyard vocabulary to the smiles of impressionable pupils (The “cluck, clucks” of Black note passage in staccato arpeggios, for instance, will assist students who tend to give the thumb more assertion than it deserves: i.e F# minor, Eb Major, etc.)

But for a seamless legato, (smooth and connected playing), the clucks are replaced by a soft and responsive cushion of keyboard support that precludes finger-poking or incongruous accents.

To think “slower” into notes by “dragging” them are a few of my favorites. Naturally these suggestions are meant to acquire “density” in the playing and to discourage a hard turf beneath the hands. They’re also employed to inhibit anticipation and note crowding. In this vein, a note coming a “hairbreadth too soon” can imbalance a phrase. (Mildred Portney Chase, author of Just Being at the Piano, poetically frames a singing tone legato through pages of inviting prose.)

Listening for the “decay” from the previous note to the next is another effective prompt. It invites a particularly riveted attention to sound as it “floats seamlessly” from one note to the next. (Singing, of course, is of great assistance in producing the imagined sequence of notes with shape and beauty) Often when a student sings, he can better imagine the sound image before playing the very first note.

All the aforementioned suggestions are, naturally, not enough. If a student is tense in the wrists, arms, fingers, he/she has to be made aware of barriers to a free-flowing, stream of scales and arpeggios that should transfer fluidly to compositions. If tension is tied to faulty breathing, then the BREATH must be explored as a partner to musical expression. Breathing deep, but natural breaths should infuse all music-making while weight transfer, or energy coming down relaxed, “buoyant” arms into supple wrists must be synthesized into fluid playing.

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During recent piano lessons, two of my adult students separately explored the challenge of playing arpeggios and scales in a smooth, legato stream. (One of them “snipped” her improved legato arpeggio into a “horizontally” pleasing staccato.) Some of these prompts and suggestions seemed to be a springboard to a deeper imparted vocabulary that nourished limpidly played phrases. And the “memory” of these prompts partnered with a physical sense of the legato has continued to advance musical growth and development.

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What should be natural is hard for many piano students

I often think about artificial barriers that many students erect when practicing. Of the adults whom I’ve mentored (and learned from) over the years some have had a formidable line of defense against “hitting” wrong notes.

In many cases they’ve lifted action verbs from the battlefield zone, transferring them to the keyboard conquering turf.

Such an aggressive and unnatural approach that basically ignites gripping tension in the arms, wrists, and hands, inevitably results in hapless, keyed-up repetitions that have no value. Certainly in this “call to charge” mode, students will keep “misfiring” to a point of mental and physical exhaustion.

But why should any player take a hard as nails approach to practicing?

Might it derive from the NO PAIN, NO GAIN, gym workout/weight training paradigm?

From my perspective, a great workout is a mind and body expanding experience minus grimaces and grunts. It’s an emancipation of the breath that feeds the muscles.

Stretching and relaxed breathing, therefore, in synch with repetitions become my specific consciousness-raisers that I transfer to the piano.

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Mental prompts aid the physical…

Without doubt, mental imagery plays a significant role in one’s whole attitude toward practicing. Fluidity requires a visceral sense of LETTING GO. The arms need to swing breezily while the wrists like sponges, are pliant.

The hands and fingers flow from relaxed funneled energy down the arms.
If there’s tension anywhere along the spectrum, the player is in opposition to his instrument, not in partnered harmony.

Teacher demonstrations, bundled with pertinent “verbal suggestions” can ameliorate a combative/self-competitive climate, and effectively turn the tide.

In this vein, I’ve observed some remarkable turnabouts in the course of 5 or ten lesson minutes if a pertinent image can filter down to the level of awakened physical/musical awareness. It’s in this touch/tone sensitivity universe that a satisfying co-dependent mind/body relationship ideally exists to nourish practicing and growth.

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In the attached video sample, an adult student, although boxed into the Skype screen, experienced a pertinent shift in consciousness as she worked on a C# minor arpeggio. While initially her wrists and hands were visibly filled with tension, I watched a gradual transition to a more relaxed approach that produced an audibly pleasing result.

Key words:
“springy, spongy, flexible wrists.. hanging hands, hanging arms.”

Roll toward the black notes that are your center of gravity.”

“Hang wrists and hands off the arms.”

(Revisits of recorded segments between lessons are invaluable for students.)