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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.

piano instuction

No shortcuts in teaching beginning piano students

Watching a colleague teaching a child in Madrid (on video) brought home the complexity of playing just two notes with beauty. What might be construed as an innately “natural” approach to piano playing, must in reality be learned by beginning students with meticulous attention to vocal modeling, touch sensitivity, and an infusion of imagination.

Irina Gorin is a remarkable example of mentoring at its highest level as she guides a young student to attain all the ingredients of a singing tone legato, by pairing two “sighing” notes with an activation of relaxed arms and supple wrist forward movements. But the right “mechanics” of motion are not enough. The student must absorb the “feeling” of weight transfer and fluidity of motion, as she ties it to the imagined/internalized tonal ideal. And tone is tied to the way we phrase notes that have a pervasive musical relationship to each other. (Words and music partnered together are particularly effective in furthering what should be imagined before playing)

https://www.facebook.com/yanira.soria.1/videos/10103342673133385/

(Those who cannot access Facebook posted videos can check Gorin’s comparable videos at her you tube site.) This particular lesson sample below ties in nicely to the one generated from Madrid.

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Irina Mints, another inspiring mentor who’s based in Germany, lays down a thorough foundation for her primary level piano students as revealed in this exemplary lesson. Working with just three notes, she “sings” beside her pupil, “liebes kind” while physically modeling a set of sequences.

https://www.facebook.com/irina.mints.3/videos/1869818886622848/

Another lesson sample in the public domain:

Both Mints and Gorin use props to help students “feel” the keyboard as soft and and pliant as opposed to being a hard turf. Gorin will often use silly putty in which pupils can dip their fingers to experiment with density, while Mints will use a toy with soft consistency to aid in a mental transfer to the piano.

Here, Mints plays a Gliere Prelude with a student, showing a dual collaboration of supple wrist movements to produce lyrical phrases.

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Irina Morozova, an accomplished pianist and teacher, patiently mentors a 6-year old at the Special School/Kaufman Center (NYC) with her focus on relaxed arms, supple wrists, and weight application in order to produce well-voiced, singing tone chords. (Left hand)

During the same lesson she works on legato/staccato groupings for the Right Hand, demonstrating a centered impetus needed to launch a pleasing group of well-shaped notes.

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My only young piano student (who began studies with me at age 8) has benefitted from a careful embedding of a supple wrist, relaxed “weeping willow” arms approach to the piano–always being ear-attentive, and centered on the singing tone and phrasing. Our “singing” back and forth during lessons reinforces an internalized ideal of mood, tone, and rhythm, while differentiating between vowel sounds and consonants, has a relationship to phrasing. Words and music are a particularly valuable pairing in early mentoring efforts.

In summary, there are no shortcuts in learning to play the piano. A teacher must have a patient commitment to developing sensitivity to tone production and phrasing right at the outset of lessons by working with a student in well-planned baby steps.

Chopin, Frederic Chopin, phrasing at the piano, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano lessons, Shirley Kirsten

Phrasing at the Piano: Direction and Destination

Often I query my students about the “destination” and “direction” of phrases within a particular composition. Naturally, my questions are a reflection of a need to clarify what arrivals are significant in the transit of notes.

Part of this exploration encompasses the awareness of sub-destinations that are on the way to the peak or climax of a phrase. In addition, bundled into the journey is a framing singing tone, that requires a supple wrist, with a natural, unencumbered flow of energy through relaxed arms into the hands and fingers. (Needless to say, attentive listening is at the heart of sensitive playing, and “singing” helps to clarify shape and contour of lines)

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Today, two pupils were grappling with essential elements of beautiful, well-shaped and directed phrasing as they respectively rendered a Chopin Waltz and Nocturne.

The Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, no.2 and the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 were both noteworthy for challenging the individual player to examine phrase relationships and the influence of harmonic rhythm, voicing, melodic contour, innate rhythmic flow, dynamic variation, nuance and more.

Mood-setting and changes that occurred in various sections of these compositions were also pivotal to fluid renderings.

In both these examples below, “destination” was a particular lesson focus.

Chopin Waltz in B minor

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Chopin Nocturne in E minor

(Videos are edited for teacher demonstrations)

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The Ingredients of beautiful phrasing

In the course of three piano lessons, spacing, shaping, voicing/balance, grouping, harmonic rhythm analysis, relaxed breathing, singing tone and pulse, etc. were resonating interdependently through beautiful phrases. And with the introduction of two minor scales as a springboard to the repertoire segment, the SPACING of notes, without anticipation or anxiety with a lightness of being dimension, (think “clouds under the arms”) encouraged a limpid expression of horizontally floating notes in legato. (smooth and connected)

Because a step-wise progression in D-Sharp minor (contrary motion) required a preparatory BLOCKING phase that encouraged Note GROUPING, as opposed to up/down, single note-note vertical playing, the student could transfer this particular awareness to her Chopin Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2. The Relaxed breathing aspect of playing scales without a temptation to grab, squeeze, lunge at or ANTICIPATE NOTES, complemented expressively rendered, poetic lines that permeate Romantic era compositions. (The SINGING TONE as the underpinning)

A video evolved as a synthesis of ideas that arose from an initial exploration of SPACING that enlarged upon itself as various elements of phrasing flowed together in harmony.

PS An added extract from the technique portion of a piano lesson that addressed SPACING.

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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.)”

piano

Piano Technique: Energy-saving, Relaxed, Resting hands

It’s common for piano students to tense a hand that is not actively engaged in playing during measured rests.

Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” an aspirational piece for so many, is the perfect representation of interactive, woven hands, that flow across from Left to Right, with a spacious margin of relaxed breaths. (as rests are notated) This over-all legato line mosaic that permeates the opening section, should be responsive to an uninterrupted outpouring without intrusive tension in the hands, wrists and arms at any point.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 12.20.53 AM

In beautifully phrased music-making, a basic underlying, hand-to-hand motion plays out simultaneously in the present and in the future. Therefore, if one hand stiffens while the other is sculpting a portion of the phrase, then extraneous energy is expended to the sacrifice of a well-shaped, continuous line. (In the outflow of “Fur Elise,” in particular, while one hand is not playing, it should gracefully move to its next destination.)

In the following lesson-in-progress snippet, an adult student exerted what was energy-draining in a perceived left hand tightening in Beethoven’s character piece.

In this second lesson sample, a youngster, having studied for 4 and 1/2 months, plays a duet with me with a nice interaction of her hands in relaxed motion. Having been trained from the start with the image of “weeping-willow arms” and supple wrists, she’s well imbued with an approach that will further her progress.

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In this third and fourth example, an adult student is made aware of stiffness in her left hand as she practices the F-Sharp Major arpeggio. In the course of our lesson, I demonstrated ways to relieve tension and smooth out the broken chord progression.

Mime Practicing, both hands

Many students, often unconsciously, tense a hand that is not playing in synchrony with the other. By reinforcing the hanging hands off relaxed arms framing, and replaying videos of what needs amending, pupils will practice relaxation techniques that will foster improvement.

Livia Rev, pianist, piano, piano blog, piano teaching, word press, you tube

Livia Rev, pianist, ripens with age

Livia Rev at piano

Livia Rev, a seasoned pianist, ripened by her 99 years on earth, drew my attention during a You Tube search for performances of Chopin’s Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15. (It was at a time when I was studying and teaching the composition.)

The middle section of this work has a notable turbulent emotional shift that’s reflected in a technically challenging set of forte measures in F minor. They come with punctuated accents, and alternating, broken 6ths, 5ths, alongside larger intervals, etc. These roll over a tremulous bass carrying a melodic line that in conjunction with the relentless treble “accompaniment” above, break the spell of the opening “Nocturnal” tranquillity. (Often performers will race the tempo at this juncture in heightened displays of technical prowess.) And sometimes at break neck speed, the interlude can become a continuous blur with little definition, meaning or musical consequence.

nocturne-in-f-major-op-15-p-2

To the contrary, Maestra Lev, in her performance, resisted the temptation to significantly accelerate the parallel minor section, and instead paced it according to her artistic sensibility, still convincingly realizing the mood transition intended! (Unfortunately, this particular Chopin Nocturne video has been removed from Rev’s you tube archives)

Upon reviewing the pianist’s discography, I discovered that many of her performances have been recorded on Naxos and Hyperion labels and can be accessed accordingly.

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Into the Present

A Hungarian born pianist, now living in Paris, Rev still teaches piano at high intensity, keeping a repository of technical skills wedded to expressive musicianship that’s shared among her international cadre of students.

In an enviable mentoring example, Livia demonstrates the supple wrist as an ally to beautiful phrasing, (This is a physical/musical hallmark of her approach to the piano)

 

In the following performance of Czerny studies, Op. 821, the pianist amply puts her ideas into practice in a display of her flexible wrist that often bends beneath the so-called “acceptable” level, inviting critics in pedagogical circles, to decry “the dangerous broken wrist approach.” Nevertheless, Rev’s playing philosophy has worked well for her, and for generations of students who have absorbed her focused concentration and sagacious comments.

REV’s BIO: (WIKI)
Lívia Rév (born July 5, 1916) is a classical concert pianist.

“Rév was born in Budapest, Hungary. She started her studies with Margit Varro and Klara Mathe. Aged nine, she won the Grand Prix des Enfants Prodiges. Aged twelve she performed with an orchestra. She studied with Leo Weiner and Arnold Székely at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, with Professor Robert Teichmüller at the Leipzig Conservatory, and with Paul Weingarten at the Vienna Conservatory, having left Hungary in 1946.

“Rév lives in Paris, with her husband Pierre Aubé.

“She has won the Ferenc Liszt International Record Grand Prix.

“Rév has performed across Europe, in Asia, Africa, and in the United States. She has been the soloist with conductors such as Sir Adrian Boult, André Cluytens, Jascha Horenstein, Eugen Jochum, Josef Krips, Rafael Kubelík, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Constantin Silvestri, and Walter Susskind.

“Her first US appearance was in 1963 at the invitation of the Rockefeller Institute.

“She is well known for her light touch and clarity. Her recordings vary from complete Debussy Préludes, Chopin Nocturnes, to Mendelssohn Songs without Words.”