, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano addict

CELEBRATING Adult piano students!

I sent a few questions to adult students and this is the first of many responses I will be posting.

A video of a lesson in progress is a point of reference: The pupil is working on J.C. Bach’s Prelude in A minor, second section, which contains a series of modulating chords or secondary dominants. She is exploring supple wrist motions to promote a singing tone. (Mental imagery assisted as well) Since this video was made, her legato pedaling has greatly improved.

Baby-step, layered learning has been the biggest factor in this student’s steady advances.

In the her own words:

“I was drawn to piano because I was looking for a new and big challenge. I had given myself a year-long break from the busy life of a lawyer and director of a non-profit organization where 60 hour weeks were the norm. Beside travel I wanted to do something totally different from anything I’d done before. I loved hearing the piano but have had little exposure to any of the fine arts, such as music, painting. I’ve never taken an art class at school (beyond elementary school projects) or at university. I had studied piano for about a year when I was a six or seven. My teacher, Sister Purificacion, a Filipina nun, had a thin ivory stick about the size of a chop stick and used it liberally slapping the back of my hands whenever I hit the wrong note, which was all too often. Learning piano from her was no fun. She was also my first grade teacher and equally mean in the classroom, so my lessons didn’t last very long. I don’t mean to be hating on nuns, but that was my experience with Sister Poo-dee (as her nickname was pronounced). She didn’t turn me off to piano, I just knew I didn’t want a teacher like that.

“I would like to understand music theory, and above all I’d like to learn to play pieces with some level of competency and appreciation for the flow and beauty of the piece. I’d like someday to look at a piece of sheet music and have the sounds play in my head just the way letters immediately have meaning as words form in my mind when I see them on the printed page, or conversely how words flow easily from my mind on the page when I have a pen in hand or am sitting at my computer keyboard. I feel very challenged as a student, and I think of piano as a difficult language I’d like to speak. I’ve loved the study of languages and value that I am a multilingual person. Sometimes I am surprised that I am still taking lessons because I have progressed very slowly. On occasion I have a great epiphany about something that I’ve learned, which I find absolutely thrilling, and then weeks later I don’t recall the great revelation I about some aspect of music theory, or some glimmer of understanding about how a piece was put together by a composer.

“Studying piano has been one of the most challenging learning experiences, way more difficult than studying law. Of course the major difference was that in law school I studied hours and hours each day, and I devote little time to practicing, although I am being more conscientious of late recognizing that I can’t improve if I don’t put in the time. Like most people I gravitate to that which comes easy or where I can succeed, so sometimes I am surprised that I’ve stuck with piano, because my advances are minimal and I am only too aware of my challenges in executing any pieces. My wrists are too stiff, I can’t judge the sense of proportionality of note values with accuracy when I play, and I stare long and hard before I know what notes I’m supposed to play. Sight reading is challenging. And sometime when my piano teacher explains something I feel like a foreigner listening to a native speaker and wishing I was getting all that she is telling me. I hear the words but I don’t always get the meaning or know the answer.”

MY COMMENT ABOUT WHAT FOLLOWS (The praise of my teaching in the next section, was UNSOLICITED but nonetheless appreciated from this student)

Most adults I’ve taught over decades, regardless of level, are too critical of themselves, and try to compare other fields of endeavor to piano. Meaning that what work they have methodically invested and accomplished in their chosen careers, should transfer to a universe they have not inhabited nearly as long.

No one is born playing the piano, and if one uses the metaphor of birth, followed by stages of development such as the first smile, rolling over, pulling oneself up in the crib, crawling, and then walking, then comparable developmental landmarks apply to piano learning as well. And given that babies don’t weigh and measure each advance, or attach a value judgment but just experience a growth PROCESS as nature takes its course, the same self-acceptance is needed when studying piano.

The student’s responses continue below:

“Although you don’t want us to comment on your teaching here goes: I feel fortunate to have an exceptionally gifted teacher. The time she takes providing extras for her students, such as videotaped portions of our classes, is nothing short of remarkable. I spent at least an hour today watching her explanation of how to play a piece, breaking it down into very understandable steps. I am able to watch how she moves her arms and wrist and the follow through on the notes and I seek to emulate what she does when I sit at the piano. It is inspiring to have these videos to watch.

“Another benefit of studying and playing the piano is that it’s good for my aging brain to work hard at something new. I very much enjoy the conversations with Shirley about piano theory and it is an absolute joy to watch her work as a teacher and to see her perform. I look forward to improving and even at my level it is exciting to start a new piece. Initially, it feels so overwhelming like climbing a mountain, by little by little, I began to see and understand what is going on in that piece guided by Shirley’s explanation and some weeks or months later it’s very exciting to be playing something that sounds a bit like the piece. Eureka. And hopefully someday that piece will actually sound good and I’ll be proud to have learned it to will enjoy playing it.”

My additional comment: This student has come a long way in the 4 years, I believe it is, that we’ve worked together. As I’ve said before, she, like other adults do not give themselves enough credit for their growth and accomplishments. Over time, however, the value of the PROCESS should become the center of all learning, not needing weight, measurement, or comparison to others.


Celebrating Piano Students (part 2)

adult piano instruction, adult piano students, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, teaching piano to adults

My Gold Standard Adult Pupils!

I’m the proud mentor of seven COMMITTED adult piano students, three of whom were TAGGED with body stickers for doing GOOD time at their lessons yesterday. NOTE: None have been coerced by authorities to sign up. (i.e. Parents) Each is a VOLUNTARY admission. (LIVE or in Cyber)

Ravi, a thirty-plus chess champion/financial analyst, is one of my most piano-crazed first-year pupils. If he can’t manage to locate an acoustic during his lunch hour, he becomes a threat to society.

Sam blue eighth note stickers

Once he was bounced from a bar and grill for hogging an old upright. First he refused to move off the bench. Then after being prodded and officially handcuffed, he continued to play with his nose.



adult student tan eighth note stickers

En route to SFO, bound for China, she rushed out the front door in the grip of regret, “I didn’t deserve these glue-bonded stickers because my staccato was under-developed. I promise to try harder after I SCALE the GREAT WALL!”

NEXT YEAR in Jerusalem! (she’s already booked!)


Setsuko EARNED her stickers and more! She bedazzled RAVI who arrived early to listen, though he desperately wanted to OCCUPY the Baldwin. Why not! It’s Berkeley!

Yukiko excellent stickers


Rachel, (not pictured) declined a body sticker because of religious beliefs and Kosher dietary laws. While she has no piano, she envisions one in the foreseeable future. (Dream on!)


Finally, to a growing list of headless headliners, I proudly add your heroic images to my Wall of Fame!



"Tales of a Musical Journey" by Irina Gorin, Chopin Waltz in A minor no. 19, classissima,, Irina Gorin, phrasing at the piano, pianist, piano, piano blogs, piano instrruction, piano lessons, piano lessons for adults, Piano Street, piano studio, piano studio in El Cerrito, piano study, piano teacher, piano teaching, piano technique and breathing,,, pianoworld, practicing piano, practicing piano in slow motion, practicing piano in slow tempo, practicing piano with relaxation, relaxed arms in piano playing, scales, scales and arpeggios, separate hand piano practicing, Shirley Kirsten blog, shirley s kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, shirley smith kirsten blog, Shirley Smth Kirsten, slow mindful practicing, slow piano practicing, teaching Beethoven Fur Elise, teaching Fur Elise, teaching piano scales, teaching piano to adult students, teaching piano to adults, teaching piano to young children, whole body listening, whole body music listening, word press, word, wordpress,, you tube, you, yout tube,

The piano learning process at all levels of study

In spite of my having studied piano for decades, each learning experience is filled with challenges that I must approach with a glut of patience. A new composition has its own form, architecture, harmonic rhythm, fingering that requires a big reserve of self-acceptance in a deadline-free frame.

To the contrary, many of my students, who are 95% adults, have a built-in timetable plaguing them from day one. “How long will it take me to learn this piece?” They demand certainty about reaching a tangible goal on a fixed schedule. The End result is what most matters.

Since we live in an information age, strategies of mastery are in vogue along with a mandatory guarantee of knowledge acquisition in so many weeks. “Quick,” “easy-fix” consumption are the Millennium’s catchwords. CD sets are compiled and promoted to learn piano “in a flash.”


I have a pupil, who epitomizes the insecure student, searching for a micro-wave cooking equivalent for learning piano.

She’s an accomplished writer and retired lawyer. On more than one occasion she’s confessed to doing “everything well” except for piano. “I just don’t understand why my wrist can’t roll forward, why I stumble, stutter at the piano.”

If she stepped back and thought about how many years she’s been writing and practicing law as compared to playing the piano, she’d acquire instant insight about her personal quandary.

Irina Gorin, inspired piano teacher and author of Tales of A Musical Journey has often said, “We’re not born playing the piano…. we have to learn to physically relate to the instrument.”

That’s why she starts her kids young, using silly putty to dip tiny hands into. They experience “touch” as deep, densely probing, and sinewy, to produce the singing tone, not a poked out, pencil point sequence of notes. Dipping into jello is Gorin’s metaphor, nicely channeled into the keys:

The time old analogy of crawling before walking applies, yet so many adult students, will obsess about how long they have been working on a piece without the advances they expected of themselves.

Yet, if I think about the students who have made the most gains this year, it’s been those who accepted the baby-step paradigm without precondition. They learned to love the journey with its precious awakenings along the way.


A pupil is shown working on a section of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” absorbing a sound image before translating it into physical expression at the piano. She practiced separate hands, behind tempo. Call it mindful practicing; attentive listening. They belong together.


An adult student embarked upon the Chopin Waltz no. 19 in A minor.

Sight-reading was not a parcel of our work.

It was delving into the fundamental bass, measure by measure in slow tempo.

What was the relationship of one note to the next as each was played? Lean on some, relax others.

“Feel,” “hear” and know at the same time.

Then practice the melody at snail’s pace, but with a singing tone–no delay in contouring. The shapes must seep in from conscious to unconscious.

The student explored wrist motions to curve and shape lines. These poured out of her scale work.

Where an arpeggiated figure appeared, all her caring and conscientious practicing of buoyant broken chords, bristled with relevance.

In graduated steps, the after beat sonorities were separated, and played with a “spongy” feel. We thought of a “lighter” third beat. Not a parade of downbeats.

In time the layering process followed as melody, fundamental bass, and after beat chords came together.

As I look back on this step-wise progression and its implications for the musical development of the Waltz, I can say with confidence that the student eventually played it with a wonderful sense of personal mastery and joy bundled together.

Patience and self-acceptance at every stage of the learning process was our paradigm.

If considered a mantra, it becomes a reminder of what teachers and students need to embrace.


How Long Should a Student Stay with a Piece?

Quality Spot Practicing by an adult student, “Fur Elise.”

The Value of Slow Practicing

Out of a Rut with Quality Spot Practicing


Just Being at the Piano
by Mildred Portney Chase

Chopin Waltz in A minor No. 19 Op. posthumous, classissima,, Frederic Chopin, piano instruction, piano lessons, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, teaching piano, Uncategorized, wordpress,, you tube

The joy of working on Chopin’s phrasing with an adult student (Waltz in A minor, No. 19, Op. Posth.) Videos

At this point in my teaching career, I have a studio of mostly adult students. (counting the ones “Skyping” in from the continent and elsewhere)

These are pupils who haven’t been forced to take lessons. They’re bundled with enthusiasm, determined to learn and follow-up with a conscientious practicing effort.

For any teacher this is a blessing.

Last night, in particular, was a feast.

A pupil and I were on a common wave-length, expressing the beauty of Chopin’s music.

PHRASING was the centerpiece of our reciprocal learning universe.


In the following video, I’ve extracted excerpts from our evening’s lesson that flesh out the creative, cognitive, affective and kinesthetic dimensions of teaching:

Part One:

Part Two:

P.S. Members of Facebook’s “Art of Piano Pedagogy” forum have been have been exploring the issue of students developing an individual approach or personality in re: pieces studied.

My feeling remains that we as teachers provide the tools a student needs to individualize expression as he grows and develops.

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Excerpts from my POWHOW TOP NOTCH TONE TUTORIAL! (webcam piano instruction)

Snatches from our first class! We’re working on sculpting a beautiful musical line in a five-finger position.




Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, pianist, piano, playing piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Skype, teaching piano, video instruction, video performances, video supplementation of piano lessons, virtual piano lessons, virtual piano teaching, word press, word, wordpress,, Yeti mic, Yeti microphone, you tube, you tube video, yout tube

Skyping piano lessons with an iMac, Logitech cam, and Yeti mic (videos)

Here’s my set-up for Skyped piano instruction.

A travel itinerary minus airport delays and x-ray scanners included stop-offs in Pennsylvania, Sydney, Australia; Portland Oregon, and London, England.

Lessons have been scheduled as needed.

A Power Point-less presentation offers more:


A Skype lesson-in-progress to Sydney fleshes out a bi-screen video landscape. (two Logitechs in synch)

I always suggest video supplements to real-time, virtual learning because they allow a closer examination of student problem areas with an eye toward remedies.

Video sharing is even better, where a pupil sends off an Unlisted or Private You Tube playing snippet, and I dash off a video response.

In a word, modern technology in various forms can be enlisted to meet the needs of students who require scheduling convenience amidst a busy work day, or who live in a rural area without easy access to a private teacher.


LINK: A Video supplement to a Skyped piano lesson

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Piano Technique: An adult student works on rolling forward wrist motions in Two, Three, and Six-note groupings (Video)

This particular student has come a long way in the six years we’ve worked together, and as always been the case, I’ve probably learned more from her than in reverse.

From my second piano, I can gaze over at my pupil sitting at the grand and grasp a whole body in-motion perspective of her playing. From this vantage point, I can observe any tension in the arms, wrists, etc. that may be impeding fluid phrasing.

Universally, students tighten wrists and don’t allow them to naturally move forward in a flexible motion. And unfortunately, finger strength can’t compensate for stiff wrists, or tightness anywhere along the whole arm spectrum.

Today I chose to spend a good chunk of lesson time ROLLING THE WRIST forward over two-note groupings, then three and finally six. (one can consider 8th notes for this exercise, and when rolled in three, we are thinking triplets. The sixes would double the triplet 8ths, though a teacher can pull back or adjust the tempo as indicated.)

The Video

We worked on freeing the wrist using the B minor Arpeggio as our springboard.

We also interspersed this practice with single-note, roll-forward wrist motion.