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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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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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About Regulation and Tuning: My piano cried out for help!

This is such a sticky area, and the pun is intended. How frustrating to imagine a delicate pianissimo, want to produce it, and find that a note or notes won’t spring forth with the beauty that a player had intended.

For me, it had become painfully obvious that my Steinway M grand, 1917 which had undergone three overhauls in 30 years, was in dire need of regulation. And this preoccupation with the feel of the piano,across the entire keyboard, had become my big bulldog issue. (Here, in Bulldog country, where Fresno State football mania was all-consuming, I couldn’t help but drown myself in sports analogies even while teaching piano. The lingo sometimes kept my young male students coming back for lessons. They might otherwise be prancing down a basketball court)

So before I found myself decompensating every time a note disappeared under the pressure of my fingers, I dialed up Terry Barrett, Fresno Registered Piano Technician (RPT), who biked over to my home studio to assess the Steinway grand. After a perfunctory review of the instrument, he commented on how dramatically it had dropped, and he talked in CENTS, not really making sense.

Frankly, I’d always preferred to describe an out of tune piano as one that had gone sour, or flat. Notes could also be warbling or beating. For more sophisticated, attuned piano owners, there was another possibility. A piano could go sharp as easily as it flattened. To discriminate between the two, a tuning fork was always a good barometer, that is, if the ears wanted to pay attention. I could sit beside any number of students or friends, and we might reasonably agree to disagree about what we heard when a tuning fork was struck against a hard surface, or a semi-soft one, like my knee (ouch!)That note is flat, someone would insist as he or she made the comparison to an A of 440 frequency buzzing into my living room space. But watch out if a car alarm fleetingly overlapped the tuning fork, or a series environmental interventions upset the molecules. A cell phone loudly resonated with a catchy transcription of Pachelbel’s Canon. The cat’s jingle bell reverberated from a hiding place. The microwave beeped to remind me that my burrito was ready. And someone who had used the toilet, just flushed and then activated the exhaust fan. What else was new? I wanted to tear my hair out!

So I guess it was best to humanely provide a fairly insulated space for the tuner, so he could be alone with his private set of ears, a hammer, and a pitch fork. (Did I mean to say, tuning fork?) For some tuners, with a devil may care attitude, the former would have applied.

Ear tuning, or by machine?

I’d decided not to incur the wrath of the Piano Technician community by favoring ear tuning, but I had to be honest with myself. No one would dare approach my Steinway grand with a machine–not in this lifetime or the next.

I would concede the use of a Yamaha stroboscope for pianos that were so far off pitch that a ball park overview was needed. By the same token, if tuners found themselves at the Monterey Jazz Festival having to whip a truckload of instruments into shape under deadline, then why not go electronic.

Some tuners had told me they’d encountered low-grade Kincaid spinets and Kimball consoles that didn’t have a chance in hell of holding any kind of 440, let alone be within, God knows, how many CENTS of making any sense as musical instruments. Here again, I had empathy for techs who toted their fancy machines to keep their sanity.

But with my Steinway always at risk of an inadvertent injury at the hands of incompetent tuner/technicians, I called on Terry Barrett because of his magnificent pair of ears and side by side technical skills. Through the twenty years I had known him, he had not once entered my piano sanctuary with a hip hugging piece of technology. I might add that he was nearly blind, and used his ears to best advantage.

On the other hand, in El Cerrito, where I had my second studio, Israel Stein, one of the best techs around and a PTG Examiner, came with the machine, and did the electronic overview of my Kawai that I had previously mentioned. After this preliminary, he fine tuned by ear to my satisfaction allowing me to justify the digital program as long as the ear had the final word? Or how about say. Mixed metaphor?

Back to regulation.

Terry realized my frustration immediately when he tested the Steinway grand, confirming my “feel”-related obsession as reasonable, and not pathological. My question then was, could he touch weight the piano through a prolonged evaluation of each key’s depression rate, or was there a less cumbersome route? (To touch weight would be cost prohibitive)

Terry pointed out that Dale Erwin, Modesto based re-builder, had done a magnificent job touch weighting my Steinway back in 1992, so it might be best to regulate the piano through various adjustments in the action assembly. Now here is where I showed my ignorance because York, my sidekick piano finding adventurer, neglected to train me adequately in this whole realm. I knew more about treating moth infested hammers, and Deconning mice who’d set up house in an upright, than coming to grips with a key that was a tad lazy in relation to the next. What counted more than rodent droppings, and a bunch of CENTS up or down from concert pitch was the feel of the notes across the 88s.

Terry decided the best route to please me, was to first tweak the action and make necessary adjustments to the tune of $300. This work would be scheduled after he tuned my second piano, a Steinway upright, 1098 model, 1992. This would be weeks away.

With the time delay and all, the Steinway M grand was in fabulous tune, but the un-tuned upright, a few “cents” below it, produced some very disagreeable warbling.

As a consequence of the whole incomplete undertaking, students were wondering if they had played correct notes when I joined in as a coach at the second piano. And the boys, forced to take lessons by their parents, were wishing they could be dropped off a.s.a.p at the nearest soccer field.

In conclusion, I suppose I should have made sure Terry stuck around to tune the grand and upright at the same time instead of leaving me in the lurch with an unpleasant tonal discrepancy between both pianos. In a perfect world, we would have had closure in this matter, but I knew in reality, I needed the patience of a saint to wait out all the adjustments that were in the offing.

In the meantime, I had decided it was time to hear from piano technicians around the country about the merits of machine tuning. So at this point, I’m all ears!