Just Being at the Piano, Mildred Portney Chase, Peter Illyich Tchaikovksy, pianist, piano, piano playing, Tchaikovsky

Imagination fuels expressive piano playing

As my local and Online piano students gear up for their bi-annual music sharing this coming Saturday over Skype, a commonly expressed concern is how to harness the imagination to feed a musical journey right from the opening measure of a piece to its final cadence.

The challenge for everyone embodies a centered period of silence, allowing a player to imagine the mood, timbre and tone of an opening phrase that will have a flowing impetus for others to follow.

This is why we observe piano competition entrants sitting quietly for what seems like an eternity. And we wonder what could possibly be on their mind during such quiescence.

I’ll conjecture that while it could be nerve-fighting strategies playing out in the psyche, it’s more likely to be non-cognitive, affective preparation. The imagination will fuel the playing, but it will have free reign only if preceded by phases of thoughtful, stepwise learning.

There’s no doubt that students of all levels need to practice meticulously before a recital: They would have approached their compositions in a layered progression, working on fingering, rhythm, phrasing, all bundled into an EXPRESSIVE whole, but in a behind tempo frame until a natural ripening process gently nudges the player to a desirable temporal dimension.

Yet some pupils will not have achieved an “in tempo” rendering at this coming Saturday’s music sharing, but each will need to be mentally prepared for the moment when they will be sitting at their piano benches in various locations, attempting to CENTER themselves, apart from the din of self-criticism and negativity.

…and here’s where I evoke the wise words of Mildred Portney Chase from her published diary, Just Being at the Piano.


“I am continually finding my way toward the here and now in my music and realizing a whole new dimension to the experience of playing. Nowhere is it more important to be in the here and now than in playing the piano. The slightest lapse in attention will affect every aspect of how I realize the re-creation of a piece of music. One note coming a hairbreadth late in time, may distort the expression of a phrase.

“It is impossible to be self-conscious and totally involved in the music at the same time. Consciousness of the self is a barrier between the player and the instrument. As I forget my own presence, I attain a state of oneness with the activity and become absorbed in a way that defies the passage of time.

About tone and imagining it:

“Listening… feeling… moving…feeling… listening.. The core of any tone should always have substance and expressive quality. The singing quality of tone can be developed by sensitizing the ear to listen for it and sensitizing the hands and fingers to feel it as if they too were listening.”

And I will conclude by saying that harnessing the imagination in the cosmos of tone, touch, timbre and mood is a preliminary to beautiful, expressive playing–not forgetting to retrieve the memory of how it physically felt to produce musical beauty.

Tactile sensitivity fused with a self-devised creative image and ATTENTIVE LISTENING, will move phrases along in smooth, lucid progression.

In this vein, I recently recorded a portion of a piano lesson with an Online student where I explored a facet of the imagination as it applied to Tchaikovsky’s “Sweet Dream,” Op. 39 no. 21. While I used a “floating clouds” analogy, I could easily have drawn on a “dream” as a mental prompt.

There are many mood pictures that help pianists to get into the zone and out of themselves, so it’s a universe worth exploring.

For those of us taking a common musical journey, its fulfillment resides in more than playing the right notes with perfect rhythm. The intangible often makes music-making the ethereally beautiful experience that it is.

Jocel preps for the Saturday recital

no. 1, piano instruction, Piano Street

Parceling out voices in Chopin’s Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15

Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass scoring in Chopin’s hauntingly beautiful F Major Nocturne (opening section) begs for an artistic examination through voice parceling. One cannot just paste the left hand onto the right, deferring entirely to the soprano. (soloist)

Meandering chromatics weave through the alto, tenor, and bass, creating unexpected harmonic events that influence melodic shaping, (phrasing) so they must be identified and explored.

Using Facetime Record, I set out to baby-step my way through a mosaic of lines, with an ear toward unexpected events and their emotional implications.

It was my return to a composition I had previously studied from the ground up.

Nocturne in F Major Op. 15, p1

Nocturne in F Major Op. 15 p. 2

choir concert, Marika Kuzma, Poulenc Gloria, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Songs of Praise", UC Berkeley chamber and university chorus

The best seat in the house (concert hall) with a treasured companion

I met 80-plus, sparkling Sonya recently at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists, and discovered that her son, Renato, graduated Oberlin– small world.

It wasn’t long before my new-found friend invited me to join her as a choir concert companion to Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley campus.


It was my first formal musical touchdown post Bezerkeley arrival, and I knew Sonya, with her cultural savoir faire, would lead me to the best seat in a modest, but intimate musical space.

She’d tipped me off about the most prime acoustical location in an early bird communication sent the night before.

“I prefer to sit in the center of the back row whenever a choral or symphony work is performed, because the voices blend better there.

“Also one is not regaled by the sight of mismatched socks &/or shoes of the musicians (;-)”

Sonya had pretty much taken everything into consideration in her seating plan, except for this:

hair block

We were square center, last row, happily anticipating “Songs of Spring, Songs of Praise,” offerings from the University and Chamber Chorus, when about 10 minutes into the program, an eye-catching visitor sat squarely in front of me, obstructing all but a trail of second violins and cellos.

Needless to say, I lunged for the nearest empty seat, and spared myself further distress. (a concert-goer to our right, was hangin’ loose, oblivious to any shuffling except for her disapproving glance at my friend for using a micro pen-light to peruse the program)


The concert proceeded on wings of heavenly song. Marika Kuzma, Director, was so innately musical, drawing impeccable nuance and phrasing from a chamber chorus of music, science, philosophy and undeclared majors. (They’re invited to perform in Carnegie Hall this summer, with a stopoff near ground zero)

The nicely diversified choral roster included the works of J.S. Bach, Richard Feliciano, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Benjamin Britten, David Wikander, Jorge Liderman, John Lennon/Paul McCartney, Paul Hindemith, Claude Le Jeune, and Poulenc’s tour de force, Gloria.


Sonya and I noticed that the young man who’d blocked a lion’s share of the stage as an audience member, had moved into choir-ranking status following intermission.

Here’s what we saw from our plum perches:


The well-capped fellow sang in the grand finale, Poulenc’s Gloria! earning the choir a roar of applause at its conclusion.

choral program

In retrospect, my seat was indeed the best in the house, beating out any keyboard-side pick over decades of concert-going!

Marika and choir

Kabalevsky, Kabalevsky Funny Event, Kabalevsky Op. 39 Children's pieces, piano, piano instruction, piano lessons, Shirley Kirsten, word press, word press.com, wordpress, wordpress.com, yout tube, youtube.com

Piano Technique: Playing with bigger energies beyond the fingers

Practicing a programmatic miniature from Kabalevsy’s Op. 39 Children’s Pieces can draw on energies well beyond the fingers.

“Funny Event” is a good example with its series of sound bursts on the first beat of each measure. If a student takes the pecking approach, typing away at the keyboard, one note at a time, his self-limited pursuit will be at the expense of capturing the “feel” of a robust staccato dialog between the hands.

In the video below, I demonstrate how my own practicing routines helped me clarify ways to realize the shape of a redundant, highly charged motif that is both playful and bundled with joy.

Kabalevsky Funny Event

classissima, classissima.com, Fantasia in C minor K.475 by Mozart, Mozart, piano, Seymour Bernstein, With your own Two Hands by Seymour Bernstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, wordpress, you tube, yout tube, youtube.com

Piano playing at its most inspirational level

Rarely does a musical performance move me to tears, but today was worth memorializing. Seymour Bernstein, a pianist, composer, author, mentor, friend, colleague (do I dare put myself in the —league part of the word), posted a 1955 rendering of Mozart’s hauntingly beautiful Fantasia in C minor, K. 475. Immediately, it rang a bell. I’d watched Nadia Boulanger tutor a young prodigy about its harmonic rhythm, grabbing his wrist at a poignant point of modulation. The unexpected, of course, warmed my heart, not the labeling of a KEY transition. To be enlightened about the composer’s form and content, apart from a God-inspired place of origin could help guide a serious music student through thousands of notes. But was it enough?

Seymour Bernstein’s reading was beyond analyses because it naturally radiated though transitions of the most awesome kind. Where rests intervene, these must not be bogged down. They should travel over themselves with perfect buoyancy. One, a dramatic pause–another heart-melting, with various sections fitting together in a well-spun mosaic.

As I remind myself over and again, music is NON-verbal, so I won’t rival any distinguished music critic in my unswerving praise for Seymour’s performance.

From Seymour’s own program notes:

Dear friends,

“This recording appears on my 2-CD set entitled RETROSPECTIVE. I
thought I had uploaded it to YouTube. But I was mistaken. Here it is at
last. I am not sure where the performance took place, but I believe it was
at my 2nd Town Hall recital in 1955. I would do some things a bit
differently now, but still this is a good performance of this profound

“Sir Clifford Curzon told me that he and Wanda Landowska put their heads
together to list what they thought were the greatest keyboard works in
existence. This piece was among the chosen masterpieces.”

And here’s the snatch from a Boulanger class as referenced, where she tells 10-year old Emile Nauomoff that a particular D Major modulation, “just IS,” and not be likened to a moment of tenderness, or an associated adjective. (I might disagree)

For me, emotion and meaning in music are inexorably paired.




Part 4:

“You and the Piano” with Seymour Bernstein


Recommended Reading


Chopin Waltz in B minor Op. 69 No. 2, Frederic Chopin, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano blog, piano instruction, piano lesson, piano lesson by Skype, Shirley Kirsten, whole body listening, whole body music listening, word press.com, wordpress, wordpress.com, you tube video, you tube.com, yout tube, youtube.com

Piano lesson: Chopin B minor Waltz, Op. 69, no 2. (bouncing phrases back and forth)

Teaching affords the greatest opportunity to listen objectively to students serving up their menu of pieces. It allows ideas to spring forward and bounce back.

Today, my Greek student resurrected his Chopin B Minor Waltz in preparation for a forthcoming concert, and he sorted through some of my epiphanies that were born of his playing.

In truth, my verbal prompts helped both of us crystallize phrasing and nuance.

“sighing,”” streams of notes,” “rubato,” “expand,” “resolve,” “sequence down” gave a frame of reference.

And conducting gestures, even over cyber communicated through an abyss of failed words.

The opening Waltz section ignited a two-way growth process that will surely ripen with time.


An older SKYPED lesson video:


"Tales of a Musical Journey" by Irina Gorin, Cyprien Katsaris, Irina Gorin, Tatiana Nikolayeva, Uncategorized, Yeol Eum Son, Yeti mic, Yeti microphone

My Top You Tube Picks for 2013, What are yours?

My note: I’ve listed links to blogs posted about these performers.


Grigory Sokolov Complete piano recital, Theatre de Champs Elysee (for astounding fusion of technique/lyricism/wide dynamic palette–having everything and anything at his disposal to draw upon from his rich musical repository)

Irina Morozova: Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11, second movement (profound lyricism, singing tone, fluidity, molto cantabile, tasteful rubato, and more)

Yeol Eum Son, Earl Wild Arrangement of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” (gorgeous, finessed playing with a remarkable palette of colors—immaculate phrasing)

Vitaly Margulis: Chopin Nocturne in Db, Op. 27, No. 2 (heart-fluttering phrases, perfect rubato, OLD WORLD playing at its best)

George Li, Liszt “La Campanella” (a wondrously seasoned and beautiful approach to the piano that belies his youth)

Tatiana Nikolayeva ( Old, time-honored, Romantic era-wrapped Schumann) My heart is throbbing!

Yevgeni Sudbin (Domenico Scarlatti from heaven!)

Angela Hewitt, Bach French Suite in G (Lyrical Bach and quite pleasing)

Glenn Gould, Bach D Minor Concerto (beyond words!)

Murray Perahia, Partita in E minor, BWV 830 (As always, exquisite, captivating playing, mind and heart fused all the way through)


Elaine Comparone (Robust, vibrant and the rest)

Keyboard Sonata in G Major by C.P.E. Bach

Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in D Minor, K. 517 (A knock-out performance!)


Seymour Bernstein, Part 4, “You and the Piano”

Boris Berman

Cyprien Katsaris
Chopin Fantasie Impromptu

Irina Gorin (Wrist Relaxation Exercises)