piano, piano instruction, piano lessons, piano teaching, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

A 9-year-old piano student devises a plan to improve her practicing

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Into her seventh month of music study, Liz has more clearly defined her approach to practicing various pieces by devising a well-written outline of phrase-loving reminders. And though her vocabulary is an understandable offshoot of her teacher’s, with its emphasis on floating, flowing wrists, side-by-side with “pokey” finger prohibitions, she manages to offer an original spin for preparing her latest piece by William Gillock, “Summertime Polka.” (It’s in the ripening phase)

maeve-maps-out-summertime-polka-1

Not surprisingly, children and adults who embark upon a journey of musical discovery, inevitably face common challenges that Liz well-articulated.

These are fleshed out below:

1) Keeping a framing rhythm in legato and staccato

Subjectively, a pupil might “think” he/she has preserved a singing pulse in transit from smooth/connected playing to short, detached notes, but on playback of a recorded segment, rhythmic irregularities become conspicuous.

Liz tended to rush the staccato section of “Summertime Polka,” not to the extreme, but a trace of anxious rushing can disturb the expressive flow of a composition.

The remedy, is not necessarily metronomic reinforcement, though it can be helpful. I prefer, as teacher, to assume a conductor role, assisting with beat driven gestures, together with singing prompts steeped in vibrant/musical pulsations.

Such SINGING fused with a framing pulse provides a memory reservoir that a student can draw upon in the interval between lessons.

In successful playings, with pertinent prompts, Liz improved the rhythmic stability of her staccato notes.

P.S. The student was similarly made aware of the need for buoyant, “bright,” and crisp staccato releases that she’d enumerated in her practicing plan, but like most pupils, she will benefit from teacher driven reminders that refine the character of detached notes, and contrast them with those that are “tenuto” marked. Ironically, Liz’s own written header attached a tenuto designated note with her self-imposed admonition to “lean” and not “poke.”

2) Preventing the thumb from making fall down, obtrusive accents

This is a universal vulnerability that can be addressed in part, by mentally configuring the shortest finger, as “featherlight,” and by thinking “UP” rather than down.

With my adult students, I talk about “folding” the thumb- played notes into the texture; thinking of it as having a soft cushion, while imagining its levitational dimension.

Liz improved her thumb approaches in consecutive playings of “Summertime Polka” as I sang “soft thumb” at pertinent junctures in the music.

3) Phrasing with horizontal fluidity; not succumbing to “Rosie the Riveter” percussive down strokes

Liz eradicated any semblance of a pencil point, pokey, approach to the keys, though as with all students of diverse ages and levels, I will continue to reinforce the singing tone, and how to produce it. The vital ingredients include the use of supple wrists, full arm relaxed energies and creating musically pertinent “delays” into notes.

Forward wrist motions similarly promote graceful resolutions at cadences in their status as “shock absorbers.”

4) Promoting Attentive listening and awareness of note decay

Early learners and those at more advanced levels always need reminders to fine tune their listening skills. When a teacher exposes students to how music travels in a before/after sequence, notes that were insensitively played at incongruous auditory levels, can begin to flow more sensitively with an imbued consciousness of balance and voicing.

Liz expressed her awareness of “decay” and how she planned to respond to it, as part of our recorded conversation.

5) Making Dynamic variation

Through various degrees of arm/hand/wrist delivered weight transfer, students learn the art of expressive dynamic contrasts, though the imagination must be ignited before the first note is played. All students are timely nudged to energize their mental framings of pieces that include “visualization,” and mood-setting among other strategies.

In summary, piano students of all ages and levels are confronted by a host of common challenges that should drive an enthusiasm for creative adventure, and progressive musical growth.

LINK:

Piano technique segment of Liz’s lesson at the 6th month juncture

Liz’s first piano lesson/February, 2016

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/an-8-year-old-begins-piano-lessons/

Bach, Egon Petri, J.S. Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, piano, piano arrangement, piano transcription, Sheep May Safely Graze, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

Learning J.S. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” (Egon Petri piano transcription)

Egon Petri offers a transcription of J.S. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” (based on the Baroque composer’s “Birthday” Cantata) and it’s drawn a cult of admirers, mostly adult students begging to learn it. The work originally scored for two flutes, soprano and continuo, comes a close second in popularity to “Flight of the Bumblebee,” with its enticing stream of breakneck speed chromatics, evoking the buzzing insect.

Not unexpectedly, one of my students who’s deeply immersed in J.Bach’s Prelude in F Minor, BWV 881 (Book Two, Well-Tempered Clavier) happened to bring a fresh copy of Petri’s “Sheep…” saying she wanted to “read” through it, and might I insert fingering in the virgin score.

My undertaking, therefore, required careful screening of various lines, with recommendations for an optimally smooth journey through a chord laden terrain with some challenging, treble range parallel sixths, etc. (In this regard, there were measures that included intervals over the octave, where the player is given the option of eliminating a note or two.) In truth, given the transcription landscape, the player has a guilt-free, creative license to make sensitive changes that serve the smooth rendering of a phrase without doing an injustice to the COMPOSER’s work.

During my 4 page finger-assignment, I found that the experience sparked a deeper journey of discovery. Therefore, as follow-up, I carefully examined my own learning process, and uploaded a tutorial that focuses on the relaxed floating arm and supple wrist as aids to navigate various awkward sets of measures. (I also emphasized the relaxed, featherlight thumb in practicing pertinent measures well behind tempo.)

An earlier tutorial provided an optional fingering here and there with attention to an inner alto voice in the first section of Petri’s arrangement.

Other Helpful Sources

1) The Cantata excerpt as originally scored by J.S. Bach


2) Egon Petri plays his transcription with the manuscript scrolling through.

3) A pleasingly tranquil reading by Italian pianist, Alessio Bax

Murray Perahia analyzes and then renders “Sheep May Safely Graze,” during an interview broadcast from Israel with Arie Vardi.

Start 20:42 in the track below:

P.S. The whole program, centered on the works of J.S. Bach, is worth watching.

piano, piano blog, piano instruction, piano pedagogy, piano technique

An adult and child share common goals in playing piano artistically

There’s no big ocean of divide in working with children and adult piano students. In fact, today I found common threads running through two lessons: one with a local beginner, age, 8–the other, a seasoned adult.

Liz, 8, completed her fifth week of instruction, with my imbued emphasis on how to produce a singing tone. From day one, I’ve nurtured a relaxed funnel of energy down her arms, through supple wrists, and gently curved hands. This same fundamental lesson framing applies to Sam, a much older student who resides in London, takes lessons Online, and is practicing “Fur Elise.” (He’s about three years into his studies.)

The following lesson samples were nicely paired with common goals of creating beauty. Sam’s challenge today was woven into his D Major Scale in 10ths. He worked on ORGANIZING it–discovering symmetries between the hands in mirror images, while maintaining a natural flow of energy down his arms, wrists, and hands. Curling fingers under in a block practicing segment impeded its smooth octave by octave course, and grabbing notes would cause the same interruption of well-breathed out sequences. The remedy proved to be thoughtful repetitions, that gradually eliminated these impediments.

For Liz, whose lesson I re-capped in a summary video, I illustrated the very concepts that were woven into Sam’s lesson, but in a different context.

The child is studying short pieces in Frances Clark’s Primer, Time to Begin, but she’s also given composing assignments that tap into her creativity with an embedded alliance to the singing tone. The earliest exposure to the piano is probably the most critical in furthering the development of attentive listening; a physical/emotional connection to the instrument, and a cognitive framing that reinforces the practicing phase. (Not to overlook the imagination and its profound influence upon musical expression.)

***

SAM: Playing the D Major Scale in 10ths

A Summary of Liz’s 5th lesson–correction from “4th” mentioned in the video (in part)

Liz’s previous lesson segments have been recorded in progress:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/an-8-year-old-begins-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/liz-age-8-has-her-second-piano-lesson-with-my-interspersed-thoughts-about-materials-and-teaching-philosophy/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/liz-age-8-composes-a-piece-at-her-third-piano-lesson/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2016/03/10/deviating-from-the-piano-method-book-to-custom-fit-the-child/

piano, piano instruction, piano technique

Fluid Arpeggios: No hand twisting, with floating arms and an economy of motion

Piano Technique: Arpeggios
LOCATION:
From: Berkeley, California

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Berkeley near Spring

To: Sydney, Australia

Sydney Harbor
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I continue to learn from my students as I view close-ups of their arms, wrists, hands/fingers in motion across the keyboard. Most of my epiphanies occur over Skype or Face Time where I pinpoint technical problems that are MAGNIFIED by the webcam. I might use a LOCAL Full Screen view over CALL RECORD to model an economy of motion through arpeggios, and then switch to a Split Screen to assess the pupil’s improvement in keyboard transit. I’ll use prompts that are specifically physical, and others that are in the mental image realm, not overlooking “phrase-shaping” through broken chords in slow and brisk tempo: legato and staccato. (A melodic thread is always preserved.)

In the attached video centering on the D Major Arpeggio, a student had a conspicuous hand “twist” that was impeding what she imagined internally as a smooth musical flow of notes, and it was no surprise that she had to brave certain technical challenges to get to the “heart” of her playing. As an example, when I was 13, I came my teacher, Lillian Freundlich, knowing what I wanted to hear, but yet, I hadn’t the “tools” to put into motion what I had imagined and internalized. Some students are not sure what they want to hear, so this presents still another dimension of the learning process.

The adult pupil practicing the arpeggio, however, is “musical” and intuitive, so our focus in the technical segment of lessons, has been how to navigate through scales and arpeggios with ease and FLUIDITY.

In our partnered journey, we’ve discovered along the D Major route, that the sensation of a “floating arm” is pivotal to creating a horizontal LINE. But that’s not enough. The thumb should not pull the hand down, or force a twist in the hand just because it cruises under finger “tunnels.” In a previous blog, I referenced the thumb’s tendency to usurp more rule or power than it was entitled to. It must be especially ARTFUL in not making a ponderous presence. From another perspective, it’s a “ruler” in the sense of being a “measuring” rod not an oligarch. Wherever it goes, the family of fingers drape around it creating balance and alignment. Framing this aforementioned assertion is the need for an overall “economy of motion” that affords speed, agility, and fluid playing.

Finally, in the Arpeggio cosmos it’s very satisfying to produce a floating, flowing, rippling set of broken chords that are well-spaced, and without thumb-heavy intrusions.

Ann Arbor Michigan, blog metrics, Judith Jacobs, Natalie Jacobs, piano blog, Stan Jacobs, When Your Song Breaks the Silence

When Your Song Breaks the Silence: A book about Franz Schubert

One of the fruits of forming a Short Story Book group, is meeting people who not only share an embrace of fine literature, but who might also enjoy a strong connection to the music world.

Judith and Stan Jacobs fit nicely into this dual universe, having become members of my shrinking degrees of separation literary and musical repository. Their emigration from Ann Arbor Michigan to the East Bay (CA) last Spring had released my welled-up memories of the Interlochen Arts Academy that drew my interest as a 1960’s era violin student. At the time, I’d thumbed through colorful brochures with appealing photos of uniformed Junior Orchestra members who tapped into my ardent desire to attend the Ann Arbor-based summer camp, but tight finances impeded a journey to the Midwest. As it happened, I traveled to Oberlin, Ohio five years later which encapsulated my Midwestern experience. (Degrees of separation seemed to vanish when Judith Jacobs mentioned a forte pianist and a harpsichord professor who were her personal ties to the Oberlin Conservatory)

***

My eventual emigration to Berkeley came with an outreach to the social/literary realm of MEET-UP, and by a quirk of fate, my newly arrived “friends” Stan and Judith Jacobs, drawn to my Short Story group, brought an additional gift the table.

Stan a retired, Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, University of Michigan, and his wife, Judith, a digital artist, bestowed a living literary tribute to their late daughter, Natalie, who authored a beautiful tome dedicated to the life of Franz Schubert.

Natalie Jane Jacobs

When Your Song Breaks the Silence is a lyrically written book in the creative nonfiction genre that is without doubt, meticulously researched and wrapped in finite detail, yet it remains a marvel of inspired artistic creation.

One of my favorite quotes:

“Reimagined as music, Wilhelm Müller’s twelve poems sang in twelve different voices, telling the story of love frozen and shattered on the hard stone of winter. “Winterreise,” “Winter’s Journey,” they were called, and the first song set the pace with its walking rhythm that took the angry and bitter wanderer from the door of his former lover’s house. From there, the wanderer pushed on further and further into the cold and dark, and the music froze and wept and whirled like the bitter wind.”

Natalie Jacobs book cover

Judith provided a beautiful AFTERWORD about her daughter’s life, and how her Schubert-framed writing was discovered posthumously on a computer that a friend acquired and downloaded.

“Natalie Jane Jacobs was a gifted writer from a very early age. She once confessed a special affinity “with Franz Schubert.”

“When she was eleven, she wrote a story about the composer as a young child trying myopically—she too was very nearsighted—to interact with his family and surroundings. Like him, although confident of her creative gifts, she was unsure of herself and hesitant to bring her writing to a wider audience.

“While writing was always very important to her, she did not intend it to be a career. Instead, she completed several years of midwifery training and planned to practice it.

“Natalie died suddenly of viral myocarditis in 2008 at age 35. After her death we gave her computer to a longtime friend in Portland, OR where Natalie had moved from her native Ann Arbor, MI. A short time later, her friend told us of a body of writing she had discovered on its hard disk. To our great surprise, Natalie had left the manuscripts of several short stories, a novella set in contemporary England, and a full-length historical novel about Schubert…”

(Excerpt From: Natalie Jacobs. “When Your Song Breaks the Silence.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/L_CiG.l)

Enriched by my friendship with Natalie’s parents, and having enjoyed the posthumous acquaintance of Natalie through her beloved writing, I can confidently recommend this dip into Schubert’s life, wrapped in unswerving love for the composer and his music.

LINKS:

https://sites.google.com/site/whenyoursongbreaksthesilence/

http://www.facebook.com/whenyoursong

Natalie’s mother’s artistic universe:

http://www.judithjacobs.com

blog, Kinderszenen, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano instruction, piano technique, Robert Schumann, Shirley Kirsten

Untangling hands and subduing AFTER beats in Robert Schumann’s music

When a pianist tackles a piece like “Am Kamin,” (“At the Fireplace”) from Schumann’s signature childhood reminiscence, Kinderszenen, he/she must artfully navigate the musical terrain, avoiding hand pile-ups and after-beat pounding.

A gorgeous Romantic era, lyrical melody that threads though this tableau can be at risk– easily interrupted or jarred by offbeats that contain parcels of harmonic enrichment. They are not meant to offset horizontal movement of phrases.

On a technical level, overlapping hands and fingers sharing common notes between the hands, pose a second significant challenge to the piano learner.

He must decide after considerable separate hand practice what fingers of either hand can ease the burden of a joint undertaking by taking singular responsibility. (Where it applies)

Am Kamin

And that’s how my video tutorial evolved– from a personal, painstaking journey to AVOID pain and obtain the most pleasurable learning and playing experience possible.

Classical music blog, George Li, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Lucas Debargue, piano, piano blog, piano competition, Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition

George Li, among 6 Tchaikovsky Competition Finalists

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As many cheering fans had expected, George Li catapulted himself into the Finals with a memorable performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K. 488.

http://tch15.medici.tv/en/performance/round-round-2-piano-2015-06-24-2030000300-great-ha

Reed Tetzloff not having the same good fortune to make the cut, still delivered a moving reading of the soulful middle movement, K. 488.

A noticeable audience favorite at this competition has been French pianist, Lucas Debargue whose artistry is uniquely introspective and Old World–a contrast from players heard to date in all rounds.

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What amounts to a cult-like following surrounds Debargue in response to his Medtner and Ravel performances which had mystical qualities.

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Seymour Bernstein was so moved, he sent an email to his list of followers celebrating Debarge’s artistry!

“First, the Medtner is unbelievable! But I doubt that anyone will ever hear Ravel’s Gaspard performed like this. The French pianist Lucas Debargue must be a another world. Simply the most miraculous playing. Perhaps because of this alone he may win the competition.”

http://tch15.medici.tv/en/performance/round-round-2-piano-2015-06-21-2130000300-great-ha

While I appreciated the trance-like playing of Debargue in his Round 2 recital, I found his Bach, and Beethoven, op. 10 no. 3, Round 1, to lack definition and tonal brightness. He seemed focused on a big intellectual dimension without finite detail. Often he skimmed the surface of the keys in the Baroque and Classical era works, while his illusory approach seemed better suited to late Romantic and Impressionist era composers. (A Ravel-inspired color palette was very appealing)

Many Debargue followers showcased his reading of Mozart’s C minor concerto with its dark, foreboding dimension, well fleshed out by the Frenchman, while I hurriedly revisited Murray Perahia’s performance with its more diversely lyrical and emotional contrasts.

***
The List of Finalists

Sergey Redkin
Geroge Li
Lucas Debargue
Lukas Genusias
Daniel Kharitonov
Dmitry Masleev

The final round that resumes June 28th will include Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Prokofiev concertos.

http://tch15.medici.tv/en/live/piano

LINKS

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/a-triumph-for-pianist-george-li/

REPLAY, George Li’s Recital, Round One:

http://tch15.medici.tv/en/performance/round-round-1-piano-2015-06-19-1300000300-great-ha

Flashback to my interview with George Li in 2012:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/my-interview-with-george-li-a-seasoned-pianist-at-16/

http://www.georgelipianist.com

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/medici-tv-presents-free-live-stream-of-the-xv-international-tchaikovsky-competition-from-moscow/