Piano Study: Process not Mastery

One of my students recommended a book by George Leonard that globalizes the idea of gaining Mastery in any field of endeavor through a love of “plateaus.” (These are pauses in forward-moving progress that can either frustrate a learner, or motivate him to forge onward with an all-embracing love of the “journey.”)

The author begins with the metaphorical comparison of Aikido to the skill-“mastering” universe, just as W. Timothy Gallwey has drawn upon the game of tennis as a Zen-like encapsulation of here and now, value-free immersion in “process.” In this regard, Gallwey poetically references, by example, the archer who shoots an arrow not at a specific target, but allows a free-wheeling energy to rise above a narrow destination. (From the Inner Game of Tennis)

Metaphorically, the skill accorded to the archer does not become an end or accomplishment in itself, but is a centered means of a goal-less pursuit.

I agree with Gallwey and kindred spirit, Mildred Portney Chase (Just Being at the Piano) who both ally their philosophies to Eastern thought, which takes the Ego out of the learning equation, and substitutes a neutralized and limitless “growth”-centered journey.

Without delving too deeply into the nuances of each author’s view, it’s important to underscore that in our technology-driven world, we are alienated from time-free and patience imbued pursuits such as learning a musical instrument. Because of an encroaching cultural attitude of needing “mastery” by deadline as a medallion of achievement, we sabotage our growth. In this vein, if we run into what we believe to be a “progress” stifling episode in our goal-setting path, we either give up in frustration, or more positively, treat every learning juncture as filled with awakenings that lead to others.

Perhaps this is a segue way to my own relationship to the piano and the journey that I’ve paved over decades.

Plateaus are for me not setbacks laden with personal judgment as to where I should be in the study of new piece. Like a baby who develops from laying in a crib, to pulling himself up, to crawling and then walking, with limitless growth potential, I have no desire to play a composition like I would follow a fixed recipe to make instant pudding. Instead, with an open, unbiased mind and attitude, I approach a composition in a layered fashion, taking it apart in detail to understand all I can about it. And if it’s a work that will require a very rapid tempo, I impose no deadline on myself, leaving the door open to grow the tempo to where it settles in the moment, and can expand with each re-connection over time.

In my revisit of Schumann’s frenetically moving “Blindman’s Bluff,” (Schumann Kinderszen 3–“Hasche-Mann”) I find myself embracing an open field of learning–allowing the piece to be parceled, and studied inside out from many dimensions. Will I ever be able to heed the insanely tagged metronome marking: Quarter=138, I cannot not say, but if such a metrical indication is a measure of my worth in playing the tableau, it will be readily tossed asunder.

Naturally, for these blogs to impart more than a framing philosophy, I’ve chosen to share a “process” that I understand will be different for each student who works with his/her metaphorical clay and sculpts it in a personally creative way.

With this open and abiding spirit, I’ve posted my baby-step approach to practicing, “Hasche-Mann” that’s a joy for me every step of the way and will hopefully be the same for others who partner along a never-ending path of discovery.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)


Revisiting pieces we have studied in the past

The subject of reviewing pieces from a pianist’s repertoire with the intent of considering new interpretations, whether subtle, or with bold strokes of tempo revision, mood, dynamics, etc. is part of a dynamic creative process. And with this particular focus on musical development and changes in perception, I probed Seymour Bernstein about his side-by-side you tube postings of a Brahms Intermezzo that dated to 2011, and 2019, respectively.

SK: Can you briefly share how you approached the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117, No. 2 in your most recent performance—whether your decisions about tempo had significant variance from your prior reading; whether inner voices gained more importance by comparison, and if you always preferred to make your newest interpretation the one that best reflected your feelings about the work.

(Music as an art in time plays out in LIVE performance with a “here and now” framing, enjoying an interpretive freedom that the moment endows. To the contrary, a “compressed” upload to you tube, becomes fixed in space with a set memory of events in phrasing and tempo.)

In this regard, do you delete recordings that are not in harmony with your newest epiphanies?

Seymour Bernstein: “So, Shirley, from what you have expressed, you too have rethought older works. This is a sign of progress, I believe. Evidently Chopin never played his works the same way. Nor did Brahms. We assume that all the great ones were always in flux. So this is healthy.

“In my case, when my tuner did an extra superb job on my piano with action adjustments, hammer voicing, and tuning, everything sounded and felt different and therefore beckoned me to new comprehensions. At other times, I might be reexamining a piece for another pupil and surpass my former comprehension. I then feel compelled to re-record.

“In response to your query, I always delete my former recording on YouTube. But in the case of the Brahms Intermezzo in B-flat minor, Op. 117 No.2, I listened to my former recording and felt that it had merit. So I left it on YouTube.”

Here are Bernstein’s side-by-side recordings of the Brahms Intermezzo.

Published on Mar 8, 2011


Published on Mar 28, 2019


Like Seymour, I usually delete what does not seem to be my “voice” in the present, though I have sometimes been surprised by phrasing, nuance and tempo, that embodied a more reflective prior performance.

To this effect, Seymour’s first Brahms recording has its own fulfilling phrasing as does the second. Where the most recent recording has better audio fidelity, the treatment of inner voices in the 2011 version, by comparison, is more subdued, but with a blend of color that is very pleasing. In the 2019 reading, Bernstein seems intent on discovering and fleshing out voices that many pianists too often hide. To his credit, Seymour’s understanding of a structural and musical intertwining affords a deeply immersive musical experience.

Overall, I treasure both performances of the Intermezzo for their mood-sustaining, contemplative beauty and tasteful rubato. Nonetheless, there may be still another gratifying re-do on the horizon that offers new awakenings by the pianist.

Within the corridors of teaching, we should embrace a philosophy that encourages change and growth, drawing a parallel to life itself which is in eternal flux.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Voice parceling in Schumann’s Kinderszenen, “Of Foreign Lands and People”

On first glance, most students will read down the page of Kinderszenen 1, Op. 15, enjoying a melodic flow, with only a passing interest in two additional voices. With this singular focus on the soprano line, the middle voice of relentless triplets can still inadvertently intrude upon the uppermost voice, as thumbs cross over from the bass clef into the treble. With the left thumb redundantly transferring to the right thumb in triplet strands, these form a broken chord harmonic underpinning, but in a horizontal flow. (In this regard, a player should be aware of a three-voice texture from the start.)

To understand the role of the middling triplets, a student should separately practice them–realizing that the crossover of this alto line into the treble still preserves its harmonic role without intruding upon the melody. (It’s easy for the right thumb to become a melodic note if not carefully subdued) The task of following this separate line requires attentive listening which helps a student to focus on dividing or parceling out voices before balancing them against each other.

I always suggest “blocking” broken chord patterns to appreciate harmonic function and how it influences phrasing and contouring. In this context, the second broken chord in this first tableau, forms a diminished chord falling on the second beat which fleshes out the importance of the G above in the soprano line. And the first opening treble “B” in bar 1, is in fact a springboard to the minor sixth leap to G, that is enhanced by the unexpected diminished chord under it. (firmly rooted on bass note C#.) I consider such a harmonic surprise on the second beat as feeding how I will render the high G. (Because there are a few arrival G’s in a row by measure, I might use dynamic variation, or a slight delay here and there when playing them) On the repeat of the first section, more liberties might be taken.

Blocking out chords with the melody as a preliminary to unblocking them in duo with the soprano line is invaluable. Such voice parceling, and voice combining, give the student a clearer idea of how the work is put together as to structure, harmonic dimension, and melodic flow.

Finally, the bass notes should be separately played, and then combined with the soprano, before the bass and alto are played together. (I think we covered all permutations)

By this activation of various voice combinations before playing all lines together, a knowledge of the texture, woven voices, and how to balance them becomes a learning tool applicable to other works.


In the second section of Schumann’s Kinderszenen 1, a counter-melody in the bass presents an opportunity to flesh out this voice, perhaps more so in the turnaround repeat, though its first playing makes a significant audible impression. Where double-stemmed notes appear on the first 8th of particular triplets, a student can still track them through the middle voice, knowing that holding over the first note of a triplet brings prominence to itself. (in the bass) This voice, even with certain notes doubled or held down through a triplet, should be separately practiced.

Above and beyond all the voicing activity and awareness, a student will want to preserve a gorgeous cantabile, seamless, singing tone that is a hallmark of the Romantic genre. This embodies an internal “feel” for the line, best realized with relaxed arms, supple wrists, and varying weight transfer for dynamic variation.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Piano Lessons: Meeting a student’s individual needs

I’ve come to realize after decades of teaching, that one size does not fit all–meaning, there’s no full proof curriculum design that applies across the board to students who come to the studio with varying strengths and challenges. (I omit the characterization of “weak”–ness, even if it demands a time-honored pairing with its potent opposite)

With only a positive, forward-looking attitude, I try to examine what is working for the student in his practicing, and what seems to be creating roadblocks to fluent phrasing; or what impedes a singing tone with well-spaced and naturally breathed passagework.

If I start with a scale as a wealth transfer of so many ingredients that will pay dividends in applied repertoire, it’s a way to work through many problems to resolution. (I won’t let myself plunge into negativity regardless of our language’s pitfalls–like “problems” sounding like they might be irreversible)

Today I emailed a pupil who complained about things getting worse after many repetitions. And that was definitely an insight into what was the crux of the matter.

Here’s what I dashed off, which in so many, words has been thematic through lessons, with variation, depending on the pupil and his/her particular areas requiring improvement.

The reason, I reprint it, is to single out what many students might be working on, to “free” up passages and to feel a sense of control over them.

From Teacher to Student:

“I Just wanted to mention ways you can improve your practicing. I think too many hasty or quick, consecutive repetitions are not the way to smooth out scales or passages. (like in the Mozart K. 545) If you try to imagine what you want to hear BEFORE you place your hands/fingers over the keys, you will likely not experience what you describe as things getting worse.

“In your scales, a repeated issue is the crowding of the last octave on the ascent as well as the turnaround when the scale descends. You tend to rush this part of your scale. This means, as remedy, you should slow the beat, and play only the last octave, up and down, in a relaxed way (This is spot practicing).

“If you can space your repetitions without so quickly jumping into the next, you will likely find one or two repetitions that are SPACED and having a pleasurable breathing space between notes. Then with this emotional and physical imprint, you can restart the scale at a slower tempo for a while– gradually inching up your fundamental pulse. If you are still crowding the top octave, go back to the slower pulse at that very juncture, and “breathe” through the notes once again.

“In addition, use rotation at the top note, so you get a rounded turnaround. (My note: this rotational arrival for the destination or peak note avoids a piston poke, or sharp edge. The bundled energy of the top note generates a nice flow downward.)

“In the Mozart, K. 545, particularly in the Development section, using rotations with the broken chords, not rushing the beat at this point, will likely better shape your lines. In this regard, a singing pulse that’s framing the work is very important.

“I recommend SLOW, attentive practicing, and I would rather you play well behind tempo for a long time until you’re ready to control the piece at an increased tempo. So there’s no reason to rush progress. It comes with patience.

“Harmonic rhythm also plays a role in your phrasing. In the opening of K. 545 notice how you lean on the Dominant and resolve to the tonic, then lean on the sub-Dominant and resolve to the tonic.

“Keep the bass with its broken chords, lighter than the treble. Mozart is very melodic, like the opera, so the broken chord bass should never upstage the melody.

“I hope this helps.”

Would I send this post-lesson text to every student with a signature approach, copy/pasted far and wide? Only if it applied to what the individual pupil required to grow and develop, given his particular challenges–and these would have played out over time, in weekly to monthly increments, and through observation/interaction/modeling/given and take.

As conclusion, I forwarded my most recent video tutorial that explored another Mozart Sonata, K. 281, (Andante Amoroso) with integrated ideas about phrasing, voicing, and trills. (It had relevance in expanding upon the fundamental “singing tone” and operatic underpinnings of the composer’s works.)

Does this indicate a teaching “method” or blanket formula. Not at all–just an approach that serves what is organic to music by freeing tension barriers to expression, while filtering down to meet a student’s particular needs.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Piano Technique: Building scales to speed and fluency

I find myself reconnecting with my late teacher, Lillian Freundlich, when I borrow her approach to scale development. In this undertaking, she would always check my wrists and elbows through note groupings that were ignited by a basic roll-in energy. A scale could not start with a bang, but instead, it had a smooth, slope-like entry with a self-driven energy.

In increments, the notes would be grouped with sub-arrivals that had suspended arms and supple wrists backing up hanging hands. The finger that absorbed the spill into itself, would need to feel centered, and able to swing in any direction–side to side, forward and back, without a hint of squeezing or grabbing. The result was one of pleasing balance and bundled energy that would ignite the next roll-in to a larger grouping, until a rounded peak destination was reached with a side-wise rotation feeding the descent. The final note would taper with a gentle wrist roll forward.


We memorialize our most influential and patient teachers, enlarging on bestowed knowledge, and expanding beyond limits. In my own development, I added blocking and rhythms to scale practice in an effort to increase tempo, preserve contour and keep the breath flowing from octave to octave.

In the attached video, which is essentially a tribute to my teacher, I reconstruct a step-wise approach to a B Major scale. I picked this one because of its internal symmetry of double and triple black sequences played with mirror fingers. The thumb being feather light, factors into smooth and efficacious transit by its capacity to roll swiftly through tunnels of black notes. In fact, the thumb, deprived of its Napoleonic urges, enjoys a delivery of energy funneled through floating arms and supple wrists so it can maneuver forward and back like all the other fingers–never being locked or constricted.

The Video illustrates:

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Computer crashes and recovery!

There’s nothing like a Big Mac blitz of pulsating pixels in checkered, multi-colored patterns, building to an eye-catching display of blinking lights that forewarns of a computer shutdown.

A lyrical Schumann tableau, Face time streamed from Australia, becomes muted by a choir of cackling parakeets whose primal sense of impending doom is on full screen mode while a remote piano student is about to “freeze” in fossilized form!

This untimely event, if repeated, can mushroom into a crisis of seismic proportion instigating a rescue and recovery mission to the Genius Bar at Apple HQ in Berkeley. (A no-brainer in the world of Apple support!)


As I shuttled a mega bulky iMac 21 within a large, hard-shelled piece of luggage, I harbored a shred of hope that what appeared to be a dire situation could be salvaged, sparing me a 3K pricey replacement! (And given that rents were dramatically rising in the priciest part of the country, old Macs had to survive a planned obsolescence as did acoustic pianos upended by multi-option digital keyboards.) A “newer” model was always on the horizon as the next rung up in the ladder of technology.

Inevitably, and to my dismay, an Apple designated Genius 1 threw up her hands in pure frustration as error messages abounded amidst her keyboard travels and mouse maneuvers. She could only relay “bad news” before investing ample effort.

Genius 2, overhearing tense banter between us, that increased in decibels, descended like a super hero with cape-less confidence, in Wonder Woman form, prodding Mac to come to terms with its defects and viruses–to open its inner software sanctums to blue-print invasions of Quick time, Skype, and all video driven applications. It was becoming crystal clear with each mouse tap, that a raging covert civil war in progress, was being masked by a parade of pixels, resistant to intervention or regime change.

At just 30 minutes before closing time, internal computerized forces of evil were in their virus entrenched bunkers and the Genius bar would need more time to investigate and devise a battle plan. At the peak of a shattering standstill, Genius 2’s announcement that iMac must stay overnight for further testing was mandatory. But there went my next morning’s lesson to Portugal!!

Downtrodden, I dragged the empty red-shelled luggage back home, greeted by a gaping hole in the area beside the pianos that iMac filled. Thinking hard and fast on my feet, I plotted my next move. I could mount an iPhone by the Steinway grand and thereby keep the cell battery going with a nearby plug in to the energy source. The screen would be a bit small compared to my 21″ iMac, but the likelihood of a crash was remote.

It was a full 12 hours before I received an update from Genius 3. He was guardedly optimistic though his news bore the setback of a repair delay.
But at least there was certainty that the video card was the culprit, along with an encumbrance of aged parts needing replacement. It would be a week before iMac stood a chance of coming home!

Glancing at a dusty corner of my shrinking living room in the face of a disappointing delay, I observed my Dell PC wallowing in a vegetative state, unplugged, and without viral defenses. She’d been orphaned in a web of entangled wires while Mac had enjoyed center stage in a world-wide web of piano lessons. There was no greater power, or challenge to it!

Nonetheless, I hitched an old C615 Logitech cam to the Dell monitor, that had aged out with a Mac upgrade, and happily partnered it with a compatible Yeti mic.

Finally, a smooth Skype PC download eased a temporary transition during iMac’s absence. All that remained was a need for an external speaker that required an Amazon next day delivery! (Expedited)

When all was said and done, this misadventure, culminating in a rescue of lesson continuity, had upstaged my intended blog about taking liberties, but not exceeding certain boundaries. So without skipping a beat, I’m tacking on a tutorial about practicing and analyzing Tchaikovsky’s Waltz no. 8 from the composer’s Op. 39 Children’s Pieces. This particular collection is a wonderful bonding of the technical and musical aspects of progressive piano study. Above all, the compositions are gorgeously memorable, overshadowing setbacks associated with modern-day technology.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Scales and Arpeggios are front and center with their telltale history of avoidance

It’s inevitable that I’ll introduce a technique-heavy blog with a time worn story about an authoritarian piano teacher who fist-drummed beats to my very shaky C Major scale. (I was 7) The only perk paired with the metronome mandatory, 4-octave lesson opener, was my being able to pick the latest scale practiced. (Without a hint of Circle of Fifths framing)

Naturally, I took advantage of my aged teacher’s failing memory, and stayed squarely in the Key of C for months!


Anxiety-driven sharps and flats

In my formative years of study, black notes were my natural enemies because of notational complications that led to a slippery “playing” field. Without a finger-feeling sense of security on the raised black demons, I took great pains to avoid them.

Fear-driven antecedents were middle C fixated Primers like Diller-Quaille and John Thompson that reinforced a negative response to key signatures with sharp and flats. These ebony-raised critters would join forces in an “accidental” invasion of pieces too hard to tackle. And with sorely needed anxiety relief, I begged my teacher for an extension of the C Major scale into selected pieces.

A vicious cycle of personal intransigence wrapped in fear was broken when my God sent mentor, Lillian Freundlich desensitized me in baby steps, instilling a joy in the playground as music teacher with an integration of blacks and whites. A healthy romp through myriads of keys around the Circle of Fifths, became, in time, a signature focus of my learning/teaching and a wonderful landscape for transferring elements of singing tone production, supple wrist, arm weight leverage, voicing, dynamic contrast, etc. to the piano repertoire.


In this continuum from avoidance to celebration, a healthy technical exploration emerged.

In its honor, I’ve chosen romps through diminished 7th Arpeggios and Contrary motion Chromatic scales as featured extensions of enlightened student years. These provide kinesthetic and affective pleasure with an incremental, stepwise approach.

A feeling of being “centered” across a keyboard panorama of black and white notes includes “blocking” in the case of minor third stacked diminished roll-outs, and unblocking with a “wavy” contouring. These videos support an underlying “singing tone” as the core of musical expression, reinforced by a horizontal, non-robotic passage of note groupings. (whether in legato or staccato)





LINK: (A satirical journey through years of black note prejudice)


from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)