Piano Playing time zones: Past, Present, and Future

As teachers, and eternal students of the piano, we often have epiphanies that are worth jotting down at peak moments of enlightenment. Certain words, attached to insights that spring up in the course of lessons become thematic, resonating beyond a particular composition under study.

To this effect, over months and years, I’ve heard myself redundantly tell students, that in the act of “recreating” music (as Seymour Bernstein terms it), we are immersed in the past, present and future all at once.

Yet with so much focus on the “here and now” as the highest ideal of Eastern Culture wrapped musical ONENESS–i.e. unity of body, mind and heart, it’s easy to overlook a time dimension that’s imbued in a transit of silence to sound, going beyond PRESENT immersion.

ANALYSIS understandably deepens our understanding of a composition. By mapping out the basic germ cell or motivic idea of a piece, and examining how a composer “develops” it, we invite an awareness of what happened from silence to sound, in an unfolding of phrases that began with an initial musical imprint of flashback relevance. What transpired (PAST) in the opening measures is embedded in the PRESENT, giving it CONTEXT as we flow forward,(FUTURE) with a simultaneous three-dimensional perspective.

A fugue form concretely illustrates a tripartite time dimension: We identify the SUBJECT, COUNTERSUBJECT, and how various voices have a contrapuntal relationship, moving through episodes, where pieces of the Subject and Counter-subject are inverted, etc. By understanding the components of the basic SUBJECT, we cannot forget, (looking BACK), its intrinsic importance as it goes through a tunnel of relationships and attenuations– making its journey to final destination–the last measure.

Since many compositions are not in Fugue form, a sequence of events that spring out of silence to sound must be magnified by the teacher.

In the purely mechanical sense, a student learns that the arms, hands, fingers are in constant MOTION, a tad ahead of themselves, especially in rapid tempo movements.

EX. in this Scarlatti Sonata, K. 430, one must conscientiously practice the jumps in each hand with slow, graceful “transit.” Getting stuck in the PRESENT without a conscious anticipation of where the outflow of the hands leads to, is a glitch waiting to happen. But knowing what preceded the jump is as relevant to what follows. (In this regard, we often tell our pupils to lead into a measure that has a snag or problem.)


In my mentoring, I try to reinforce where one comes from and where one is going through keyboard travels.

One hand may advance and be “ready” while the other is sustaining a chord. Similarly, the way the rhythm of notes “play out” requires being FUTURISTIC, while still having a lingering fixation on a decaying note or sonority in the PRESENT that is disappearing as we PLAY. I often say “LISTEN” to the end of one note as a cue to how you will enter the next. (This directive suggests that the present is ephemeral but its seeds of decay are planted in what comes next.)

A beautiful performance for me is one where the player can reveal many dimensions of a composition in a holistic outpouring that has MEANING on cognitive and affective levels. I want to gain insight into “relationships” as they unfold, past, present and future, not stultified by a vertical perseveration of note to note transit. (And this is where “grouping” notes is another ingredient of time bundling.)

I ask myself and my students, what came before? What is different now as you play through many measures? Where are the phrases heading, and how can you make me understand the mosaic of this composition as a “whole.”

Some of the Russian teachers whom I’ve befriended often advise their students to “tell a story” as they play– the very story that has a beginning, middle, and end.

While all music is not programmatic, or Romantic era framed to embed a literal “story” line, the idea still suggests a time dimension ORDER, where a “Once upon a time” opening or a flashback sets in motion events that follow and come to resolution.

As teachers we are GUIDES during our students’ period of study. We “journey” with them through the great masterworks, often looking BACK to the very beginning steps our pupils took, seeing how far they have come and where they are going.

Music mirrors life in its form, development and growth, so we have to remind ourselves of its three-dimensional richness and beauty.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)


Akiko’s Piano

Today, I stumbled upon a You Tube video that intertwined the ravages of the A-bomb, with a remarkable visit to Japan made by Martha Argerich. (It’s titled The Piano That Loved Chopin: Akiko’s Piano)

The short but riveting film centers upon a vintage upright piano (made in the USA) that survived a fiery World War II scourge that annihilated its devoted young player, but carried her legacy forward into the Millennium. Argerich, who’d been scheduled to perform with the Hiroshima Symphony in March, 2015, was invited to sample the war torn piano that had been rebuilt to great lengths by a dedicated Japanese technician.

A stately Baldwin-made Ellington, embedded with scars of shrapnel and glass, it was resurrected in the hands of Argerich who plied the depths of its wide, resonating dynamic palette, skimming across the keys with seamless grace. After an inspection of its case, with a lid open view of the hammer assembly, she was wooed back, mesmerized by a reservoir of tonal beauty.

Attached are two videos that memorialize the piano and Akiko.

(Click “CC,” closed caption for an English translation)

One additional war-related story is welled from my Blog archive.

It’s about an Oklahoma Piano tuner (and WW II vet) whom I befriended in the Central Valley and ran with on various assignments.

His memoir about a Japanese song that I helped him identify many decades after his encounter with a choir of young children outside Tokyo, is a treasure. (Circa” The Day of Peace Treaty signing with Japan)


from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Evaluating an Acoustic piano before purchase

I’ve often been asked about the nuts and bolts of assessing a piano, even before a technician lays his hands on it. (A Registered pro will explore facets of internal assembly while my journey of discovery is intuitively tactile and tonal, forged on behalf of students searching for an alternative to the digital universe.)

The Back Story

Having once sampled a 1980’s era model P22 Yamaha, 45″ high vertical that made an indelibly good impression upon me, I was eager to try out a newer 2000 manufactured model that was advertised Online in the used market. (It would replace a Casio model electronic owned by a prospective student)


By reputation, P-22s have been known to be sturdy, workhorse pianos, often purchased by schools and universities (such as San Jose State). They last a long time, if properly maintained, serviced, and kept in a temperate climate.

With the mindset of a player, sensitive to touch and tone, I set out to candidly evaluate one of these pianos from my emblematic tonal and tactile perspective, detailing the whole keyboard with a methodical approach. (A video is embedded)

First I play chromatics at a very soft dynamic, pp (pianissimo-very soft) to p (piano-soft), working my way toward deeper key levels of loudness. In this endeavor, I learn about any irregularities in note to note progression–discovering neighbor keys that may be out of tonal/touch-wise synch–some “feeling” heavier than others, or having a tinny or metallic voice beside an adjacent note that’s resonant and round.

My inquiries abound: Will some notes jump out where others beside them, fizzle out? Must I over project a weak note to get it to sound like it’s in balance with a neighbor? Or will a few or many, sound tinny or metallic, interspersed at various intervals over the keyboard? Will I find sticking notes, or notes that go blank in a soft entry, but re-ignite with a punch?

What about the tuning? Are the notes in blissful harmony–Not too sharp or flat? Are some warbling? Over-sustaining (without a pedal depression)? Can I play a seamless legato in all ranges? Or does the piano reap a pebble-like set of sounds in one or more ranges?

Decay anyone? Will a chord have a lasting resonance without wavering. (Tested in all registers) How clear is the bass? Is it muddled or sounding tubby? Will the highest octaves shimmer with brightness and resonance? (Are the pedals working as they should?)

Why not test repetitions by rapidly playing the same note with three different fingers at brisk, articulated speed. (Unfortunately, this repetition maneuver and the chord decay test were performed today in my assessment, but not captured on my Cell phone video, though most of my enumerated tasks were.)

In my review, I also made sure to assess the piano with the lid down and separately, with the lid up.

To cap my P22 eval, I played segments of a few pieces of Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven, with a broad if not, exaggerated dynamic palette to test responsiveness.

Not to forget taking a history of the piano. What I gleaned was that the piano had not been played for years, but had been once tuned conscientiously on a yearly basis. The daughter, principle player, participated in the Certificate of Merit program and practiced diligently giving the mid-range the most usage before departing for college. (I conjectured) This might have explained the freshness of the lower bass notes, and the highest octave. (Those hammers were less grooved at the extreme registers) They had the least irregularities.

In the last analysis, it’s in the playing, with each piano treated as an individual, that we come to a decision about its fitness for a student. And whether a pupil is a beginner or at a more advanced level, he/she deserves a well-functioning piano without land mines of imperfection.

Finally, a solid working partnership forged by a teacher, student, and technician is the best way to advance a positive purchase and a promising musical journey forward. A collaborative effort is always necessary and valuable.



A few additional observations

If a piano buyer sends out a tech to check a piano before selecting one that he’s tried himself and dotes upon, it can result in a misleading appraisal.

Technicians may not detail a piano in the way a performing level pianist or teacher will. And conversely a teacher only review, can omit the more mechanical or structural dimension of an instrument.

Many techs play very loudly when tuning, which is part of the process, but they might not study the piano to the level of action regulation detail that a well-developed pianist will.

All in all, it’s a tricky and challenging endeavor that definitely invites a team approach to reap a satisfying outcome.


Here are two of my older, still pertinent blogs on the subject of selecting a piano.



from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

A week of digital and acoustic pianos!

Every so often, I find myself at the local piano outlet, tinkering with the latest digitals on and off the shelf. (portables and consoles) And as the weekend rolled in, I was invited to DC Piano by a new student who’d purchased a Kawai CA 58 console electronic without my input.

No doubt, my prodding preference would have been to go Acoustic, but given slim options and disappearing living space in Berkeley, I was resigned, in the short term to deal OFF LINE with slippery slopes, tinny sounds, and false hammer-weighted claims.

In just a few lessons, the chasm of tone and touch via the Kawai digital as compared to my Baldwin acoustic grew wider.

During lessons in my heavily weighted acoustical environment, phrase-shaping that included contouring and dynamic variation could not be adequately transferred to the electronic following our LIVE in-person meeting. A sense of grouping notes in a crescendo to a peak, rounded destination, was deterred by land mines interspersing plugged-in octaves. (Unsettling physical detachment, lack of control, and inconsistency of touch and tone were at the core of the electrically-charged playing experience.) Essentially, my pupil felt off balance playing the Kawai during home-based practicing intervals.


At Berkeley’s warehouse-charged Piano hub, the reigning ruler of the acoustics and electronics is Kawai. And to be seated at a CA58 Kawai, $2995 model (minus tax) with Wooden keys promises everlasting bliss through a recreational –pop to serious Classical journey.

My eval, in the aftermath of a deluge of pupil-driven complaints, had the central intent of being objective and open to experimentation. Still, a dizzying set of settings loaded into the electronic tank was overwhelming, tempered only by a student who was holding the manual, reminding me of what I tapped and what it produced. Improvements or deficits became the theme of our mutual self-discovery as we plodded through permutations and combinations of options.

Among the three settings I’d sampled in various combinations were: the instrument sound (SK ConcertGrand vs Upright), the Touch setting (from Heavy+ down to Light+) and the Half-Pedal Adjust (1-10). NOTE: The manual indicates that the Half-Pedal adjustment affects the sensitivity of the pedals, with 1 being the most sensitive and 10 being the least. I tried the 5 pedal settings with Upright and Heavy+ touch.

In summary, the positive adjustments made on the CA 58 were the result of a shift from the concert grand piano setting to Upright, adding Heavy+ for touch, and “5” for pedal sensitivity.

One area of assessment I did not include, was related to the “feel” of “wooden” keys. Based on a comparison with garden variety plastics used in many digitals, or in the case of some upper echelon keyboards, an ivory-based synthetic, I’d say that click snap releases were minimal with wood, but I wasn’t necessarily more grooved into the Kawai console’s keys as compared to my Yamaha P-255 digital.

Here’s a snatch of the Yamaha P-255 that affords a nice panoply of dynamics, though it has tonal areas that display the tell-tale thin, tinny signature of an electronic. One can compare its performance to the CA58.

Finally, to draw acoustic pianos into the mix, I uploaded side-by-side playings on my Baldwin and Steinway grands, offering Bach’s Little Prelude in D minor, BWV 935 on each. (Further insight can be gained by revisiting the same selection rendered on the Yamaha P-255.)

In a word, take your pick, but do it thoughtfully!

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Piano Practicing: Phrasing in Groups of notes

Many students complain about getting stuck at junctures of scales, or in the midst of passagework in a variety of pieces. As mentor, having observed these glitches from an objective distance over cyber or through person-to-person contact at my studio, I’ve concluded that note-to-note “vertical” playing can snatch continuity from the mind down to the fingers. My premise, as antidote, includes the necessity of having “context” when first learning a piece of music, or being receptive to discovering many contexts or “framings” during practicing. These will solidify learning and ensure progressive musical development.

More simply, playing a scale in moderate to fast tempo requires phrasing by groups of notes–like an opening “roll-in” that leads to the body of the scale, with a destination at the top, deftly played with a turnaround, not an angular punch, as the notes “sigh down” ultimately to the tonic. Needless to say, a pupil must know the content of the scale, its key signature and topography. He must physically experience the terrain of each one as part of the contextual experience.

For example, the raised double black sharps in B Major that journey to the triple blacks in patterns, suggest ROLLING through them with a bigger perception of their GROUPINGS. Naturally, an awareness of the thumb as a guide before and after these patterned black notes, contributes to a sense of continuity and fluidity. In my personal playing experience, I think of a “feather” light thumb sweeping under double black and triple black raised notes that guides me toward the next group/”wave” of these ebonies. (Imaginative “prompts” like “waves” are valuable assists in creating long range phrasing.)

In the repertoire realm, I posted a video that largely examined note “groupings” in practicing J.S. Bach’s Little Prelude in D minor, BWV 935. In this short work, a relentless broken chord subject in sixteenths permeates, implying not only a circular or “revolving” feel, but requiring a “rotation” that avoids up and down, typed out notes. Thinking of these motivic broken chords in GROUPS becomes a first step in realizing them artistically.

Whether a player chooses a strict legato of the Subject, or perhaps divides these notes into half connected, and half detached, or any reasonable combination of slurred and detached, the over-arching GROUP feeling should prevail. Even detached notes, (eighths in this case) that counter the sixteenths in BWV 935, should welcome a “group” consciousness albeit organized as slur two, detached one or all detached. My tutorial expands upon this arena of groupings, also noting the Subject’s INVERSION at the B section, and what KEYS ensue. Both structure and key transit/modulation, as well as matters of counterpoint, etc. afford multiple CONTEXTS in a productive learning process. (Add in the influence of 3/8 meter in BWV 935–where a sense of ONE frames each measure, especially in brisk tempo.) Thinking in one, further enhances a “group”-note consciousness.


A second Little Prelude in F, BWV 928, displays my “group” think from the start as it opens with a broken chord sequence.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

A memorable Evgeny Kissin Piano Recital!

With our ultra exposure to You Tube, MP4s, CDs, etc. we often forget what it’s like to experience a LIVE performer inhabiting an acoustical paradise such as Davies Hall, San Francisco.

In a give and take between pianist and audience, a swell of dynamics and limpidly melting cadences elicit an intimate exchange of emotions that’s permanently embedded, and thankfully OFF line. (Though ring tone reminders of cell phones will inevitably invade sanctified spaces).

Last night, in a rush of fervent, passionate appreciation, a throng of spellbound listeners shouted from the rafters, wanting more, even after Evgeny Kissin had nearly drained his energies in a challenging display of raw, physical virtuosity. They would not accept a draw down from frenzy to contemplation in what appeared to be the only encore: Schumann’s “Traumerei.” Without doubt, Kissin had resurrected the spirit of Vladimir Horowitz in this choice, by its blanketed, dream-like tranquillity that followed a gush of impassioned pyrotechnics.

For many, the meditative Romantic tableau from Kinderszenen would have been the perfect play-out absent a stream of rolling credits, but the roaring crowd, drugged with adrenaline, refused to go gently into the night.

In the glare of thunderous applause, the pianist capitulated to audience demand, pumping out the Chopin Polonaise, Op. 53 with noble abandon.

Naturally, LIVE playing draws no comparison by its immediate and dramatic effect, though more than a sprinkling of iPhones had blinking red lights in RECORD mode, creating a side show of its own.

I joined the fevered rush, as I edged toward the stage, snapping photos of the performer bowing between encores. My tenacious efforts were compromised by an ancient model cell phone, and a crowd crushing in.

As the callbacks continued, Kissin offered up one of his own compositions in contemporary jazz framing, before he capped the evening with the Scriabin Etude, Op. 2, No. 1 that rekindled an impassioned, though tempered calmness. (Was Evgeny making a statement through “the composer’s very personal and abstract mysticism based on the role of the artist in relation to perception and life affirmation?”)

In a hypnotic trance, I dared to snatch this tender morsel for download. (So much for preserving the “memory” of a LIVE performance in the depths of my imagination as I had done decades before at Horowitz, Richter, and Gilels Carnegie Hall recitals.) Impulsively, I joined a cadre of rogue recordists.


In summary, it would be unfair to characterize Evgeny Kissin as just a towering powerhouse of virtuosity. He is a poet of the piano, with more than a reserve of technical prowess. His playing is multi-tiered, encompassing many levels of musical understanding. In the Schumann F minor sonata he produced waves of phrases, never flat-lined, drawing out inner voices and threading them with thematic unity.

The opening Chopin Nocturnes were permeated by his signature “singing tone” that never produced punchy, offensively loud sonorities through middle section outbursts of emotion. He used the full weight of his arms channeled from his upper body, down through supple wrists to create an array of colors and nuances.

The Rachmaninoff Preludes were exquisitely rendered showcasing the totality of the pianist’s artistry though reams of mood shifts and shaded filigrees. Dynamics were versatile and innately musical, with rippling give-and-take phrases imbued with pleasure-inducing moments of the unexpected.

Above all, the pianist’s amazing control, so centered and riveted, was the sterling hallmark of his “memorable” performance.


from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Trills, Trills, Trills and how to practice them!

This week’s post is, in part, a response to a Word Press inquiry about how to approach trills in Mozart’s Sonata in F, K. 332. (Allegro) The measures under examination are those that lead toward the Development section with a modulation to the Dominant key of C Major. These same configured trills return at the end of the movement, but in the home key. For time economy, I uploaded a video that addresses only the initial appearance of the trills. (measures 86-92) Note as well, the appearance of a tricky double trill that ends the sequence.

In short, I recommend first playing a series of measures without the Right Hand trills in order to internalize the melodic contour of the line. (Always practiced behind tempo) As a second step, I support separate study of the left hand, which happens to be a set of 4-note, double root broken chords. These can first be “blocked” for geography and spacing, but more importantly, their carrying a steady pulse is paramount to the “leadership” role of the relentless, broken chord bass. Rotations through broken chords are also needed to prevent stilted, vertical, angular playing. To the contrary, floating, horizontal movement is preferred.

In this vein, the bass must not overshadow the trill in balance, but must provide a well-spaced underpinning. (Without a rhythmically intact bass framing, trills can easily go awry.)

As the third step in trill practice, it’s a good idea to play the steady broken chord bass with the undecorated treble line with musical shape and sensitive phrasing.

Fourth step:

In the melodic realm (treble), I endorse measured trill practice in back tempo, embedded with the bass, but including a decision about fingering and the number of repercussions that will fill the space. Starting on the upper neighbor to the principle note, the trill should not sound compressed and mechanical. In its Mozart era framing, it must be “wavy” sounding and leaning on the upper neighbor as it emulates a “singer” rendering it. (I have chosen a R.H. 3, 2, 3, 2, 3, 2 sequence for the trills with resolution using fingers 1, 2, 5.)

To loosen up the trill as it progresses in increments to an advanced tempo, I urge students to try side to side rotation before rolling out the trill with a supple wrist through the fingers. The arm behind the wrist is always relaxed, and freedom of the breath aids a natural trill outflow. Resolution of the trill is a continuum of the MELODIC thread and should not be squeezed into a tight space. Keeping the thumb very relaxed through the trill, and thinking in groups of wavy notes are also helpful prompts that enhance the shape and contour of beautifully executed trills.

The video below expands upon the aforementioned steps in Mozart, K. 332:


Supplemental Trill Videos

This one circumscribes trills and fingering options in Mozart Sonata in C, K. 545, first movement. (measure 25 into resolution in measure 26)


Trills in Granados Oriental, Op. 5, No. 2

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)