From the Start: Singing through Piano Lessons

On this Mother’s Day, I think of the many piano teachers who breathe life into fledgling musical journeys with a gentle prod of the hands and the warm embrace of the human voice. Phrase shaping and the singing tone, originate from the ebb and flow of the breath that fuels energy through relaxed arms and supple wrists. “Singing” with pupils through phrases as a partner to tactile sensitivity, gives birth to beautiful music-making. What better way to nourish a beginner, than to cradle him/her in song.

For piano learners at all stages of musical development, the vocal model is a central ingredient of expressive playing.

A snatch from Irina Gorin’s studio:

Irina Mints at work


My studio: This 10 year old, beginning student moved away, and left the piano for many months–recently returning. We are slowly reconnecting with the singing tone, and contoured phrasing.


A 15-year old pupil practices the Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous, at an early juncture of learning.


When I studied piano in New York City with Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich, she always sang over my playing as well as her own. Her habitual voice-overs that lingered for years and seeped into the depths of my musical consciousness, gave me a sense of phrase-loving that would spread far and wide in my own teaching. Yet I would endure criticism from a portion of my You Tube audience, who wanted my focus to be on the fingers and where they traveled over the keyboard. (NO distractions please)

If we eavesdrop on Master Classes of the greats: Boris Berman, Dimitri Bashkirov, Richard Goode, and Murray Perahia, as well as others, we observe their sometimes raspy and imperfect vocal expression that nonetheless communicates shape, nuance, dynamics where fingers alone can’t achieve the same.

Some of the most gratifying interactions I’ve had with students centered on a vocal exchange where lines and contours were discovered and simultaneously wedded to a physical understanding of musical expression. (Awareness of harmonic movement, modulations, resolutions, and the flow of breath were always part of the integrated whole)


from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)


Pedagogical Tools for Score Reading

One of the most useful reading skills for working pianists can also be the most terrifying. Billie Whittaker in Good Company talks about the basics of score-reading and some pedagogical concepts behind it. She also references Brenda Wristen’s Pedagogical tools for preparing and performing open scores and the large number of scores available on ChoralWiki. Billie’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective Score Preparers is very useful for those starting out with the skill. Here they are in a paraphrased form:

  • identify unisons
  • write in functional or root/quality chord symbols
  • use arrows
  • write numbers between staves
  • group pitches in one hand on the score
  • use brackets to indicate similar repeated intervals or chords
  • identify voice crossings

In particular, I’ve found that writing functional or root/quality chord symbols is a simple but useful way of keeping your harmonic grounding in a sea of clefs.

Tackling the legendary Advanced Keyboard Skills class at Eastman was my first foray into score reading. The book that we used to learn the basics of the skill was Morris and Ferguson’s Preparatory Exercises in Score Reading. The C clef exercises in particular were a game changer for us once we got the hang of the reading skills. For the course’s final exam, we had to play the Exposition of Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture from full score.

Little did I know just how useful the skill would be over the coming years, especially once I got into the new opera field. On many occasions during the workshop process, the only score available was the full one, which made score-reading skills absolutely essential.

How have you used score-reading superpowers in the profession? Leave a comment and tell us your stories!

from The Collaborative Piano Blog

Enhanced Repertoire Features are Coming to My Music Staff

Burlington, Ontario-based My Music Staff has been one of the primary tools in my teaching studio for several years. One of the features that I use the most is repertoire management, allowing you to select active repertoire for each student, which then shows up in both student and parent accounts, as well as in the lesson notes which get sent out at the conclusion of every lesson.

Yesterday MMS mentioned that major changes are in the works with the way repertoire is handled, including a dedicated repertoire menu, rich editing in repertoire notes, bulk assignment of repertoire (great for class situations), and auto-completion of multiple repertoire entries. Here’s the video of the new features to be rolled out over the coming days:

Writing in depth about how I use My Music Staff to rock my students’ studio experience (especially with lesson notes) is long overdue and something that I plan to do in the coming while.

from The Collaborative Piano Blog

Kevin Class on Musical Preparation for Pianists and Singers

When you’re first starting out with opera productions, it’s useful to have a template of what is expected, both regarding preparation before the production and how things operate during the rehearsal. Kevin Class’ Opera Guidelines – A few helpful tips for opera pianists and singers is one of the best and most succinct guides I’ve seen. On the pianist’s preparation before the first rehearsal:

With rehearsal time always at a minimum, the coaching or rehearsals are not the place for the pianist to be learning his/her score. When coaching singers individually, the pianist is solely responsible for progress in the rehearsal as there will usually be no conductor (or anyone else) present. The pianist’s job is correcting all pitches, rhythms, text and diction. Moreover, it is the pianist’s responsibility to make sure the singer has thoroughly studied the character and made strong musical decisions based on their decisions of character. Since the pianist will, in fact, lead the singer through all facets of preparation (technical, dramatic and musical), the pianist must have a complete knowledge of the score, the language, the libretto, the characters, the performance traditions AND be able to play the score and sing all parts with perfection BEFORE meeting for the very first rehearsal.

On the rehearsal process:

Since the pianist is expected to be able to follow a conductor, play the score with great security and virtuosity (sounding like the world’s greatest orchestra) and catch all mistakes the singers are making in pitch, rhythm, text and diction and be able to sing any missing vocal parts when necessary (while continuing to play), the pianist must then be the most prepared of anyone in the room.

Kevin’s rundown of the learning process for singers learning operatic roles is first-rate, and he emphasizes the responsibility of the pianist/coach to guide them through it.

Here’s some more information about Kevin Class and the Collaborative Piano program at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. I knew Kevin for a short time when we studied at the Holland Music Sessions in the Netherlands back in the 90’s. His performance of the Elliott Carter Piano Sonata that summer was highly memorable, and I still remember it after the passage of several decades.

from The Collaborative Piano Blog

Blogs I Follow in 2018 (And They’re Not All About Music)

The ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter have monopolized the attention of many of us, and that comes at a cost of discovery of the rich array of writing that can still be found on the internet. Many of the blogs on today’s list have been around for a long time, and what they all share is that these are the writers whose work inspired me to return to the world of blogging after a lengthy hiatus. 
You won’t find any clickbait titles on this list, nor will you find all that much in the way of Facebook-worthy material. What you will find is personal experience, honesty, and the pull of authentic writing that keeps you coming back for more, day after day. This is the really good stuff on the internet. Enjoy!
  1. CJ Chilvers – CJ is a writer and photographer from Chicago who writes useful, well-grounded articles on intelligent and sane ways to utilize technology. And he likes Van Halen.
  2. Cultural Offering – Kurt Harden’s whimsical look at life, humour, music, politics, and family. 
  3. Daring Fireball – Nerds among us will know John Gruber as the inventor of Markdown syntax. He also blogs elegantly about tech, culture, and politics. 
  4. Execupundit – Michael Wade’s wit and wisdom show that you don’t have to write long articles in order to become one of the top bloggers in the world. Great ideas for business and life can be found here. 
  5. Kottke – Jason Kottke has been blogging longer than almost anyone else, starting his site in 1998. The sheer variety of the stuff from around the internet is worth multiple visits. 
  6. Marginal Revolution – If you subscribe to only one blog from this list, it should be Marginal Revolution. The scope of Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen’s interest is immense, and MR is one of the few political blogs that is genuinely open-minded. 
  7. Melanie Spanswick – Melanie brings a deep musical understanding to all her work, with lots of really useful practice tips, book product profiles, and guest authors. 
  8. Nicholas Bate – Who ever said that great blogging needed to be verbose? Nicholas’s articles go straight to the point and offer some of the best advice on leadership and life that you can find. 
  9. Patrick Rhone – The latest incarnation of Patrick’s long blogging career is a short-form blog, but you have a difficult time finding a more honest and down-to-earth blogger. 
  10. Penelope Trunk Careers – Hilarious and often wildly inappropriate, Penelope shows that being professional and being authentic are often two different things. Whenever I talk to people about the tone they should adopt when writing for the web, I always point people towards Penelope’s blog. If readers see your true self with all its imperfections, they will love you, they will come back for more, and they will buy what you’re selling. 
  11. Pete Denison – Pete writes about fountain pens and coffee. How can you go wrong with that? His reviews are thorough, and many of the top pens in my collection are ones that Pete has reviewed favorably. 
  12. Sandow – Classical music is facing a future that is not at all certain. If it is to survive, we should all be following the ideas and direction put forward by Greg in this magnificent and long-running blog. 
  13. Schmopera – A few days ago I asked my class at The Glenn Gould School about their favourite classical music blogs. Every one of them mentioned Schmopera. Jenna Simeonov’s writing and interviewing skill comes from a place of immense experience and love of the lyric stage, and a deep dive into her archives is well worth your time.
  14. Study Hacks – We spend too much time on our electronic devices, and it comes at a cost to our  cognitive ability. Cal Newport’s ongoing project is a way for us to reclaim that innate focus so that we can have the time and focus to create awesome things. 
  15. Susan Eichhorn Young – Building a musician isn’t just about accomplishment and excellence, it’s about building the whole person. Susan’s philosophy emphasizes craft and authenticity, and is a welcome antidote for many of us facing overwhelm in the profession. 
  16. The Cramped – Patrick Rhone’s second offering on the list, and with good reason. A celebration of all things pens and stationery, and the hidden advantages of writing by hand. 
  17. The Pen Addict – Brad Dowdy’s blog is the reason that fountain pens have made such a major comeback in the last few years. Unlike our ubiquitous digital devices, pens are personal, have no expiry date, and help us to organize our complex lives in ways that are much more in tune with our brains. Definitely worth a jump down the rabbit hole, even if it blows your budget. 
  18. The Rest Is Noise – This list would not be complete without Alex Ross’ long-running blog. The Rest Is Noise and its enormous influence is one of the reasons that I got into blogging in the first place way back in 2005. 

That’s the list and this might become an annual event in the coming years. If you have any blogs you would like to share, leave them in the comments.

from The Collaborative Piano Blog

My duo piano partner sparks an Oberlin reunion with a long lost classmate!

Yesterday marked a special event in my life–a rekindled tie to an Oberlin Freshman dorm mate made possible by Anita, my 92-year old, 4-hand piano partner. A twenty-year donor/subscriber to Philharmonia Baroque (PBO) a celebrated Bay area-based orchestra, Anita had placed its glossy program brochure on the coffee tray right at our mid-point playing break.

Naturally, I scooped it up with alacrity, perusing the list of personnel for potentially familiar names dating back to my years at the NYC H.S. Performing Arts and the Oberlin Conservatory. Surely shrinking degrees of separation in the music cosmos could produce common life intersections.

An assortment of memories were swirling about: “Connies” (Obies enrolled in the Conservatory), whizzed through congested corridors of practice rooms, taking interspersed breaks in the office-like sprawl of the Oberlin “Con” Lounge: They sipped coffee, tea, or soft drinks before a second stint in an ID secured white cubicle. Respites from sanitized modules with flimsy sound barriers always attached feelings of trepidation.

Connies feared folksy employee, “Ida Mae” who combed unoccupied practice rooms, busting lounge potatoes for concocting devious tricks to “reserve” them. These maneuvers included creating blockades of heavy black music stands to obstruct views of empty rooms staged to be “taken.” The crowning detail of deception involved inserting plastic photo ID in an intentionally narrowed glass column: AKA “see” no evil.

Ida Mae, known far and wide to most Con loungers, interacted with many of these absentee squatter’s rights ILLUSIONISTS, some of whom eventually graduated from the Oberlin Orchestra and found their way to Philharmonia Baroque or other ensembles and music groups around the country and world. Who knows? By that time, they’d purged themselves of Con-era, adolescent driven monkey business forging straight and narrow paths to viable musical careers.


Amidst a blanket of these Oberlin memories, both good and bad, I pored over the PBO String Section listing, suddenly springing upon a familiar name: “Sandra Schwarz” violin.

Immediately, I retrieved an image of a youthful “Sandi” swishing down the second floor hallway of Oberlin’s May Cottage, (Freshman year) wearing her signature beret, playing snatches of gypsy violin music interspersed with time-honored Classics. With a sparkling personality infused by a mixture of Mexican and European roots, Sandi had made an impression that defied the passage of time. (A five decade interval, to be exact)

The only challenge that remained was certifying Sandra’s identity, and it proved to be within easy reach as the result musical connections I’d made since my 2012 Berkeley arrival.

David v.R. Bowles, a Grammy nominated recording engineer, whom I had interviewed for a blog in 2013, is the partner of PBO Conductor, Nick McGegan, and Lisa Grodin, a PBO violinist who graduated Oberlin in the 80’s, was among my contacts when I assisted a piano student in finding a reputable violin teacher. All these “leads” pointed me in the direction of Sandra Schwarz, Oberlin class of 1968 with a Thai brunch eventually followed. It would spill into a final PBO rehearsal and performance of the season at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church! (April 29, 2018)


A gush of memories poured out over Asian food— one of which had eluded me during delectable spoonfuls of shrimp, chicken, pineapple and brown rice. Would Sandi have remembered May Cottage’s pet squirrel monkey who bounded one from chair to chair one afternoon into the unwelcome lap of a plump and proper visiting Dean of Women? As it happened, the white-haired matron with a tight bun and stern look, instantly recited Oberlin’s Code of Conduct, fleshing out a particular paragraph that referred to “uncaged” animals. From that unplugged day onward, the adorable pet, who’d become May’s mascot in residence, no longer romped freely through the Cottage. (But what fun while it lasted!)

In the course of our reunion, Sandi and I shared reflections about some of our favorite Oberlin mentors, including Eurhythmics guru, Inda Howland and Music History professor Richard Murphy. I shined a light on Walter Aschaffenburg who was an amazing Theory teacher and prolific composer while we both traced our individual personal and professional paths since Oberlin graduation.

Sandi had been a member of the Dallas and Baltimore Symphonies, feathers in her cap, while she added a rich memoir of chamber music experiences. I traced my path to back to NYC after graduation, with a life transformed by emigration to the West Coast and Online lesson-giving.

To top off a wonderful afternoon that needed no further embellishment, I had been given a free ticket by Anita to PBO’s last subscription concert of the season.

So we sat together in a pair of perfectly located seats, savoring a menu of gorgeous works that included a choir, vocal soloists and an amazing Forte-pianist.


Ludwig Van Beethoven, Mass in C Major, Op. 86

Luigi Cherubini Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn

Beethoven Fantasia in C minor, Op. 80, “Choral Fantasy”

Sandi, embedded in the string section popped up at Intermission, welcoming an opportunity to meet Anita who ignited our reunion. At that instant, I snatched a photo, keeping an endearing memento of a joyful day!

LINK: Philharmonia Boroque Orchestra

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)