Piano Technique: Weight transfer into the keys and voicing

The application of weight that’s channeled into the keys through relaxed arms and supple wrists is an important ingredient of musical playing. It supports a variety of colors in “voicing” myriads of notes, while it increases attentive listening skills. Central to the “voicing” process are decisions made about what lines need drawing out, and how their definition amplifies structure and phrasing.

I always recommend using scales and arpeggios as a model landscape for experimentation with arm “weight” and its “color”-changing, expressive potential.

In my embedded video I use the E Major scale in parallel sixths as my springboard, fleshing out bass over treble; treble over bass in a stream of legato and staccato renderings. The sixths, in this instance, provide more clarity in the variance of “voicing” than unison playing with octave spacing. In a “harmonic” sixths framing, a student can better discern a contrast in “voices.” (Tenths would work just as well)

The alternation of Treble dominance over bass, followed by Bass dominance over treble, in consecutive, though partnered playings, allows for growth of “voicing” awareness and its transfer to repertoire. (Note that equalization of “voices” is an added avenue for this mode of practicing.)

I chose J.S. Bach’s Little Prelude in E Major, BWV 937 as my follow-through selection, putting experimentation to “work.”

Finally, the music, itself, directs the player to alter and refine the physical component of expressive playing. It encompasses a “singing” model universe with a reservoir of nuance, colors, and changing textures.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)


Thinking in One through a brisk 3/8 movement (Clementi)

My students continue to teach me as we move along at a pace that does justice to the unfolding of a work over time without a rush to destination. For each pupil the journey is different and varied, without definitive markers of absolute progress.

Having said that, a movement that is brisk (as metaphor to paragraph 1) and needing control at any practicing tempo, presents a challenge in how we think of meter, harmonic movement, era of composition, structure, etc.

What the composer indicates as a time demarcation such as 3/8 in Vivace, for example, becomes a point of departure in considering the meter’s influence upon phrasing. Most players will take the THREE beats per measure designation quite literally, counting in a pedantic, vertically-charged numeric procession. If left to embrace such a boxed-in framing, with accents on first beats, music will not flow with a shape and contour that “lifts” and “lilts” it from cadence to cadence. (It will lack aesthetic freedom that feeds expressive beauty.)

I chose the final movement of Clementi’s Sonatina in C, Op. 36, No. 1 as my model for a feeling of ONE from measure to measure. Yet, within the ebullient and circular moving ONENESS in 3/8, I found sub phrases that elongated the ONE beat by compositional slurs and sub-groupings. So flexibility of thought was needed in considering phrase to phrase contouring–meaning there were other influences beside Meter assignment that affected musical expression. These included Harmonic rhythm, dynamics, and phrase marks. Bundled with a sense of Hearing it before playing it, if not SINGING it, such introspection and evaluation fed early stage learning through incremental development.

In my tutorial, that was inspired by an eleven-year old student who is studying this very Vivace movement, I quickly observed how small revisions in metrical thinking could springboard into more convincing phrase contouring. (The pupil’s third beats had been ponderous and not light before mentored intervention) And the technical infusion, of HOW to physically PRODUCE what was imagined through a sense ONENESS contributed to a new consciousness about the piece. (Featherlight endings of staccato measures readily improved expression.)

And here’s where rotations, wrist rolled groups of notes, and lightening the very third beat of two-16th to eighth germ cells, created the illusion of ONENESS. (Not ever meaning to enforce or promote any continuous accent on first beats of each measure, as a rigid, short-sighted formula) My tutorial addressed these nuances of thought, while it aimed to explore a satisfying balance between bass and treble. (Not to overlook applied weight transfer into the keys–down the arms through supple wrists– to flesh out swells and relaxation of lines)

Finally, illusions are part of a pianist’s magic repository and these permeate our study and self-development. Taken together with a generous serving of imagination and analytical insight, we rise above the printed page, “reading between the lines,” growing our individual journeys of creativity.

The video below provides a more detailed exploration of the Vivace movement, including valuable intervals of experimentation.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Creative phrasing or reading between the lines

We are taught as piano students to have respect and reverence for what the composer notates in his score as pertains to tempo, dynamics and other embedded forms of expression. (i.e. directives such as poco rit., calando, note slurred legato and non-legato, etc.) Yet, these are only framings that give life to expression only when the imagination is enlisted, and the player delves into what is not spelled out on the printed page.

In Tchaikovsky’s “Old French Song” from the composer’s Op. 39 Children’s Pieces, the duality of p (soft) and MF (medium loud), if taken literally, will produce two flat sets of dynamics and not much more. Yet by having the benefit of Tchaikovsky’s denoted suggestion to play “with feeling,” the player can launch a learning journey that includes a “reading between the lines” examination.

The opening theme, in pervasive repetition through the A section, resuming again after a B section interlude, requires internal “color” changes even within its opening phrase. The recurrent five-note scale-wise ascent can use a swell to destination “D” (on the downbeat) but the note which follows, the same “D” should not sound the same. Tchaikovsky does not instruct us to vary side-by-side, same pitch notes, but the very “musical” nature of a variation in tone, can amplify the expressive dimension of the phrase. By using a vocal model, “singing” the opening two measures, the breath itself will dip after the long held dotted quarter D, (which needs a fully fueled production of air). Singing as a model feeds the very expressive nature of the tableau.

Paying attention to the breath as it bonds to well spun out lines, gives the player a deeper understanding of how to produce contoured phrases. But not to be overlooked, is the physical dimension of playing that intertwines with an internalized sense of what the pianist wants to hear.

On the repeated D’s in measure 2, I tend to use a supple wrist, using less arm weight transfer to beautify the second D. I also roll my wrist through C D E flat C that follows to produce a “wave-like” shape. And each time the theme returns, I alter my arm weight down through supple wrists into my fingers so dynamic sameness is not an option. (Basically, there’s no formula in the unfolding of a redundant theme, but eliminating the possibility of churning out life-less repetitions is a conscious decision.)

The middle B section starting at measure 18 has an alliance to strings plucking through the bass, or as I term it, “pizzicato.” The character of the piece therefore changes, and the player notices a shift in “orchestration.” (Pianists need to think beyond their own instrument in poring through what’s on the page giving an additional context to the work.)

Discovering how the staccato bass notes are moving through broken chords sub-dominant, tonic, sub-dominant, Dominant provides direction to where the peak of the piece resides. With certainty, the detached notes spill into the tonic in Measure 22, continuing with intensity through the first half (approx.) of measure 25 with its Dominant harmony before the tranquil return of the opening theme.

At the theme’s recapitulation, I use a veiled effect as I also draw on this particular nuance through parts of theme re-statements in the opening A section. (I accomplish this effect by floating lightweight arms in lateral movement.)

Here again, reading between the lines, being creative and physically attuned; having a “singing” model as an intrinsic ingredient of expressive music-making all add to the composer’s markings, and the historical period of composition.

P.S. I re-recorded my opening play-through of the Tchaikovsky “Old French Song” because of my changed perception of overall tempo. This rendition is followed by my tutorial.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Our self-made tutorials grow teaching skills

Ever since I embarked upon my very first lunge at globalizing my ideas over the Internet—devising a “chunking” strategy to play black key weighted scales B, F#, and C# Major, I realized that I was teaching myself while helping others. A “blocking” technique in its infancy, blossomed into more sophisticated analyses of how to approach a brand new piece from various angles. Naturally, scales in Major/minor keys studied through the Circle of Fifths wove in and out of practice routines, providing a sense of order and tonal orientation. Yet it was only fraction of what was needed to enlarge the perspective of a new learning experience.

As years passed, my Online “tutorials,” as I termed them, grew in awareness, allowing a transformation of ideas based on experimentation and reconsideration. In summary, further self-driven trials and analyses coupled with student interactions, grew new insights that ripened my playing and teaching.

Most recently, I uploaded two tutorials related to the Chopin Nocturne No. 1, Op. 72, in E minor that had gained an additional layer of understanding as compared to former examinations.

The latest illumination was tied to a metrical feel of TWO through relentless measures of bass line triplets. While I had instinctively sensed this flow over years, I had not consciously labeled it. (For mentors, musical intuition must meld into meaningful communication so students can “understand” the how, why and way to create beauty.)

Aside from a “seamless” triplet flow in two, I focused on “balance” between the hands–crystallized by observing an ONLINE student over-pumping the Left Hand so that it robbed attention from a molto cantabile (“singing”) treble line.

I asked myself, HOW can a pupil subdue strands of broken chordal harmony, while giving deference to a well-spun soprano line?

And how should the composition begin with its introductory measures set forth in the bass? I had discovered that the second half of the bar should be a tad lighter than the first. The insight derived from my conducting experience–I could tangibly demonstrate a “lift” of the second beat with my hand as if leading an ensemble.

“Conducting” gestures often invade my teaching, replacing long-winded sermons on why it “feels” right to lift the second beat. A physical demonstration in “space” is worth a thousand words.

Speaking of “space,” the word “spacing” (adding “-ing”) has become one of my favorite prompts to myself and to my students. If notes crowd in, and cannot “breathe,” then a “natural” outpouring of ideas or phrases are interrupted. I have only to reference Mildred Portney Chase’s diary, Just Being at the Piano, to validate what I “feel” as it translates into how I communicate emotions in the here and now of playing.

(In this vein, emotional expression is best bundled with strategies that wed technique to an internal image of what the player wants to hear.) Still, it’s only a partial ingredient of a big, enveloping, complex process of musical creation. “Singing” at lessons, in particular, cannot not be underestimated in crafting gorgeous phrases. (Chopin, without doubt, had emulated the opera in his works.)

In the e minor Nocturne, Op. 72, I query about “mood” changes, occasioned by key shifts, both temporary and of longer duration. What are the “unexpected” events in this piece–triggered by harmony for the most part? Where are they located, and how does one create a magical surprise that can be subtle and not overbearing? How are dynamic shifts enlisted at these unexpected moments? Will arms “float” with less weight–having a buoyancy governed by physical awareness, cognitive and affective “control” and attentive listening.

Finally, musical growth must be never-ending to have worth. It needs steady infusions of new ideas and replenishment shared by teachers and students.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

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)