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)


Phrase relationships: Questions and Answers

At my alma mater, Oberlin Conservatory, through a four year Theory course regimen, students were saturated with Antecedent and Consequent relationships. The pairing was readily explained as 4 measures of “Question” followed by 4 measures of “Answer.” And lending support to such indoctrinated phrase SYMMETRY were harmonic underpinnings that bundled in a Half cadence of an “unresolved” character, followed by a satisfying, home-centered FINAL cadence.

Naturally, a Theory program that braved a learning curve from Baroque through Contemporary eras, could not stay rigidly affixed to such an unshakable phrase bound paradigm. Yet for purposes of this discussion, I applied the very primitive relationships of “conversation” or question/answer dialog in my study of J.S. Bach’s Prelude in E minor, BWW 900.

Tossing asunder a 4 plus 4, forced symmetry, I observed half-measure relationships with strong harmonic support that created their own dialog. As the treble voice announced the basic Subject of broken chords and intervals, weaving a conspicuous harmonic rhythm, the bass line reinforced it through a two-measure advancement. Yet the subdivision of each measure created its own sub-dialog that begged for realization. Besides “feeling” and “knowing” (cognitively) what was on the page, there was a need to capture “waves” of broken chords and intervals in the opening that included an Imitative contrapuntal dimension between the hands.

How to create a seamless “weaving” interaction of voices invited hand “rotations” and “leanings” on certain notes to clarify contoured line choices. Of additional interest, was the direction of broken chords and intervals and how the composer shifted them in imitative sequences. (This could be easily overlooked) In the measure 2 Bass line, for example, Bach INVERTS the Subject–commencing with an ascending broken chord, E, G, C and continues with opposing movement to the broken intervals that were announced in the Treble, measure 1. These juxtaposed Inversions are intrinsic to measures that reconnect with Bach’s opening.

As the Prelude progresses, it is marked off in sections, often preserving the initial half-measure conversations. Longer threads of sixteenths are spun in measures 3-5, as Bach embraces intra-measure sequences that flow out of his well-stated introduction. The voicing, however, thins down to two, which evokes a Two-Part Invention setting, while a talking back and forth dynamic continues to permeate the music with some “unexpected” moments, and unfolding modulations. (Note the last F natural in measure 3, creates a surprise “tritone” instead of an expected perfect 4th that would land on F-sharp) My decision to render the surprising F Natural with a slight delay seemed to make musical sense.

Bach’s ingenious spin out of what feels like an improvised spree of scale-like 32nds in measure 6, provides a welcome offset to the more structured half-measure dialog he had previously imbued. In a liberating gesture, J.S. challenges the player to preserve a sense of abandon, while still adhering to a relentless Left Hand eighth-note, rhythmic underpinning. How to phrase this measure without sounding robotic is a significant challenge.

In my own decision-making, I chose to find sub-destinations in the 32nd note outflow that I could contour or “shape” based on what was intrinsic to the E minor Harmonic form scale thread, along with consideration of the harmonic underpinning of tonic/Dominant/tonic/Sub-Dominant spilling into measures 7 with a Dominant (under a passing Treble dissonance) then flowing back to the opening spin of broken intervals and chords. (The Half-measure Question and Answer returns)

The more freedom-bound 32nds are not limited to one measure. Bach recaps his scale-filled catharsis through measures 42, 43, 44, (sharing these rapid notes between hands) and ultimately he threads a stepwise sigh down in E minor to conclude the work.

In a Lesson-in-Progress conducted with a student in the early stages of learning (myself included), we touched on ways to render this Prelude with an ear toward the very Question/Answer relationships that crystallized and evolved over time in our individual and collective self-discoveries.

Inevitably, we realize that the creative process of growing and developing a work will be never-ending.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Weaving threads of melody through W.A. Mozart, K. 545-Allegro

I’ve come full circle back to a “signature” piece that has grown over decades as I’ve worked with students discovering its many challenges.

The so-called “facile” Sonata in C, K. 545, by W.A. Mozart that’s quickly retrievable from my memory-labeled archive, is not “easily” dismissed as a thinly composed romp through C Major.

With its up and down sprees through a sequence of scales early in the Exposition, the journey demands a thoughtful examination of phrase contouring and harmonic rhythm.

For many players, a cluster of scales, extracted from the opening Allegro movement can be mechanically rendered as a hasty clump of sixteenths that whiz by, without internal density, shape, or destination. Yet, given Mozart’s alliance to the opera, all these myriads of ascending and descending steps should be vocal-modeled. (Even trills and their resolutions deserve an internal swell and relaxation to cadence, in the “vocal” tradition.)

In this vein, I recall my beloved piano teacher, Lillian Freundlich, mentoring me as a 13 year old in New York City, discouraging my “top of keys” Mozartean passagework. She would draw me back to basics, imbuing her wisdom about “weight” transfer, delivered through relaxed arms and supple wrists, feeding bigger energy into groups of notes. Often she would work with rhythms, such as the dotted 8th/16th figure, to free up a forward arm roll attached to the longer eighth note value. And then she might reverse the rhythm, so the emphasis was on the sixteenth note. (We would then fill in the missing sixteenths with an embedded connection “into the keys.”)

But above and beyond such implied fragmentation, Mrs. Freundlich believed in building by groups of notes to a physical/musical feeling of LONGER breathed out phrases that emulated the human voice. (Note that Lillian constantly “sang” over my playing, a habit I quickly acquired and had to moderate at times.)

Naturally, her ideas, transmitted over time, became mine through osmosis, though there was always a margin of freedom to grow my individual creativity. (To this effect, I developed “blocking” techniques to flesh out harmonic movement, and to instill a broader perception of notes in transit.)

Lillian F. always told me from day one, that I will teach you how to become an independent learner– to acquire the necessary skills to “learn how to learn.” This was her greatest gift to me.

In the embedded tutorial, I integrate the vocal model (without a propensity to drown out my own playing with “singing”). In deference to a sequence of scales, (measures 5-10) I lay out a back tempo, and then an advanced tempo, keeping intact contouring decisions that are based on note direction, sequences, and harmonic leanings/ relaxations. Measure 11 is the spill-out destination with seamless broken chords in the bass, against dance-like pairs of treble eighths leading to a final cadence in measure 12.

The video below basically includes an examination of the whole Exposition, with an intrinsic singing model approach and harmonic exploration.

Naturally, ways to practice are underscored.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

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)