Attitude and Adult Piano Study

What is under-emphasized in discussions about satisfying piano study, is the role of a student’s attitude toward lessons, practicing, and progress.

Particularly within the realm of adult music learning, an individual’s decision to return to a structured instructional environment after a weighty absence from childhood lessons will often attach a set of negative associations:

1) Previous piano-learning experiences were colored by authoritarian parents who enforced excessively strict practicing routines while they embraced unattainable standards of “perfection.”

2) A former teacher might have been emotionally abusive leaving a student with feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. (“Mistakes” were fleshed out as “failures.” Creative interpretations, improvising, and any inclination to express opinions about playing a piece were received with a crushing blow of harsh criticism.)

For retired adult pupils who had inhabited a tense work environment, an unconscious “competitive” carry-over into lessons can adversely affect preparation and performance. (The corporate world, in particular, is known for its focus on SUCCESS measured by PROFIT and promotional advancement. Its built-in deadlines, time capsules, and dollar-driven goals are in glaring opposition to a creative, non-judgmental music-learning process)

Among employed adult piano students, some will face pressures managing work and family obligations that limit their practice time and intrude upon lesson scheduling. These impediments increase frustration and self-reproach to the point that some piano learners quit before they’ve become fully immersed in their studies.

Above and beyond issues enumerated that interfere with a fulfilling course of study, the most formidable barrier to a gratifying musical experience relates to ATTITUDE.

In my view, a crushing wall of SELF-JUDGMENT and PROJECTION are the biggest inhibitors of progress and attendant satisfaction in the piano-learning environment.


Pupil to Teacher:

“I don’t know how many times you’ve told me about voice parceling in the J.S. Bach Allemande, and I still can’t seem to get it right.”

The student is COUNTING how many times the mentor has suggested changes that will flesh out the beauty of the work. The TEACHER is NOT counting reminders and is not grading the student who is governed by absolutes of RIGHT AND WRONG. (It’s a case of distortion with embedded projection of what the student believes is going on in the teacher’s head.)

In fact, the mentor is determined to work with the score, the composer’s intention, and what can improve musical expression given the period of composition. She emphasizes this approach, assuring her pupil that repeated reminders are not tallied on a scorecard. (In truth, the student, alone, is acting as a self-appointed scorekeeper and referee, issuing self-imposed penalties that create a cyclical set of last ditch efforts.)

A resonating chant:

“I keep hitting the wrong keys so let me try again.”

The student resists relaxing as the teacher suggests numerous strategies that encompass breathing techniques, mental images and cues, with demonstrations of supple wrist, weight transfer, and unimpeded flow of energy down the arms. (“Hitting” notes, even if not to be taken literally, is discouraged.)

The pupil tries again, makes another mistake, tenses up in response, lunges repetitively at the keys and finally gives up.

The teacher assesses the situation, framing her suggestions in an objective way. These are dispensed without a hint of invective or biting criticism. Nevertheless, the pupil has decided she just can’t seem to “get it RIGHT,” and ends the lesson on a note of pessimism.

Students who have self-defeating attitudes for whatever reason, are difficult to work with because they lack trust in themselves and the teacher.

Finally, for a musical journey to be satisfying for the adult pupil and mentor, both must embrace an attitude of love for the learning PROCESS without the attachment of deadlines or tallied measurements of success. Each partner must individually work on advancing a relationship to the piano that integrates patience, self-nurturance and acceptance on behalf of musical growth and development.


from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)


Practicing Challenging Pieces: If we’re over a barrel, we can still learn something valuable

I’m the first to admit that not every learning journey through a particular composition will produce results we might have hoped for. After weeks or even months of methodical practicing in baby steps, we can find ourselves literally over a barrel, wading through ornaments, for example, that are crystal clear in slow tempo, but suffer paralysis otherwise.

I came up against this very wall of resistance when I dared to take on J.S. Bach’s Gigue from the composer’s C minor French Suite No.2, BWV 813. Mordants and trills permeate treble and bass, and these dare-devilish ornaments must often be executed simultaneously without taking an easy way out. In my case, after weeks of hand parceling, enlisting various articulations and rhythms in back tempo, I couldn’t clearly realize all the indicated ornaments within the ideal brisk, animated pace I’d internalized.

Immersed in a frustrating journey through a difficult dance movement, perhaps a maiden voyage at best, I refused to give up hope that in time I would integrate a plethora of ornaments into a resilient, energy-driven Gigue. Most importantly, it was during my period of introspective practicing, that I gained valuable insights about wrist spring forward motions that permitted trills and mordants to roll out without keyboard impact. Such suppleness of movement freed up energy in an uninterrupted flow down my arms. This particular insight, alone, could fuel further advances through this piece without a time deadline attached.

Because all piano study has a positive dimension regardless of short-term outcome, it’s valuable to record epiphanies as they unfold. These feed our future learning challenges and they trickle down to our students who share their individual awakenings with us.


Practicing the Gigue movement from J.S. Bach French Suite No. 2 in C minor, with a focus on wrist spring forward motions:

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Sound imagination and tactile, tonal expression at the piano for diverse compositional eras

Often a posted comment about a You Tube video inspires a blog topic that is of interest to pianists and teachers. One such public addition to my Channel quickly streamed into a comparison between two well-known compositions in the piano repertoire.

The commenter was asking about the grade “level” of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair as compared to Schumann’s Traumerei from Kinderszenen. She asserted that it was “easier” to read through the Romantic era character piece based on her supportive reasons.

“Would you recommend this piece for an Intermediate student (grade 4-5)? I had a very hard time even reading through it! (The Debussy) I learned Schumann’s Traumerei pretty quickly to a decent level, so I thought La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin was going to be feasible too, since the difficulties are more musical than technical. But just figuring out the fingering is proving more challenging than I thought.”

Initially, I’d planned to underscore my reluctance to comparatively “level” the pieces, having to spell out too many variables bundled into an assessment of each composition from distinctly different eras. (Romantic and Impressionist) In addition, by enlisting a narrow focus, I would pin myself into a rigid pedagogical corner.

Instead, I set out to explore the separate challenges of each work, fleshing out the expressive vocabulary that best realized each individual period of composition in partnership with its composer. My demonstration would incorporate a desired tonal palette that called for an imbued physical approach at the inception of study. It would encompass sound imaging springing from the imagination, reinforced by physical suppleness and weight transfer. Qualitative differences unique to the cosmos of each piece would be a pivotal dimension of my recorded reply.

While teachers can take a circuitous route in their mentoring, drawing on mental prompts to engage an internal representation of sound or tone, they must naturally be equipped to demonstrate what works choreographically, if you will– not proposing fixed motions in musical space, but engaging the student in what physically advances various forms of musical expression. (Naturally, fingering decisions are part and parcel of the journey.)

Mood sets, internal harmonic shifts, and structural considerations unique to each composition, must be at the fore in the developmental learning process regardless of suggested leveling. (And it’s a given that a mentor should not recommend pieces that he/she deems significantly out of reach for a particular pupil.)

Finally, in the attached video below, I synthesized in physical and musical terms, what words alone could not amply express.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Seek and Ye shall find the right FREE piano!

Once I sold my beloved Steinway ‘A’ grand that had eaten into the space of my neighbor’s apartment where it had been well cared for over a year’s time, I felt obliged to replace it. The ‘A’ had been the first piano for a beginning student who lived at the end of our walkway. For me, it was a spillover piano that I’d purchased in the heat of passion at a nearby estate sale. Located about block away, it so grabbed my attention that I sped off, played it, and snagged the beauty for a bargain price. But I knew a 6’2″ size instrument could not realistically fit into my shrinking apartment–a clutter-box of two side-by-side grands, a P-115 Yamaha portable, and a Yamaha Arius console digital. The only way I could keep it, short of considering expensive storage, was to convince a neighbor to take it bundled in with FREE piano lessons. (Pure baby-sitting barter)

As fate would have it, the family appreciated the “loan” but was heading to a smaller space that could not accommodate the piano. And my not wanting to sell my family heirloom Steinway ‘M’ to make room for the ‘A,’ was my signal to sell off the large grand along with the excess of electronics tightly squeezed into my pod.

But I could not forget the student who needed a piano to fill in the gap Steinway ‘A’ would leave by its departure (set for Sept. 9)


It all played out with a story-book ending. I sold my Steinway ‘A’ within a week; posted the P-115 and Arius digitals on local Classifieds, (moved them out in quick sales) while making frequent visits to Craigslist in search of a decent, small-size instrument for the neighbor.

After a short piano-searching spree, a tantalizing used Baldwin 44″ upright turned up in San Leandro, (some would call it a “console”) and it played like an angel had blessedly delivered it! So as the Steinway ‘A’ heads to a small church in Morgan Hill, the little Baldwin will look forward to a happy life in El Cerrito!

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Pianist, Seymour Bernstein revisits the Schumann Arabesque at the age of 90

As I grappled with matters of tempo, mood, and interpretation in learning a Baroque era work, I found a kindred spirit in Seymour Bernstein who openly shared his introspective thoughts about re-thinking a well-known composition in the piano literature.

Encapsulated in an e-mailed communication to his league of followers, Bernstein addresses the common temptation among musicians to check recordings of other pianists to validate personal and individualized interpretative choices. His words are sobering and candid as he explains how he has come to choose a “new” pace and affective interweaving of emotions through various sections of the Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18. His enlightening revisit is a tribute to his evolving understanding of music that has grown by steady increments over decades. It suggests a creative point of departure from which we can derive great benefit.


Dear friends,

“Schumann’s Arabesque is among the romantic works that elicit a wide variation of interpretations. I, personally, don’t like to listen to performances of the pieces I study. I prefer to come to my own conclusions, and then listen out of curiosity to see how other pianists interpret the compositions I am working on. In terms of tempo, Arthur Rubinstein and I are the only pianists I have heard who take the opening theme of Arabesque leisurely. Everyone else races through it with breathless intensity, even though the English translation of Schumann’s indication is “light and tender.” More curious is that most pianists play sections B and C faster in contradiction to Schumann’s “etwas langsameer” (“somewhat slower”). I’m no exception. I confess that I did the same in my first performance of this work on You Tube, which I now will remove.

“Perhaps it’s the age of 90 that has inspired me to probe this work with far greater introspection than I have in the past. Now that I know that most “hairpins” in romantic music mean rubato, and not cresc. and dim. I take more time whenever they appear. Moreover, I like to play the coda, Zum Shloss, Langsamer (“slowly”) as Schumann indicated.

“Finally, the question is “How fast is fast, and how slow is slow?” It is the human condition to respond as we see fit. There are no rules concerning tempo, even though composers often leave Metronome markings. But through the years, composers have come to place the word circa, meaning around, or approximately, before the Metronome number. Beethoven said it all when Schindler asked him “Master, how fast is this Allegro?” Beethoven’s response must have amazed Schindler: “Allegro doesn’t mean fast,” Beethoven replied; “It means “merry.” The lesson we learn from this is that tempo indications are feelings, and not simply mathematical equations. Because we all think that the composers whisper their secrets in our ear, it is small wonder that there is an interpretation for all seasons.”


from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

My early learning efforts (J.S. Bach) under the influence of Peter Feuchtwanger

My students know that I say what I do, while they do as I say, with the understanding that we are perhaps interchanging the whole music learning process on an egalitarian basis. Therefore, it’s no surprise that I regularly thank them for “teaching” me what I might otherwise have overlooked in my daily practicing.

For example, as I journey through all six French Suites of J.S. Bach, often in the company of pupils who’ve joined me at various common junctures of study, I can share my baby step approach to a “new” dance movement with a candid admission that my first shaky steps taken through virgin terrain can be as tentative and experimental as theirs. And to the extent that my students see me, their teacher, as the model of a work in progress, they might allow themselves the same space to grow a piece in stages without harsh self-judgment and self-imposed learning deadlines.

That’s why, periodically, I impart my very earliest, slow tempo, learning efforts embodied in various video samplings. (Sarabande, French Suite no. 3 in B minor, BWV 814)

I must admit that bundled into my first stage (second day) Sarabande immersion were epiphanies about phrasing, vocal modeling, fingering choices/rotations, etc. that were allied to Peter Feuchtwanger’s mentoring (via you tube)–my having been under the influence (his) in the proverbial sense.

The late pianist/teacher/and composer, who was based in London, formidably championed fluidity in the context of a vocalized musical line, with a technical universe that was inseparable from what he believed to be a particular expressive musical “language,” be it in the French compositional vocabulary, (Debussy), or within the framing of Couperin, Bach, Chopin, et al.

Fingering decisions reflected a pure, though innate expression of a phrase that had its analog in ways of speaking. (and singing)

Naturally, Feuchtwanger advocated freedom from tension in the arms and wrists, having devised certain exercises to liberate a pianist from any constraints in the flow of phrases. He embraced a flexible, supple wrist approach wedded to a Zen-like, here and now concentration that was the kindred focus of his musical colleague, Yehudi Menuhin.

This particular sample from Feuchtwanger’s home teaching environment is particularly emblematic of an approach that has tweaked my own consciousness about music learning and mentoring. Feuchtwanger begins by demonstrating the opening measures of Fur Elise with an untraditional fingering that heightens the “shape” of the line, preventing a vertical, inorganic rendering. (It allows for a “rotational” movement that promotes a curvaceous contouring of notes.) His student, sitting beside him, fleshes out a “circular” analogy that is quite relevant.

Feuchtwanger’s bio expands upon his legacy as a teacher, his having influenced so many prominent pianists including Martha Argerich.

In my own rush of enthusiasm, I urge piano students and all music lovers to ingest Peter Feuchtwanger’s ideas that are well communicated in a set of you tubes, one of which showcases his work with pupil, Marian Friedman. It’s an amazing display of virtuosity that’s inextricably tied to the natural expression of musical lines without physical constraint.

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)

Beyond Leon Fleisher’s riveting words about pianists and vocal modeling

Pianist, Leon Fleisher has given us his notable artistry over decades, while his insights about practicing and teaching have been invaluable for a vast community of mentors and students.

In his latest interview that coincided with the release of a new album, All the Things You Are, Fleisher spoke eloquently about the intrinsic relationship of vocal modeling and beautiful musical expression at the piano:

“I think, possibly … especially for pianists, to think in terms of ‘vocal.’ If you can sing something, and I don’t mean to sing all the notes, because the range of the piano is way beyond one person, but if you can sing the music, articulate it, then you can play it.

“One of the great challenges of a pianist is that every other instrument (I discount mallet instruments), violin to double bass, piccolo down through tuba, they have three things to think about: they have to think about how they attack the note; they have to think about how they support the note; and they have to think about how they stop the note. Most pianists just think of the first of those three, how they are going to attack the note, and not even all of them think about that. If they can expand their approach, new revelations will appear. You would be amazed how seldom one comes upon somebody who thinks in those terms or makes music on the piano in those terms.”


Fleisher has also given us the mantra, “Hear it Before you Play It,” which is an internalization of what the pianist imagines in sound before placing his fingers on the keys. (The opening notes of a composition are not haphazard, but instead, are planned in advance in the psyche.)

While the aforementioned ideas (including vocal modeling) are essential to a well-meaning approach to the piano, a student journeying through the masterworks with the counsel of teacher, needs MORE than a vocal paradigm to make significant progress toward sensitive music-making.

For example, once a pupil can “sing” what he wants to produce at the piano, he needs to know HOW to realize his own model which will encompass a host of ingredients that are included in the following set of questions:

1) What are the physical means to the end? Are there blocks to freedom of expression because of tension in the arms and wrists that need to be identified? What about the breath? Does the vocal model suggest places to breathe in the natural ebb and flow of a phrase? Is the breath short due to tension which inhibits free expression?

What about the nuts and bolts of playing staccato, legato in complex strands of notes? These surely warrant modeling by the teacher at the piano. (How are notes “grouped,”or “spaced?”) What about “Rotation” and its effect on phrasing. etc. A pupil, needs hands-on knowledge that a mentor needs to provide. These encompass issues of traction and weight transfer into the keys, etc.

What role does the pedal play in beautiful phrasing? These require demonstrations as well. (Again, vocal modeling is not enough, but ATTENTIVE LISTENING and harmonic understanding are a must.)

2) Is faulty rhythmic framing blocking the flow of what is internalized? Are legato triplets, for example sounding angular and choppy? If they are, then it follows that a teacher must enlighten a pupil about the “color” and motion of these threads and how they can be liberated in a seamless, horizontal flow. (Teacher demonstrations at the piano can include supple wrist grouping of notes.)

If a fundamental beat is non-existent, or if a true “singing pulse is absent,” a student needs to understand what is causing note crowding, undirected accelerations, or interludes of lagging. Often a teacher will remedy such problems by “conducting” the student, simultaneously instilling a sense of shape and contour to musical lines.

3) Does a pupil comprehend the relationship of harmonic rhythm or flow of harmonies to phrasing? (cadences, modulations, etc.) Even with a well-defined vocal model, a student would still need to realize the dips in phrases that occur with various progressions (like Dominant to Tonic), or to understand the emotional ramifications of Deceptive cadences, parallel minor/or Major transitions.

Decays of notes also factor into phrasing. Is the student keenly aware of how what comes before affects what follows? What about sub-destinations and full destinations in a chain of measures?

How do dynamics, crescendos and decrescendo’s contribute to the sculpting of lines?

4) How does the historic period of a composition influence the whole approach to sound imaging? (Debussy vs. Bach; Mozart vs. Chopin) This opens up a universe of tonal variation and exploration. (Mental imagery contributes to a realization of a sound ideal.)


In truth there are so many ingredients in an artfully sensitive music-making process that just one central focus, like vocal modeling, is clearly not enough.


In exploring my archive of videos, I found two that resonated with a multi-dimensional approach to creating beauty at the piano.

1) Footage from the first sample is derived from my 2014 visit to New York City where I filmed Irina Morozova teaching one of her young students. (Franz Liszt La Leggierezza) The Special Music School/Kaufman Center.


2) Excerpts from an ONLINE lesson to Scotland: Felix Mendelssohn Venetian Book Song Op. 30 No. 6. (The split-screen recording is a valuable playback reference for the student)

from Arioso7’s Blog (Shirley Kirsten)