Notes & News

Pedal studies that really work

Yesterday the Maryland State music teachers sent me the gift of 4 terrific students to work with in a master class. The subject of pedaling came up several times. This is one of those topics that most of us devote too little time to in the lesson. It can be tedious and time-consuming; and it always seems like there’s something more interesting to talk about.

I found the answer to this problem in an old publication (copyright 1906!). It’s First Pedal Studies, by Jessie L. Gaynor, it’s a gem, and it’s still in print.

Below you’ll see part of the first and last pages of the book. Under each staff there is a rhythm line for the pedal. It’s not for beginners, as you can see; second year is a good time to introduce it. I go through the book slowly: I assign one of the 22 studies each week. Very soon they become not only useful pedagogically but satisfying musically.

Once the routine is familiar to a student, she learns it on her own. If I see if the level is getting to high for that, I simply discontinue assignments and pick them up when appropriate.

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Brian Le in France

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September 27, 2018: Brian’s guest performance in Lyon, France. Next stop: Japan! where he competes in the prestigious Hamamatsu International Piano Competition. Remember Risa Takamura? She’s on her way to England to school (on scholarship!), but her mother, Kei, remains in Tokyo and plans be in Brian’s audience. Studio connections wrap around the world.

About Kinhaven Piano 4-Hands Workshop

Every summer, I coach adult pianists at Kinhaven’s Four-Hand Piano Workshop in Vermont. Here is an account written by one of the “campers.” See Kinhaven Music School for information about how to join. 

Important, Moving and Meaningful: The 2018 Piano Workshop
“By Susan Isaacs Nisbett

“Like all the children of Lake Wobegon, every session of Kinhaven’s Adult Four-Hand Piano Workshop is above average.Jackie Zins, Washington DC; Nancy Breth (coach/page turner), Washington DC; Nancy Thaler, Tunkhannock PA

“Each year, astonishingly, often seems the best of them all. And indeed, it would hardly be wrong to believe the decades have improved it, if 2018, year 25 for the workshop, under the caring, inspiring direction of its founder, Leander Bien, is the example. The silver-anniversary session rang out forte and sang con anima for participants and faculty alike.

“The weather, so often fickle in late May-early June, was nigh onto perfect. No one froze, sweated to death or drowned in torrential downpours. Participants came from far and wide geographically, a mix of stalwarts and newbies. The attendance, 12 duet teams, was at the max, though one late withdrawal meant 11 duet teams and some super, last-minute solo Beethoven from one longtime participant.Connie Phillips, Pittsburgh PA; Mary Miller, Myersville MD

“That performance was part of the workshop’s annual grand finale: Recital Time, when bananas fly off the dining room counters to be devoured by performers who believe in their nerve-calming powers. In keeping with the 25-is-special nature of 2018’s gathering, the workshop terminated with two recitals, not the usual one-off. That avoided a marathon 3-hour affair Sunday a.m., with still-substantial Saturday evening and Sunday morning recitals in its place. It was a great innovation, keeping ears fresh for dazzling, high-level performances of gorgeous four-hand compositions that ranged from Bizet and Brahms, Debussy, Dvorak, Faure, and Ravel, to transcriptions of J.S. Bach and Gluck and infrequently heard compositions of Goldmark and Warlock.

Cory Newman, Palmyra NJ; Victor Galindo (coach/page turner), Washington DC; Amy La Civita, Fairfax VA

“The coaching that coaxed and cajoled these high-level performances was a regular highlight, with Bien, Nancy Breth, Victor Galindo, and Andrew Harley giving their all and more: Sign-ups for extra-credit, short evening meetings with them filled up faster than plates with chocolate mousse prepared by the treasured kitchen crew, led by Gretchen Gould. Mid-session, coach Harley offered a terrific master class for two teams of regular four-hand partners. And all the way through, that most-valued player, Alexander Technique teacher Kristin Mozeiko, kept those shoulders from hunching and backs from slouching (or hurting!).Andrew Harley (coach), Washington DC; Madeleine Fleury, Montreal

“The annual faculty concert, with the aforementioned coaches teaming up for breathtaking performances of four-hand Beethoven, Schubert, Guastavino, and Riley was, as always, a thrill. Likewise the special 25th anniversary solo concert by celebrated pianist and conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, a Kinhaven alum and cherished former piano workshop coach. Solzhenitsyn’s concert, with the Mozart F Major Sonata, K. 533/494, and the last Schubert Sonata, in B-flat Major, D. 960, left a profound mark on all the listeners in the concert hall.

“I’ll just close by inserting myself into this story for a sec. I’ve come to Kinhaven for 21 of the workshop’s 25 years. I wrote about classical music for my local newspaper, in Ann Arbor, Mich., for almost double that number of years. Some of my most important, moving, and meaningful listening and concert experience has been at Kinhaven. I’d say that about friendships and music making, too, with both faculty and students. Above average doesn’t begin to sum it up.

“Susan Isaacs Nisbett worked as a journalist – feature writer and editor, and arts writer, for more than 40 years. Now retired, mostly but not entirely.

“All photos by Steven Breth”

How to Decode a Musical Score

We can learn a lot about a piece without even playing a single note of it. A musical score may look like it’s full of secrets, but we can uncover the secrets if we look carefully and think about what we see.

The composer always gives us hints:

  • The title
  • Tempo marks
  • Descriptive words in the music, such as leggiero, marcato or con fuoco.
  • Overall dynamics. Where is the loudest part, the softest part? Is the piece mostly loud, mostly soft, or constantly changing?

You can ask yourself…

Rhythm questions

  • Which rhythm patterns does the composer use more than twice?
  • Is there a rhythm pattern that only happens once?
  • Is there a rhythm pattern that looks confusing? Write in the count. Start with the simplest part of the measure—the first count, for example, or any long note. Write in the counts for that part; once you’ve done this, you can probably figure out where the remaining counts go.

Melody questions

  • Which hand plays the melody? If there is more than one line, or voice, played by one hand, which voice is more important?
  • Where else can you find this melody in the piece? How many times?
  • Does the melody move mostly by skips or by steps?
  • Do you see a scale, chord or arpeggio that you recognize?
  • Is there any melody that happens only once?
  • Do both hands ever play the same thing?
  • What’s the highest melody note in the piece? The lowest?

Accompaniment questions

  • What is the first note in each measure? Look at the downbeats of four measures in a row. Do you see a pattern?
  • What interval is used most often? Least often?
  • Do you recognize any chords?
  • Does the accompaniment ever look like a melody?

Phrase questions

  • How many measures does each phrase contain?
  • What is the highest melody note in the phrase? The lowest?

Watch Nancy O’Neill Breth demonstrate decoding a musical score.

Don’t Eat Cookies While You Practice

After years of teaching, it dawned on me that there must be a more effective, more pleasurable way to teach students how to practice than the highly repetitive and often ignored sermonettes I found myself delivering week after week.

I asked my students, What tips would you give to friends who want to improve their practicing? Some offered wry suggestions like “Don’t eat cookies when you practice or your Mom will yell at you,” but others came up with shrewd advice like “Pay as much attention to rests as you do to notes.”

Over time, I compiled dozens of simple, effective practice tips—some from my students, some passed down by my teachers (and their teachers), some shared by colleagues. I added these to my own inventions and published them as practice guides for students, parents and for anyone looking for comprehensive practice tips.

The student practice guide serves as a student toolbox. I give every student a guide and over time I show how each practice tip is a tool that can fix a particular problem. I say, #21 will take the bumps out of bar 43, or try #7 to get better balance in the B theme. Then, at home, the student can look up #21 and #7 in his practice guide and follow through.

Eventually students learn to make their own practice prescriptions, matching one or several practice tips to their specific needs. So not only does the practice guide save my breath and our lesson time, it teaches smart practice habits, analysis and problem solving. I see these young people moving toward a level of musical independence that will make their lessons with me merely the first stage in a lifetime of engagement with the piano.

Learn More about the Practice Guides