May 22nd, 2016   ::   Recipes for Technique

Last week Lora and I were talking on the phone.  “I have decided,” Lora said, “that I need 15 outfits, with options for mix and match.” 

I am immediately intrigued.  I mean, who wouldn’t be?  (This is, I must say, the exact sort of conversation I miss with Lora now living 2000 miles away.)

“Tell me more,” I said. 

“Here’s what I am thinking,” Lora was quick to elaborate.  “I need 5 work outfits, 5 casual outfits, and 5….”  (I’m forgetting the last category.  Workout clothes, maybe?)

“Um.  Do I need 15 outfits?”  This sounds awesome.  Recently, I have started noticing that almost all my clothes have stains or holes.  Or if they don’t already have a stain or a hole, then I do something like I did yesterday where in trimming off a string I cut a hole in my shirt.  Yes.  This actually happened. 

But this idea of 15 outfits is promising indeed.  I hate options.  If I could get by with a uniform I would.  A pianist/teacher uniform.  Which reminds me of the time when a small child asked me what I was going to be for Halloween. “A piano teacher,” I answered.  He seemed puzzled.  “What about the costume?”  Exactly.

“Yes,” Lora is decisive and has strong unwavering opinions.  Another reason I need her in my life.  She thinks that I, too, should have precisely 15 outfits in my closet.  “You need teaching clothes, performing clothes…”

I interrupted.  “Like evening gowns?”

“No.  You can have one of those.”  (Really?  This is not what it feels when all my friends are fixated on what I might be wearing for some big performance and when I say, “The black dress,” they roll their eyes.)

Fifteen outfits.  With options.  It sounds like a sort of wardrobe theme and variations. 


Lately I have been thinking that all of good teaching (perhaps all of life) is actually just a series of theme and variations.  This is not a new thought.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I have no new thoughts whatsoever. 

For years, students and I have explored all the endless variations of Five Finger Positions and harmonic accompaniment patterns with chord progressions (waltz, broken, Alberti bass, tango, bossa nova, etc.).  But these days most of my students play, not simple Five Finger Positions, but rather scales.  And so this week I made a list of Scale Variations (I am all about lists these days.).  In honor of Lora, there are exactly 15 variations.  It goes without saying that any of these work with all major or minor scales.  Furthermore, they can mix and match freely, much like a good wardrobe.


1.  Basic Scales:  

One octave-quarter notes; Two octave-eighth notes; Three octaves-triplets; Four octave-sixteenth notes.  This can be done in the traditional, up then down approach.  Or as a fun mix and match, down then up (Beware: this is harder.).


2.  Dynamics: 

Play forte; piano; anything in between; crescendo up, decrescendo down; reverse; one hand forte, the other piano; reverse; yadda, yadda, yadda.


3. Articulations:  

Both hands play staccato or legato; one hand staccato, one hand legato; reverse, staccato going up, legato coming down; reverse….


4.  Long “Do” Scales:  

All tonic pitches are twice as long as all other notes.


5.  Race to “Do” (a variation, as it were, of #4):  

Hold tonic (or “Do”).  Race as fast as possible to the next tonic pitch.


6.  Rhythms:  

Options are endless here, but some common poetic rhymes we use in the studio are:  The King of Spain.  Roses are Red.  Pease Porridge HotRow, Row, Row Your Boat.


7.  Metronome Scales:  

Knock yourself out.  Can be done in conjunction with Long Do or with straight quarter, eighth, triplets or sixteenth notes depending upon number of octaves.  Down then up is another option.  The aim is to start slow and work up to a fast, maximum tempo (I’ve said this before, but my teacher Jane Allen’s tempo requirements were four-octave scales, played in sixteenth notes, quarter note =160.  Yep.  Crazy fast.).


8.  2 to 1 Scales:

One hand plays eighth notes, the other quarter notes.  The hand playing eighth notes will play two octaves (separate your hands by two octaves at the beginning if the left hand is the eighth-note hand or the hands will crash), the quarter-note hand will play one octave.  Reverse.


9.  3 to 1 Scales:  

Like #8, but instead of eighth notes, one hand will play triplets, the other quarter notes (This means when the left hand has triplets, the hands must begin three octaves apart.).  Reverse. 


10.  3 to 2 Scales:  

This is more difficult, but such a good way to get a handle on 3 against 2 rhythms.  One hand plays triplets, the other eighth notes.  Separate hands as necessary. Reverse.


11.  Scales in octaves:  

This is great for working on voicing octaves and for reinforcing the fourth finger on black notes.  I find that these scales are strangely enlightening for students because playing octaves in each hand requires us to think the note patterns in a slightly novel way.  Additionally, when students need the work of stretching their hands across an octave, scales in octaves are a good practice. 


12.  Scales in thirds:

No, I don’t mean double thirds, although that could be an option too.  What I mean is that the hands start a third apart.  For example, in C Major the left hand would start on C, the right hand would start on E.  All traditional fingerings apply.  Tricky because of the closeness of the hands.


13.  Scales in tenths:

Like #12, the hands begin on different pitches, a tenth apart.  This simply means that the 3rds from #12 are now an octave apart.  This is easier in some ways—the hands are not playing so close together—but harder in other ways, as it is more difficult to keep the integrity of the 10th and not fall into 9ths or 11ths or some odd interval.  I often start by assigning the Long Do variation (#4) on these, so the student can concentrate on organizing one octave at a time and regrouping as necessary.


14.  Scales in sixths:  

Again, like #12 and #14, except the right hand starts on the tonic pitch and the left hand begins a sixth below.  In addition to the Long Do variation, Scales in thirds, sixths and tenths can all be worked with the metronome as well at various speeds  (Of course, adding articulations and dynamics is another way to combine different variations too.).


15.  Two more random tricks for messing with our heads:

Rainbow Scales and Scale Canons.   Rainbow Scales (check out the book Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians by Jefferey Agrell for more creative ideas) are played hands separately.  Go up or down any number of octaves (all fingering and notes correct!!), in any random, improvisatory rhythm and tempo.  Something about taking the steady ruler of rhythm and tempo out of the equation tests our brains and makes us really know the fingering and notes better.


Scale Canons are to be done with a partner.  Each pianist can play scales in one or two hands for any number of predetermined octaves.  One person begins and the other starts some time later.  For example, the second pianist can begin when the first pianist is on the fifth note, or the third note or the sixth note (the less harmonic, the wackier for our ears and concentration!).  Long Do scales can work here just fine.  

May 8th, 2016   ::   Reading Days

    a black bear
      has just risen from sleep
         and is staring

down the mountain.
    All night
      in the brisk and shallow restlessness
         of early spring

I think of her,
    her four black fists
      flicking the gravel,
         her tongue

like a red fire
    touching the grass,
      the cold water.
         There is only one question:

how to love this world.
    I think of her
         like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
    the silence
      of the trees.
         Whatever else

my life is
    with its poems
      and its music
         and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
      down the mountain,
         breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
    her white teeth,
      her wordlessness,
         her perfect love.

-Mary Oliver House of Light

May 1st, 2016   ::   Extraordinary Days

Over Easter break my sister Sarah and four-year-old nephew Felix came to visit.  

The visit coincided with my spring break, which meant I had a deliciously open schedule.  There were Easter egg hunts with Felix.  Nights grilling sausage and sitting outside.  A family Easter dinner at the parents’.  We read Felix countless books.  (I mean countless. The kid NEVER gets bored.  His favorite?  Shh…We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton.)  One day Momma, Sarah and I went to high tea at a local tea house.  Very Downton Abbey

While we girls were busy drinking tea and eating scones, Grandpa and Uncle Matt and Uncle David took Felix for an all-boy adventure (This was how we sold it: An ALL BOY Adventure.  Felix was, let’s say, skeptical.).  They went up on the tram.  They had lunch on the top of the mountain.  The tram then broke down, leaving them stranded on the crest.  Hours went by.  (“How is Felix holding up?” we texted the boys from our canapés and cucumber sandwiches.  “Felix is fine. Thank goodness Uncle David has a lot of Star Wars crap on his phone,” Matt texted back. “I, however, am kicking and screaming.”)  The promised bus sent to fetch them never arrived.  They then walked the two miles (carrying Felix) through the snow (there is, it seems, ALWAYS snow on the top of the mountain) to the parking lot where they were met by Sarah and Momma who had driven around the mountain and up to the top to meet them.  An adventure.  At dinner that night Felix reported that there were “four adventurers” pointing to Dad, David, Matt and himself.   And then:  “I never want to go on the tram again.  It always breaks down.” 

Felix is smart.  And while the tram doesn’t always break down (although their adventure did remind me a bit of some of Lora and my hiking/tram misadventures of the past), Felix, at the age of four, does seem to already understand the complexities of the world.  Earlier that morning, the boys (AKA “the adventurers”) were in the car headed to the tram when apropos of nothing, Felix says, “Donald Trump says we need more guns.”  (Uncle) Matt let that just hang there for a minute and then said, “Well Felix, what do you think about that?”  Felix said, “We do NOT need more guns.  There are enough guns already.”  Felix is smart.  

Thanks to a line-up of babysitters (and Felix’s assurance that we do NOT need more guns), Sarah and I decided to go to Taos for a sister overnight.  On the way, we ate breakfast in Santa Fe and trolled through boutiques.  We stopped at a couple wineries.  We went hiking.  We puttered around shops on the Plaza and stayed at the Taos Inn.  We found one of the Super Secret hot springs and spent an afternoon at Ojo Caliente.  It was awesome.

(To explain Sarah’s absence for 36 hours, Felix was told that his momma and Aunt Amy went “hiking.”  “On that mountain?” Felix asked pointing to the Sandias.  “Yes,” said Grandma.  “Okay,” he said, seeming to understand after the ill-fated tram adventure that anyone stuck on THAT mountain would be gone a very long time indeed.)

Felix and Sarah went back home to NYC.  Matt and I are living out our not-so-adventurous, but very full nonetheless lives.  It is the final push to summer, which means lots of concerts, concerts, concerts, and, oh yeah, more concerts.  My garden is exploding in color.  There are, as I write this, at least 100 roses blooming.  For the span of two short weeks, the Lady Bank roses were like a wall of yellow along the trellis.  There are tulips and irises and penstemon and purple salvia waving in the always mighty spring wind.  The pink and red Jupiter’s beard is taking over the flowerbed along the driveway.  The yarrow is sending out bright florescent yellow shoots.  Last Friday a friend and I took a load of yard waste to the compost center and came back with a truck of rich, fragrant compost to spread over the whole garden.  Soon the amaryllis will find a new home by the back gate for the summer.  We’ve reclaimed both the cocktail corner and the hammock nook.  Matt grills almost every night.  It’s all good.  

Speaking of Star Wars, last night I received this text from Sarah:

“We are reading the Lego Star Wars book and we are talking about Elite Imperial Pilot.  Felix was confused because elite references someone ‘good’, however Imperials are bad people. So I was saying that you can be elite at something but a bad person.  And Felix thought about it and said, “Like Donald Trump.””

That kid is smart.

April 24th, 2016   ::   Practicing Days

Recently my sister Sarah was visiting.  The two of us went to Taos for a sister getaway.  It was awesome.  But somehow I managed to leave town without a comb or a hairbrush, a toothbrush, or a swimsuit (luckily Sarah brought two.).  Yeah.  Unbelievable.

When I mentioned this later to a friend, he replied, “Don’t you have a travel checklist of items that you always refer to so that you don’t forget anything?” 

Ugh.  No.  That sounds, if I must say, rather anal.

However, given my most recent bad packing job, perhaps I should reconsider this judgment. 

In fact, it might be a good idea to embrace the idea of lists in every area of my life.  It’s that time of the semester, after all, when the last performance classes, spring recital, and other festivals are looming.  Translation:  There is a lot of pre-performance preparation happening around here.  This means a lot of memorizing music.

Which means a memory checklist could be a very good idea. 

Memory Checklist:

1.  Ghosting. 

Ghosting means “playing” silently on top of the keys. This is a great thing to do to teach one hand to play quieter than the other, but ghosting also tests memory because it activates our muscle memory, while producing no sound.  That seems simple enough, but in actuality it can be super disconcerting, forcing us to really know what our hands are doing without the cue of the actual music. 

There are three different ways to ghost: 1.) RH ghost, LH plays; 2.) RH plays, LH ghosts; 3.) BH ghost. 

(Often we find that playing LH and ghosting RH is the most difficult.  Just sayin’.)


2.  Memory Spots. 

Memory spots are markers in the music where we can start on command.  When playing through a piece these can act as signposts, spots in the road we can recognize and wave at as we go roaring past. 

Practicing memory spots is something else entirely.  We can do this by scrambling the various sections that start with a memory spot (Play first Memory Spot 1, then 5, then 2, then 4, then 3.).  That is really good work.

We can also practice memory spots by playing what I call the Stop Game.  This has two versions and requires an additional person (a friend, a sibling, a parent….does not need to be a someone who plays the piano.  In fact, it is often better if they don’t.).  Here’s how it works:

The pianist (Let’s call her Lucy) begins playing her piece.  The additional person in the room (Let’s call him Sam) randomly shouts STOP!  Lucy stops (duh.).  Sam then shouts GO!  Lucy begins again either exactly where she left off (version number one) or jumps AHEAD to the next memory spot (version two).  It is very important that Lucy jumps forward.  No jumping back.  (This seems like a small point until you have sat in a recital and watched a student have a memory problem in which they repeatedly jump backward, hit the small problem spot, crash, jump backward again, crash, jump backward again, crash…you get the idea.  It is painful to watch.) 


 3.  Hands alone.

It is always a good idea to be able to play your memorized piece hands alone.  I have to confess, I almost never do this myself.  This is bad.  I should change my ways.


4.  Octave Displacement.

If hands alone (see above) wasn’t enough of a kick in the butt, this is.  Move one hand (or both hands) to a different octave and try playing your piece.  Yeah.  It’s weirdly tricky.  Suddenly everything feels (and sounds) strange.  Kind of like when you visit a place you lived 30 years ago.  It seems familiar and not at the same time.  The trees are bigger, the house is now painted yellow, there’s a new flowerbed next to the driveway that didn’t used to be there.


5.  ColdPlay. 

I’ve talked about this before (it has nothing to do with the popular British rock band), but start every practice session with a cold run-through of the memorized piece.  Or play the piece every time you walk by the piano.  ColdPlay.

(Meanwhile, Sarah tells me that she not only has a travel checklist, but she puts items into different categories: clothes, toiletries, etc.  Wow.  That is intense.  I have a lot to learn here…)

April 17th, 2016   ::   Teaching Days

My least favorite question might very well be: What are we going to eat for dinner? 

My second least favorite question:  What music should I teach this student?

Perhaps both questions are just more evidence of my lack of decision-making abilities.  Or maybe at this point in my life I am just generally overwhelmed with decision fatigue.  There are too many options for dinner, too many good musical choices out there.  Too often when faced with a student who needs to be assigned new repertoire to learn or buy, my mind goes completely blank.  It is as if I have never, ever, taught a piano lesson before and have no ideas whatsoever about piano music.  It is much like those times my husband claims to hate when at a dinner party the question is asked:  what are your top five favorite movies? And under this kind of extreme pressure, suddenly you are pretty convinced you have not actually ever seen a movie, much less five, much less have five favorites.  Those times.

Some time ago I decided that while I would probably always be faced with the dinner quandary, the pedagogical question of repertoire could be addressed.  A list of tried and true pieces and/or collections that I love to teach and that students love to play could be made (somehow even putting that action item in the passive voice takes a bit of the pressure off.).  In fact, I like making lists.  Lists have a way of ordering my world into categories and small doable action items:  trim the butterfly bush, vacuum, call Momma.  The things that were previously bouncing around my brain suddenly have shape and form and can be accounted for and written down.  The situation changes from a vague: I have so much to do into: Water plants.  Mail competition form.  Pick up books from library.  Done. Done. Done.

And so in the spirit of “lists make life better,” in the last year or so, I have been making a list of elementary and intermediate pedagogical pieces and collections that I thought were worth noting.  I started with the idea that I’d come up with 100 Teaching Pieces (there is, after all, something rather grand and significant about a list of 100 items.).  I began calling it, The List.  I asked colleagues what their favorite pieces and collections were.  I scribbled down ideas while attending competitions and student recitals.   The List grew, and grew and grew. 

But then one day I realized something that isn’t a particularly new thought (as a matter of fact, see above, paragraph 3), although it does seem profound all over again every time I re-remember this concept:

Too many options make me crazy.

OR another way of saying this:

I am a pretty boring person.

I practice.  I read.  I teach.  I garden.  I go to yoga classes and swim laps and ride my bike to the grocery store.  My idea of a perfect evening is friends in the backyard, hanging out in cocktail corner.  Or, even better, Matt grilling and me hanging out in the backyard, drinking a glass of wine and watching the gold finches at the birdfeeders.

Yep.  The older I get, the less interesting I am.

Which brings me back to The List.  The reason I started The List was because so often I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of piano music available (much of it staring at me from my own bookshelves).  I wasn’t bored because I was stuck teaching the same pieces over and over again.  Quite the contrary.  I just wanted to have a way to easily remind myself what repertoire I liked to teach (What are your top 5 favorite movies?  Uh.  Uh.  Dunno.).  Then for the next ten years, I could go on happily assigning “Giggle Bugs” to every six-year-old.  Like I said, I am a boring person.

The first version of The List, I decided, was too big, too cumbersome, too varied.  100 pieces and collections were too many.  I wanted the shortest possible list, perfect in its simplicity.  Think minimalism, or the piano pedagogy version of mid-century modern.  I divided The List in three categories:  Mid-to-Late Elementary, Early-to-Mid Intermediate, and a generic Later Intermediate.  I concentrated on what I considered to be fantastic collections (more bang for the student’s buck) rather than individual pieces, knowing that I would, of course, continue to supplement the earliest years of lessons with method books and lots of rote pieces.  For the later categories, I looked for collections of classic pieces and pedagogical gems as well as valuable resources of etudes or studies for developing technique.  If I hadn’t taught a collection at least a dozen times, it didn’t make the cut.  Tough love, I’m telling you.

Or some might say, boring.

The List:


Mid to Late Elementary:


*Going Buggy and Going Buggier-Mary Leaf

*Beginning Sonatinas-Lynn Freeman Olson

*First Favorite Duets-Lynn Freeman Olson

*Celebrated Piano Solos Book 1-Robert Vandall


Early to Mid Intermediate:


 *Mikrokosmos Book 1-Bela Bartok

*Burgmuller, Czerny, & Hanon Book 1-Ed. Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield

*Sonatina Masterwords Book 1&2-Ed. Jane Magrath

*Essential Keyboard Repertoire Book 1-Ed. Lynn Freeman Olson

*Contest Winners Book 2-Alfred Pub.


*The Best of Dennis Alexander-Book 2

*Especially for Boys-Dennis Alexander

*A Splash of Color Book 1-Dennis Alexander

*A Day in the Jungle-Jon George

*Lyric Pieces-William Gillock

*Preludes Book 1-Robert Vandall

*The New Pageants for Piano: Folksong Pageant Book 2A-Donald Waxman



Later Intermediate


*Applause Books 1 & 2-Ed. Lynn Freeman Olson

*Encore Books 1 & 2-Ed. Jane Magrath

*Masterpieces with Flair Books 1,2 & 3-Ed. Jane Magrath

*Piano Literature Book 3-Ed. Jane Bastien

*Sonatina Album-Alfred Pub. 


*24 Character Preludes-Dennis Alexander

*Birds-Seymour Bernstein

*Lyric Pieces for the Young-Norman Dello Joio

*Les petites images-Jennifer Linn

*Les petites impressions-Jennifer Linn

*Piano Pieces for Children-Yoshinao Nakada

*Preludes Book 1, 2, & 3-Catherine Rollin

*Spotlight on Impressionist Style-Catherine Rollin

*Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style-William Gillock


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