A New Format for Masterclasses

iphone6_spacegrey_side2-1There’s something very charming about serendipity, isn’t there? I spend a lot of time planning, organizing and goal-setting. And fairly often, I achieve my objective. But it’s especially fun to attain recognition at a time when I’m not even seeking it.

That was my experience when I read the latest installment of the Music Teacher’s Helper blog, “The iMasterclass—MTNA National Conference Las Vegas Part II”. It’s written by Yiyi Ku, an outstanding California teacher. She describes my masterclass for intermediate students at the MTNA Conference in Las Vegas, which took place on March 24, 2015.

I was trying an experiment utilizing technology. In general, I work hard to make my masterclasses informative: I want students and teachers both to come away with inspiration and fresh ideas, as well as the cognitive tools to make their own decisions. The danger, though, is that I spend too much time talking and not enough time interacting with the student.

So at MTNA I used a new technology called SlideDuet, which enabled me to put all the necessary facts on an application that attendees could view, free of charge, on their mobile device as the class unfolded in real time. When I spoke about the technique of ‘rotation’, for example, a brief explanation would appear on-screen, along with a diagram. I also included background notes on the works and composers, and biographical information about the performers. Here’s my actual SlideDuet presentation, so you can see for yourself.

Yiyi found my class “audience-engaging” and felt “fully drawn to what [was] happening on stage and inspired by the way Dr. Smith interacted with students.”  I appreciate her comments very much.

I’m looking forward to working some more with this exciting technology. I think I can get better at integrating the information with the live teaching. Since this was my first time, I succumbed to the temptation to include too much supporting material and the spontaneity of my teaching suffered a bit. My opinion, anyway!

Never mind. Teaching is all about continuous improvement and I plan on doing some with this cool and innovative teaching tool.

Piano Performance for Adults

Audience at Rocky Ridge

I applaud everyone who studies the great art of playing the piano, but I have a special place in my heart for adults who begin—or return to—piano study at a mature age.

A recent article in the New York Times detailed 59-year old Sara Solovitch’s comeback performances, beginning at the San Jose Airport (not as odd as it might seem, really; people passing through aren’t listening all that closely, which might be a good thing for an inexperienced performer), complete with sweaty palms and pounding heart. “I looked like a cornered animal,” she says, “and sounded like a robot.”

In her successful quest to return to performance after a 40-year break, Ms. Solovitch tried everything to calm her nerves. The problem wasn’t a lack of desire. “Upon returning to [playing the piano], I discovered I loved it more than ever. I practiced as much as I could, sometimes for two or three hours a day.”

Playing in front of others? Not so much fun. To conquer her fear, she tried biofeedback, deep breathing, cognitive behavior therapy, Alexander technique and even drugs: beta blockers, which her doctor called “the public speaking drug.”

There is another option: attending an adult piano camp. The one I know the best is the Adult Piano Seminar at the Rocky Ridge Music Center, for the simple reason that I just finished teaching at their 2015 session.

Rocky Ridge was founded by a remarkable woman, Beth Miller Harrod, in 1942 in the beautiful Colorado Rockies outside of Estes Park, CO. A student of Josef and Rosina Lhevinne, who spent summers in the area in the 1930s, Beth (everyone is on a first-name basis at Rocky Ridge) began with a group of seven girls, who lived in one big cabin and practiced on pianos scattered around the area. The program has grown to encompass both genders, chamber music, orchestra and programs for all ages.

This year’s Adult Seminar attendees were a wonderful group of supportive adults, who provided enthusiastic support to each other, inexperienced or veteran. Their love and commitment to music was palpable, and their enjoyment of being together infectious. I’m looking forward to being back again in 2016.

Here are some additional photos from my time at Rocky Ridge:

The New Barenboim-Maene Piano

barenboim-pianoCharles Dickens called the piano America’s “household God”. But it’s been a long time since those heady days in the last part of the 19th century when piano sales grew faster than the rate of population growth.

One factor in the relative decline of the piano, in my view, is the fact that our beloved instrument is more or less the same (with the exception of the sostenuto pedal) as it was in the 1870s, when 88-note keyboards started to become the norm.

So I’m always excited to hear about new technological innovations. The Barenboim-Maene piano, developed with support from Steinway and Sons, has straight, parallel strings, instead of the cross-stringing prevalent on modern instruments. This is a traditional design that the world-famous conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim was inspired to revive after playing on a straight-stringed piano in Siena once owned by Liszt. Barenboim feels his new piano offers a range of colors and registers not available on cross-stringed instruments. He premiered the Barenboim-Maene piano at the Royal Festival Hall in London last month; he is playing a series of recitals there devoted to Schubert on the instrument.

Liszt was not the only composer-pianist to work on a straight-stringed piano. The article above mentions my respected colleague Gwendolyn Mok. You can visit her website to read a couple of interesting interviews in which she talks about (among other things) her recordings of Ravel played on a straight-stringed Erard, the same type of piano Ravel had at his home in Monfort l’Amaury.

Notes & News: Motivation, Festivals in the UK, and the Future of Classical Music

  • There’s a new organization in Great Britain (or new to me, anyway), The British and International Federation of Festivals. Focusing on events that provide performance opportunities for amateurs, they provide a wealth of information about organizing festivals, copyright and insurance concerns, publicity and discussion forms. Thanks to Melanie Spanswick for publicizing this worthy group.

Mindfulness, Part II

Here are my own ‘Five Steps’ to piano mindfulness, adapted from those found on the Mindfulness in Schools Project website.

mindfulness1. Taming the animal mind

That’s what the Mindfulness people call this step, and they’re right. Most students’ brains (and sometimes even those of piano teachers…cough) are ranging all over the place, everywhere except where they need to be: on the sound. I assign calming exercises, focusing on the breath and on the feeling of being anchored and settled. Directed visualization helps, too.

2. Pay attention

This is the key. Many students aren’t really listening to themselves and when they try, they don’t know what to listen to. My task is to gently but persistently direct students’ attention to the task at hand, and to provide benchmarks to measure themselves against. These may include verbal directions or asking them to model on my singing or a recording. Or both! Even more useful is asking the students to give their own verbal directions to themselves or to sing the phrase without me, modeling the sound each wants to achieve.

3. Respond, rather than react

Reacting is what students are doing when they repeatedly stop and start, talk while they are playing, begin again and again or continue to make the same mistake even after correction. They hear something that bothers them, panic and act out. This doesn’t work. What we want them to do is: respond. Responding is thoughtful. The act of responding dispassionately recognizes and acknowledges a problem. It has nothing to do with playing on autopilot.

4. Make a plan—and work the plan

mindfulnessI ask students to assess what they heard during their “response” and to come up with an improvement plan. I asked Mary (from my last blog post) how many times she “stuttered” on the first page. She had no idea, which in itself is part of the problem, and had to play it once more to come up with an answer.

She agreed that her task would be to practice one phrase at a time, at a slow tempo, without stopping, no matter what happened. I asked her how many repetitions she though necessary for each phrase. Her answer was “seven”, which surprised me. I was going to suggest five.

The overall objective: at the end of the seven repetitions, the number of “stutters” should be reduced.

5. Assess and repeat

Proper assessment involves three parts:

  1. Did I follow my plan? If Mary didn’t play at a slow tempo, if she let herself stutter or if she didn’t repeat seven times, then she didn’t accomplish her tasks. The practice plan needs to be repeated until she reaches her objective.
  2. Did accomplishing my tasks improve my performance? If not, or not enough, the practice step needs to be repeated or adjusted.
  3. What’s the next step?

Mindfulness, Part I

MindfulnessinSchools“I practice as long as it needs, every day,” my teenage student Mary 1 told me, with an air of purposeful self-satisfaction. I almost believed her, sort of, until her more skeptical (perhaps ‘realistic’ is the better word) Mom interrupted, “if only that were more than seven minutes per piece”.

Believe it or not, I am firmly convinced that Mary sincerely thinks she is doing a good job. Despite lengthy lessons, detailed practice plans and frequent preparation checks from me, all indicating that more work on her part is needed, she really believes that she is completing her assignment…in seven minutes.

What’s the problem? Lack of aural skills is a big part of it (I’m working on a future blog post on this). She doesn’t hear what her performance actually sounds like to an outside listener, only how she perceives it as it sounds to her, or as she wishes it sounded. This type of thinking is part of a bigger problem: an absence of mindfulness.

A good definition of mindfulness can be found on the Mindfulness in Schools Project website:

“Mindfulness involves learning to direct our attention to our experience as it unfolds, moment by moment, with open-minded curiosity and acceptance. Rather than worrying about what has happened or might happen, it trains us to respond skillfully to whatever is happening right now, be that good or bad.”

The benefits of mindfulness in adults have been well recognized by research. Recent studies have documented even more dramatic improvement in performance by school children who practice mindfulness. A Time magazine article earlier this year claimed startling improvement in behavior and test scores by Canadian fourth and fifth-grade students who participated in the MindUP program, which promotes thoughtful social and emotional learning. These include 15% higher math scores and 24% improved social behaviors.

The Mindfulness in Schools Project has several components, one of which is what they call “The Ten Lessons”. These explain the concept of mindfulness to young students, teach them to handle stress and worry, detail how to make mindful choices instead of simply reacting to each thought with a possibly negative behavior and cultivating an attitude of gratitude. I think each has a lot of worth.

I’ve adapted “The Ten Lessons” from the Mindfulness website to use with my own students. I’ll share my ideas with you in my next blog post.


  1. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Clavier Companion Special Offer

clavier_companion_logoI heard one of my younger colleagues jokingly (I hope!) refer to me as a “dinosaur”. He’s not far wrong: like many of my aging colleagues I still wonder what happened to the 1980s and how time could possibly have gone by so quickly since then.

With age, though, comes experience, and that’s priceless. I’ve been an Associated Editor of the magazine Clavier Companion (formerly Keyboard Companion) since the early 1990s. My original purview was the section of the magazine focusing on piano technic. I have learned a lot over the years interacting with some of the world’s top authorities on piano technic, and readers have told me that they have absorbed much, too. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. Clavier Companion is a wonderful resource for all piano teachers.

For that reason, I am including here part of an email from my good friend and colleague Pete Jutras, Clavier Companion Editor-in-Chief. We need your help! Please read and listen to Pete’s words. If you’re not a subscriber, now is a good time to start. If you already subscribe, help spread the message to others.

From Pete:

As you may have heard in the media in recent years, print publication is an increasingly difficult business. Productions costs continue to rise, and younger generations are much less likely to subscribe to magazines.

I’m writing today to ask for your help in spreading the word about Clavier Companion. We are a small, non-profit organization with virtually no budget for advertising. We know, however, that word-of-mouth advertising is the most powerful and effective means of letting people know about our publication.

I’m hoping that you would be willing to take a few short moments to mention Clavier Companion to your teachers’ association at your next meeting. You could show the video at your meeting, and you could also distribute the video via e-mail to your members. Anyone who subscribes or renews with this offer will receive a special discounted rate that is lower than our regular renewal discounts and usually reserved only for conference attendees.

Click here to subscribe or renew

Use coupon code ccspringoffer for new subscriptions or renewals

With your help in spreading the word and signing up new subscribers, Clavier Companion can continue to provide you with the articles and ideas you’ve come to know and trust. I thank you for your time and your support.

With best wishes,

Pete Jutras
Editor-in-Chief, Clavier Companion

Notes & News: Memorizing and Improvising

Can You Memorize a Symphony…and should you bother?

stage_frightJessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist and Assistant Professor at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University in London, Ontario, has written an interesting article about musical memory in the latest issue of the BBC News Magazine.

The occasion is an upcoming BBC Proms concert at which the Aurora Orchestra will play Beethoven’s Symphony no.6, “Pastorale”, entirely from memory. An amazing feat, to be sure, but not totally without precedent.

Hans von Bülow, the legendary 19th-century pianist and conductor, turned a small orchestra from the miniscule German duchy of Saxe-Meiningen into the wonder of all Europe. At their first concert series in 1880, they played all nine Beethoven symphonies, as well as assorted other Beethoven works, completely from memory. On subsequent tours the Meiningen orchestra string section astounded audiences by playing the “Grosse Fugue” from Beethoven’s String Quartet op.133 (an extremely difficult work beyond the performance ability of some string quartets even today) from memory, while standing up. 1

Von Bülow, in his work as a piano soloist, had an equivocal attitude to playing from memory. One time, responding to critics who considered memorization a type of circus stunt which detracted from the music itself, he brought the musical score on-stage, placed it on the piano and proceeded to play the entire recital with the cover shut.

Critics skeptical of performing memorized music represented a negative view of memorization common earlier in the 19th century. Some even considered playing from memory an attempt to take credit for the composition of the piece itself.

Some modern research has seemed to indicate the benefits of memorization, 2 but others are not so sure. The British concert pianist Stephen Hough calls Liszt, one of the pioneers of playing from memory, “the man who invented stage fright”.

Grahn presents both sides. She expertly describes the research on brain activity demonstrating the increased activity in the hippocampus in musician’s brains, and the wide distribution across the brain of musical connections, as well as the problems some musicians experience performing from memory.

Is memorization a good idea? Only you can decide. Personally, I think it is overrated.

Improv Camp

Although I am primarily an old-fashioned, score-based piano teacher, I’m a firm believer that developing creativity in students is just as important as note reading. So I’m happy to inform you about a fun summer improve camp for teachers and adult pianists run by my good friends Bradley Soawash and Leila Viss. You know Brad from his many educational publications and articles in Clavier Companion; Leila also writes for Clavier Companion and has her own blog, which features some great ideas on using the iPad to spark creativity. They are sensitive to the issues faced by classical pianists learning to play “off the page”. More information here. I’d go myself if I had time.


  1. More information about von Bülow’s astonishing life can be found in Alan Walker’s eminently readable Hans von Bülow, A Life and Times (Oxford University Press, 2010)
  2. Aaron Williamon, “The value of performing from memory”, Psychology of Music, 27 (1999), 84-95.

Rocky Ridge Scholarships Available!

rrmclogoI am excited to share that SoYoung Lee, Executive and Music Director of the Rocky Ridge Music Camp, has announced that scholarships are available for the Rocky Ridge Adult Piano Seminar. I will be teaching at the Adult Seminar at Rocky Ridge for two sessions from May 30-June 7, 2015.

Attending students will have the opportunity to take private lessons with me and perform in Masterclasses. I will be giving a lecture on J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and offering a multi-part series of talks on “Fundamentals of Basic Piano Technique”.

If you would like to know more, or want to inquire about scholarship availability, please send me a message.

Rotation and the D Song

PinkyLast week, we learned about the basic motion of rotation. Are you ready to use rotation on a real work of music? Great! But first we need to take a brief detour.

The most important activity my beginning piano students perform in their first piano lessons is singing, and then playing, pentatonic folk songs. This is because I want them to experience piano playing primarily as an aural and kinesthetic art, rather than one that is reading-based. I introduce steps (two next door notes), skips (two notes separated by one note in the middle) and leaps (anything bigger than a skip) in this context—as something one hears and feels, rather than lines on a printed page. We sing, before taking it to the keyboard.

It’s not long before I progress to half steps and whole steps. A half step is two keys as close as possible together; a whole step is two keys, separated by one key in the middle. Confusing? It could be, since the definition of a whole step is dangerously close to that of a skip.

Here’s where a listening-based approach really pays off. The definition may be similar, but the sound is not close at all. Students hear and understand this readily, after some repetition. We are laying the groundwork for a conceptual understanding of scales. They are built on patterns of half steps (semitones) and whole steps (tones).

Our old friend The D Song is whole-step based, the first two notes of many scale patterns. After the student can sing The D Song more or less 1, both parts, it’s ready to be learned at the piano.

The D Song

The D Song

Tobias Matthay felt that fundamental movement problems in scale work were always functions of rotation. That is correct, in my view, so it’s important to introduce the rudiments of rotation early in piano study to avoid later problems. Let’s do it with The D Song, after the notes have been learned. We’ll start with just one note.

If you want to perform any kind of movement, you have to prepare in the opposite direction. If you want to put your foot down to step, for instance, you have to lift it first. If you want to throw a ball forward, you have to wind up backward.

The first finger to be played in The D Song is the thumb. Because of its length (or lack of it), the thumb is always played with a medial rotation, toward the middle of the body. That means that the preparation has to be lateral, away from the body.

Here are the steps, starting with the left hand:

  • Preparation
    • gently rest your thumb over middle D
    • rotate (turn the doorknob) laterally, to the left. Your thumb should lift and be facing up at about a 45 degree angle
    • flex your fingers so that they are strong—not stiff, but not totally relaxed, either
      • I show students the correct flexion by asking them to hold a Beanie Baby, before we start the rotation process. The fingers should be firm enough that the Beanie baby doesn’t drop, but not so strong that the Beanie Baby is clenched
  • Play
    • release the energy of the arm and let the forearm fall and the thumb push into the key, in good thumb position. If you do it right, you will get a full, resonant, bell-like sound
  • Follow-through
    • the arm continues the rotary movement medially, to the right. This is not a separate motion, it’s a continuation of the forearm motion that caused the thumb to play. The thumb rolls a bit to its side, so it is resting briefly on the nail
  • an important component of this process is that the thumb has to relax once it has struck the key, so the rotational movement can continue, while the thumb lightly holds the “D” key down. It should not be pressing as it rests on the keybed.

Is this too much information for a beginner? for one note? Way too much, if you try to present it all at one time in words. I don’t do that. I demonstrate, I make up stories, I correct as I go, and I don’t expect too much perfection at the beginning.

More notes—and gestures–to come!


  1. D is a good note on which to start singing, since it is well within the range of most students. For our purposes right now, it doesn’t matter too much whether you use a traditional solfège approach or simply sing note names. A simple two-note song may take some students several weeks with which to match pitch. Don’t worry, it will come as long as they keep singing.

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