Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Making of Steinway L1037 Airs on PBS

For all of you who love and appreciate piano music, you will want to watch Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037. It will be airing on PBS beginning this Monday. You can check your local listings at:

This 1 hour program describes the making of a Steinway concert grand from the selection of the wood for the cabinet and sound board to the finished product found in homes and concert halls throughout the world. Did you know that a Steinway grand is made up of 12,000 parts, takes 12 months to manufacture, and involves countless hours of work by 450 craftsmen to complete the finished product.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of a personal tour of the Steinway factory when one of my adult students was in the process of selecting a Steinway B model for his home. The Steinway B is just under 7 feet long. My student drove us to the original Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens, New York on a quiet morning. We were given a personal tour of the factory by the sales manager and saw pianos in various stages of production. We even saw where the original coal fired furnace was. The building dates from the 1890s. Of course everything is modernized today. We tried a few of the pianos that were still in the factory, and then the sales manager drove us across the bridge to Manhattan where I helped my student choose a beautiful Steinway B for his home.

For more about the program visit:

Friday, September 4, 2009

Mastering Piano Technique - Clean and Articulate Runs

One thing that I pride myself on is that my students are able to play clean and articulate runs in their performances. By following a logical sequence of pieces with each piece progressively more challenging technically while still within the student’s level, every student can achieve the goal of clean, sparkling, and brilliant runs.

The Sonatinas

Intermediate students can gain practice in performing runs by studying the Clementi and Kuhlau Sonatinas. These Sonatinas are charming, delightful pieces which will give your students a sense of accomplishment and mastery. By studying the Sonatinas, piano students gain mastery of technique without the need to practice boring exercises while furthering their reading, phrasing and interpretive skills. The skills gained through a study of these Sonatinas will ease the student into later study of Sonatas by Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.

After studying a sequential group of the easy piano classics such as those found in Schumann’s Album for the Young, the delightful pieces in the Anna Magdalena Book of J.S. Bach, and other selections found in some of the excellent early classical piano collections, the student is ready to begin Sonatina in C Major opus 36 #1 by Clementi. The student is introduced to in runs in a 1 or 2 octave range with turns on the 3rd and 4th finger. By introducing gradually more advanced Sonatinas, the student gains proficiency in performing increasingly difficult runs and scale passages.

One of my favorite Sonatinas is the charming Sonatina op. 20 #1 in C Major by Kuhlau. One of the reasons that I am particularly fond of this piece is that it is one of the few Sonatinas with runs in the left hand. Both hands must be equally developed to play the more advanced music to come. I find that when a student can accomplish all three movements of this Sonatina, he or she is can easily make the transition to the Mozart Sonata in C Major, k545.

Mozart Sonata in C Major, k545, First Movement

Many students will experience some difficulty with the runs in this movement. The first set of runs occurs in bars 5 through 10 in the right hand. To master these runs, I have students do the following:

1) First have the student play each run slow, heavy, digging in. Repeat 3 to 5 times with the right hand alone. I usually do the first repetition with the student. I play along emphasizing playing loud, slowly and with evenness of touch. The weight of each finger must be evenly placed. Make sure that the fingers of the hand are rounded similar to grabbing a tennis ball or shaking a hand. Weight must be distributed on the fleshy part of the finger tip, not on the nail. Give special attention to turns. As you make the turn, keep your thumb raised at a 45 degree angle. This will help keep your runs smooth and even. A flat thumb will create a bumpy sound.

2) After the student has practice the run slow, heavy, and digging in, I have the student play the run 3 times in a natural manner. I have the student play the run in tempo and lighter. Sometimes I add a bit of bounce to my own 16th note passages to help gain clarity, evenness, and articulation.

3) If the hand gets tired during the slow, heavy, digging in practice, have the student practice the left hand chords. The better the student knows the accompaniment, the more he or she can concentrate on the more difficult right hand.

4) Students should pay extra attention to accuracy of fingering. Remember that the surest way to mess up the run is to be careless about fingering. With this particular piece, make sure that you hold the eight note that begins each run passage for the correct time. I sometimes have students count 1234 for each beat rather than 1 and to help get perfect timing.

In the development section of this sonata, short runs occur in both the right and left hands. The same practice methods apply. One of the most problematic sections in this piece for students is the runs that occur in the left hand. Again, use these same practice techniques and give special attention to learning the correct fingers. Learning the correct fingering will go a long way in achieving mastery of this difficult section.

Another Exercise to Achieve Smooth and Even Runs

The most difficult part of the run occurs right at the turn. The student can create an exercise practicing just the turns. In fact,the exercise can be called turns or before and afters. Simply play the note before the thumb, the thumb note, and the note occurring after the thumb.

For example, if the fingering or the run or scale looked like this:


Practice the following:

Play the 3-1-2 combination 5 times slowly and then 5 or more additional times gradually increasing the speed. Do the same for the 4-1-2 combination. Be sure to stand your thumb up at a 45 degree angle to create a smooth and even turn.

These exercises are applicable to a wide variety of pieces at various levels of difficulty. E-mail me or leave a comment if you have any questions on how to perform the exercises in this blog. Happy practicing. :-)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mastering Piano Technique - Practice in Chords

With this post, I will begin a series of articles which will present my technical ideas. Many people feel that good piano technique is the playing of glittery piano passages cleanly, quick and speedy playing, and big sound. On the other hand, interpretation of the piece is also an important component of performance mastery. In addition to finger dexterity, elements of tone production, rhythm, pedaling, dynamics, and musicality must be taken into consideration.

In my own experience, true mastery of technique came when I suddenly had the control to reproduce with my fingers what I heard in my mind. I will begin a series in this blog called “Mastering Piano Technique” which will help you and your students do the same. I will even discuss the teaching of a number of favorite student pieces from a technical standpoint.

A Simple Exercise

As I had mentioned in a previous post, one of my favorite exercises is to practice passages in chords. Passages that lend themselves well to practice in chords include Alberti base passages; similar passages with the right hand, passages consisting primarily of broken chord patterns, and of course, arpeggios.

Some of the advantages of practice in chords include:

1) Establishing a good set of fingering patterns – When you block a passage out in chords, chances are that the way your fingers fall into the chords will be the correct fingering to use for these passages.

2) Proper positioning of the fingers – By practicing in chords, you teach your fingers where they need to be placed to perform the passage accurately.

3) As an aid to memorization – Learning the chordal patterns found in the music is an aid to memorization.

4) Mastering Arpeggios – Arpeggios, are basically an extended chord, for example, a C Major chord repeated over 2 or 3 octaves. Practicing in chords will help you gain the accuracy and speed needed to play arpeggios cleanly which can be difficult to achieve. Rather than trying to connect each chord, after practicing in chords, play the arpeggio by just quickly hopping over to the next chord while keeping the fingers close to the keys to make it sound connected. Also, be sure to keep the thumb pointing down in a slightly diagonal position rather than flat to keep the arpeggio smooth and even. The result will be a very clean and well articulated arpeggio.

5) An Easy Exercise for Students to do – Practicing in chords is a very simple exercise for the student to do, yet this practice technique always yields results.

Here are some examples where practicing in chords is effective:

Advanced Elementary

Little Song by Robert Schumann –Have students practice the left hand in 2 note chords e.g. c-g, d-g, e-g f-g, etc. Than have the student play the left hand quietly and evenly maintaining the position of the chords. Have the student practice the right hand with good tone, since this is the melody. After each hand is mastered, have the student perform the piece hands together.

Waltz by Shostakovich – I find that having the students practice the left hand in chords for this piece is very effective towards gaining mastery. Have the student play the entire left hand in chords using single notes in the non-chordal passages.


Clementi Sonatinas – The Clementi and Kuhlau Sonatinas immediately come to mind with all of the Alberti bass passages.

Solfeggietto by K.P.E. Bach –This is another one of my favorite intermediate teaching pieces. There are many passages that lend themselves to practice in chords.


Schubert Impromptu op. 90 #4 in A-flat – One of my favorite short pieces, the cascading broken chords in the right hand of the A section of this piece must sound smooth, sparkling, even, and effortless. Practicing these passages in chords will teach your brain the proper placement of the fingers. You will want to supplement the practice in chords with additional exercises. Another problem is the smooth transition between the broken chords. On the switch of fingers on the repeated note, be sure to never leave the feel of the key as you make the switch in fingering. Another useful exercise for mastering this beautiful piece, is to practice a beat and a note e.g. Cb-Eb-Cb-Ab-Ab several times followed by Ab-Cb-Ab-Eb-Eb, etc.

You will find many other passages in the pieces that you perform or teach that will lend themselves well to this simple but effective exercise.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Piano Practice Techniques that Everyone Can Use

One of the most important things that I can do as a piano teacher is teach both beginning and advanced piano students effective piano practice techniques. Of all the instruments, piano requires a great deal of coordination. Not only must the pianist be able to use both the right and left hands simultaneously, but the performer must use his or her right foot on the damper pedal. Even the left foot is used on the soft pedal in more advanced literature.

Pianists are constantly performing different motions with each hand. For example, one hand may be playing legato (connecting one note to the other) while the other hand is playing staccato (short). Often the performer will be performing different motions with different fingers of each hand, particularly in more advanced literature. A common problem is to be able to bring out the melodic line over the accompaniment no matter where that occurs in the music.

Here are some practice techniques that both beginning and advanced students can follow:

  1. Hands Alone Practice – One way to master the coordination needed to be able to do different motions with each hand is to devote some time to hands alone practice. It is amazing how much easier it is to perform a piece hands together after considerable time has been spent on hands alone practice. Also, hands alone practice on more complex pieces of music allows you to concentrate more fully on what each hand must do.

  2. Establish a Good Set of Fingering – Good fingering is very important to your success as a pianist. As you practice hands alone, establish comfortable fingering that you will use at all times. Experiment with different fingerings to see what works best for you. If you are taking lessons, your teacher should be able to help you with this. Remember that a good set of fingering can mean the difference between mastering that difficult run or passage.

  3. Work Slowly and Be Accurate – A common problem is that the student wants to play too fast. Remember that you must establish an accuracy of notes, rhythm, and fingering before you bring a piece up to speed. You will be able to maintain a proper speed when you know the piece extremely well.

  4. Do Spend Some Time on Rhythm and Counting – I always have my students count aloud. Besides establishing a rhythm pattern, I find that counting can help with concentration, and it also helps to maintain tempo (speed). Some teachers recommend use of a metronome. I personally don’t own a metronome as I prefer to establish an internal “body rhythm” where I feel the beat and rhythm of the music. Also, many pieces, particularly of the Romantic era, do not have a strictly regular rhythm. In other words, there are places in the music where you might speed up or slow down. You can’t do this with a metronome. With a metronome, you tend to get a mechanical feel to your music and sound like the pianist for a ballet class. Metronomes can also be tricky for beginners to use. Perhaps my prejudice against metronome use comes from my own frustrations as a student when I was made to use a metronome.

  5. Master One Small Step at a Time – This is actually a continuation of the hands alone practice above. After each hand is mastered, practice your pedaling. In most situations, pedaling follows what the left hand is doing. As you begin to place the two hands together, remember to work slowly for accuracy. Later add in your phrasing, dynamics, and shadings.

  6. Break the Piece Up into Practice Sections – This is one of the methods that really help students with mastering a more difficult piece. I will break the piece into one page at a time, a section at a time, a line at a time, and even one bar at a time. If a passage is difficult enough, I will even have the student do a ½ bar at a time. For example, there are 4 difficult measures in the J.S. Bach Invention #1in C Major. I find that students are able to master these 4 bars after hands alone practice and working small sections of this passage hands together.

  7. Practice Alberti Bass Left Hand Passages in Chords – Another very effective practice technique that I use with students is to have them practice broken chord passages such as Alberti bass passages in chords. This practice method is appropriate for any passage, right hand or left, consisting primarily of broken chords such as the Bach C Major Prelude from Book I of The Well Tempered Clavier. By practicing in chords, we teach the brain where the fingers must be placed and positioned. Try this practice technique and you will see quick results.

  8. Perfecting the Finished Product – Once you have learned the piece, a good way to keep it in top shape is to play it through each day. Take note of the passages that could use more practice. Devote some time to practicing these “hard” parts. Then go back and play the piece once again. You should see an improvement.

Let me know if you find these practice techniques helpful by leaving a comment on this blog. Your own practice suggestions will be welcome to our readers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Introducing The Piano Blog

The purpose of this blog is to provide information for both beginners and advanced students as well as piano teachers on various aspects of piano pedagogy and technique.

To give you a little bit about may background, I began piano study at the age of 5 with my parents who were talented piano teachers. Actually I was playing by ear at age 2 when my parents noticed that I was picking out nursery tunes by ear on the piano. Later, I came to learn that I had absolute pitch, but more about this in a later blog post.

While some parents can successfully teach their own children, it didn't work with me. I didn't receive instruction at a regularly scheduled time, and I didn't pay attention to my parents even though I was a reasonably well behaved child. When I was 10 years old, my mother decided that she had had enough. She took me to her old teacher, Hedy Spielter, whom I studied with until I was 16 years old.

Ms. Spielter was a strict disciplinarian but a very loving and nurturing teacher at the same time. She taught piano in much the same way that the Rumanian gymnasts are taught. Everything was secondary to piano studying including your school work and recreational activities. Most modern piano teachers would never teach even very talented students this way, but I learned effective practice techniques while studying with Ms. Spielter. In addition, Hedy Spielter had developed a system of piano technique which strengthened the fingers and helped you master the most difficult piano passages. I have modified many of her exercises, but these basic practice techniques when combined with interpretation of the music, lead to mastery of the instrument.

Ms. Spielter challenged me from the very beginning. After completing 2 Bach Inventions with Ms. Spielter, she soon had me learning the Prelude and Fugue #2 in C Minor from Book I of the J. S. Bach The Well Tempered Clavichord. This piece was actually too difficult for me at first as a 10 year old, and I spent a year trying to get this under my belt technically. At the end of this year, I did advance several levels technically. I was soon doing the Bach D Minor Concerto and at age 14, the Beethoven Concerto #3 in C Minor. These pieces were too difficult for me initially, but I grew into them. With Ms. Spielter the emphasis was purely on technique. Beyond a few basics and my own interpretation, phrasing, dynamics, and other musicianship subtleties were not emphasized. These I was to learn later. Somehow, I skipped much of the really outstanding intermediate piano literature which I now incorporate into my own teaching.

While I like to challenge my piano students by giving progressively more difficult pieces for them to perform, it is important that these pieces be achievable technically and with attention to dynamics and phrasing.

I began studying The Well Tempered Clavichord with Ms. Spielter. This collection of works consists of 48 Preludes and Fugues in every major and minor key. I was later to memorize these and perform them in a series of 3 concerts. After Ms. Spielter's death when I was 16 years old, I continued study with my parents, Sylvia and Theodore Levey, once again. With them, I completed learning the 48 Preludes and fugues that comprise the Well Tempered Clavichord and began to vary my repertoire with pieces of Schumann, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy.

After graduating high school, I went on to study music at Hofstra University, site of one of the presidential debates. I began 3 years of study with concert pianist Morton Estrin who continued to challenge me technically and helped me to greatly expand my repertoire. With Mr. Estrin, I began to pay more attention to musical nuances and details, particularly in the area of phrasing. It was Morton Estrin who taught me how to shape a phrase and teaching phrasing is an important part of my method today.

After receiving my B.A. in music from Hofstra, I enrolled in the M.A. program in Music History at Queens College, part of City University of New York. The legendary woman pianist, Nadia Reisenberg happened to be on the faculty of Queens College. I was not a piano major, but my parents contacted her and set up an audition. (I was extremely shy in those days.) I performed for her and was accepted as a private student.

Studying with Nadia Reisenberg completely changed my playing. What a wonderful pianist. Lessons with her were a treat. She sat at one piano and I sat at the other piano, and I watched very carefully as she demonstrated almost every passage and how to play it. Much of the technique that I learned with Ms. Reisenberg had to do with economies of scale. In other words how to play a difficult passage without the extra motions which rob you of speed and clarity. She also taught me how to produce a beautiful tone as well as how to interpret each piece stylistically. I never fully appreciated the piano music of Mozart until I had some lessons with Ms. Reisenberg. She taught me how to get that beautiful sound that you need for Mozart. Ms. Reisenberg had been especially well known for her performances of all of the Mozart Piano Concerti and also her Haydn recordings which are still available today. Much of what I learned as an advanced student, I incorporate into my teaching even with first and second year students.

I hope to share some of my knowledge with my readers, and I look forward to your commentary and feedback on my blog posts. Also, feel free to ask me any questions related to classical piano study. I will do my best to answer your questions.

Here are some topics that I will be discussing in future posts:

Choosing a good piano teacher for your child.

The problem with piano hand positions.

The importance of hands alone practice.

Should students play by ear?

Perfect Pitch - How important is it?

How to bring out the melody over the accompaniment

Tone Production

Technical tips for pianists

I also plan to discuss how to approach various pieces in the piano literature from beginner to advanced.