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.


DD of A Better Childhood said...

the piano blog is a resource for people with a passion for piano. whether you want to learn to play piano, get some music instruction, or just improve your piano technique this is the piano resource piano lovers have been hoping for. connect with an accomplished piano pedagogy who is also a respected and professional piano teacher.

Janet Ford said...

Really enjoyed your piano blog. I look forward to seeing your upcoming posts. My son is really into playing both the guitar and piano/keyboard.

Teaching yourself piano said...

Quite an impressive resume you have. I wish I had learned piano under such tutelage. My piano education was largely self-taught and thus I've acquired many bad habits along with a sporadic repertoire. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

Suresh said...

I am a 34 year old dad of 2 kids. I am basically set out to understand music and possibly track(but not teach) my kids and nephew play music. I found your blog entries very pertiment. In days to come you would get real feedback on your techniques working on a 34 year beginner, yes perhaps It would depend wholly on my dedication and sincere efforts. Hope to give you some useful feedback soon. Keep up the great work.

Helene said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helene said...

Hi Suresh - Good luck with your piano studies. With practice and consistency, you will become accomplished. I have had much success with adult beginners. Some of whom, some years later, are playing Chopin Waltzes and Mazurkas and Bach Preludes and Fugues.

Fnor said...

I really enjoy your blog.

It's a pity there no more articles...

Helene said...

Thanks FNOR. You reminded me of an article that I planned to do soon, so check back in a few days.

studying piano said...

This Piano blog is so amazing. I think if you love piano you need to visit this blog often. This blog is just so good.

Helene said...

Thanks. I hope to add an article soon.

Lori Greif said...

Hello Ms.Zemel, I was reading your interesting blog re: Hedy Spielter. I was also a young student with her, as well as my sister, in the mid to late 1940's. Her studio was located in Far Rockaway, NY. She was my primary teacher who provided a strong technical foundation. Her method of practicing on the "dummy" piano was forever a memory. I understand everything you say about her being a disiplinarian.I also remember the pulling of my braids and pressing the tip of the finger into the key & writing "dumpcupf" on the music, mostly Bach. Yes, I too was playing Bach Inventions within two years & I was only 6. How she did it amazes me. I think it was more scare tactics. The day she wanted me to live in her home in White Plains or Yonkers, I believe,was when my parents started to think of other teachers. I am a professional musician today and despite all the negatives, I owe the training she gave me as my foundation. I still have her music & her markings with me today. Sincerely, Lori Greif email:lori.greif@shaw,ca

Helene said...

Hi Lori - Thanks for commenting on my blog. I too studied at her Far Rockaway studio and later at her New York studio on 72nd street. It was 1957 when I began instruction with her. I still have some of her notes, but more valuable to me are the notes from my later study with Nadia Reisenberg.

I have met a number of Spielter students through this blog. Although I have modified some of her techniques, I still find working little parts (a beat and a note, a bar and a note) effective in helping students achieve difficult section. I still basically do practice lessons with my students. Also, the slow, heavy, digging in practice is very helpful.

I never got dumbkopf written on my music. (Most teachers would be more supportive these days.) I do remember her shouting in to some of the practicing students "B-flat Stupid." It was always the B-flat that they missed. :-) Every time that one of my students misses a B-flat, I always think of this.

If you would like, look me up on Facebook and message me under Helene Zemel.

Jason Koh said...

I love your blog, your writings ,experiences that sounded so far fetched for me something i know i will never be able to experience. my parents never had the finances for any piano experience for me though i yearned for it in my early years. At 43 braved myself and bought a digital piano to start everything from scratch. sorry for the boring details but i would love to read more of your writings and will certainly lookout for you in fb.
sincerely,jason koh.

Helene said...

Hi Jason - The most important ingredient for you is to stick with your lessons. I have had a number of adult students who have been with me for a number of years now who I would now consider to be advanced students. Feel free to ask me any questions about piano technique. Good luck to you.