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. :-)