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June 21, 08

A Cutting-Edge Summer Piano Program from Scratch

At the invitation of the Strings International Music Festival, i've been helping to develop a brand new Piano Studies program.   Situated on the beautiful grounds of Bryn Mawr College, i've just finished the first week of working with a wonderful group of students and coming up with a variety of cutting-edge master class and pedagogy techniques (here's a cool panoramic picture of the Thomas Library where most of the Piano Studies program activities take place, stitched together from 3 shots with my Canon G9):

thomas library bryn mawr college

In addition to participating in chamber ensembles, each student receives 3 private lessons a week from me, as well as 3-4 afternoon group classes covering a variety of topics.  Naturally, the students have been seeing a LOT of my tablet pc's, as well as my other tech tools that work so well for musicians.  Afternoon classes usually involve me projecting scores and digital ink annotations as i give the group lessons, making it easy for everyone to follow along.  Here's a brief sampling of some of the techniques and topics covered:

  • Practice Journals - using the Snipping Tool from Microsoft's 2005 Experience Pack for Tablet PC's, i demonstrate how easy it is to cut out sections of the music and paste them into separate "practice journals" (my PJ's), effectively giving me an efficient means of covering the most difficult spots of a piece quickly.  Even without a tablet pc, one can still create an effective PJ by using Post-It notes or just numbering the location of difficult passages.  Taking the time to isolate problem passages, then cut-and-paste those passages into something like a composition notebook can make practicing exponentially more effective and speed up learning time overall.  In the projected example below, i helped one of the pianists "pull apart" a difficult Bach fugue a section at a time. 


  • Fingering Master Class - in this class, i set up my portable camera document scanner to project a live video feed of my hands on the keyboard split with a zoomed view of the score as i demonstrated various techniques for effective fingering.  Some key principles are as follows:
    • Take advantage of the natural shape of the hand to maximize the strongest fingers and comfortably find intervals
    • Focus on the horizontal flow of the hands, rather than "vertical" fingerings that look good on paper but actually contort the hand uncomfortably in "realtime" ("vertical" or "linear" fingerings usually focus too heavily on keeping fingers numerically consecutive, for example)
    • When it comes to figuring out fingerings, cheating is good!  Jorge Bolet, my old piano professor, was a master at finding ingenious tricks to make difficult passages easier (and that usually meant sounding better!) This takes a good bit of "out-of-the-box" thinking - i'll try to see if i can post some examples in a future article.
  • Improvisation - after outlining the three primary chords (I, IV and V chords - tonic, subdominant, and dominant respectively), we worked on improvisation exercises within simple binary forms (A-B-A).  One student in particular is extending those exercises by embellishing existing melodies, creating new improvised accompaniment patterns, setting poems to original music, and even coming up with an improvised collaborative composition with a violinist.

primary chords

  • Recording Session Master Classes - using my Samson C01U USB microphone and splitting a projected screen again with music scores and live tracks from the open source audio editing program Audacity, i've been helping the students to hear and fix their own playing; simultaneously, i've been demonstrating how producers annotate recording sessions, then edit the takes to create 'finished' recordings.  This is turning out to be a terrific method for getting everyone to sharpen their ears and quickly correct problem areas, as well as getting a 'hands on' experience with manipulating sound waves visually.  Note, i'm using audio gear that's portable and easy to set up - i'll try to demonstrate work with more 'professional' gear later on.

  • 4-hand piano literature - using two tablet pc's and two sets of custom-designed page-turning pedals, the students have been getting hands-on experience with reading digital scores and 'turning' pages hands-free, as well as exposure to some classical 4-hand literature by Mozart, Clementi, Satie, and others.

More pictures and posts to come as we wrap up the second week of the Piano Studies program at Strings International 2008!

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June 01, 08

The New Piano Revealed

The new piano actually arrived a few hours after i took the pictures of my old Steinway - it was tuned this past week and has been generally getting adjusted to the climate of its new home.  The una corda action didn't work when the piano first arrived, but a quick pop out and resetting of the action bed had that problem fixed in a jiffy.  There was an annoying damper pedal squeak for the first few days, but after some heavy practice sessions that too happily disappeared.  I'm fully expecting the tuning to go out right away, especially given my heavy technique, so i'm planning to schedule tunings at least once a month for the foreseeable future.  This isn't a fault of the piano, mind you - any instrument needs time to adjust and settle to any new environment. 

Here are some pictures of the new baby:


I really like the inlay of the rim!  Kind of reminds me of a Hamburg Steinway/Boesendorfer finish!



A detail shot of the inside strings and frame - ahhhh, the smell of new strings!



The fall board had some cracks, so it's still in the shop to be refinished - i picked the piano for its warm tone.  Looks were secondary, but it'll be nice once the piano is actually "whole".  Come to think of it, i'm actually kind of enjoying the open view into the action!  German Renner action, by the way - nice and meaty touch, with good response!  Italian felts, i'm told - the hammers are a bit on the bright side and will need to be voiced down as part of the "settling in" process (i tend to compact hammers pretty quickly, given my heavy touch). 



Here's another view of the action - can you tell i'm enjoying the low-light capabilities of my Canon G9 camera?  This was taken sans flash and a slow 4 second exposure after a 2 second timer-shot setting.



I guess it's too early to say if these pedals will give me "greenfoot", but so far so good!



Rear view of the pedal lyre.  Note the brass supports, as opposed to the old wooden ones of my previous Steinway.



My old Steinway's wheels were so narrow and impractical - i really appreciate the wider footprint of this piano's wheels!



Note the brass sockets for the lid - a nice touch!



A more modern music desk support rack - slow exposure seems to have captured my tablet pc's pen tether swinging back and forth!


IMG_0306 fallboard to display the make of the piano...can anyone identify this serial number?  ;)



Here's another clue:  Model 178?  Number 02744?



Good thing the name of the piano is emblazoned on the side of the cabinet!



Full disclosure closeup:  this is a brand new Cunningham Piano!

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Thank you for visiting this site! I hope you'll find this to be a friendly place to learn about and discuss the fascinating technologies available for the Classical Musician. A great place to get started is with the ongoing "Getting Started" series. Remember, the worst questions are the ones you never ask, so feel free to email me!


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