Category: Teaching

Teaching: What’s the next lesson going to be about?

I have a general sense that I want to lead the student from point A to point B. But from week to week I may have no sense of what the next lesson is going to be like based on the prior lesson. The student may have moved roughly in a straight line from where they were last week towards a specific goal, or they might have gone off on a tangent, moved in a totally different direction, followed a desultory path. One does not know until the student is there at the lesson.

Certain nonproductive habits may have crept in over the past week.  Discover them, explain them, discuss any secondary purpose they might serve, and show the student how to counteract them if that is what they want to do.

Often the student has made some progress towards the goal but has gone off at an angle thus diminishing the amount of ‘progress’. My job in such a case, is to facilitate a change of direction. Though the new vector will not be parallel with the previous vector , from this current point we can get on a path that is re-aimed back towards the goal. It’s direction will be different than before but its target is still the same.

The need for such a ‘restorative’ lesson is impossible to predict if one’s data consists only of what occurred the previous week. One has to invent, be flexible, be creative and help steer the student back on course.

A word about ‘goal’. The term sounds fixed and eternal. But it is not, it does change through time gradually.  But here I’m talking more about from lesson to lesson and not over larger spans of time” months, years or decades.

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A personal confession (though not quite like St. Augustine or Rousseau)

Is there a “Joe’s System” to playing the piano?

I am perpetually looking to crystallize the main points about piano practicing and performing that are strewn among my many years as a musician and teacher.  I would like to be able to put them all “in one place” so I can state them all at one and the same time.

Sometimes I feel like I’m getting closer this goal, but then a few days later I seem to go back into a holding pattern, as over an airport, and continually circle around. I visit one principle or insight for while, thinking it has  lasting, basic value. But then, in as little as a few days, I am attracted to something else of as much importance.  I’m seventy-four, so I would like to be able to corral them and get them all in the same place. Like the game where you try  to get all the balls into holes, without dislodging any ball that is already in a  hole by the motions you take to put the next one in its hole.

I’m not sure what I want to ‘corral‘ them into: a “system?”; a briefest possible “list?”. Do I know yet where each part of my insights fits into the whole of them? I don’t want to be a perpetual wanderer in search of truth,, without every saying: ah, good, I’m at the without final destination. It is the process though that keeps me alive, that keeps my creative fires alight (“…consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” – Emerson).

Over weeks, months and years I realize that what arose as separate categories of teaching principles, often joined with other such principles, into a more basic category. I am pleased to be getting to a more fundamental expression of my practicing and playing ideas. But in the background I have a chronic, nagging fear that all that I am capable of saying, and which I have said over the decades, deflates into a single trite statement when revealed in its ‘final’, distilled form. Like what happens to a shining pebble at the beach, which when taken home now shows itself to be dry, plain, like all other pebbles without the gleam of water on their surface.

So I am envious, especially of the great philosophers whose total work  forms a synthetic whole. And of great teachers in general who have put things into a coherent system and written books and have many followers. I don’t know if I can do this. Yet I do exhibit my own valuable personal habits and ways of going about things (which I have been stuck with all my life).

Permit me a one paragraph summary of my life:

While growing up and into my twenties, I was told that everything I felt or articulated was “wrong” in some way or another. If I was lucky it was only wrong by a little, but often it was alleged to be by a lot. The common thread to all the criticism was that what I was thinking was not the norm among thinkers.  I had not done enough research into the field,  not thoroughly compared my thoughts with those my  contemporaries, and should have  not uttered a word until I had studied the great minds of the past and what they had said about the same matter. At the time this struck me as very valid criticism.  Then something interesting happened. People started seeking me out to work with, and they were specifically seeking my “wrong” theories and my “wrong” teaching techniques, and my “wrong” ways of doing and expressing things- all things which over the years had mysteriously turned into the “right” ways.

My closest friends tell me I’m uniquely creative and should always remain as I am. That I come very close to the truth, something which often gets lost and snowed under in a more traditional approach. That I find what is unique in my piano students and give help give them the voice to express it (musically and otherwise).  I don’t know if all of that is true. It is a big question in my life. Sometimes I still wish it would enough just to be different.

In spite of doubts, I soldier on, and continue to make notes about my
lessons and my practicing, and feel driven to publish them in my

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Some examples of teaching legato

More examples of teaching legato

J.M. playing Debussy’s Reverie

I waited for a long note in her right hand. I waited for the second half of that note while as it was beginning to lay dormant. Even though we were not sitting close, I “picked” up, took over, her note with my arm and made a strong gesture of crescendo and expectancy to the right, until it burst  through the onset of her next note.


The middle part of the piece, that begins with a four voice chorale of D Minor chords interleafing with E Major chords.

We deconstructed it tonally. I had her start by playing just one of the four voices making up the chorale: | d4 e4 e4 d4 | d4 e4 e4…  Her main goal was to work on making each note independently resonant, and in no need of any of the other three voices. It was to be fully expressive on its own. As if we entered the “Way Back Machine” (, and Polyphony had not been invented yet.

We did the same procedure for the upper of the two voices in the left hand (the tenor voice). Same goal. To free it in its resonance from the presence of any of the other three voices.

Next the alto voice and then the soprano voice (the two right hand voices). And then immediately put the four voices together. It was my hope, which she successfully realized, that for at least a few fleeting moments, or  hopefully several moments, the self-sufficiency of each voice would still stand out clearly against the smothering influence of the other three voices and the grasping chords they formed.


A couple of measures later, as one of the four voices starts to move faster than the other three (playing a triplet).

The key to phrasing the triplet and choosing an appropriate loudness for each of its notes, lies in the lower three sustaining voices. Our ear must go to the latter and track the decay, or more positively speaking, the present remains of their resonance. It is easy to loose track of what those voices are doing if our ear is captivated by the triplet on top. And if it is captivated by the top voice, it is only due to ‘time’: in the form of the relative quickness of the notes.

If, though, you follow the evolution of the quarter notes, as you play the second and third triplet notes, you will find that the question of how loud to play each of these two latter notes, is fully decided, and determined automatically, by the mid courses of the sounds of the held notes. The result is that, if not exactly balanced in decibels, the attention given to the static notes causes the four voices, including the more rapidly moving voice, to stay well blended throughout the quarter note.


These are some of the final touches of sound artistry at the piano that can be subsumed under the idea of ‘legato’. While the “Platonic Idea” of legato may be conceptually simple, and while the listener hears the constancy of the effect of this Idea, to achieve it as an ongoing phenomenon in time, the pianist must constantly be varying what they are doing with their bodies and their ears to suit the to allow the legato effect to arise within the current details of the matrices of the notes.

Different situations require a different working plan to achieve the effect of legato. Rather than assume that a simple, or constant, effect is the result of the application of a constant physical cause, each connection between sounds often requires an entirely different physical solution. Here are some more examples, not spoken about above. sometimes you want to ‘push’ the arm ahead of the hand.  sometimes the elbow needs to flow more in abstract space while remaining attached to the body at the shoulders. sometimes the hand has to go through some unexpected, in between, shapes and stances on the way between one note and the next. “Legato” is the common result
of these many different physical techniques, each one suited to the particular notes and fingers you are playing.

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L.I.’s lesson: Debussy and Chopin

L.I.’s lesson on 2/21/21
L.I. is a nine-year student who has been playing for more than five years.

Debussy: Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum:

#1: The “Pas de Deux” between the hands

The second measure of the “Tres Anime” nearest the end of the piece.

Play it slowly so you can watch the interaction of your hands; in particular, watch the part of the right hand and part of the left hand that is nearest each other.  Do you notice that the hands have a tendency to almost bunk into each other?

In particular, when the right hand has an e4, it needs to come ‘inside’ your
left hand’s fingers when the latter are playing c4-g4.  But at this
very moment, it becomes necessary for your left hand to find a route
that will bring into, ‘intrude’ one might say, into space just occupied by your right hand in order to migrate to bf4.

When the two hands are competing for the same territory on the
keyboard, each hand has to somehow “honor” the presence of the other
hand.  This reminds me of two dancers engaged in the “Pas de Deux” in
a ballet.  Due to their frequent proximity in space, each has to adopt
the position they would choose more naturally if they were alone on
stage.  Instead, they may be constantly making adaptive motions to the
other.  A slight turn of direction, a slightly different timing to
their movement, to accommodate the needs of the other.

As a result, they can ‘lift’ one another into the air, or make room for
each other, trying not to do anything that interferes with the
movement of the other, and yet abetting the movement of the other.
They can seem to join for a moment in space but separate a moment
later.  They can pass very closely by one another without bunking into
each other.  It requires great finesse and timing of their relative
motions down to small fractions of a second.

Exactly how does the left hand have to behave to let the right hand
into its middle, and exactly when does it do so?  How does your right hand have to behave, and precisely in what route and precisely at what time must it take advantage of the opening made by the left hand?

The reverse situation occurs a bare moment later, only now it is the
left hand that seeks the right moment and the right route to pass into
the middle of the territory just occupied by the right hand.

Just as the dancers have to practice their timing and tempo of
movement, over and over, to allow their two bodies to seem to coincide
in the same space at the same time, so do the fingers and hands of the
pianist in passages such as this from the Gradus ad Parnassus.  The subtle and precise intermeshing of mechanical parts in a machine-like
entity that fuses together the motions originating from two different
sources.  The two hands can seem like they can both occupy the same
place in space, though on closer examination first one is that precise
space and then the other.

#2  Making a decrescendo when a series of notes is descending downwards
into the bass.

Part One:

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: the downward scale in the two measures before
the change of key to two flats.

As pitches go downwards on the piano, their resonance increases.  If
you played all the notes at what you think is the same volume you
would be creating in fact an unintended crescendo.

Debussy adds a specific request to make a diminuendo through the notes.
I would think of this as actually requiring a ‘double’ decrescendo,
one part of which is to prevent the sounds elsewhere from getting louder and louder as their overtone mixtures get louder and denser due simply to
their descending pitches, the second part of which goes even further
and not simply balance out the crescendo but add over an actual
attenuation and softening of the sounds.

Here is one way for her to achieve this effect.

1) Sloppily, ‘blob’ the flat of your hand onto a group on a group of
neighboring notes.  Does this in the region of the keyboard in which
the written notes begin their descent.

2) Do the same with the other hand, and blob down again with a flat
palm on a group of notes that lie just adjacent and to the left of the
first group of notes.  The highest note of the second blob is just to
the left of the lowest note of the first blob.

3) Now bring the first hand into position just left of the second hand
and extend the blobbing cluster of notes downwards.

4) When the left hand replaces the right hand the thumbs of the two
hands are on adjacent keys of the piano and not spread any further
apart from each other.  Similarly, when the right hand replaces the
left hand, the pinkies are similarly close to each other.

5) Now, make the whole series of clusters sound legato, like part of a
simple, single-note melody.

6) As you begin to transfer this exercise into the actual notes of the
run, let each of the ‘smushes’ of the palms, down on the keys, produce not
one note of the run but four notes of the run  Each hand smushes the
keyboard and four notes magically appear sounding one after the other
rather than all at once.

Making a decrescendo when a series of notes is going downwards in

Part Two:

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: the downward scale in the two measures before
the change of key to two flats.

Because of her age, L.I. tends to drop her wrist down to facilitate
her thumb coming under the other fingers in a scale-like passage.  At
the end of measure 31, she uses the left hand and continues to use the left-hand at the beginning of m32 starting with her thumb.  The bf2 at the beginning of m32 comes out unnecessarily accented.

We tried an experiment.

I ask her to put the wrist of her right hand, the hand not then in
use, palm facing downward, underneath her left hand, so it could act
as a platform on which the right hand could rest.  At the moment she
brings the left thumb underneath her other fingers to play bf2 the
right rest, the platform for the left hand, rises upwards a little bit
to prevent the left wrist from sinking down.  The action of the right
hand in support of the left hand can feel analogous to the bouncing of
a baby up and down on one’s lap.  The baby can benefit from extra
support at certain moments in its vertical course.

If the wrist doesn’t sink down too much as the thumb articulates the
note, the thumb will have to dangle down more from the rest of the
hand.  And at the moment it is trying to push down on its key while
dangling, it is steadied, anchored, and supported by the other hand.

Making a decrescendo when a series of notes is going downwards in

Part Three:

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: the downward scale in the two measures before
the change of key to two flats.

She has a tendency to accent the bf2 on the way down. We want the run
to be more of being one cohesive whole.  So I ask her to play the
notes backward from e2 back up to f3.  “As you get on the f3, don’t
stop, but circle around, that is, play the f3 just once and follow it
with e3, then d3, etc. until you back on e2.  There is now one complete cyclic gesture with a rise and a fall.  The notes on the
page, f3 to e2, are now just ‘part’ of a more natural, more complete
gesture.  The missing upwards portion of the cycle may be thought of
as having already occurred in an interior gesture and feels of the
muscles before the descent part begins.

Making a decrescendo when a series of notes is going downwards in

Part Three:

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: the downward scale in the two measures before
the change of key to two flats.

I mentioned in passing the notion of ‘flutter pedaling’ describing
it as being a motion of the right foot that is like the flapping of a
bird’s wings, via which one can depress and release the piano in
quick, small, steps.  This, however, I said is for the future,
especially since your legs are not long enough yet to comfortably
control the pedal.  In the meantime, when you have nothing better to
do, without playing any notes, practicing pushing the pedal down
slowly and then releasing it slowly.  This process will help in coming
years to create a decrescendo in the bass when from note to note
during a run, especially one that is descending in pitch.


Trusting that there is always a direct and simple solution to a
seeming difficult technical problem.

Joe to L.I. I want you to know, and trust, that there is always going
to be a simple answer to any technical problem that will make it
easier to play.  Sometimes this answer however involves strange things
like the “smushing” thing we did we did above. just.  But no matter
how difficult a passage is, there is usually an easy solution, arrived
at through analysis, and use of the right body parts at the right
time, and in the right proportion.


Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: maintaining evenness while playing in speed.

I stop her and ask her to play it more softly and evenly.  Until the
entire piece suddenly organized itself into a subtle sea-scape of
waves as far as the eye could see (as the ear could hear).

Though at her stage of development, she might not hear or notice when
she is playing the sixteenth notes unevenly, all I have to do is
request that she do play them more evenly.  Nothing more than that.
And then somehow she is able to affect the difference and play the
piece without unevenness.  She may not know what she is doing to make it more even, instinctively she just does so.

This made me think that we could skip, for now, the detailed study of body
mechanics that foster even playing.  She grasped it intuitively, made
the change, without knowing exactly what she may have changed or done

And yet…

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: measure 13…

Later in the lesson though she asked: what happens when my fingers are
not under control?

I thought quickly about where to start in such a large topic, and I
chose to start at the periphery and with just one finger: her right
hand pinkie.  We will have plenty of time to get to the other parts of
the body involved in evenness: the rest of the finger, the palm, the
wrist, forearm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, back, and torso, and the

I asked her to slowly flex the right pinkie in the air. And try to
note whether the first knuckle, the one nearest the tip of the
finger, is flexing at all as she flexed the entire finger.  It’s a
knuckle we don’t ordinarily think about on its own. However, it is
capable of adding that final touch to the cooperation of the parts of
fingers and is the joint that is closest to where the finger makes
contact with the key.  It adds the final touch of finesse to the way
you depress the key and sound the note.


Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 7

Referring back to part one of #2 above, I ask her to “smush” down on
the keyboard alternating her left hand over her right hand. This will
control the transfer of energy from one arm to the other, Don’t let

the listener know that there are two hands playing each at a different

Practice just the connection between the e3 (the last note the left-hand
plays before the right-hand plays) and the f3 (the first note the right-hand plays after the left-hand plays),  by going forth between those two notes until it sounds like a seamless trill.

Sometimes, as in measure 11, the technique is the same but the speed at
which the hands take turns smushing down onto the keyboard increases
in velocity.  Only two notes go by before the other hand takes over
for the current hand.  There would be a certain desperateness and
frequency to this back and forth action of the arms, like a cat in the
woods, who has gone up a tree trunk and now has to figure a way back
down to the ground.  Not wanting to fall suddenly, it lowers itself a
little bit at a time by grabbing with its nails onto the bark of the
tree; no sooner than she has grabbed in one place, but she slips down
a few more inches and must grab again at a new place on the bark.  The
cat tries to combine these separate acts in as “legato” a fashion as

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 11

This is another example of the ‘smush’ technique we used before.
Only the rapidity with which one hand smushes over the other hand is
considerably faster.  There are now only two sixteenth notes per
smush, left hand then a right hand then left hand then right hand …  Move across the keyboard like that with
clusters, fast, and legato.  One hand imploding upon the other.

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 13…

Controlling the pinkie of the right hand so it doesn’t seem to
‘intrude’ its way into the passage.

I worry that her hands are getting too stiff and that pain will ensue.
So I have her stop and ‘shake out’ her wrists and fingers through
fast and almost uncontrolled motions.

Sometimes turn your hands upside down and pretend that your fingers
have to reach up rather than down in order to make contact with the
piano keys, as if the keyboard were on top of your hands and not below
the hands.  This change in the ‘gravity’ of the situation promotes a
more uninhibited flow of finger motions.

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 1, et al.

Hold down the g3 and the e4 in your right hand and while doing so try to
play a trill between the c4 and d4. I did this because those inner
notes are not exactly even with the overall intended speed in which she
is playing.

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 35  (left hand bf1 ef2 …)

Do you have a church about a half-mile away from your house?  And
sometimes, maybe at night when there isn’t much traffic, can you hear the
church bells in the distance?

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 57,

you’re like a child going wild; uncontrollable.

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 6 measures from the end

Practice an even trill between c6 and e6

Now from c6 to e5.

Now all three right-hand notes.  but don’t lose control over the c6 which
mediates between the e6 and the e5.

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 6 measures from the end

Put your right hand on top of your left hand, and your left hand on
the piano.  and lean your right hand on your left hand.  now, when you
play this passage, the left hand is the first hand to play, a sixteenth note
before the three right-hand notes.  I want you to feel like your right hand
can stabilize itself by relying on the left hand.  the left hand is
somehow supporting the right hand, anchoring it, giving it a
foundation to lean on, even though it is not really learning on the left hand
by touching it.

keep the speed and the excitement to the end.


Chopin: Posthumous Waltz in A Minor.


L.I. is entering the “Marin Music Chest Competition” Junior, Division
and Chopin is the ‘required’ piece.

Joe: I’d like you to sit, without thinking about the piano, and take a
deep breath.  Then let it out slowly.

Think of the air moving out of your body as being the equivalent of
time itself flowing in a current that sweeps the notes forward. and
fills up the ‘atmosphere’ of the piece.

Right now I am hearing you play individual notes, first one then
another, that are trying to relate to each other, but because of their
individuality, fail to cooperate and act harmoniously together into
forming and sustaining an overall mood of the piece.

The piece will sound better, be more “in character” if you take in
deep breaths and then let each one out gradually over the next measures.
Let the breath weld the notes together into longer, and even longer

Then it will be less about moving fingers, one after another, in
discrete actions, and more about using notes to weave together a web
of mood and a tapestry of texture.


The softer you would like a passage to sound the more distant can
place yourself in your imagination from the source of the sound.  It
can almost reside more in your memory of something that happened
earlier in the piece.  A gradually fading memory.


Can you learn to “play out’ more without playing any “louder”?


Grace notes are deceiving.  Often the more important connection to
make smoothly. or legato. is between the note just before the grace
into the grace note itself, rather than the connection between the
grace note and the notes to which the grace note is attached and which
follows it.  The grace note does not belong only to the note that
follows it, but to the preceding note as well.  The note before the
grace note is usually longer in duration in comparison with the grace
note itself, and it is easy to overlook the connection between the end
of that relatively longer note and the comparatively shorter grace


The ‘climax’ of the Waltz, such as it is, occurs when harmony
the progression moves from A minor to B Major, so it can apply a dominant
to E Major.

In the measures which follow see if you can’t have feelings of more
and more ecstasy growing within you.  This passage is an excuse for


In spite of your youth you have been starting to develop what I am
calling an ’emotional palette’ in your playing.

A painter fills her brush with one color from one place on the
palette applies it to the canvas, and later fills the brush again,
perhaps with another color from another location on the palette.
Sometimes she wants the two colors to mix into a third, and different,
color that is the result of combining them both.

I’m proud of how you are developing an emotional palette at the

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Young Beginners” “Going for a ride” on the Teacher’s Hands

L.I’s lesson on 9/7/19.  She began lessons when she was three and is now nine, going on ten.    Chopin Waltz in C# Minor


In several ways, at several different places in the opening few measures she couldn’t get the rhythm correctly or the tempo. There were just too many issues, in very close order, to go over them separately and then link them together into one flow.

Joe: “I know that you are nine now, going on ten, but let’s do what we did when you were three: let’s have you ‘go for a ride’ on my hands.”

Phase One.

In this procedure L. would passively rest the palm of her then, very small hands, on top of my hand, as I played. The motions I made in my arms and hands were transmitted directly to her hands, and therefore her muscle memory. If she kept her hands alert and attentive, without any resistance to what I was doing,  even the subtlest motions on my part become conscious kinesthetically to the student. In particular, rhythms and physical coordination between the hands. And it is transmitted as a continuous, and whole experience, rather than in disjointed surges of details. This procedure is useful to the young pianist, who hasn’t had time to develop a critical, analytical style.

Usually I exaggerate certain features of my playing so that they make a clearer kinesthetic impression on the student. For instance, where L. had suddenly doubled the tempo in parts of measures one and two, I made a ritard-like motion in my hand as would a conductor (in leading a large group  of players) so as to ritard simultaneously in synch with the  others. The same for when she had been too slow in measure 3 and 4. I dramatized slowing my motions so the notes began on time.

In general, the steadiness of the tempo soaked into her hand and through her hands into her entire playing mechanism. The same with regard to the specifics of the more complicated rhythms.

Phase Two:

The second phase was like phase one, but she became more of a “teacher” trying to impress upon me, the student, physical dynamics of the  mechanical playing the piece. Her role, on top of my hands, went from   passive to active.   J: “Show me” the rhythm, make it very clear; press down on my hands to make me make the sounds.

Phase Three:

We switched positions. I “played” upon her hand as her hands made the sounds.

As a general habit in my teaching, I take a procedure like this, as well as many teaching procedures, and break them down into different shades, angles, stages, situations and perspectives. It is the attempt to form a gestalt out of a finite set of points of view, but the more points in the set (without overdoing it) the greater the likelihood that a whole is created that is greater than the sum of its parts. This keeps the student’s experience of  the procedure alive for longer. It does not decay in effectiveness or stale through time by overuse of just one approach.

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