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Daily piano tip #18.

Posted by on September 21, 2008. 2 comments

As a teacher, dealing with the money is usually kind of awkward, and sometimes seems like it is in a bit of bad taste. We are making music, not running a sausage shop. Even so, we can’t avoid it, we’ve grown attached to things like food and a roof over our heads. I recommend either making an agreement to get payed in advance for lessons monthly or bi-monthly. In any case, I try to avoid the actual daily cash transaction; a closed envelope works well, or just leaving the money on the piano, a table or the mail slot works as well. Chopin asked his students to leave the money on the mantle and was actually pretty offended when any of his students tried to give him cash directly. I am a bit of that mentality as well. It might be old-fashioned, but to me it doesn’t feel completely right dealing directly with the cash after every lesson.

Seven things we can learn from Schroeder.

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For many of us, Schultz’ Peanuts cartoons were one of our first contacts with jazz music, with a great soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. My favorite character is Schroeder. He brought classical music to the strip, usually playing music by his idol Beethoven but sometimes Chopin, Schubert and Brahms. I love the way he plays like a virtuoso on his little toy piano, and how it sounded like a Hammond organ in Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Like many great virtuosos, he had his weird and eccentric side too; he kept a closet full of busts of Beethoven and, when he actually sits at a grand piano for the first time, he starts crying and doesn’t want to play it. I love the way he tries to emulate Beethoven’s lifelong bachelorhood and always ignores Lucy van Pelt. He is also one of the few characters on the strip that isn’t mean to Charlie Brown, defending him when the others pick on him. Here are my favorite quotes from Schroeder, perhaps we can learn something from him:


His priorities are obvious, Beethoven before girls.

His priorities are obvious, Beethoven before girls.

Schroeder: Charlie Brown, let me give you a little advice. As long as you think only of yourself, you’ll never find happiness. You’ve got to start thinking about others!
Charlie Brown:
Others? What others? Who in the world am I supposed to think about?
Schroeder: Beethoven!
Charlie Brown:
Oh good grief!

I can’t agree more; to find happiness, you have to think of music and to think of others. Nihilism has a detrimental effect on a musician, and Schroeder clearly understands that. We can also learn from his enthusiasm in enlightening his uncultured bunch of friends by bringing Beethoven up as the answer to all of lifes troubles. If Beethoven doesn´t bring you happiness, then there’s probably no hope for you. Not just Beethoven, which brings us to our next quote:


Schroeder: Buying records cheers me up. Whenever I feel low I buy some new records. I was so depressed today I bought Mendelssohn’s violin concerto and Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day.
Lucy: Wow! How depressed can you get!

Music is food for Schroeder’s soul, he’s not just a trained key-pushing monkey, he is an artist that needs his art the same way the rest of us need air or water. Notice how what he bought is not piano music. Not another record of the Rach 3 and Chopin’s greatest hits; he is a musician, not a pianist.


He had a closet full of these!

He had a closet full of these!

Schroeder: The joy is in the playing.

He understands that the actual physical act of playing is a pleasure in itself and connected intimately to the music. Music is not to be contemplated or to be kept on a shelf; the joy for an artist is sitting down and actually taking part in our art.


Schroeder sees Lucy and Snoopy brawling: Fighting under the mistletoe? How unfeminine…how unromantic…how gauche!

An artist is an aesthete, with impeccable taste and an eye for what is beautiful or graceful. He is a gentleman and appreciates the finer things in life as well as the common things like playing baseball with Charlie Brown and hanging out with Snoopy and the gang. He is already a man and shows greater maturity than his peers, and he is not afraid to let them know when they are not acting in a proper manner to the occasion.


Lucy asks if musicians make a lot of money: Who cares about money?! This is ART, you blockhead! This is great music I’m playing, and playing great music is an art! Do you hear me? An art! (pounding on piano) Art! Art! Art! Art! Art!”

As pianists, we are artists making great music. Money is not our concern, talking about money is even somewhat offensive. We are not running a butcher’s or a sausage shop and the main point of what we are doing should not be getting payed. It is always about the art. Art! Art! Art! Art! Art!, as he puts it so clearly.


Lucy asks him what the answer to life is: BEETHOVEN! Beethoven is IT, clear and simple!! Do you understand?

He can’t be any more clear with this one, Beethoven is the answer to life. Life is music. As John Cage so aptly pointed out to everyone, everything is music.


When Charlie Brown asks him how he’s able to play such complicated pieces on his toy piano when the black keys are just painted on:


I practice a lot.

He makes no excuses, everything can be solved with hard work. With so many musicians out there blaming the piano, or the hall, or the weather every time something goes wrong it is refreshing to see him make great music with a toy piano, with no black keys. More than anything else, it teaches us about the power of our imagination and sheer force of will when making great music. He doesn’t let his toy piano bum him out, he just takes it in stride and practices a lot. So should we all.

Daily piano tip #17.

Posted by on September 20, 2008. 0 comments

Keys are meant to be pressed with a downward motion, they move up and down. When doing big leaps on the keyboard or playing chords, it helps me to stop thinking of movements in straight lateral lines. Think of arcs, of parabolas. If you make the leap in a straight line, then you actually have to make a sharp corner to play and you have a higher probability to miss or hit the note without any control. By moving in arcs- however shallow or close to the keyboard- you play the keys in the best way possible, you have better control of your weight and over the attack.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, except in a piano. The shortest distance for us is usually curved. Avoid sharp turns, stunted movement or sudden stops in your motions; your movement should flow naturally from one position to the next.

Think curves.


A parabolic curve.

Daily piano tip #16.

Posted by on September 19, 2008. 0 comments

Imitation is sometimes one of the best paths towards understanding. When you are practicing a piece, improvising something similar to what you are playing helps get to the heart of what you are trying to learn. It can make the difference between learning something in two months and learning something in two days.

What is easier to learn, to memorize: a text in your own language or a list of random letters of the same length? The obvious answer is the speech because it can be organized into coherent structures and concepts which are easier to learn. In the case of the list of random letters, you are required to learn and organize one thousand or so individual things, while the speech can be reduced to only a handful of concepts, most of which fit the pattern of everything we have learned before.

The key towards effective and long-lasting memorization is a clear understanding of what is going on.

One of the best ways to get an understanding of a piece is by imitating what the composer did, trying out variations that the composer himself might have tried out himself and also completing ideas that are not completely developed. An insight into a piece of music from a composer’s point of view is a very useful things, and one of the factors that made musicians such as Glenn Gould great.

When playing a cantabile passage, you can try changing the key, you can try re-harmonizing the melody with the same functions but substituting the actual chords (like putting a minor IV instead of a major IV or a V instead of a diminished chord). You can try using the same model as the piece -for example, arpeggiated accompaniment in the left hand with melody in octaves- and make up a new piece of your own. If you run into a melodic or harmonic sequence- for example, in a Bach Invention- you can try taking the sequence out of context and completing it, instead of breaking it off where the music does. You can try fitting a different motif into the sequence.

This is a very useful practice technique that can be applied to children as well. Most kids interested in the piano will usually jump at the chance of improvising or writing their own music. In many cases, after I finish working on a small piece with a child, we talk about the piece and make some rules up. Things like: “this piece only uses the notes middle C, D and E”, “this piece only uses half notes and quarter notes” and “this piece plays the same thing with both hands all the time”. Once we do that, I let him improvise or write a piece following those rules, name it (whatever he wants- “The singing turtle song”, “The snail song”, “The Kung Fu Panda, Wall-e fighting ninjas and shooting Kame-hame-has song”), and then learn it along with whatever he is learning at the same time.

And now we will play the "Singing Turtle Song"

And now, the Singing Turtle Song.

Daily piano tip #15.

Posted by on September 18, 2008. 2 comments

Whatever happens in a lesson, it is never personal. Once you are done with the lesson, no matter what happened, say “good bye” or “see you at the next lesson” calmly and with a smile. If you bump into your student in the hall, don’t brush him off and don’t scold him again. What happens in lessons stays there. You don’t want your students to think that you hate them, that you “just don’t like them”, that you have it in for them in some way. Every negative comment in lessons must be the result of a musical problem and it is very important that the student understands this. Don’t slam the door after them, don’t start yelling at them when you meet them in the hallways of the school or at the bus stop and remember to greet them and to let them go with a smile. I come across students that I personally dislike now and then, but there is no reason for them to know that. You have to stay professional.

Daily piano tip #14.

Posted by on September 17, 2008. 0 comments

Quantity of repertoire does matter. If a pianist has played ten or fifteen Beethoven sonatas, most of the time he will have a better understanding of the style and will have an easier time approaching a work with similar elements than a pianist who has only played one or two. Quality is important, but when one is studying it is very important to be familiar with as much repertoire as possible, not only by listening to it but by actually working on it for a few days at least. It is a good idea to start with much more repertoire than one will play in the school exams or recitals and eventually pick a few of the pieces and bring them up to performance level. As long as it doesn’t interfere with practicing your normal repertoire it is a good idea to read through staples of the piano repertoire, and try to work out how the difficult passages would be played. It is also a good idea for when one is burned out from over-practicing the same repertoire all the time.

Daily piano tip #13.

Posted by on September 16, 2008. 2 comments

Stop obsessing about your hands, specially before a performance. They’re cold, they’re sweaty, they’re sticky, they’re dry, they’re shaky- you’ve played with your hands in all kinds of states when you practice with no problem. It’s usually the nerves that make you extra aware of how your hands are feeling before you play,  it’s panic looking for reasons to trip you up.

After a concert, a woman asked Joseph Hofmann how he could possibly play so well with such small hands. He responded: “Madam, what makes you think that I play with my hands?”

Forget your hands; practice is for your mind, not your fingers.

Viva México!

Posted by on September 15, 2008. 4 comments

Viva México!

Viva México!

Tradition says that on the night of September 15th, almost before midnight, the reverend Miguel Hidalgo went up into his church steeple and rang the bells to call everyone to rise up and send the Spaniard imperialist dogs back home.  To mark this event, in every single plaza in all the towns in Mexico, at every single town hall, from the huge Zocalo in Mexico City, to tiny “Tanque de agua número 56” (Water tank number 56) in some remote corner of San Luis Potosi- that is an actual town, by the way- governors and mayors will ring the bells or shoot a gun, give a speech and yell “Viva México!” right at midnight. Lots of fireworks, drinking and food will follow and then everyone will gather, hung-over, on the 16th to watch the obnoxiously early military parade.


Mexican super-hero Miguel Hidalgo leads the revolt against the Spaniards. Not pictured: super-strength and laser beams shooting from his eyes.

All over Mexico, orchestras annually present their “Mexican programme”. Most of these will include either the Huapango, by José Pablo Moncayo or Danzón no. 2 by Arturo Marquez. Other works usually included are Chavez’ Sinfonía India and Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemaya. The music of Silvestre Revueltas, is being rediscovered by the rest of the world and Sensemaya recently made a brief show in the pop culture scene when it was featured in the soundtrack of the movie Sin City.

There is some Mexican music out there that is immensely popular here in Mexico, but practically unknown in the rest of the world. The Huapango and Estrellita are probably as well known here as Beethoven’s fifth and Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Here are three works that are very popular here in Mexico that are really worth knowing. While popular doesn’t necessarily mean quality, the three composers behind these works are very good and these works are a good starting point to get to know the rest of what they wrote.

1. Huapango (1941), José Pablo Moncayo

This is a bright symphonic piece that is usually included in pop concerts of Latin American music. It was written by José Pablo Moncayo, an extremely talented pianist, composer and conductor who studied with Carlos Chavez and in Tanglewood with Copland and Bernstein. Here is a short video of pretty Mexican landscapes and Moncayo’s Huapango:


The great tragedy of Moncayo’s life is that he is known best for one of his least accomplished works, made while he was a student while many of his masterpieces are completely unplayed, even in Mexico. His teacher, Carlos Chávez, sent Moncayo and Blas Galindo to Veracruz to study local folk music; much like Bartok and Kodaly did a few years earlier in the Balkans. The local music features the harp and constantly changing accentuation that is typical of Mexican music; a 6/8 measure that constantly turns into a 3/4 without changing speed, sometimes played one on top of the other. (You count ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six and also ONE-two-THREE-four-FIVE-six). This rhythmic phenomenon is called hemiola. Moncayo used three Huapanagos (the name of the local folk music genre) called El Siquisiri, El Balahu and El Gavilancito and made a symphonic work based on them, first exposing them as he originally heard them and then developing them and combining them according to his own taste.

In 1941, Chávez (who was directing the National Symphony Orchestra) replaced a potpourri of huapangos that was usually played every year with Moncayo’s Huapango. The Huapango became a tradition. It is full of solos and it is a lot of fun to play for horn and harp players. It is not difficult and is constantly played by youth orchestras, and the constant infectious 6/8-3/4 rhythm has any audience tapping their feet along to the music immediately. Moncayo.

Moncayo’s life has not been studied in-depth and his important role as a conductor is not currently given the importance it deserved. While he was conducting, the national symphony orchestra gained international renown, and due to World War II in Europe, many great soloists brought their art to Mexico for the first time. As he grew older, his work fell out of fashion; composers abandoned the nationalist style of composition that included epic scale works featuring Mexican elements. His death marked the end of the nationalist era in Mexican music. Towards the end of his life, he was struggling with a bad political situation in Mexico and a difficult cultural environment. He died prematurely at 46, with the new generation of composers moving on towards serialism and a completely different school of thought.

If you like Moncayo’s work, I highly recommend Amatzinac for flute and string quartet (1935); his Symphony (1944); Sinfonietta (1945); Tierra de Temporal (1949) and among his works for piano, Muros Verdes.

2. Danzón no. 2 (1994), Arturo Márquez

Along with the Huapango, Danzón no. 2 is practically the second national anthem of the Mexican people. It is based on a Cuban dance form that became very popular in a variant played mostly in the southern and south-eastern zones of Mexico since the end of the 19th century. Like the Huapango, rhythmic hemiola plays a big part in the danzón. In this case, the changes are in 8/8, changing from 4/4 to 3/8+3/8+2/8 constantly. The measure changes are complicated in this work, but the accentuation is much more important and remains constant throughout.


Arturo Marquez, a really cool laid-back guy.

Arturo Márquez wrote a series of works based on the danzón, commissioned by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In these works, he explores a variety of ideas, using the language of danzón as a basis; these works include a guitar concerto (Danzón no. 3), a piece reminiscent of Tchaikowski’s fifth symphony (Danzón no. 4), a saxophone quintet (Danzón no. 5) and a work modeled on Ravel’s Bolero (Danzón no. 8); of all these, Danzón no. 2 gained international fame.


Danzón no. 2 is a beautiful thing to watch in a concert hall; it has a lot of visual appeal. The violin and viola bows move hypnotically, reminding one of feathers swaying, of fish gliding through the water; whole sections of the orchestra jump in and out, dancing with every changing theme, built like a jigsaw puzzle out of danzón elements. The work has been played by many orchestras around the world, notably by the Berlin Philharmonic. I have yet to see a version I like by non-Mexican orchestras. Foreign versions I have heard tend to have too much piano and a percussion section that tends to be behind the beat

If you enjoy Danzón no. 2, Márquez has recently composed a series of works for solo piano that are beautiful and highly idiomatic to the instrument. My favorite in the danzon series is number eight, homage to Maurice. It is modeled after Ravel´s Bolero, featuring a conga line instead of the original snare drum and following the slow build-up of the Bolero. Here it is, played by the Silvestre Revueltas Youth Orchestra:


I personally played the piano in the world premiere of his Cantata de los sueños (Cantata of dreams) in its version for choir, soloists, narrator, piano and percussion. Here is the final number from this work that is part cantata, part opera and part musical theatre and protest song. I am the pianist on the left, and my wife is sitting beside me turning the pages:


It was a lot of fun to play. It treats the piano as a percussion instrument integrated to the rest of the percussion ensemble. The music was very nice, but the subject matter was not so much to my taste. I tend to dislike music that features political content (the cantata talks about world peace, the internationalization of global resources, the decline of ethnic cultures and racism, among other current themes).

3. Estrellita (1912), Manuel M. Ponce


Manuel María Ponce, along with Carlos Chávez, the grandfather of current Mexican music.

I won’t bore you with a biography of Manuel M. Ponce. His Wikipedia page is pretty complete and includes most of what you need to know about this man, one of the first Mexican composers to gain international recognition. His song Estrellita became very popular in the first part of the twentieth century. Along with Estrellita, it is practically impossible to attend a school recital in a Mexican conservatory where someone isn’t playing Ponce’s Intermezzo or his Scherzino Mexicano either on piano or guitar. Estrellita was also transcribed by Jascha Heifetz, and his version of this work for the violin is played by young would-be virtuosos around the world. His work also jumped to the international scene when Andrés Segovia played and recorded many of his works transcribed for guitar. His Concierto del Sur for guitar and orchestra is played by guitarists everywhere.

Here is Alfredo Kraus singing Estrellita, to the general swooning of all old ladies in the audience:


Here is Joshua Bell playing Heifetz’ transcription of this work at the proms, to the general swooning of all teenage girl violinists in the audience. It is not easy to play at all, featuring very high positions, a constant vibrato and cantabile and lots and lots of accidentals.


You can also listen to his two other most popular works, Intermezzo for piano and Scherzino Mexicano in transcription for guitar. You can find a ton of Mexican pianists playing the Intermezzo on Youtube. Here is a version of the Scherzino Mexicano played by John Williams on guitar:


Even with its salon music writing and romantic turn of the century style, there is still a Mexican element to the writing. The hemiola is ever present even here and the bass line is very similar to mariachi playing. The endings of the phrases are also typically folksy.

Ponce’s most famous works were in his salon music, romantic style. He later evolved into a quasi-impressionistic style and later adopted a more avant guarde nationalistic composition style. I highly recommend going through his catalogue, which includes such gems as the violin concerto, different poems for the piano and music based on the baroque and neo-classical styles.

Daily piano tip #12.

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To a certain point, make sure you can describe with words what is going on in a piece. The deeper things in music are pretty hard to describe, but the structure of the piece and the superficial levels should all be crystal clear to you. Narrating the piece, actually putting it into words, helps unmuddle our minds and have clear exactly what is going on and what we are supposed to be doing each step of the way. Organizing your thoughts and the structure of what you are playing does not hinder spontaneity or emotion, it actually gives you freedom to be spontaneous and a more meaningful comprehension of the music. By really understanding the superficial goings on of a piece, a musician gains the freedom to start thinking of deeper things.

For example, to describe Mozart’s sonata “Semplice” in C major (the easy one everyone plays, K.545) you can start by saying:

The main theme starts with an arpeggio of the C major triad, going to the dominant and returning with a mordent on C; the second part of the main theme is in the sub-dominant resolving with a I-V7-I cadence. Meanwhile, the left hand has a Basso de Alberti realization. Our first bridge is made up of scales in the right hand going through each step in the diatonic scale while the left hand plays the chords in half notes….

There is no need to have an advanced knowledge of music theory, though. You can just as easily say to yourself:

The first four measures of the piece are the main theme, which is repeated in another key starting the third page (according to your edition). The left hand alternates between the the fifth finger and the rest, playing chords…

It is best to start from general things, and later on specify more and more:

The first half of the first page goes like this (sing the theme) which is kind of a singing theme, then there are a lot of scales that go on until we get to this other thing (sing it) which sounds kind of bouncy and then to finish it up, we have a kind of triumphant ending theme and the repeat sign. We have a middle section with the original theme sounding kind of gloomy and then….

The number of musicians who can’t really describe what is going on in their music in really simple terms is surprising. It will help you understand what is going on, and it is a very important skill for a teacher to have. The ability to describe music in words.

Daily piano tip #11.

Posted by on September 14, 2008. 0 comments

When practicing a piece, it is a good idea to divide it into small segments. Just remember to always have those small segments overlap. When you practice a small segment, end with the beginning of the next one and start with the ending of the previous one. It is important to preserve the continuity of the whole piece in your head; to never lose track of how the little fragment you are playing fits into the rest of the whole puzzle.

When learning a whole recital programme or a piece with several movements, it is also a good idea to practice the first few bars of whatever comes next whenever you come to the end of a piece. It is a terrible experience to suddenly be stumped about how the next movement starts!