The luckiest person alive

“Every day, life is beautiful… Music is a dream… I felt this is the only thing that helps me have hope. A sort of religion. Music is God.” (Alice Herz-Sommer)

Here’s an inspirational video about the oldest Holocaust survivor still alive. An accomplished pianist at an early age (she could play all of Chopin’s Etudes from memory), she was part of a group of artists used by Nazis for propaganda purposes – to show the world all was well.

Alice’s positive attitude and her music were responsible of her survival in the concentration camp, as well as her son’s.

I hope I can still play this well, and have this same spirit and gratitude, at age 109.


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Was it the piano or the pianist?

I recently went to a recital given by last year’s Honens winner Pavel Kolesnikov. It was on the new C. Bechstein piano recently acquired by the University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts. This was the piano’s debut.

My interest was piqued. Since reading The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (Thad Carhardt) a few years ago, I’ve been curious about hearing performances on pianos other than Steinway and Bösendorfer. 

I found it a bit disappointing and was frustrated that I couldn’t tell whether my dissatisfaction was with the pianist or the instrument. Am I so used to the “perfect” even sound of the Steinway that all else pales? The Steinways, I must add, heard more these days via Youtube than live. 

Have I not been to enough live concerts?

Memories of recitals from my youth came flooding back. My teacher insisted we all attend every piano recital in town. I remember overhearing conversations in the lobby about how fabulous or dreadful the piano was at the time. And feeling clueless about the whole thing.

Can I trust my ears now?

To me the works by Debussy sounded the best on this piano. There was some Rameau that I loved as compositions, but sounded too resonant for how I imagine French Baroque should sound. And the Chopin sounded too brittle.

Was it the pianist or the piano? I don’t know. I’m interested in any feedback.

Russian pianist (and Honens Laureate) Pavel Kolesnikov playing Debussy’s La cathdrale engloutie on – what else? – a Steinway.


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Practice and listen and practice and listen

Brahms… and win a Nobel prize along the way.

Especially if bassoon is your instrument.

In an interview with Thomas Südhof, Nobel prize winner for medicine and physiology, his bassoon teacher gets the credit for teaching him how to do something right. Practice and listen and practice and listen. Hours, and hours, and hours.

Be passionate. “I always try to understand everything I encounter—not only in science, but also historical and political events and music and movies—get to grips with the content, meaning, and process. This is immense fun, as strange as that may sound.”

To relax, drink wine and talk to the people you love. If possible, dine with Mozart to try to figure out the source of his creativity.

And good things then happen …


Read the entire interview in the Lancet, or an abridged, music-bits-only synopsis at Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc.

Illustration: Johannes Brahms by Richard C. Thompson via Composers Illustrated

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Don’t leave it to chance

I’m big on intervallic note-reading. Once the students get started, they’re away.

But they need to get started. And sometimes restart mid-stream.

At some point they need the ability to identify cold any given note on the grand staff. And I admit I need to do much better here.

Week in, week out, as we go through new pieces, I stress the relationship between the note they’ve just played and the one following.

Up or down. Step or skip. Two skips equals a triad. Line-space-line-space equals a scale. Bring in the Alphabet Drill that we’ve been reciting for the last month.

But. The gap needs filling. Then it all needs to be synthesized. Brought together into a whole that will allow for more ease in reading.

So – the flashcards and Note-finder are coming out again this week. And the One-Minute Club chart will be up by next week.

Note names will not be absorbed by some magical process. This can’t just be left to chance.


Image: via Blog of a Pianist


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Go away. I’m practising.

i'm practising


Painting by Berthe Morisot (France, 1841-1895).

Image via Amanda Clyne.


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Joie de vivre

Joie de vivre (noun): a feeling of happiness or excitement about life

Major=happy; minor=sad.

It’s how we usually introduce the concepts to the students. But this is too simplistic. The harmonies are only part of the picture.

It’s the rhythm – always the rhythm – that drives music. Or maybe doesn’t drive it – settling at times for complete repose.

On this sunny autumn day (no, the photo is not mine) the piece that jumps to mind as being the embodiment of the joy of life is in a minor key.

Bach’s Keyboard in D Minor – the first movement – played by Murray Perahia. His tempo and interpretation and the rhythmic vitality go a long way for me.


Definition: Merriam-Webster.

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How To Pedal Chopin’s Waltzes

Another great session at the recent APTA Conference was Allen Reiser’s Chopin in 3/4 Time. The Waltzes and Mazurkas. How they’re the same – and different – and a few tips on how to teach and play them.

One topic was pedaling. I was all ears. In my youth my teacher was so hung up on getting the correct pedaling, I was left thoroughly confused – and afraid to teach anything authoritatively for fear I’d get it wrong.

Turns out there are three main pedal techniques for the waltzes (and mazurkas) which, it should be remembered, are each a medley of different waltzes. This is significant.

All three techniques can – and should – be used in every waltz. Use different techniques to express the characters of each of the smaller waltzes that make up the larger one.

  1. Direct pedaling – down on beat 1 and up on 2 or 3 (again, more choice!)

2.   Syncopated or legato pedaling.

3.   No pedal at all.

The last technique is, according to Reiser, not used nearly enough. He demonstrated bits of waltzes using no pedal at all. And what a delightful difference it suddenly made.

In the mazurkas, a typical pedaling that would bring out the unique character of the dance is direct pedaling from beat 3 to beat 1.

Regarding Chopin’s own pedal markings – ignore them.

So go crazy. Experiment. Use a combination of techniques. Change it up on the repeats. Waltz forth with the confidence that it’s all good!

Wilhelm Fischer in a, recording of Opus 69 No. 1 that is in turn, tender, joyous, restful …


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I’m home. We’re home.

My husband and I were welcomed as New Members at the Anglican Cathedral Church of the Redeemer this morning. I feel settled now. It’s been such a long round-about journey and finally, finally, I’m settled.

My family and faith background is Mennonite – where it can be tricky to separate the culture and the faith. But that’s my grounding. Those are my beliefs. Fundamentally, theologically, they haven’t changed a whole lot.

My uneasiness with the worship services in my home church increased with my first exposure to the liturgical service.

I was a music student at University, originally a pipe organ major (a long story), when I became friends with some Lutherans. My ethnocentrism started unraveling.

Then they invited me to fill in on the organ when their organist was unavailable. And I was introduced to the liturgical service.

The ritual, the beauty, the contemplative and reflective spirit. The holiness.

I changed universities and switched majors – back to the piano I had always done. I was unable at that point to conceive of a commitment to the kind of church where I could get a job as an organist. But the craving for the soul-nourishment of a liturgical service never left.

Then I married a Catholic. He very patiently attended my home church those first few years. We left the Mennonite church to attend a (very) large Evangelical church. We thought – and no regrets here – that it would be a good place to raise our kids.

Now they’re almost adults. Making their own decisions. And it was the right time to do something for the two of us.

It didn’t even take any “church-shopping” to decide on the Anglican Cathedral Church of the Redeemer (Calgary, AB). We’d been there a few times over the years – for those special Christmas and Easter services. It’s a good meeting-place for a Protestant and a Catholic. We can both participate fully.

The music is arguably the best church music in the city. Bach or Mendelssohn on the organ many mornings. A choir that sings Renaissance motets, Brahms, Stanford, Holst. The sermons are far from fluff – there’s an intellectual approach that sits so well with me.

I can relax there and yet, be completely engaged in my worship. It feels like a homecoming.

Did I mention the good music? The Cathedral choir singing Hassler’s Cantate Domino:


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Don’t motivate. Inspire.

“I need you to motivate my daughter.”

Red flag. Big Red flag.

“She won’t practice. And she keeps telling me she won’t.”

I accepted the student. I needed the money. 

“She’s 13 and more interested in sports than music.”

I’m thinking, surely I can do better than her previous teachers have. I’ll connect with her. I’ll motivate her.

It didn’t happen. We had a miserable year together.

Don’t even try to motivate. Inspire.

It’s not my job as a teacher to motivate the student. That’s the student’s responsibility. It IS my job to inspire. To focus on the MUSIC. Get excited about it and show it.

Dr. Dale Wheeler, in his talk at the current Alberta Piano Teachers’ Association Conference (happening as I write), encouraged us to put the focus on the music, above the teacher and the student. He challenged us to be proactive, rather than reactive teachers. 

Reactive teachers bounce with their students from crisis to crisis, allowing the students to dictate the parameters of the lesson, ending in frustration on all fronts.

Proactive teachers control what they can – their own attitudes and actions.

They don’t just give information; they equip students to make intelligent choices.

They know that piano lessons are about learning music, enjoying music, discovering what it is to be human; the piano is the vehicle.

They know it’s not about the grade in the festival or exam or jury, but it’s about the journey. They recognize that the student’s success depends on a myriad of factors, many out of control of the teacher.

Focus on the music. Seek to inspire. Then the health and vitality and, ultimately, motivation, of student and teacher often fall into place.


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Top Ten Technical Tools

… for first-year piano students.

One more list to make me feel completely inadequate.*

This is from a workshop by the indomitable Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield that I attended almost 20 years ago. I get depressed when I realize how many of my students don’t have all these skills after three years – including those that I’ve started myself. Can’t blame someone else’s “bad teaching.”

My score: F.  I’m usually happy if I can get them reading and counting and developing some semblance of a practice routine. 

Still, it remains something to aspire to.

  1. Single note singing tone (wrist rolls up)
  2. 2-note slur
  3. 3-note slur
  4. Repeated notes – down/up/up with the wrist to a long note
  5. Lateral wrist motion
  6. Circular wrist motion
  7. 5-finger clarity – with different fingerings for 5-note patterns
  8. Finger staccato and wrist staccato
  9. Sinking double notes
  10. Snapping chords

*See also Not sure if I should laugh or cry


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When to apply for a piano exam

Apply for an exam when the student is ready.  Of course.

But is this how we really operate? I know I usually do things backwards.

We – teacher/student/parent – decide at the beginning of the year that we’ll plan on doing a particular exam in June, or April, or January. We are careful to observe the application deadline – and then work our tails off in the last few weeks to be ready. Panic, even.

This is, of course, how the school systems operate. But we have the luxury of doing things better.

Maybe we could have students learn the material and then apply for whichever exam session comes next. Learn – then apply. Not apply – then learn. Maybe this way, we wouldn’t have to fly on a wing and a prayer.

And what defines ready? In my view:

  • the technique 3 notches above minimum speed
  • secure aural and sight-reading skills (and others, depending on the exam system)
  • a bare minimum of 3 pieces from each list having been learned close to perfection
  • most studies having been learned to a playable level
  • memorization of list pieces.

Courage may be required to stand up to parents who have an unrealistic time frame. And I’m not suggesting we ditch tangible goals.

But maybe the goal for ready should be the application deadline, rather than the exam dates.

This would relieve much stress and panic on the part of the student, the teacher, the families. It would result in a more polished, and therefore satisfying and enriching, exam experience.

Music, after all, should enrich us, rather than stress us.


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The only calibration that counts

Alma Mahler“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

~Ted Hughes

“Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn.”

~Jascha Heifetz


Photo: Alma Mahler, listening to a New York Philharmonic performance of a Mahler symphony. Life Magazine, ca. 1960. Via Sing It Like It Is.

Hughes quote via Letters of Note. Heifetz quote via The Piano Blog

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