Notes First — Notes on Notes —

For Gifted Young Pianists

JB GIves a piano lesson … to Natalie Kh.


Why CAN’T feeling be added after the fact?


Have you heard a musician say, “I learn the notes first, then add the feeling”? Here’s a Cylon warrior giving us words without feeling:



Some people find it scary!

Do your Cylon imitation on these:

“After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.” Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question— / Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer / The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune, / Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them.” Hamlet, Wm. Shakespeare.

“Mrs. Landingham, what’s next?” “The West Wing,” Aaron Sorkin.

e. e. cummings “Since feeling is first….”

Our connection to the material begins from the feeling.

“Fingering is first.” Charles Rosen once wrote in “The New York Review of Books” that his first activity with a new piece was to work out the fingering. Means phrasing is first; e.g., Schnabel LH 1,1 in Op. 111, i. To be or not to be…. “Since fingering is first…” But…how make clear to tyro? … Feeling is first… Outlining… use my videos … You can’t learn the words without saying them “a certain way,” or without trying the saying in multiple ways. Willy-nilly, you will be developing an interpretation; the only diff. is that you’ll be doing it unconsciously instead of thoughtfully. If you haven’t thought carefully and completely, you may be missing an entire line of meaning. Ditto w/ music. [One useful approach to this mess is Tz.’s idea of making the most of one simple idea: a rhythmic motif, a harmonic ‘taste.’]

Right feeling makes right technique *easier*.

One diff. betw words & music is that the words are so easy to say, and we can get right to the expressiveness. SO…ONE GOAL in music training is to make reading & playing the notes as easy, as taken-for-granted, as we do the words.

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A Beginner Doesn’t Need…a Good Piano

The piano’s a tool for making music and a tool for making pianists (by whom?). Dimmer switch a tool for adjusting lighting and a tool for teaching us how to operate it. It’s so simple we don’t think of it this way, but it’s true nonetheless.

Unlike dimmer switch, a piano is multi-dimensional: modulating tone

An accomplished pianist can use a good piano to make a concert; a beginner can use the same piano to become accomplished.

For playing a concert, the pianist wants the piano with the most gorgeous tone and the most sensitive touch to respond to his subtleties–to help create the subtleties of the music; just so, for learning HOW to create those subtleties you also need the best piano.

You can only develop a sensitive touch if the piano HAS sensitive touch.
(Re tone: a bit more complex….)

If the piano’s an excellent one, in good condition, the concert may be packed with beautiful, varied and expressive sound, and subtle differentiations; and the pianist created by working with the instrument may become a master. If it’s a poor instrument, or in bad condition, the concert will be coarser, much of its point lost; and the pianist created by learning with such an instrument will likewise be a coarser artist.

cook… good olive oil… fresh eggs…
woodworker’s kit poster

(Moonlight point about 8ves from SciAm essay)


What capabilities a particular piano lacks, you can’t bring to your playing even if you’re a master; nor learn if you’re a beginner. We can’t learn to use a doorknob if our doors don’t have knobs, or the knobs are too hard to turn. We can’t adjust a light dimmer sensitively if the mechanism’s clogged with dirt–or if it’s an ordinary on-off switch.

In playing, we must have mastery of dynamics, playing fortissimo without harshness, pianissimo with reliability, and melodies with expressive shaping. [voicing] The instrument that is optimal for these aspects of making music will also be the optimal “teaching machine” for the pianist to acquire these capabilities.

Our performances will benefit from clear staccato, a cleanly connected legato, and the hopscotch articulation of a détaché passage; and the piano that does these things best will be the best teaching machine for the student.

We needn’t belabor the point. It must be obvious that for the beginner to learn these things, and 100 others, the instrument must be able to do them.

Do you have lights on a dimmer switch? Could you adjust it sensitively if it were an ordinary on-off switch? Or if the dimmer’s motion were jumpy instead of smooth, perhaps due to dirt in the mechanism?

If the instrument you’re a beginner and can’t yet do those things, can you learn to do them if the instrument can’t? Answer: No. We learn by feedback, as when we adjust a dimmer switch for the lights. Moving the control and noticing how the brightness changes makes it easy to adjust the lights.


Expressive and varied shaping of dynamics is crucial to communication unless you’re a ; but if your piano is incapable of shaping dynamics, you are, too.

Four tonal regimes: “Normal”–play soft with soft pedal, loud without soft pedal. “Contrary”: play loud with soft pedal, soft withoutsoft pedal.

So it’s nonsense when parents say, “She’s just a beginner; she doesn’t need a good piano.”

SM: 18 months’ study playing uprights; auditions playing a Brahms intermezzo beautifully on a concert grand. Whatever “gift” means, surely this is a prime example; and the fact that one can HAVE such a gift shows there’s something deeply congruent between piano and brain — at least HIS brain. THE piano’s mechanism teaches our brains and bodies how to play.

BEGIN: Piano music requires dynamics–louds and softs–of great range and subtlety. The instrument must be capable of those qualities, and we must be capable of them. But we can’t learn them from an incapable piano.

In fact, a piano out of adjustment will positively teach us to play wrong as we attempt to compensate for its errors.

A piano whose adjustment varies from key to key will teach us that it’s impossible to control dynamics and articulation (connection/disconnection of notes).

A piano with only one tone color–[vary w/ dynamics, pedals]

loud w/ soft ped.
soft w/o soft ped.
Voicing chords — melody plus accompaniment….

= = = = = = = =

Beautiful sound: the fundamental quality that commands pianist and listeners.

Need control of loud, soft, connected, disconnected

Ideally, every beginner should have a concert-grand to practice on, with gorgeous tone and responsive touch, and perfect consistentcy across the keyboard. Why? Because the beauty of the sound attracts us and TK ….

If we play a melody note with more force, it should play a bit louder. If instead the note plays multiple times, like a balalaika, something’s wrong. If we play with a bit less force, we want a softer note, not one that “ciphers” (fails to sound). Dynamic shaping is part of the genius of the piano, and an instrument that can’t shape dynamics fully fails as a music-making tool and a teaching tool for the student.

An instrument fails in perhaps the most fundamental way if its sound isn’t beautiful; for beauty is what attracts us to the piano in the first place.

If we lift the damper pedal (“the loud pedal”), most of the dampers come down and stop the sound of their strings. If some of them fail to fully stop the sound, the result is a sonic mess. If those dampers touch their strings without damping, the resulting “meep” sound makes a specially ugly mess.

If we depress the soft pedal, the keys shift to the right, so a hammer strikes two strings instead of three. But maybe some hammers shift too far, so they strike the strings of adjacent notes, a half-step higher.

If the touch or tone are wrong or inconsisten, then not only is the piano creating what we did not intend, but we are learning that the instrument cannot be controlled, instead of learning how to control it.

“She’s a beginner; she doesn’t need a good piano.”
Beauty & the modulation of beauty.
Dynamics and articulation, and their variations.
Consistency of touch and tone across the 88 keys.

IDEALLY, every beginner should have the best piano there is. Why? Because the piano is a tool. A tool for communicating the meaning of music and for expressing oneself; and a tool for learning how to do so. And like all musical instruments, it’s a tool that

A tool, not a reward. To make beautiful furniture, you need good woodworking tools. To cook delicious dishes, you need good kitchen tools. (Julia Child: “A proper knife, properly sharp, should cut a ripe tomato’s skin merely by drawing its own weight across the tomato.”
Beauty attracts us to the piano. Tonal beauty, articulation and control thereof, dynamics and dynamic range. To master these means mastering a FEEDBACK LOOP.

Need good tools, PLUS element of Feedback.
To learn PIANO, useless to play KEYBOARD.
What is a “good” instrument: touch & tone good, and consistent.) … Cf.: driving doesn’t need good car… yes you can improve at controlling That Car, but not at Driving… need beautifulest tone => biggest/best instrument. Not “keyboard” to learn piano.
WHAT IS NEEDED: Practice instrument (not necessarily owned) must be tunable perfectly. Action (key mechanism) in perfect adjustment across the keyboard. Good tone. Most pianos out of tune most of the time; but if a good instrument, tuning should be OK if tuned five or six times annually.
A beginner doesn’t need a good instrument. (Feedback loop. Also, what is a “good” instrument: touch & tone good, and consistent.)
A beginner doesn’t need a good teacher. (Mrs. Steinem. // Listen to three teachers’ student recitals and compare dancing/singing qualities. Story of red-head 13-y.o. in Palisades playing Op 31/1 & standing out as only GOOD player in the bunch.) (What does need mean? Beginner doesn’t need good instrument/teacher unless beauty, joy and motivation are the goals.)
Same goes for violin, clarinet, etc.

Student’s motivation may survive a bad piano, but at cost of not listening &/or not getting the feedback needed to
Pianos, like automobiles, are big, complex, delicate and expensive. New concert grands (the biggest models) can cost up to $TK [1997, with medium-sized grands at $TK and up, and good uprights starting at about $TK. Used pianos cost less—perhaps down to about $3,500 for a decent used upright.
Pianos are as complex as automobiles, too. The “action”—the internal mechanism—has as many moving parts as an automobile. Just as in car buying, the simplest way to buy a piano, either new or used, is to get one from a dealer, while the cheapest way is to buy one from a private party. (Both kinds of seller advertise in the classifieds.) Some pianos are lemons, so you should have a piano technician, not just a tuner, check yours out for you.
A piano is different from a car in one respect. You might purchase a car just for basic transportation, but the whole point of a piano is to provide beautiful sound, and responsive and reliable touch, not just to get you from one end of a scale to the other. This means that ideally, every beginner should have a “concert grand” piano. In practice, it means you should buy the best piano you can afford, sacrificing fancier styling for a better instrument. (Cosmetic beauty is nice, but there are lots of awful pianos with beautiful cases, and vice versa; just as with people.)


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Hubert the Rigid

Rigid Hubert

How many joints control the position of the hand? Wrist, elbow, shoulder, sterno-clavicular. (Ans.: 4.)
reach over. if inadequate, lean over (but uncomfortable), or scootch over (but awkward, possibly slow, possibly noisy esp.

The Old Lady asked me… (so she’s me and I’m S.O.)

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Piano Sound

When I talk about the sound of various pianos–Boesendorfer, Kawai, Steingraeber, Yamaha, Steingraeber, Bluethner, Bechstein, Steinway (NY or Hamburg)–no one challenges my comments. (Perhaps they should, but they don’t.) And when I teach my piano students to make exquisite adjustments of their tone to heighten musical meaning, they and I agree that the playing sounds better. But the moment I comment on precisely the same things in reproduced sound, I hear criticism from certain quarters that I didn’t listen “blind” or “double-blind.”

EXPLAIN blind….

A musician’s life’s work consists of creating meaningful and of developing ears and hands that reliable toward this goal. All this is usually done “non-blind.”

Are we going to say that the musician’s sonic judgments are worthless? Too bad, Gustavo Dudamel, Jascha Heifitz, Sir Andras Schiff! Too bad, you and me!

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So simple it sounds silly:

At a random time during practice, STOP! Ask yourself, Read More »

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4 Things to Say

If I had only 4 things to say:

(1) The sound is the goal: To hear it objectively, record yourself.

(2) To interpret a score is to recreate an object from its shadow.

(3) A work of art is a machine with an esthetic purpose.

(4) We learn what we do, not what we say we’re doing, nor think we’re doing, nor intend to do later.

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Welcoming the Gifted?

Contrary to what many assume, teachers don’t necessarily welcome Read More »

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Almost Magic

Occasionally, something happens in teaching that seems a bit like magic, and may lighten the texture of the lesson from Read More »

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Texas Comparisons

“You play the Moonlight ver-ry good, young man, very good.” The old man’s New York accent stood out in the Texas crowd that had just given the Beethoven a standing ovation; and his Adam’s apple stood out from his throat as he continued, “I have Horowitz’s record of it. You play it very good, but not like Horowitz.”

“Mmmm,” I said, with a wise intonation, still sweating from the concert, feeling like wringing his neck, and wondering if this would make an amusing story one day.

Next morning, the concert manager drove me to the airport and I asked why he’d hired me—part of my project to understand how the business works. He said, “I suddenly realized one day that the series needed another piano recital; and on that day I received brochures from six pianists I’d never heard of; so I wrote to all of you and asked your fees. Yours was twice as high as the others, so I figured you were twice as good, and I hired you.”

This information should have inspired me to do what?

  1. Double my fee.
  2. Halve it.
  3. Become a concert manager.

This experience shows that

  4. You get what you pay for.
  5. You give what you're paid for.
  6. A prominent Adam's apple may not mark your most appreciative audience.
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Aphorisms 3

All that occurs, occurs through the student.

Teach the student who’s in front of you.

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