Hello Chopin Waltzes

Introduction

I just kicked off the fourth year of offering classical piano repertoire to conclude worship at First Methodist of Bella Vista. Piano Postludes happens every three months, during the months of February, May, August, and November. For four weeks during each of those months I play pieces according to a common theme. You can get a feel for what I’ve done in past years of Piano Postludes, but this year it’s all about Chopin! As in, Hello Chopin Waltzes! All 17 of them.

Why Chopin?

After completing my project of playing the entire Well-Tempered Clavier Book One of J.S. Bach, I decided that I should do something completely different. Even though you might consider Chopin’s romantic sweep to be quite different from the high Baroque style of Bach, there is more connection that you might think. His 24 Preludes, Op. 28, are written around the circle of fifths, with alternating major and minor keys. Pianist Josep Colom demonstrates how certain of Bach’s compositions were an obvious influence on Chopin. His Confluences album Web page provides sound file examples.

I get that church goers aren’t interested to linger to listen to long postludes. My hope is that these bite sized pieces will be more appealing to those folks. I’ll always have my small group of loyal fans who will stay for whatever I want to play for them. And I’m so thankful for that! People have told me that they can’t attend my post-church recitals due to brunch plans or missing the chance to socialize over coffee and pastry. Hopefully these bite-sized pieces – most are less than 5 minutes long – will take care of that!

My Connection

I will be forever indebted to my master teacher, German Diez, who introduced me to the very first of the waltzes, the Grande Valse Brillante Op. 18. He studied for 10 years with Claudio Arrau in New York City after leaving Cuba before the Fidel Castro era. I listened to a recording of Arrau playing this waltz recently, and said to myself “he plays it remarkably similar to me!” Picking this piece back up has always been easy because I first learned it when I was young! Since I’m writing this post just after starting the project, you can now listen to this first installment on Facebook Live. You don’t have to have to be logged into Facebook nor even have a Facebook account.

In Conclusion

Bach will still be on my mind. Since I’m also an organist, he’s never far away. But it’s time to say Hello Chopin Waltzes! I won’t be recording each week’s installment, but at least there’s one to give you a taste into my love of Chopin. I also plan at some point to put together all four Chopin Scherzi that I played as Piano Postludes last year to present in a recital.

Daguerrotype of Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin in a daguerrotype by Louis-Auguste Bisson. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Posted 2020-02-06

Auf Wiedersehen Bach WTC Book One

Introduction

I’m sure that the majority of the congregation where I work in Bella Vista, Arkansas, are not even aware of this occasion. On February 4, 2018, I played the First Prelude and Fugue in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, by J.S. Bach at First Methodist. The prelude has been quoted by other composers through the centuries, including Charles Gounod in his setting of the Ave Maria. Today I complete that journey with the Twenty-Fourth Prelude and Fugue in B minor. It’s my way to say Auf Wiedersehen Bach WTC Book One!

Fans Help

Thankfully, I have a group of loyal fans who have been with me every step of the way. I also have some friends and colleagues from far-flung places with whom I want to share the performance, so I’m broadcasting it via Facebook Live just before noon today (CST). Although it’s not good to be boastful, I’m proud of following through a commitment to learn all of these gems. I was not a big fan of these pieces in music school, something I first shared in my blog post celebrating the beginning of this project.

The B minor Prelude and Fugue

Before reminiscing about the entire cycle, I have to point out how odd this last entry is. Both the prelude and fugue have tempo markings, andante and largo, respectively. None of the other 23 preludes and fugues have any tempo indications. There are repeats indicated on both the A and B section of the prelude. There are no other repeat marks in the entire book.

The fugue is 6 pages long, matched only by the A minor fugue. However, this fugue carries a pathos and chromaticism that is unparalleled in the rest of the set. Upon hearing the fugue subject, which is the single voice that sets the tone for what follows, you know that a wild ride is coming. It brings to mind the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the opening of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. While Tristan is almost 5 hours long, this set of pieces wraps up in about 12 minutes.

Overall Learnings

One of the benefits of playing the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, in my case just the first book, is getting to know Bach better. Many of the great composers have referenced these pieces; Robert Schumann called them “the pianist’s daily bread.” Many great pianists learned and performed them, even those you wouldn’t think of as Bach specialists. I enjoyed how Bach took standard forms and exploited them for their full worth. Each prelude was sometimes very simple, but occasionally it was just as contrapuntal as the attached fugue. Although I didn’t learn these pieces to study voice leading, harmony, or improvisation, I subconsciously absorbed all of these concepts.

To look at this from a wider lens, I find that studying an entire set of works gives you a more complete view of a composer. It forces you to look at each and every piece and figure out how to convey the message in the most accurate and musical way. No shortcuts! No selecting the easiest or most popular works, then puffing oneself up as being an expert in the composer.

Inspiration Helps

Having a great piano as a practice instrument certainly was great inspiration. It’s the one highlight that I can truly credit since there’s a lot of loneliness inside the walls of a church sanctuary. By design, it’s a great environment for practicing, with no interruption from the outside world. However, I did appreciate hearing the occasional squirrel scampering across the roof.

Moving Forward

Once I say Auf Wiedersehen Bach WTC Book One, I will go back through each of the pieces as my daily bread. I will emphasize those several pieces that were just lightly practiced, in which I did a great disservice to the master, J.S. Bach. Besides memorizing a few of these pieces for use on future recitals, I do plan to offer all 24 preludes and fugues together in recital, not memorized. I need to find opportunities where I can play them all, but people can feel free to come and go as they wish. Even experiencing a few of these can reset the day’s worry meter, or give one a glimpse of the Almighty. Bach reminds us of this at the bottom of the final measure of music, with the following initials: S.D.G. 1

Footnote

1. Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone. Used also by Handel, it’s a commonly used abbreviation among those not wanting to take credit for God’s gifts. It’s also the motto of the American Guild of Organists.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Courtesy Wikimedia
Posted 2019-11-24

Music Apps for Beginners (and Beyond)

Summary

Last summer, I committed to testing a bunch of music apps that I could recommend to my students. The result of that work is in this post. It took about a year to discover that I only consistently recommended two applications, plus a metronome app for those who didn’t have a separate metronome. I’m working through some recently downloaded apps that I’ll most likely add to this post, but it’s time to clean up my old post and start anew. Here is my list of music apps for beginners and beyond!

But First…

There is a bit of a bias towards iOS versus Android by app makers in education. Even though I’ve been only a PC owner since the early Windows days (and yes, I remember DOS!), I solely use an iPhone and iPad. I don’t have the resources to buy Android devices just for testing. However, I have tried to provide alternatives, and would be glad to work with any of my students to see how they perform. It’s in my best interest to recommend the best tools, since it makes lessons easier for me and my students!

The biggest lesson I learned is you get what you pay for! Free apps can be helpful to try out a paid app, but don’t expect to rely on them for anything past that. When I first tested out music apps, I tried going the free route and was totally frustrated and wasted so much time! If I recommend an app, it will be worth the $5 or less that most of these cost. The good news is that all of these apps are one-time purchases, not a monthly or yearly subscription. You own it for as long as the developer continues to support the app – which hopefully is a long time!

Highly Recommended

Note Rush: Music Reading Game

Flashcard drilling using your piano/keyboard to verify the notes. It’s great for students who are rapidly expanding their reading of the staff, and need a bit of fun along the way.

Device: iOS, Android

I find Note Rush a lot of fun to play myself, and I sometimes demo it with students by sight-singing, instead of playing notes on the piano. It’s a hit with any student to whom I introduce it. The app uses the device’s microphone to identify pitches, and it has calibrated perfectly wherever I’ve tried it. If your piano is wickedly out of tune, it may not do so well! It’s pretty easy to use, since you choose from one of several pre-loaded levels. You could also customize your own choice of note ranges if you’d like something more challenging.

If you are a beginner and note reading is going smoothly, or especially if you are past beginner method books and playing intermediate literature, you might want to skip this app. However, at least half of my students in method books could benefit from using this app along with the landmark and interval training that I provide.

Rhythm Lab

Rhythm drilling, using either one or two hand tapping on the screen. It’s useful for beginning through intermediate students.

Device: iOS only
Android Alternative: Rhythm Cat

This is a super fun app, and I find it I recommend it a lot for transfer students whose teachers have not been as strict with note values as I am. While I typically recommend it for students who need it for basic note values, like half notes vs quarter notes, the app could also be helpful for learning more complex rhythmic notation that anyone continuing into more difficult music will face. If you do struggle with playing in time, and are not self-aware about stopping at bar lines or when things get difficult, this is your app!

The interface is a bit complex and the judgmental applause at the end of each exercise is a bit annoying, but I look at that as just a minor irritation.

Metronome Apps

Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome

The Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome is listed at the bottom of my piano books recommendations. It is an old fashioned metronome, not an app. I have to include it because it’s still my top recommendation instead of, or as an addition to, an app.

Price: About $25

This model has been around in some form for several decades, and price has not changed much during that time. It’s an old-fashioned, electronic metronome that requires one 9-volt battery to run.  It’s not quite as old school as the Wittner Taktell, the German brand dating back to the 19th century that I grew up using.  So that makes me just a half dinosaur!

Why buy this and not just solely rely on a phone or tablet? Sometimes having a device dedicated to doing one thing is the right choice. If you need to charge your phone, or if you are sharing a device with a sibling or parent, it may not be available when you need to use it. It’s the type of device that you will only use occasionally. However, when you need to use it, you want it to be on your piano, in your piano bag, or maybe both!

Tempo – Metronome with Setlist

A more straightforward metronome app with bells and whistles not found on a traditional metronome.

Device: iOS, Android

This is the app that I often will use in lessons, since I already have my iPad out to mark attendance, check my schedule, and it is convenient to use. I have a Wittner on the top of my piano, and carry two different Seiko models in my separate piano and organ repertoire bags. It’s not as fun as the Super Metronome Groove Box, especially if you want an app to provide a backing track for playing pop songs. You get what you pay for; this one is much cheaper!

Super Metronome Groove Box

This is a more fun type of metronome with different instruments, beats, and compound meter.

Device: iOS, Android

The free version is just awful, but I’d try before you buy since you can get a feel for it, despite it timing out after just 16 measures! When I bought it, the price was $6.99. That’s was $4 more than I paid for the Tempo app above. You do get a much more feature-rich app. If you play some rock and pop, and want to play along with a metronome to develop a steady beat, or just because you enjoy having a rhythm section behind you, this is the app! If you just want to check an occasional tempo or play along for a few measures, stick with Tempo! 

What’s Ahead?

I’m always looking for other apps to try, and would like to add to my list to make it more comprehensive.  If you like apps, I’d be glad to forward you lists of them from other teachers that I follow, with the caveat that just because they liked them doesn’t mean either you or I will!

Posted on 2019-07-25

Summer Project – Music Apps Review

Summary

This post, Summer Project – Music Apps Review, is the first in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. The inspiration for trying out apps came from a Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Webinar titled Fresh Approaches to Old-School Teaching, presented by Peter Oehrtman. I also poured over an extensive list of app recommendations by Tim Topham of the Inner Circle.

I did the first round of testing with free apps, or paid apps where I chose the free option. I was hugely disappointed, but it proves the saying: You get what you pay for. The second round of testing went much better, since I bought most of the apps. With just a couple of exceptions, I found that I couldn’t fairly evaluate paid apps just by using the free version, since their functionality was so stripped down.

I publish this list of recommendations (and not) by how useful I find them in my teaching practice. I did find some real duds. But more prevalent was that the apps didn’t seem to offer enough to me or to my students, or had expensive monthly fees versus a one-time price. All of the apps tested were tested just on an iPad, since iOS is the preferred platform for music app developers, and that is what I happen to own! Some of these apps should also be available for iPhone or Android phones/tablets, but that’s beyond the scope of my testing.

Recommended

Note Rush: Music Reading Game

Flashcard drilling using your piano/keyboard to verify the notes.

Price: $3.99

I find Note Rush a lot of fun to play myself, so I’m betting it will be a hit with my students. The app uses the device microphone to identify pitches, and it worked perfectly with my acoustic piano. It’s pretty easy to use, and it’s the type of app that you can use at different stages of your learning. It has the benefit of being fun as stress relief while at the same time helping reading skills. If you only want to buy one app, this is the one. It’s worth every penny!

Rhythm Lab

Rhythm drilling, using either one or two hand tapping on the screen.

Price: $3.99

This is a super fun app, though I don’t think it’s as essential as Note Rush. If you naturally play with good rhythm already, it’s not going to help you a tremendous amount. If you do struggle with playing in time, and are not self-aware about stopping at bar lines or at the end of difficult rhythmic patterns, this could be your app. The interface is a bit complex and the varying applause at the end of each exercise is a bit annoying, but those are just minor irritations.

NoteStar – Shutting Down 2019-03-31

A multi-function music reading app with lots of great music, with a pay-as-you-go model.

Price: FREE with in-app purchases

Here’s a case where the free version can be somewhat fun, or at least indicative of what the paid version will be like. Once you choose your song, sheet music rolls across the screen so you can play along. On songs that are more traditional classical repertoire, you can turn off either or both the left and right hands. On songs that are more pop music, the choice is to turn off either or both the keyboard or backing track. In all cases, you get a 30-second preview, with no pressure to buy the song once it finishes. The price per song is a reasonable $1.99 to $3.99.

Recommended with Hesitation

Super Metronome Groove Box

A more fun type of metronome with different instruments, beats, compound meter.

Price: $6.99

The free version was just awful, since the app times out after playing just 16 measures. The paid version is solid, it can be a lot of fun if it appeals to you. Try it out at a lesson, and see whether you like it, and will use it. There’s always the cheaper Tempo app, the free Metronome app from Onyx Apps, or no app at all. I know I’m a fuddy-duddy, but should you really be using a $400 iPad for a job that a $25 metronome can handle?!

Tempo – Metronome with Setlist

A more straightforward metronome app with bells and whistles not found on a traditional metronome.

Price: $2.99

This app reminds me of what was available on the deluxe version of Seiko or Korg metronomes. I never found those features to be that helpful, preferring either a simple Seiko $25 metronome or an old-fashioned Wittner Taktell. While some may find this useful, I’d almost say you should commit to the fun Super Metronome Groove Box instead if you want a metronome alternative.

Not Recommended

Piano Maestro

A comprehensive teacher/student app for teaching various skills.

Price: Free with in-app purchases

This is an app that is intended to be managed by the teacher, with assignments sent by the teacher to students based upon email address. The student work is then updated to the teacher’s dashboard. I love the idea, but I don’t love that the paid version is either $12.99 or $19.99 per month, depending upon whether the teacher buys a site-license covering the students (more expensive) or asks each student to buy their own client app (less expensive). There is lots of value in the free version, but I fear becoming attached to the app, and inevitably facing the wall where both the students and I have to invest in the paid version to continue. I’d just rather not go there. Still installed – I’m willing to try it with a student, if she is willing, to see if I’m wrong.

Simply Piano by JoyTunes

A play along service that combines the features of Note Rush and NoteStar.

Price: Free with in-app purchases

The premise of this app is great! You get tons of material (Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift) at the beginning to mid-intermediate level, similar to the à la carte app NoteStar. You are evaluated by how well you play along similar to Note Rush. All in one app. What’s not to love you ask? The price! Any of the fun stuff you want to do, including the songs, requires a yearly subscription, with the cheapest monthly option being $9.99 per month with 12 months paid in advance! It may be the best app in the world, but I’ll never know. I’m not willing to chance a short one-week trial period expires and a $119.99 charge appears on my credit card bill without getting a chance to test the app. Uninstalled.

Garage Band

I honestly don’t know how to describe it.

Price: Free

So, what do you do with it? It is a super complex program! I thought this was supposed to have some type of teaching purpose, but I couldn’t find what that is. It seems to be a powerful program for audio recording and editing, and all of it is free. But that still leads me back to my original question! Uninstalled.

ScaleTracks

An app that aids with practicing scales.

Price: Free with in-app purchases

Really, really hokey. If someone hates scales already, this app could make them hate them even more! Uninstalled before all of the others!

Last Updated 2019-02-27 | Originally Posted on 2018-05-22

Bitten by the Bach Bug

This winter, I have not suffered any type of cold or flu that is going around.

However, I have been bitten by another bug, that of the long-dead composer, J.S. Bach. How it started was rather random: I was reading an article on the NY Times Website about András Schiff, the Hungarian/British pianist whom I first saw perform at Tanglewood when I was a teenager. The article mentioned how Schiff had recently played the entire Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, a set of 24 preludes and fugues written in every major and minor key.

Typically, these types of performances are done in small spaces and often on period instruments, attended by a small cadre of dedicated fans of early music. This performance was opposite in almost every way: the performance was at the London Proms Festival, held in cavernous Royal Albert Hall, which has over 5200 seats. The piano was a modern Steinway Model D. More impressive, the performance of just under two hours was by memory and without intermission.

As a young piano student, I had to learn a few of these pieces to satisfy requirements for music school auditions, juries, and degree recitals. But they were never fun! The organ seems to be the perfect instrument for Bach, where the pedalboard can help out when there’s just too much to play in two hands. Comparing the organ, an already mature instrument, to the various keyboards of the time isn’t fair. However, after hearing Schiff play these pieces, I decided it was me who needed the second chance!

So, I decided to learn the entire volume of Book One as well, though in my own way, at my own speed. I will play the first four preludes and fugues as piano postludes at church during the month of February and add several more every few months until I finish sometime in 2019. At first, they won’t be memorized, and I’m not even committing to ever perform them as an entire set memorized. It’s about the journey, not the destination. So far, as I work through the fourth prelude and fugue in C# minor, a particularly difficult one, it’s going a lot better than it did 30 years ago!

Last Updated 2018-02-19 | Originally Posted 2018-02-02