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An Uncancelled Beethoven Celebration – Interview with Konstantin Scherbakov, part 1

2020 is not only a fascinating year for the musical world and the worldwide celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven, but also gives us a chance to get closer to noteworthy performers in order to share their ideas and experiences of the grand master of western classical music. In this interview with Konstantin Scherbakov, the phenomenal performer generously shares his experiences derived from a lifelong relationship with the composer, on stage, in the recording studio and as an influential tutor. In this first part of the interview we get to learn about Scherbakov’s year of celebration and complete sonatas recording project.

Patrick Jovell: Konstantin, we know you through your large discography and your broad interest in different kinds of repertoire but this interview will focus on your relation to Beethoven. How did it all start?

Konstantin Scherbakov: The Beethoven Year 2020 rounds up an important circle in my biography. It is not only Beethoven’s 250 Birthday. It also happens that I play piano since 50 years. And it is absolutely no coincidence that I celebrate this double anniversary by playing only Beethoven’s music: I associate my personal Beethoven story with my life in music in general. It began when I, six years old, played his “Marmotte”, and continued through the next fifty years when I played in concerts almost everything Beethoven has written for the piano, and beyond – his solo piano works, all the Concertos and all the Symphonies. I also recorded quite a bit of this – initially for the Soviet Radio, then for Naxos (Diabelli-Variations), Two Pianists label (Eroica-Variations, Sonatas), the largest and most significant project being to-date the Complete Symphonies in Liszt’s transcription. The 2019/20 concert season was exclusively dedicated to Beethoven: the Complete Sonatas and Symphonies cycles in various countries and at some important festivals, of which the most notable was, of course, the Beethovenfest in Bonn. Besides the solo repertoire, I was also to perform Beethoven’s concerti. Towards Beethoven’s supposed birthday at the end of 2020 the release of the Complete Sonatas CD-box (which I am currently recording and will continue recording during the next months for the Steinway label) is scheduled with the release of the set of nine CDs in October – November 2020.

PJ: How has Covid-19 affected your concert and recording schedule?

KS: Yes, it was an unexpected turn of events, (for everyone everywhere!) which cost me, as any other artist, lots of engagements, concerts and which ruined all plans. You realize this especially painfully when it’s a cycle of concerts which is spread through the whole season, when your work is precisely scheduled every month at different venues: these sonatas in January, this set in February etc. Indeed it is very misfortunate when you schedule your work years in advance and everything is lost at once. Except recordings, however: in spite of the Corona crisis, the Steinway label is working strictly in accordance with the schedule we made up one year ago. Every month there has been a release of yet another set of Sonatas.

Here the pandemic situation turns out to be a life elixir! When in the past thirty years did I have the time to enjoy working – in peace – on one program for one whole month? The experience which mixes playing late Beethoven’s music all day long, endless walks in various Swiss regions, and reading Proust, is nothing short of a revelation! In the absence of any disturbing factors like traveling, getting hurried or distracted by other things, you realize this is nothing but sensational, unheard of, and for that reason extremely precious and wonderful time. That is what I am through right at this moment. However dreadful the situation is for the world I am grateful for the opportunity to experience something I was never able to experience before. Many things in life will look different from now on…

PJ: It is said that Beethoven – after composing 15 sonatas – told his editor Breitkopf & Härtel that he was planning to compose sonatas in a totally new way. How do you as an interpreter and recording artist schedule your Beethoven recitals in terms of coupling sonatas? Is there a chronological factor working in this sense?

KS: Of course everyone planning to perform or record the complete Beethoven Sonatas inevitably thinks about how to program them in concert or on CD. So did I. I had done my homework but decided to research how others did theirs before me. I consulted recording catalogues and googled for concert cycles featuring Beethoven’s Sonatas. Strangely enough, I found more programs where the sonatas were distributed in some ways, different from a simple chronological order. Among them there would not be two similar programming ideas. And every idea seemed to me strange and suspicious, highly questionable and subjective. Why this or that choice of sonatas in one concert? What stands behind this particular combination? How would such a program sound in a concert? I did not have any answers as it all seemed too personal, too speculative and thus difficult to understand or agree. My research however proved to be very helpful. The conclusion to program my Beethoven Sonatas cycle in chronological order was reinforced and my opinion about such a decision strengthened. Indeed, what can bring a more satisfying experience than a journey with Beethoven through his life, every period of which left a significant trace in his piano sonatas, from beginning to the end? Moreover: from such a perspective, 32 sonatas appear much more as a cycle with its obvious concept and well structured content.

PJ: Brahms’ opening of his first Sonata – paraphrasing Beethoven’s ”Hammerklavier” – is such a striking example of the latter’s enormous impact as a role model for the sonata form, for composers and pianists to come. There are endless attempts to explain Beethoven’s Sonatas in form and psychological contents. Can you tell me why the 32 have become a bible among pianists?

KS: There are many reasons. To name them all one would need to write a book. I’ll just try to focus on the most obvious ones, from my perspective. One of them was the fact that Beethoven’s titanic and tragic figure was the icon that represented the spirit of the time. After all, the living legend Beethoven, was the most well-known personality of the time next only to Napoleon… It is no surprise therefore that Beethoven was regarded as a symbol of the epoch also by those who composed music. Of course Beethoven’s prodigious gifts were apparent anywhere, in all forms and genres. However, his genius needed the sonata form to develop and bring to realization the whole wealth of his abilities. It is primarily due to sonatas, quartets, and the symphonies that we know Beethoven. The historical development of the sonata form has reached its peak in Beethoven’s compositions. Deriving from examples of earlier sonata forms in the works of C. P. E. Bach, Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven brought the genre to totally new heights and established a new model which ought to serve as a pattern to follow and as a catalogue of rules, methods and ideas. It was the sonata form that explains the attracting power and strong influence of Beethoven.

PJ: Clearly Beethoven displays both willingness and boldness when it comes to experimenting with contents and its construction. Can you elaborate on that?

KS: Beethoven’s method of composition at first sight seems to be uncomplicated, straightforward, simple and easy: one takes a microscopically small musical pattern and grows huge constructions using its semantic potential. This universal method is indeed like in biological life where anything grows from a single cell. However, such a method requires a genius spirit, melodical gift, perfect sense for formal balance and logic, sophistication and precision of a mathematician’s thinking. Without any of these qualities any attempt to copy or even just follow the method would fail. Many composers didn’t escape the attraction of Beethoven’s method and tried it with various success: the names of Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann and Schubert spring to mind, Mahler would not be possible; many representatives of national schools couldn’t avoid the influence either, such as the Russian Tchaikovsky, Finnish Sibelius or Czech Dvorak. The perfect blend of counterpoint and melody, the use of plain harmony patterns, rhythmical urgency, logic in the development, an enormous scope of artistic ideas and subjects and the ability to say much using few words – that all made Beethoven’s scores an example to study, worship, marvel, and to follow.

PJ: Which values – or challenges for that sake – arise for you as pianist and interpreter while working with this incredibly rich material?

KS: Also from the pianist’s perspective there are a few reasons why Beethoven’s music is so attractive. The first indeed is the fact that this is undoubtedly the best music ever written. There are thirty-two wonderful piano pieces; each of them makes any concert program attractive for audiences. Due to their different musical nature, they can be integrated in any programming context. It also happened that Beethoven was the first composer to write music for the grandfather of the modern piano which we know and play today. Finally, it was in the sonata form where he not only formally completed the development of the genre but opened the new era of pianism with new rules, principles, new basics and unheard-of means. In order to serve the new music ideas which Beethoven introduced in yet another sonata, the piano technique had to be revolutionized; the modern understanding of articulation was introduced (Legato, before all), the use of dynamic range of ever changing and growing instrumental possibilities, the use of pedal(s) etc.

However, for a thinking, reflecting pianist, playing a Beethoven Sonata remains, above all, the challenge of highest artistic criteria; it is kind of a maturity test, because in a Beethoven’s Sonata one’s musicianship becomes apparent. Why so? The answer is in the nature of Beethoven’s language in general as the language of one of the greatest humanists in arts history. It looks to me the following way: in his music, Beethoven sums up the experience of the humanity, forms it in a particular musical idea, encrypts it in a pattern (motif, theme) consisting of a few notes and speaks by its means to humans, in his own name or in the name of God (“Seid umschlungen Millionen!”). His genius makes possible an easy and clear recognition of the meaning of such a motif by everyone. Its expressive power and obvious message is underlined by its shortness. The famous “Fate motif” from the 5th Symphony is a perfect illustration of this thesis. Thus, the task of a performer is to catch, identify, decode and bring the message over. Here the interpretation (pronunciation) has ideally to have the equal expressive power; any failure in properly formulating the idea would be recognized and cause dissatisfaction. In the ideal case, we get two kindred musical spirits acting in harmony – the composer’s and the performer’s. In the worst scenario, we simply experience the dutiful text reading. To illustrate these words I ask you to think about this: how many times were the expectations that always arise in anticipation of a concert featuring, say, the Sonata Op. 111, justified by the actual experience? That is what makes pianists attempt to climb those peaks of piano literature: on one side, the challenge which in case of success would be gratified by recognition, on the other – the urge to prove to oneself where one stands as of now. And above all – the ultimate beauty of the music which is matched only by its depth.

About Konstantin Scherbakov

A worldwide performer, Scherbakov had a career that took him to play with 70 orchestras and to record some 40 albums, including the complete piano works by Shostakovich, Godowsky, and the nine symphonies by Beethoven in Liszt’s transcription. Over the course of his career, Scherbakov has performed all of Beethoven’s piano concertos around the globe and is perhaps the only pianist in the world that has an active repertoire featuring all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, all piano concertos and the Liszt-Beethoven symphonic transcriptions (the latter on five discs 1998-2004, Naxos). The recordings were met with enthusiasm: “Scherbakov is in many ways the artist whom these works have been waiting for,” International Piano wrote. Stereoplay echoed: “This CD should be prescribed at least 50 conductors for educational purposes! Since 1998 Scherbakov functions as Professor at the Zürich University of Arts and many of his students received prizes at international piano competitions, most notably Yulianna Avdeeva; the winner of the 2010 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Scherbakov has also been nominated by the International Classical Music Awards (ICMA) for his Liszt/Lyapunov Transcendental Studies CD (Steinway label, 2019).

Scherbakov Sonatas Project 2020

FREE SAMPLE: Beethoven Complete Sonatas Vol. 6 (Steinway and Sons label)


/patrick
 
     

Vexations – Was Igor Levit’s Lonely Stroll Too Long?

In a bid to raise awareness of all musicians who have been silenced by the coronavirus pandemic, finding themselves suddenly out of work, pianist Igor Levit performed Erik Satie’s piano piece Vexations in a 15-hour long virtual performance on May 30.

Watch the complete recording of the livestreamed event >>

The inhuman marathon challenge ”doesn’t feel like a ‘nuisance’ or ‘torture’ to me, as the title would suggest, but rather a retreat of silence and humility. It reflects a feeling of resistance”, Levit said prior to the performance. However, after the session he said: “I got so tired that literally my fingers stopped moving… Maybe a chord came a second late, but nobody died because of it. I’m OK with that; it’s part of the performance.” Levit continues; “That’s why it feels right to play the Vexations right now. My world and that of my colleagues has been a different one for many weeks now and will probably remain so for a long time. Vexations represent for me a silent scream.”

The event was massively noted by the international press:
The Gilmore
NY Times
The New Yorker

Vexations – a mysterious piece

Vexations was written in 1893 and the manuscript score is just four lines of music. No instrument is indicated but it is probably intended for harmonium or piano. The score also includes a mysterious inscription for the performer: ”In order to play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.”

The minimalist composition is the first known experiment in organized total chromaticism and continual, unrelieved dissonance with no obvious sense of direction or tonal centre. It is the first piece to explore the effects of boredom, even of hallucination, both on the performer and on the audience.

Vexations – PDF piano score to download:

Santiago Rusiñol, Portrait of Erik Satie Playing the Harmonium, 1891.

The meaning of the work is unclear and has been widely debated, and it has been theorized as a private joke, as a theoretical experiment and even as a response to failed love. Even though Erik Satie composed Vexations circa 1893, the work was virtually unknown until an associate of Satie brought it to light in 1949.

Historic performances

The world premiere which took place in 1963 at the Pocket Theater in New York City, was organized by avant-garde composer John Cage and performed by a team of 11 pianists dubbed “The Pocket Theatre Piano Relay Team” playing in twenty-minute shifts. That first performance lasted nearly 18 hours and 40 minutes and has become the stuff of legend. The New York Times wrote: ”Whatever it was, it made musical history.” The Pocket Theater in 1963 offered no Green Room and the event was casual. Some players even left at one point to have dinner in Chinatown.

The John Cage team during the 1963 performance of “Vexations” at the Pocket Theater in New York.

Contradictory to Satie’s instruction “to prepare oneself beforehand…”, the piece is often performed by a team of pianists sharing the task. In an earlier solo attempt in 1970, pianist Peter Evans nearly lost his senses while attempting all of “Vexations” on his own. He quit after 595 repetitions and was said to have experienced evil thoughts and visions. Mr. Evans later claimed that pianists who take on the piece “do so at their own great peril.” Some call the piece dangerous and evil. Many pianists believe from performing the piece, that the material mystically somehow defies memorization.

840 times of what?

Although the inscription suggests how to prepare if one would play the motif 840 times, the score contains no repeat signs or da capo instructions that indicates that the piece should be repeated. But if one insists to take the “840 times” suggestion seriously, what is then the word “motif” referring to? A motif is usually a shorter musical enitity than a “theme” but in this case it seems most reasonable that the “motif” is the 13 beats long “theme”. In the score this motif exists in three differently arranged versions and, if played in tempo 40 BPM, each version of the “motif” takes 19,5 seconds. Consequently, a “complete” performance takes around four and a half hours.

Cast your vote!

Have Cage, Levit and others misinterpretated the instruction regarding the “motif”? What do you think?

Please vote and post your comment below!

The "motif" that is suggested to be repeated 840 times most likely refers to:

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/nilsjohan
 
     

Talking Bach with Pianist Ramin Bahrami

Iranian pianist Ramin Bahrami is considered one of today’s most interesting interpreters of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. A regular performer at Cremona Musica, Bahrami and flutist Massimo Mercelli presented works from their latest CD, “Bach Sanssouci”, on the Decca label. Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell was happy to get the chance to talk to the inspirational performer.

Rami Bahrami plays Goldberg Variations in Parma, Teatro Regio, April 2019


Piano Street:  Through your recordings you have gone through almost all keyboard music by Bach. Such a giant project makes us think in terms of a statement. How did your relation with the Leipzig master start and with what means have you created your own unique ”Bach universe” on a map counting many stellar performers over the years?

Ramin Bahrami: I was 5 years old when I heard Glenn Gould – the great Canadian pianist – for the first time and I immediately fell in love with Bach and Gould’s way to play this wonderful music. With Bach’s music I began my mission as a musician. Bach is for me not only the greatest composer ever – he is also a master of life and harmony: he is the fifth evangelist!

PS: When we perceive Bach’s music the polyphony is an unrivaled factor – his friend Forkel observed that Bach saw music as a conversation between human voices. His music sounds good on any instrument. Which specific qualities can be found in the flute sonatas?

RB: In the flute sonatas and generally in all Bach’s melodic lines you have beauty and grace. He is always very elegant and refined. He reflects something very Italian and with German rationality.

PS:  When we start working on a Bach piece, which should be our best approach? Should we start with the polyphony, melodic lines, articulation, harmony, or sound? Can you tell us how you prepare?

RB: The first approach – not only in Bach – must be the emotion, the feeling, and the human side of the composition, and thereafter of course all other elements, like melodic lines and different voices, harmony, polyphony, and natural sound. But the first step is always to understand the “Affektenlehre”. My personal approach begins with love and concentration and I try to discover the principal character of the music.

PS: Highly evident when hearing interpreters playing Bach is the concept of rhythm and the variety of different approaches. Bach’s friend Forkel wrote about how captivating Bach’s own playing was in this sense. This makes us think about the dances and the Suites. How would you elaborate on this important factor in Bach’s dance forms?

RB: I absolutely agree with you. Dance and rhythm are very important factors. He is always dancing and singing. He didn’t like too slow tempi, as Forkel wrote. John Elliot Gardiner once said: “Bach is Dance”. I think in the same way. The Bach Suites are not only wonderful selections of different dances of different countries but there is also a European Parliament in there. You can even find the Middle East nations like Persia in the Sarabande for example.

PS: You recorded the Piano (Keyboard) Concertos with Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly. These are done with a ”modern” instrument and setting. Which are your ideas about performances using historical instruments?

RB: I have a very positive idea. Because if you want to have a rich idea about Bach’ s music today, you must know very well your past and all origins. You must know where you’re from. Personally I think that for transmission to modern audiences, the modern instruments such as the wonderful, dark golden sound of the beautiful Gewandhausorchester and the modern Steinway are really appropriate for the universal message of the Master. I loved very much to find a most comfortable nuance with Maestro Riccardo Chailly and his vivid intentions, and the work with the Gewandhausorchester and their modern instruments was truly fantastic.

PS: With your vast experience we must take the chance to ask you which of the less familiar Bach keyboard pieces we should look out for and play? There must be many not-so-known Bach works to discover?

RB: I suggest to young colleagues, for example: Bach’s Transcriptions of the Italian Masters, and the Keyboard Sonatas. I like very much the D Major Sonata with “la Gallina Cucca Fugue”, or the early Suite in f minor BWV 823. Aria variata alla maniera Italiana BWV 989, Four Duets BWV 802-805, Suite in A major BWV 832, Suite in e minor BWV 996, and of course other pieces. Bach is like an ocean. “Nicht Bach, Meer sollte er heissen” – “Not Bach (German for brook or stream), he should be called the Sea” – as Ludwig van Beethoven wrote about Johann Sebastian Bach.

PS: You are a prolific music personality and often appear on television, speaking about music. You are also an author of many books. Which are your quests as a writer?

RB: My principal aspiration and quest as interpreter and music divulgator is to have a friendly relationship with the public and to familiarize the young people with this immense legacy. I am only a Bach lover and I hope to see many youngsters at classical concerts. Why not at Bach evenings? It’s a hope!


Bahrami’s Bach journey on record

In 2009 Decca Universal released the 6-CDs box ”Ramin Bahrami plays Bach”, with all Bahrami’s Bach recordings up till then, including a selection of live performances and in 2010 came the French Suites. Before that, the Goldberg Variations, the seven Partitas and the Art of Fugue, released respectively in 2004, 2005 and 2007 which launched Bahrami as a popular and sought after artist. The recording of The Art of Fugue reached the top ten of pop-music best sellers in Italy – keeping this position for seven weeks. After this followed the release of ”Concerto Italiano”, with Bach works inspired by Italy (Concerto Italiano, Aria variata nella maniera italiana, Capriccio sulla lontananza del fratello dilettissimo, Quattro Duetti etc.), and in 2009 Bach Sonatas BWV 963-968 received important evaluations from critics and audience. In 2011 followed the Bach Concertos with Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, 2012 the English Suites, 2013 Inventions & Sinfonias and 2014 Flute Sonatas with flutist Massimo Mercelli. That same year “Bach for Babies” was released and followed by Bach’s Musical Offering in 2015.

Selected albums available on Piano Street / Naxos (for Gold Members):

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/patrick
 
     

Crash Course: How to Teach Piano Online

What you have been wondering and perhaps worrying about for many years is suddenly upon you. The question was if online piano lesson are worth it and if so, how to get started? Now there is no more time to ponder, this week you will be teaching all your piano students online!

This article is under preparation but since this is an urgent time for most of us to skill up, we are publishing the draft.

To keep updated, sign-up for our free newsletter here >>

Let us know how things are going for you at the moment by post your experiences, suggestions and questions in the comment field at the bottom!

And help spreading the information by linking to the article on:
https://www.pianostreet.com/teach-piano-online

While you could spend the remainder of this school year investigating and planning for the optimal way to teach piano remotely using various online tools and adjusting your educational approach and content accordingly, it will still not be close to a physical lesson. But online teaching will have both advantages and disadvantages, and as a piano teacher your creative and pedagogical skills will surely help you make the most of the advantages.

This article covers many obvious things, but the aim is to quickly introduce you to the current consensus around the basic concepts of online piano teaching and not least, to help you get your online teaching started today!

Are you ready for the crash course?


Level 1: Just do it!

The best piano lesson?
The lesson that actually takes place. (Any lesson, physical or online is better than a cancelled lesson.)

The best technical devices and equipment?
The stuff you and your students already own.

The best platform?
The one you and your student already use or can easily start using.

The best outcome?
You assist and inspire as many of your students as possible to continue practicing during a time of social isolation.

We suggest that your main goal for the first week is to get started immediately with what you have. Follow up each student’s progress and encourage them to continue practicing.

What not to expect at this level:
– Good sound quality
– Sharing sheet music and annotations on screen
– Multi camera setup
– Working with tone quality
– Giving detailed feedback about interpretation
– Introducing new complex concepts and techniques

Problems to accept:
– You cannot play together due to the time delay (often up to 1 second).
– Quality of the video call may vary and you might have to disconnect and use an alternative platform during the lesson.

A minimal setup
Since your highest priority is to connect and communicate without too much preparation and practical problem solving, we suggest you get started with this simple setup.

Devices and platforms

Both you as a teacher and your students use the following:
– A smartphone, tablet and/or laptop that you already use
– Facetime, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, Snapchat etc.

Since all your students are likely not using the same platforms you should install and setup accounts on at least two different platforms.

Facetime – often decent quality, but can only be used if both you and your student have Apple devices. It is simply a video call.
Skype – quality can be very varying due to wifi connections etc. You can keep up the conversation between lessons in the chat where you can send text, sheet music, assignments, images and video etc.
Zoom – similar to Skype but as a dedicated online conference and education solution, it has features for scheduling lessons. Most students are not familiar with it and you will be more locked into a “walled garden” compared to the other platforms.
WhatsApp – many users have it and as with Skype you can share different kinds of content.
Snapchat – since most kids use it, it is good to have as a backup solution.
Voice call – a simple phone call should not be underestimated. It is the clear winner in terms of accessability and if you know your student well, you can easily conduct a useful lesson that keeps the student on track.

Instruct the student to place the smartphone in a vertical (portrait) position at the end of the keyboard. Attach it with adhesive (e.g. Blu Tack) or tape.

You can also opt for horizontal video, but you need to decide which of the two to use. For smartphones with small screens, vertical as in the picture above is recommended but if you both use laptops, horizontal is the natural choice.

As a teacher it is useful and practical to use two devices. For example a smartphone for the video call and a laptop for keeping notes in an e-mail or shared text document.

Turn off any sound enhancements, auto mic adjust and “mirror image”.

Planning and following-up

As an alternative or complement to the student’s physical notebook, use either one e-mail (that you both keep replying to between lessons) or a shared Google Doc file. Before the lesson, list the following:
– Lesson time
– Your accounts on the various platforms and the preferred one for this lesson
– Lesson content in bullet form

During the lesson you can make notes for the students and finish by setting up the time and lesson content bullets for the next lesson.

Quick tips:

– Follow the same routines as your physical lessons.
– Have simple goals with each lesson.
– Look at the camera to create a sense of eye contact with your student.
– One thing at a time. Do not talk while you or the student is playing.
– Real-time instructions or counting the beats while the student is playing are delayed, which will be very distracting.
– Give more responsibility to the student. For example let them make notes in their score or judge for themselves if the balance between hands is good.
– Keep in mind that a significant part of the gains with having a piano lesson is that the student keeps practicing to prepare for the lesson and get a new assignment to continue practicing.

Getting to work

Before you quickly jump in, a word of warning:
You will probably need to install new apps and software, sign-up for new services, and encourage your students to do the same. Be aware that depending on your circumstances and experience there may be online security and privacy issues that you may need to consider carefully.

1. Try out two different video call platforms and practice your app skills (chat, post a file or image).
2. Figure out how to position/mount your device(s) and work on your filming skills (switch between front/rear camera etc).
3. Set-up a shared document or e-mail for each student with the content mentioned above and send it over to your students.
4. Read this article and this to have a better chance to avoid embarrassing beginner mistakes. Prepare your family members if you are teaching from home!
5. Wait for your first call!


Level 2: Adjust your content and method

When you have been able to connect and communicate with your students in real time you will probably see obvious room for improvement in many areas. Your priorities will depend on your situation, so need to evaluate your experience from level 1 in order to set up your prioritis for your next steps as an online piano teacher.

While a very reasonable reaction is to start thinking about improving the (sometimes terrible) sound and video quality with better technical equipment, consider that it is not only you as a teacher that need a better camera, microphone, tablet etc. but all your students also need to level up their gear in order for you to benefit from it.

Instead, your time is now probably better spent to pragmatically consider which type of lesson content and methods are the most effective and useful in this new situation.

You may now need a good service for publishing and viewing videos privately. YouTube is the superior market leader for two reasons: it works great and it is free. Get an account and consider asking your students to do the same if you want them to send/share videos.

Here are some thoughts to get you started:

“Flipped classroom” approach
Give students material to learn on their own (video courses, printed material, apps etc.). During live video lessons you assist them by helping to solve the problems they have encountered.

“Video exchange” approach
The student is asked to record a video of their piece or other assessment and send it to you. You can get back with written comments in an email, or with a short video clip with comments and instructions. Videos recorded and posted will almost always be of considerably better quality than a real-time video call.  It is not unrealistic to assume that the student might be even more motivated and dedicated to playing well in the video recording than when just practicing for the ordinary lesson.

Here are more invaluable tips about content, techniques, and routines for online piano teaching that has recently been shared on YouTube by piano teachers.


Top Music: 5 Quick Tips for Producing Video Piano Lessons Online

The Clarion Clavier: How and why I teach piano lessons online through Skype

Curious Piano Teachers: Your Essential Guide to Giving Online Piano Lessons

Helpful articles to read:

Clavier Companion: Teaching in the time of Covid-19

Tim Topham: On How to Maximize Your Effectiveness When Teaching Lessons Online

Color in my piano: Teaching Piano During the COVID-19 Pandemic


Level 3: Improved Technology

Now you are ready to explore the many ways of improving the technological side of your online teaching.

While you can quite easily gear up to deliver impressive multi-camera lessons with great sound on a budget below $3.000, before you jump in, take a moment to consider a few things:

– You can not expect all students to invest in quality gear. They may still use their smartphone with a small screen and poor audio (both microphone and speakers).

– If your online lessons are too impressive, it may not just be the temporary solution that you had in mind. Students and parents will get used to the new situation and it is easy to imagine that they will in many cases prefer and require online lessons even when the period of social distancing is over. Are you really ready to give up physical lessons?

– Just to physically set up the technical gear for high-tech multicamera lessons does take time. If you use a proven setup that you have been working with before, you should still expect an hour to get camera stands, mic placement, hdmi adapters, audio mixer, camera angles, device charging and a lot more to be in place. Unless you have a dedicated online piano lessons studio where you can keep the setup intact over time, you may have to spend a lot of time rigging up and down.

If the above points cannot hold you back, get started by listening to some piano teachers with long experience in this area that we have found sharing their tips on YouTube:

Josh Wright: 15 Tips For ONLINE Piano Lessons (filmed during COVID-19 quarantining)

Hugh Sun: How To Teach Online Piano Lessons

How to Teach Online Piano Lessons


/nilsjohan
 
     

How to Keep Your Piano Keys Clean from Viruses?

The current Coronavirus pandemic brings questions to the fore about how to eliminate the spread of infectious and harmful microorganisms in our teaching or practicing spaces. One of the most burning ones is what can be done to sanitize or disinfect piano keys without harming them. Piano manufacturers advise against using any form of alcohol, but what’s the alternative? And during an ongoing pandemic when public health have higher priority than material concerns, do we need to re-evaluate the advice?

This article is updated regularly with the latest advice based on what’s know about Covid-19.
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Occasionally, we all carry viral and bacterial pathogens on our hands, disease-causing organisms that are likely to end up on keyboards. As a consequence, pianos in teaching and practicing spaces, played on by many different people, risk contributing to the spread of diseases.
If teaching, it is obviously a good idea to require effective hand washing or sanitizing before and after anyone plays your piano. But this will not help against, say, any coughing or sneezing that may happen during a lesson. And when faced with a new instrument not knowing who has played it before you – what can you do to sanitize the keyboard before touching it?

Alcohol based disinfectants

The most efficient disinfection would generally be to use some kind of alcohol such as rubbing alcohol or denatured alcohol (methylated spirits), but be aware that this could damage the keys. It’s especially risky on an older instrument with ivory keys. But as a matter of fact, both ivory (a natural polymer) and synthetic polymer key surfaces can become discolored or cracked when exposed to alcohol or other harsh chemicals used in disinfectants.

Disinfectant wipes, warm water, or vinegar?

Some piano teachers wipe their piano keyboards with various disinfectants after each student. Is this because they are unaware of the risks of damaging the instrument, or is it that they see no alternative? Or that they have done so for years, and found that the potential health benefits outweigh the potential risks for the instrument?
Some recommend using a solution of water and vinegar, but science is still very scarce on vinegar’s effectiveness as a disinfectant. Clearly, it’s not nearly as effective as chemical products. And you need to allow at least a half-hour of exposure. Also, one would think vinegar a more gentle alternative for ivory keys, but this is not the case. If your keys are plastic, vinegar won’t hurt, but when dealing with ivory, avoid it altogether.
If you want to be really gentle on the keys, you could simply wipe them down with a damp cloth (NB. damp, not wet – nothing spells destruction for a fine instrument like moisture damage). This will not kill viruses and germs but hopefully removes them physically. It’s far less likely to damage the keys than disinfectants, but probably less effective.

The polymer chemist’s approach

John M. Zeigler, Ph.D., a polymer chemist also interested in music, has tackled the problem of disinfecting piano keys safely in his article “Piano Hygiene in the Teaching Studio”. Zeigler found that certain disinfecting wipes (with so-called ‘quaternary ammonium chlorides’ as active ingredients) should be safe for use on piano keyboards, because they contain mostly water and only a very small amount of the disinfectant. Nevertheless, he recommends wiping with a damp cloth afterward to remove disinfectant residues. He also issues a word of warning: Unless you can understand the nature, chemical reactivity and purpose of the label ingredients for a cleaning product, avoid using it on your piano.
Don’t forget to wash your hands!

New recommendations from PTG

Piano Technicians Guilds has recently published the document “Covid-19 and Piano Care”.
Their general recommendations are:

  • Use alcohol-based disinfectants, do not use bleach-based disinfectants or any product containing citrus.
  • If using a spray or liquid bottle, use a disposable towel like WYPALL L30. Put the disinfectant on the towel and not the piano.
  • After use, immediately put the towel or disinfectant hand wipe in the trash and wash your hands as the CDC recommends. Do not use reusable towels or cloths which could spread germs to your kit or the next customer.
  • Always follow up with a dry towel and never leave any liquids on the piano or keys.

What about coronavirus specifically?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives, on their page Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) > Clean & Disinfect, the following advice that can be relevant for disinfection, not considering possible harm on musical instruments:

“Current evidence suggests that novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials. Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings.”

“For disinfection, diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective.”

To summarize

It’s not as easy as you might think to find a quick, effective way to disinfect or sanitize the keyboard, which is also completely safe for the piano keys. At the end of the day, the best recommendation would probably still be for everyone to wash or sanitize their hands carefully, both before and after playing, since it’s unlikely that any keyboard will be 100% virus-free. While playing, avoid touching your face, picking up your phone, etc. Add to this a wipe down the keys with a simple damp cloth before and after every playing session.

For a more thorough disinfection of the keyboard, you could go about like this:
1. Wipe the keys with a cloth dipped in a solution of soap and warm water and wrung out well.
2. Remove soap residue with a damp cloth.
3. Use some kind of trusted disinfectant with a low concentration of the active ingredient.
4. Leave disinfectant residue for 30 seconds to a couple of minutes before removing it with a damp cloth.


Links and resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) > Clean & Disinfect

BBC Future: Covid-19: How long does the coronavirus last on surfaces?

BBC News: Coronavirus: How to clean your smartphone safely
(Gives a hint about how effective soap and water is on coronavirus.)

Steinway Los Angeles recommends 70% alcohol to clean the keys.

Steinway & Sons main Facebook page recommends hydrogen peroxide.

“Piano Hygiene in the Teaching Studio” by polymer chemist John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.

As user ardith in Piano Forum points out, it is difficult to get a clear answer about what chemicals to use.
Do disinfectant chemicals such as isopropanol damage piano keys?


Related reading:

Coronavirus Etude – A New Viral Piano Piece
A classic viral piano piece, “Dusting the Piano” has finally got a follow-up. While Dusting the Piano should be managable for players of ABRSM grade 1 and suitable for performances during less critical times, the new Coronavirus Etude is more complex (around ABRSM grade 5) and aimed to be more effective against viruses.


Reader question:

How do you keep your piano keys clean?
Please post your reply below!


/david
 
     



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