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  • Writer's picturerhapsodydmb


Updated: Jul 6

There is pain in learning the piano. And there are solutions to reduce the hurt.

I'm not talking about tendinitis pain which I battled throughout 2023 (but not now).*

I'm talking about not reaching one's goal of getting outside on one's instrument, the love and respect one feels inside for both the musical composition and its composer. That's depressing enough but often can add up to pure hell when I particularly love the piece I've focused on to learn.

In the initial phases of learning a new piece, of course pressing** the right notes is the first step. Then I can move on pretty quickly to do all of the rest more or less simultaneously, leaving to the last, advancing the tempo: inputting musicality, proper phrasing and dynamics, nuance, and my interpretation.

If from the git-go I try to input all of what's needed in a "finished" piece, I quickly get confused and maximally frustrated. I'm a step-by-step incremental learner who needs to add one element at a time in order to retain my immense love of and long-term commitment to learning the piano. That's likely a matter of my personality, comfortable and habitual learning style, and age.

A few days ago Julliard Prof Noa Kageyama posted another of his fascinating and helpful blogs citing research on a specific effective strategy to improve technique and it involves visualization. In this blog he summarized evidence that choosing one apt visual image can often help the student reach a technical goal faster than any other strategy. Only one image is recommended in order to avoid distraction and ultimate frustration.

He mentioned an example of table tennis players who are having a tough time making shots. Researchers tested subjects by asking them to think of a right triangle (a flat sided-flat bottom 90 degree angle with a joining diagonal line) then visualize "sliding" the paddle up the diagonal line to the apex. It seemed to work to improve accuracy! Could this be transferrable to a violinist sliding the bow up the strings to make a smooth transition to another note?

In conclusion of the blog, Noa asked readers to send him similar strategies that have worked - and it sparked my memory of two which I sent him. They are not precisely mental visualizations, but they utilize sensations, specifically sensing one specific, external, triggering cue that helps to achieve a technical goal. Here they are in hopes that for some readers they might work, or at least provide for a fun experiment!

If you have other ideas to offer, please post them here or send me email:!


While initially learning an intermediate piano version of violinist Fritz Kreisler's gorgeous "Leibesleid" ("Love's Sorrow") I discovered an effective "fix" for an errant finger.

Of course these versions of the piece arranged and played by Rachmaninoff himself in 1921 and also played by pianist Tiffany Poon, are just lovely. In my simplified version, I kept pressing one particular wrong note. Every single time! All other notes came rather easily into my fingers and hands save for this one and it involved only one finger placed on one wrong note! Invariably I would press the note beside the proper one. I became quite exasperated until one day an idea struck me.

I got up, reached for a bottle of bright red nail polish, painted the fingernail of the finger that always hit the wrong note - and with a handful of tries, my problem was solved!

There are a few provisos. The polish color should be bright, and the other fingernails not polished so that the vibrant one stands out.

Upon remembering this when reading Noa's blog, I did the very same thing regarding my current practice of page two or Part A' of "Widmung" by Schumann (arranged by Liszt; ypu can hear the transition bar at 49 seconds into that part played by Carolyn Hu, one of my favorite interpretations).

At the start of Part A' the melody switches from the right to the left hand. As I listened to the interpretations of my coach Chelsea Wong (you can hear her play the piece at our April 28 Groupmuse home concert), and to many concertizing pianists on YouTube, the melody note becomes quite pronounced compared to the right-handed melody notes in Part A. In the absence of any indication in the score, I'm unsure why that dynamic change is so, but I hear it, and have set that dynamic and emphasis as my goals.

So, I painted the left hand thumb nail bright orange! I ignore that thumbnail when practicing Part A, but when I get to Part A', I look down at my thumbnail starting in the transition bar then direct my focus thoughout Part A' to pressing that thumb down a lot more firmly on the melody note. It seems to help!


Recently I learned that it was proper to "float" the right hand chords in Part A' of "Widmung". Easy enough to know what the piano teacher meant, i.e., play more softly with a light touch - but how to achieve it? She did not say, and I was finding it hard to do.

A few days ago and all of a sudden I remembered an item that I had successfully employed over a year ago on the same kind of problem.

Then I had taken an old, fairly inexpensive "diamond" ring that was a bit too large for my finger (pictured at the start of this blog, in case you wondered what that fluff ball thing was that is hanging off the score?), inserted about a two-inch long strip of cotton (the ones that come inside pill bottles), fluffed it up and pulled the sides around into a circle until it looked a bit like a flower of spun cotton candy.

For "Widmung" practice, I now put my cotton candy ring on a finger of my right hand, and when I look at it (it's hard not to look at!), it reminds me to "float that right hand like a cloud."

I just discovered something that makes this even more effective: involve another sense besides just the visual one - physical feeling! I slightly wet the bottom of the ring and cotton so that I now I don't just see it, but I feel it when I wear it. I'm going to try putting the ring in the freezer for a few moments before practice to enhance sensation cues even more.

I also added another visual cue. I thought to print a lovely picture of puffy clouds in a blue sky (think Montana) and glue it behind the second page of the score. Now when I transition to Part A' I will surely see clouds sticking up about an inch from the page when I start to play.

(N,B, Subsequent to composing the above, during my next coaching session on "Widmung", Chelsea gave me yet more apt visual images for that right hand in Part A' with respect to achieving proper lighter dynamics. I could think of fish swimming (perhaps an octopus floating upward?). And with respect to shaping the phrases (a very tricky, complex task in this particular piece!), she gave me the mental image of an infinity circle implying a rise and fall in endless repetition, as applied for example, to the three introductory bars that resemble the resonate chimes of cathedral bells.)

As a result of trying out various visual images, I haven't yet accomplished the proper right hand lightness thoughout Part A' (it is now unevenly light and too heavy!), but I think I hear progress - and I'll take such small gifts now and forevermore, and move forward from there!


*I've gratefully recovered from tendinitis, for the most part by time and effective physical therapy. Today any over-practicing hints of the inevitable return of that painful affliction, so I limit my time at the piano to no more than 30 minutes several times a day. I also stretch my entire body before sitting down, and employ one of Noa's strategies for effective practice which makes for faster progress and less time at the piano. (What works best for me is interleaved practice combined with one or two of the day's specific technical or musical goals written on a 5 x 8" card, then I practice with the results recorded on the same card, and a new technique chosen to fix the remaining evident problems, and so on.)

**Yes, I do mark up my score when initially learning a piece - but before I start I make several xerox copies of it and on the first, I feel free to use multiple colored markers for note identification or instructions to aid me. Later I switch to an unmarked copy and continue until the piece is memorized, That way I don't ruin my scores, especially if they are beautiful and expensive Henle scores!

Also, I don't "cotton" to using the word "striking" or even "hitting" the right note, nor the word "attack". Those words seem far too aggressive, too "manly-man", and certainly not apt when playing a lyrical piece or pianissimo phrases. Thus, I opt to use the alternate, more objective word of "press".


DOLOR (Spanish for "pain")

I feel dolor, I fail not to cry

Because the world is passing by

And I cannot imagine

How to play Faure,

His Ballade* fair that after rest

Takes to air, unleashed,

Unfettered, as if nothing mattered

But his flight of soul.

I feel keen pain that in three years

I’ve gained not much in tone or touch,

And speed defeats my every desire

To play my Duchess fair.

Some say I’ve come along,

And for some seconds I hear my song

Which speeds away,

My swagger tamed, my ego dulled,

And wonder I, can I unfurl,

Unroll, then freely play my love

Of song and composition

From the bottom rung

Of my pianistic position?


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