What I’m Playing – Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

A couple weeks ago I decided to swap out my little studio bookshelf for the larger bookshelves in our loft. Although our family reading books now are crammed into a smaller space, my piano scores are seeing the light of day and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve already been using old forgotten gems in lessons with students. It’s so nice to be able to easily access my music!

One of the forgotten gems I came across was this Urtext edition of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Ausgewahlte Klavierwerke, roughly translated “Selected Keyboard Works”. The book contains eleven pieces for piano, including two etudes, one nocturne, and two lieder, the genre in which Hensel excelled.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) is a compelling composer, in my opinion. Her first pieces to be published were done so under her brother Felix’s name (these pieces are found in his Opus 8 and 9). Later she was published under her own name, and she herself understood how exceptional it was for a woman composer to be published in the early 1800’s. “And so I have decided to issue my works in print. Bote & Bock have made offers to me the likes of which have perhaps never before been given a dilettante composer of my sex…” Composing was as much a part of her life as being a wife and mother. She found the most success in her piano pieces and songs (lieder), which is understandable considering the extent of her brother Felix’s work in his Songs Without Words.¬†I can imagine the two of them discussing the finer points of composing at family gatherings. ūüôā

I have especially enjoyed playing the first Ubungsstuck (meaning Etude) in C Major and the Notturno.

The Ubungsstuck is a terrific etude to practice these skills:

  1. Alterations between thirds and first inversion chords in both hands
  2. Planing first inversion chords
  3. LH Octave scale passages
  4. Circle of fifths LH
  5. Chromatic chordal movement
  6. Double thirds
  7. Strong harmonic modulations
  8. RH C chord inversions

The Notturno is a lovely, lyrical piece in g minor featuring an arpeggiated left hand accompaniment and beautiful melody.

I have smaller hands (I celebrate the fact that I can reach a 9th on the piano), and these pieces fit very easily within the span of my hand.

I would recommend these pieces for advanced students who need to work on a specific technique such as inverted, planing chords (like the Ubungsstuck); or a student wanting to play something a little off the beaten path; or someone who would like to try a piece in the lieder genre.

I’m looking forward to playing more piano pieces by this often-overlooked composer.


Happy Teaching Moments (January 2018)

I always enjoy January lessons so much. After the busy-ness of December, January feels like a dream. We are all ready for fresh new music and are usually quite motivated to buckle down into a daily practice routine. I feel like students generally improve their skills in these winter months quite a bit.

Here are some January studio happenings which made me smile:

  1. Student sight-reading through quite a bit of his method books over Christmas break
  2. New blinds and seating area means bright light and fresh feel
  3. Students jumping off the front steps after lessons – does this ever happen to you? I have a few students who I have recently observed hopping off the front porch steps as they leave the studio. I feel as though this is a happy expression of an enjoyed lesson and my heart jumps for joy when I observe this happiness. ūüôā
  4. Teaching old pop songs to young students – “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey and “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond. So much fun!
  5. Three new students! One seven year old beginner, one sixteen year old advanced student, and…
  6. New adult student who is returning to piano and is excited to practice and play again. Her enthusiasm has motivated her entire family to play again. ūüôā


My January soundtrack (some of the pieces/composers I taught this month):

  • Haydn, Sonata in E minor
  • Dohnanyi, Rhapsody in C Major
  • Pachelbel Canon
  • Joplin, The Entertainer
  • Satie, Gymnopedie No. 1
  • Clementi, Sonatina in C
  • Mozart, Minuet and Trio
  • Chopin, Prelude in Db Major “Raindrop Prelude”
  • Beethoven, Six Variations
  • Willy Wonka, Pure Imagination
  • Lord of the Rings, Concerning Hobbits
  • Coldplay, Clocks
  • Yiruma, River Flows in You
  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Benjamin Calypso
  • Journey, Don’t Stop Believin’
  • Neil Diamond, Sweet Caroline

Pieces I played this month:20180129_141110I picked up level ten of Essential Piano Repertoire and was reminded how a good layout makes such a difference when learning music. I have played both these pieces before but really enjoyed playing them from this edition. 20180129_141008

Hexentanz (Witches’ Dance) Op. 17, No. 2 by MacDowell

What a fantastic piece! Full of fast finger work (more for RH than LH), chromatic double thirds and scales, large dynamic changes, and a wide range of expressive elements. This is an ideal piece for competitions, festivals and recitals.



Sonata L.23 by Domenico Scarlatti

This well-known sonata is cheerful and so fun to play. This colorful piece includes horn calls, Baroque trills, good finger work on repeated notes, and extensive playing at the piano or pianissimo level. Also an excellent choice for public performance.

Books I read this month:


The Practice of Practice by Jonathan Harnum

Wow! This book was so good. I found myself underlining so many passages. I will be publishing a separate post on this book soon!

What I’m Playing / Chaminade


Cecile Chaminade, 1857-1944

Lately I have been playing and enjoying works by Cecile Chaminade. She was an accomplished musician and composer whose piano works enjoyed high acclaim, especially in England and America.  She lived a long and profitable life, writing in the late-Romantic French style.


Chaminade’s Toccata, Opus 39 is wonderful. Lots of sixteenth notes, dynamic variations, ¬†harmonic clarity and features some chromatic movement. It’s keeping my fingers moving these days.


20170912_125419Her Theme and Variations, Opus 89 is also on the top of my list right now. It contains thicker textures, larger chord spans and a wider keyboard range than the Toccata, which I feel makes it a nice, contrasting companion to practice along with the Toccata.

Both are lovely! And both are available for free download on imslp Petrucci Music Library.


Already in Progress


For the past month I have been working on the Three Novelettes by Francis Poulenc, which I love for its simple beauty. It is not a difficult piece – Jane Magrath categorizes the piece as Level 10 in¬†The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching.¬†

One of the most striking points my teacher made about the first novelette was that the performer should begin the piece as if it¬†is already in progress, as if the melody already exists somewhere in time and space. He has made this point before with other pieces, and I think the thought is lovely. In my practicing I’ve noticed that if I can achieve this,¬†it results in a more nuanced, gentle beginning.

Here is a recording of the piece played in concert by Yilin Sung:

Personal Lessons – Bach’s French Suite Number 5

Oh goodness, where do I begin with lessons on a French Suite?

First of all, I must say that I love Bach. His music just makes sense. It is so clean and precise, yet full of nuance and subtleties. In Bach you always have that moment of, after having worked and worked at it, crystal clear insight. The “ah-ha” moment of clarity.

The fifth French Suite is divided into the following dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte, bourree, loure and gigue. One thing I needed to work through was how to make the individual dances a cohesive whole. Questions like tempos, energy levels, how much time to allow between movements, which repeats to take, etc. are all necessary and must be addressed.

When I first started studying this piece, I was very didactic. I remembered back to college days (and even high school) and the teaching of articulation within Bach. I had been taught that the longest note value in each dance should be legato, the shortest note value legato, and the mid-range note values should be detached. So I was religiously following these requirements. Of course you know where that leads – I was completely frustrated and was not making music at all, just becoming a robot.

When I discussed the articulation with my teacher, his thoughts were so liberating I could feel the burden rolling off my shoulders (and fingers!). His perspective is that there is so much freedom in Bach because of the lack of dynamic and articulation markings. Your overall goal and end result should be to make music – of course this needs to be within the bounds of good taste¬†and¬†in accordance with the style of the music. But matters of dynamics and articulation are fluid – you do not need to follow strict rules because Bach did not impose them. Even¬†Bach’s son CPE Bach simply admonishes performers of his father’s music to use good taste.

This is wonderful news. My practice was instantly more joyful and creative. I was listening to the music more intently and with more discretion. I was making musical decisions.

Other ideas my teacher brought out in this piece were:

  1. With regard to voices – what is the spatial quality, what is the timbre
  2. The whole idea of unity and variety is fascinating and could be studied at length
  3. The issue of repeats within the individual dances – sometimes the repeated material should have variety, but it doesn’t necessarily need to change. Bach is complex and audiences welcome a second chance to hear the intricate music again.

Bach is simply a treasure-trove of musical ideas. I could play through Bach for years and years and never grow tired of it.

Personal Lessons -Soiree dans Grenade and Jardins sous la pluie

¬†I have been struck while learning¬†Estampes with the brilliance of Debussy. When you consider the form, harmonic and melodic structures, pianism and sheer range of his compositional style, you get a small glimpse of the reason Debussy’s music will endure through the ages.

Debussy book Schmitz

The book,¬†The Piano Works of Claude Debussy by E. Robert Schmitz has been a good resource for learning Debussy’s¬†Estampes.¬†I like the way Schmitz walks through each piece describing harmonies and presenting vivid, imaginative pictures of everyday life.

A few things I’ve learned about Soiree dans Grenade¬†(Evening in Granada) from my lessons:

  1. The Habanera rhythm is delightful to play
  2. Quite often we think about projecting to an audience Рplaying to the back row, etc. However, the opening of Soiree is so distant that it works best to draw the audience in. To invite the audience to join in the journey.
  3. Huge chords! As I am learning this piece, I am teaching Debussy’s¬†Claire de Lune¬†to a student. I love the timing of this. I am embracing¬†the struggle of learning these huge chords and can provide practical insight to him (“because I was just working on it before you arrived!”)
  4. It is fascinating to evoke the sounds of other instruments on the piano. I am a little proud that the piano is capable of such feats. ūüôā

A few things I’ve learned about¬†Jardins sous la pluie¬†(Gardens in the Rain) from my lessons:

  1. Levels of pianissimo Рthe energy level really dictates the mood and intensity
  2. Again, Debussy’s masterful use of harmonies. Utterly beautiful.
  3. Multiple levels of melodic activity within one measure or phrase. See measures 37-42 as an example.
  4. Juxtapositions of themes upon themselves in different tonalities and tempos. Genius.

My piano lessons have continued to stretch me to think more deeply about the pieces I’m playing, the technique involved, and the overall enjoyment of music. I’m so grateful to be able to take lessons again.

Personal Lesson 1: Debussy’s Pagodes

pagodesMy first official lesson with my Wonderful Teacher was awesome. It was stimulating, inspiring and just plain fun. (Read about my decision to take piano lessons here.)

I have been studying Debussy’s Pagodes from Estampes,¬†which was inspired by Debussy’s visit to the World Fair in Paris. Debussy recreated the sound of the gamelan in this piece. We discussed how the sounds of the gamelan were duplicated in Pagodes¬†and how to separate the different sounds. My teacher suggested playing the low gong sounds with the left fist to achieve a full, deep sound.

One of our most valuable discussions was regarding volume. How do we think of volume? Different shades of color, volumes of speaking, proximity.

The French and Japanese shared certain sensibilities, which made the French particularly interested in Japanese music at the time. One of the similarities in music was the idea of joining a piece of music that was already in progress (as you start at the beginning). It is as if you pick up the song that has been on a continuous loop, and merely join in a song already in progress. This idea really helps to clarify the beginning and end of Pagodes. 

Next piece up – Debussy’s Soiree dans Grenades from Estampes