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Practice techniques for expressive performances

Mary Leaf's Fantasy in A Minor (FJH) is a successful Pupil Saver in my studio. This romantic- style intermediate piece is popular with students because it sounds harder than it is, contains patterns that enable the student to learn it quickly, and utilizes the entire keyboard. The first and last sections of this piece are similar and can easily be taught by rote. Since rote teaching tends to be more common with elementary repertoire, this type of learning can be a delightful change of routine for intermediate students. I introduce the piece by playing the first eight measures from memory, as written. Next, I play the section with blocked chords, as shown in measures 1-2 below, naming each chord and its quality as I play.

After I have blocked the first eight measures, I write the following on a piece of paper: 

  • A Minor descending 
  • D Major ascending 
  • A Minor descending 
  • C Major ascending 
  • E Minor descending 
  • F Major ascending 
  • D Minor descending 
  • E Major ascending 

I ask the student to play the first eight measures in blocks using what I have written, and then "as written" (even though we are not using any music), demonstrating passing tones as needed. It can be enjoyable to repeat these eight measures using varying amounts of rubato and exploring the dynamic range between piano and forte, while intermittently talking about the definition of fantasy. A short analytical discussion about the relationships among the chords in the first eight measures is a good theory review. Finally, I let the student see the music. 

The next sixteen bars are in the style of a nocturne. In order to highlight the importance of the melodic line, I introduce this section by playing the left hand alone while singing the right-hand melody. I repeat this process several times and invite the student to sing and clap the right-hand rhythm with me as I play the left hand. Depending upon the student, I may close the music at that point and ask her to write the rhythm to the melody we have been singing and clapping. I have also found it helpful to have students play only the first note of each measure in the bass staff while singing the melody, as this reinforces the harmonic strength of the bass note on the first beat of the bar. This technique works well in measures 9-10.

Later in the piece, a beautiful, lyrical melody alternates between the right and left hands. Here educators have an opportunity to teach or reinforce pedaling for harmonic change, voicing, and balance. Fantasy in A Minor contains a large dynamic range, puts fast and fancy fingers on display, and is lovely when performed well. A fun supplementary piece for the student learning advanced standard repertoire, I enthusiastically recommend this composition for any teacher's library. 

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