Piano Projects

Seated at a large Baldwin piano, next to a window overlooking city skyline, two Upper School students played various notes and chords along the black and white keys, laughing together as their classmates filed into the room.

“Give me a pentatonic black keys improv,” asked Elizabeth Adler, Upper School Music teacher while smiling through her mask. The students obliged, pressing seemingly random sharps and flats, causing a soft melodic tune to echo out of the instrument.

Thus began Intro to Piano, a new Upper School FOCUS course that centers around the fundamentals of piano and offers wide-ranging opportunities to delve deeper into the marvelous instrument. The elective, designed by Ms. Adler, was planned with Chapin’s new expansive spaces, including choral rooms, sound-proof practice rooms and music studios, in mind.

The class members sat in a half circle inside Studio B, facing Ms. Adler, who stood in front of a white board. “We have about 20 classes left,” she began. “Today you’ll be working on your independent projects, but I want to remind you that during the last week of class, you’ll be performing semi-formal demonstrations for me. Now, let’s begin with any questions.”

One student raised her hand and asked for a clarification regarding sharps and flats – two music notations that change the key of a note. (A flat, which looks like a ‘b,’ lowers the note by a half-step while a sharp, similar to a pound sign; is higher in pitch by a half-step).

“If the notation is in the key signature at the beginning of a piece, it doesn’t change throughout. However, if it’s next to one singular note, that note will revert back to natural in the following measure,” Ms. Adler explained.

After their brief discussion, students pulled out ‘Adult Piano Adventures,’ a course book filled with information about scales, notes and symbols, and spread out across the various practice rooms on the 9th floor.

“The students can join at a variety of levels,” Ms. Adler explained. In other words, while one student practices basic fingerings for the instrument, another may be working on a high-level piece.

After some independent work time, Ms. Adler first checked in with a beginner student who was practicing “Heart and Soul” – a classic tune learned by many novice piano players. “Make sure your pinky makes that leap,” Ms. Adler advised as the student worked on playing with both hands simultaneously. “Your technique has gotten so much stronger every time!”

Another student, with a keyboard in front of her, described her work with ear training, which is a fundamental skill for composing. This ability allows a player to translate a melody from one instrument to the piano. For example, this particular student was in the midst of deciphering “Kiwi” by Harry Styles (played in E minor on the guitar) and finding the right keys on the piano to replicate it based solely on sound.

A third musician inside Studio A was busy composing her own piece. “I’m debating whether to go with a lower or higher octave,” she mused. “But I’m definitely going to play it slowly. I’m thinking it will be a lullaby,” she added smiling.

“Your instinct is so good,” Ms. Adler said, listening attentively as the student showed off her work-in-progress. “I love that!” she exclaimed after the tune finished.

Further down the hall, in quiet practice rooms, Upper Schoolers were at their pianos rehearsing songs ranging from Mozart’s “Für Elise” to “Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo.

During her final check-in, Ms. Adler discussed the influence that pedals can have on a piece. “I want to play the chords so that they don’t sound choppy,” a student said.

The right pedal, Ms. Adler noted, allows you to hold out notes so they blend seamlessly together. The left pedal shifts something inside the piano and makes the tune softer, while the middle pedal holds out a singular note at a time.

Pointing to their sheet music, the budding musician asked, “And what does this curved line at the top mean?”

“That helps you discover how you play the piece,” said Ms. Adler. “While you may not play all those notes together, it should be one flowing entity.” She also explained that the song has a crescendo, which is a symbol that means you play the beginning measure softly and gradually get louder.

This noteworthy class is just one of the many ways that our new spaces have allowed us to expand and deepen our arts program, which we look forward to continuing in the many years to come.