Christmas Prize Draw Competition

Have you ever considered the back stories of the pieces you are playing? This can make a very considerable difference to our appreciation of the music; knowledge of what was going on in the composer’s life at the time he wrote a work feeds the imagination and enriches our performance – and all it takes is a little research. A popular recital piece – and one often selected for diplomas – is Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, K 310. Do you know the background to this work? Put yourself in Mozart’s shoes in the summer of  1778. He was 22 years old on tour in Paris with his mother, who was accompanying him. Suddenly Frau Mozart became ill and unexpectedly died there on July 3rd. Since his father, Leopold, had stayed at home, Wolfgang would presumably have been in charge of dealing with the situation. To make matters worse, when he eventually learned his wife had died, Leopold blamed Wolfgang. Knowing this story, we can identify with and bring meaning to the tension, despair and turbulence that pervade the work. If you hadn’t taken the trouble to find out about this, there’s a risk you might miss the point and become preoccupied only with matters of performance – what the tempo should be, how long to make the appoggiaturas, how much pedal to use, and so on. Another popular choice for diplomas is Brahms’ set of Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces) op. 118. There is a very personal and very touching background story here too.  The set was written in 1893, towards the end of Brahms life. Along with the others sets of short pieces (opp. 116, 117, and 119), these are his final works for the piano. […]

Learning from Listening

I am delighted to publish this guest post by Frances Wilson, aka The Cross-Eyed Pianist, entitled Learning from Listening. Over to you, Fran… *** *** *** There are many benefits in listening to the repertoire we are working on, on disc or via a streaming service, and in concert, as well as “listening around” the music – works from the same period by the same composer, and works by his/her contemporaries. Such listening gives us a clearer sense of the composer’s individual soundworld, their distinct musical idioms, and an understanding of how aspects such as orchestral writing or string quartet textures are presented in piano music. Keep ears and mind alert to details such as articulation, phrasing and breathing space, dynamic shading and nuance, wit and humour, giving rests their full value (or slightly more) to create drama, tempo, and a sense of the overall architecture and narrative of the piece. Since November 2014 I have been studying Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No. 20 in A, D959. This large-scale work contains many fine examples of Schubert’s skill as a composer of orchestral music and tautly-constructed string quartets, as well as his expert handling of melody and lyricism (as evidenced, of course, by his many Lieder). As part of my study of this music, I have spent a lot of time listening not only to his late piano music (the Impromptus D899 and D935, and of course the other two piano sonatas which form the final triptych), but also to his late string quartets, the ‘Great’ C major symphony, and songs from the Winterreise cycle (composed the year before the A major sonata). Such listening has proved invaluable in my understanding of Schubert’s very distinct soundworld and […]

To stop, or not?

We all know that in performance we’re not able to stop, not for anything. How many times in our practice do we stop because we don’t like something, or we slip, or forget? If it is always in the same places, why haven’t we diagnosed the problem and taken rigorous steps to correct it once and for all? Each time we stop in the middle of a piece we strengthen the reflex or the habit of stopping – and if we’re preparing for a non-stop situation like a public performance we need to make sure we keep this firmly in mind when we practise. I’m going to look at three different practice scenarios that involve the issue of whether we stop or whether we find a way of carrying on through slips. We’ll discover there are times when we really need to stop and work things out (or we’ll be ingraining errors), and other times when we must absolutely carry on. Scenario A: It’s a routine practice session, you’re practising away and all is going fine. Then suddenly you have a slip and land on a wrong note, or forget what comes next. What do you do? You stop! That’s the process of learning and improving, right? You stop to make the correction, then repeat a few times until you’re happy and then move on. There is no denying there is a place for this type of practice, but could there be a shadow side too? Might this type of practice come back to haunt you somewhere down the line? If you’re going to stop, you’ve got to know how to do it properly. First try and figure out what happened – where did you […]

New Finchcocks Piano Courses!

I am delighted to announce a brand new venture – a series of weekend piano courses from Finchcocks. What I like about this series is there is something for everyone. If you are an intermediate player and feel a little intimidated about going to some of the other piano courses on offer, then you will find what you’re looking for here. Finchcocks are running courses from the beginner level to the advanced in the comfortable surroundings of this beautiful and historic estate. The first course took place this last weekend and it was a huge success. The instruments and practice space worked really well and the food and accommodation got good reviews too. You can read about it in this blog post. I am much looking forward to the two courses I shall be running next year. The first one, in June, is targeted at upper intermediate level – for people who have reached a good (grade 4 -8) standard, but perhaps don’t practise as much as they would like. Equally, current intermediates would benefit from this course. I shall be giving lots of advice and tips for getting the most out of your daily practice sessions. For details, and to book, click here The second course is also targeted at the upper intermediate level but is more of a performance workshop. It will focus on developing performance skills, including memorisation, practising towards a performance, aspects of style (Baroque and Classical styles expecially), technique and overcoming nerves and anxiety. In advance of the course, each student is encouraged to practise a few pieces so that, over the course of the weekend session, they begin to feel happy performing in front of the group. For details, and to book, […]

Pedalling Problems and Possibilities

I often find I have quibbles with pedal markings printed in the score. Chief among them is that these markings do not – nor can they ever expect to – indicate depth of the pedal depression (from a mere fraction to full throttle) nor factor in the resonance of the particular instrument in the particular space. Some composers write in their pedalling, usually with the antiquated “Ped” sign (to show where the pedal goes down) followed by “*” (where it should come up). Not only are these markings imprecise, they belong to a period where direct pedal was the norm (in other words, pedal down with the hands and up with the hands), as opposed to syncopated, or legato pedalling (where the pedal change happens as the hands go down). Players of historic pianos report that the dampers were much less efficient than they are on today’s instruments, making an early pedal lift essential for the dampers to do their job. So these direct pedals may well have worked nicely on earlier pianos but are we to stick with them religiously today? Very few pianists do. What are we to make of these two pedal marks in Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (bars 6 and 7 in this example)? To me it’s very obvious. These are examples of special pedal – longer pedals where he wants the bass note caught up in the harmony – as opposed to ordinary pedal elsewhere, which he didn’t need to mark. It would be ludicrous to assume that, just because he does not write any other pedal marks in this prelude that we should play without it. “Pedalling cannot be written down. It varies from one instrument to another, […]

Intermediate Scales Manual Now on the Online Academy!

I have some good news for those of you practising your scales! I have just published the first part of my new scale manual aimed at intermediate players on the Online Academy.There are several scale manuals already available, but this manual is different in that it offers exercises and suggestions for practice, together with short, easy-to-use video demonstrations. It is my aim that these will be of practical help in the learning and practising process. Teachers will be able to assign specific exercises, and students will have a clearer focus in their day-to-day practice. Using the ABRSM Grade V syllabus as a guideline for this level I will be publishing the manual in stages, beginning with a practice worksheets for the group of scales built on C major fingering, and one example from some of the main groups for arpeggios. I will gradually add to these until the manual is complete. Why Scales? Scales and arpeggios have traditionally been examined as the technical requirements in piano exams from Grade 1 right through the conservatory level – and like it or not they are here to stay. The advanced pianist will have mastered all major and minor scales in single as well as double notes, plus an array of different types of arpeggios, in all inversions. The result will be an intimate kinesthetic knowledge of the keyboard (how a particular scale feels under the hand) and of all tonalities and key relationships, acquired and honed over the course of time. Whether we continue to practise scales in later life depends on the individual – the great virtuoso Shura Cherkassky apparently played scales and arpeggios in every key every day. In fact, many of the world’s greatest pianists wouldn’t […]

Hold Me, I’m a Fermata!

Following on from last week’s post on rests, I’m going to move on to the fermata – or the pause. We find this marked on rests as well as on notes, and also on bar lines. What is a fermata, and how long do we hold it for? Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians tells us the fermata “signifies that the note over which it is placed should be held on beyond its natural duration”, but how long is a piece of string? The pause might indicate nothing much more than a lift or a short breath, or something much more obvious and dramatic. The good news is there is no fixed rule. Some fermatas are vocal in inspiration, reflecting how a singer would hold on to a special note in a line in bel canto aria. If you are not familiar with this particular type of operatic style you’re going to find it very hard to bring off the fermata at the end of the first paragraph of Liszt’s Un sospiro, for example. Notice how Claudio Arrau spreads out the semiquavers at the end bar 11 to accommodate the singing line as the F is held. Harold Bauer does it differently, by suspending the accompaniment until the top F is ready to resolve, and playing the semiquavers with a forward direction over the bar line. On the piano we have to factor in the natural decay of tone – meaning that every sound we make has a finite life before we end it or allow it to blend into silence. Sometimes we want to make the most of the silences after we finish a piece by holding on until there is no sound left at […]

Pause for Thought

Have you ever stressed about what to do during a long rest that appears in a piece you are playing? In my experience of listening to pianists, rests often get shortened – sometimes really drastically. Because you’re at the instrument in the middle of a piece, you should be playing the piano, right? Not sitting there doing nothing. Quite apart from the logistics of maintaining the pulse during the silences, there’s that awkward question of what you should be doing with your hands. Do you keep them hovering eagerly over the keyboard, waiting for the moment you can start playing again? Or do you feel a sort of musical tea break is in order, and simply move your hands into your lap while your inner metronome keeps count? Rests are a vital part of musical communication, and just because for a moment or two we are making no sounds we must not assume that nothing is happening. Actors know that by pausing before they deliver a line they grab our attention – we are agog and wondering what’s coming next. By pausing after a line, they give us the chance to digest what has been said, a moment to think and reflect on it. Great actors milk this. Beethoven was a master of the pause – sometimes writing it out with rests, other times using a fermata. What do you feel is happening during the two rests in bar 9 of the introduction to the Pathétique? Players almost never realise the dramatic significance of this moment, it is as though they can’t wait to get to the next sound (bar 4 in this extract). Very often players do not seem to have worked out this bar rhythmically, […]

New Piano Holiday in France

I am delighted to announce a brand new piano holiday next July in the beautiful surroundings of Saint Laurent, France. It will be tutored by myself, and hosted by Geoff and Penny Douglas. Saint Laurent is situated on 27 hectares (66 acres) of land, with breathtaking views of the countryside and the Pyrenees. The fully refurbished 600 sq metre farmhouse boasts 4 apartments and extensive common space. The apartments at Saint Laurent have kitchens. There is a performance area, which can accommodate up to 60 people, with a Kawai RX2 grand piano. There is also a small swimming pool. For those not staying in the main venue, Le Bernet is 2km away. Perched on one of the slopes of the Volvestre, this former sheepfold awaits you at the end of a small path, and offers another breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside and the Pyrenees. This accommodation has a beautiful swimming pool, and includes a grand piano. This course will be centred around the piano, but our aim is to also enjoy what the local area has to offer – its cuisine and wine, as well as the beautiful countryside (there will be the opportunity for walking or resting as desired). Numbers will be restricted to 10 participants, with classes focussed on performance and practising skills. Participants should be of intermediate to advanced level, and will need to bring three pieces from the classical repertoire that they have prepared to a fluent level (memorisation is not required). The daily classes will be conducted in a pleasant, friendly, supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. Digital practice pianos will be available. For full details and to register, please follow this link.     

Mind the Gap! (Part 2)

Following on from last week’s post on slurs and short phrases in the Baroque and Classical periods, I thought I would look at some other examples from Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Ravel and try to distinguish a bit between those phrase marks that show the grammar of the music (those places where the commas and full stops go, indicating where the music breathes) and those that show the articulation. Phrase marks in Baroque and Classical period music tend to be shorter, and usually indicate articulation. Whether we make an audible separation at the end of a slur or short phrase, or whether we simply play the start of the phrase stronger and then lighten as we move towards the end of the phrase depends on context. It is not possible to make a hard and fast rule, but we do need to consider these markings – we cannot just ignore them. Needless to say, a reliable Urtext edition is absolutely essential. I was working with someone today on the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven, who was using the old ABRSM Craxton-Tovey edition. While it has many excellent qualities, this edition contains numerous errors when it comes to slurs – including a whopping great phrase mark over the whole of the first four-bar phrase when Beethoven’s autograph clearly shows a break. We need to consider how we are going to realise Beethoven’s intentions here, evidently not a long seamless legato line as the Tovey edition suggests. But not a gap either – we might best realise this by giving a slight stress or placement of the first beat of the new phrase. In Romantic music we often find long phrase marks that indicate not only a prevailing legato approach but also the long […]

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