On Wrist Control

I often think it must be very confusing for the pianist seeking guidance on piano technique from the internet, only to find conflicting information from various authorities. Nothing is more contentious than the wrist, it seems. As you may have discovered, some pianists and teachers of repute insist on using a full range of motion via the wrist (more about this later) while some others advocate never breaking at the wrist. According to my own pianistic legacy from the wonderful training I was privileged to receive, and based on many years of subsequent experience, I can say there is place in piano playing for both a firm (but never tense) wrist, and for one that is soft, springy and malleable – depending on the situation. When discussing piano technique, it would be very convenient if we could isolate the various muscles, levers, bones and joints that make up the mechanics of playing and investigate them one by one. The problem with this is it’s just not how piano playing works! Sure, we might deliberately concentrate on what the fingers are doing in a given situation, or switch off certain muscles while engaging others, or stabilise one joint or lever while activating another to sense what’s going on in our body, and so on. But this is not always helpful, because when we play we tend to create a blend of activity in which all the components of our playing mechanism collaborate, and we do this subconsciously based on how we have practised, and the sounds we hear in our imagination as we adapt to the performance space and the particular piano we are playing. Do you recall the well-known spiritual song by James Johnson, Dem Bones? […]

Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Studies, op. 100

Are you a pianist who has come from a tradition studies and exercises – a diet of Czerny, Hanon, Pischna and the others that were once the staples of a pianist’s training? Maybe you developed all your skills from repertoire itself, or you found a middle path, dipping into material with a clear technical goal when the need arose? For me, exercises need to be short and easy to learn, and very focussed on a clear and attainable outcome. Studies, unless they are of the calibre of Chopin and Liszt, are also best when they are short and to the point. Friedrich Burgmüller (1806 – 1874) was a German pianist and composer who moved to Paris at the age of 26 and settled there. In addition to light salon music, he wrote three sets of études for young pianists. His 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, op. 100 have been a mainstay of elementary étude repertoire for many generations – and deservedly so. Like all études worth their salt, the study of technique merges with attention to quality of sound and a musical purpose. The musical content of these pieces is on a level with the technical challenges they pose, so that the listener would not necessary realise they have any didactic focus whatever. Because each has its own descriptive title, the études inspire imagination and characterisation in the player, elevating the works to the status of real music (as opposed to the dry and boring studies we so often encounter). I cannot imagine any young pianist or elementary player who would not immediately engage with this charming set of études, or benefit from learning them. As the title suggests the études are progressive in their difficulty, ranging from approximately ABRSM grade […]

On Silence and Reflection in Practice

Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915) is an extremely important figure in the history of piano teaching. He was around at a formative time in the evolution of modern pianism, and produced a number of famous students (including Alexander Brailovsky, Ignaz Friedman, Ignace Paderewski, Benno Moisewitsch, and Artur Schnabel among many others). Leschetizky was himself a student of Carl Czerny, who was in turn a student of Beethoven. From there, it is possible for many of us to trace our pianistic family tree back to him, and we feel his presence as a sort of beneficent pianistic great-great-grandfather figure (I’m not sure how many “greats” I need in there). Recently, I came across an article from a 1909 edition of The Etude Magazine, in which Edwin Hughes interviews the great man. How fascinating to find among the many pearls of wisdom many of principles that were passed down to me by my teachers. One of the most important, and one that is so easy to ignore or overlook, is the need to build in silences for reflection during our practice. We tend to think that when we’re sitting at the piano practising, all that counts are the sounds that are coming from our fingers. Leschetizky reminds us of the need for moments of silence to reflect on what we have just done. These silent moments are a part of our practice session, guiding us what to do next. “How many come to me and say, ‘I practice seven hours a day,’ in an expectant tone, as though praise were sure to follow such a statement! As I say so often at the lessons, piano study is very similar to cooking,” with a hearty laugh.“A good cook tastes the cooking every few minutes to […]

On Practice versus Playing Through

Have you considered the differences between sitting down at the piano and playing through your pieces and the processes of practising? The first situation might feel rather like taking a pleasant drive in the countryside. If your car is in good shape (the battery charged and the tanks full of the various fluids car tanks are supposed to be full of), you won’t have to worry about anything. You will of course need to keep your eye on the road, but you’ll just be coasting along admiring the view and enjoying the time out. I find the distinction between cruising around the piano for fun and serious practice is something I need to point out, regularly. If you are the sort of player who wants to sit at the piano and play for pleasure, you will probably notice a certain frustration after a while that your pieces don’t seem to be getting any better, or that a piece you used to be able to play well is now actually getting worse. You may well discover that on one day your playing flows beautifully and it all feels easy, but on the next day it all falls apart – as though you didn’t know the piece at all. Why is this? I can always hear when someone has been rattling through their pieces without due regard for maintenance. Things begin to get a bit sloppy, somewhat rough around the edges and – after a while – accident-prone. The lustre has vanished and deep down we know we’re somehow dealing with our second best. If we return to our car analogy, we’ll eventually need to stick some more petrol in there, vacuum it out, wash the windows and occasionally have […]

Online Academy Survey – Your Feedback!

Thanks again to everyone who completed our recent Online Academy survey. The responses were overwhelmingly positive and therefore very encouraging. We’re also delighted with the detailed feedback we’ve received, all of which is invaluable to us for planning purposes. After reviewing the results in detail, here is a summary of some of the key findings. We also have some insights as to how we might accommodate these along with other suggestions in future. Audience & reasons for subscribing Although adult amateurs are the biggest subscriber group, each of the other groups also included a number of respondents thereby confirming that the Online Academy currently caters to a broad audience of musicians, amateurs and teaching professionals. Following from this, the main reason for subscribing is as a complement to lessons. Features & functionality Although not a surprise, browsing for content is the most commonly used feature, but is followed closely by the eBooks (these come bundled with the Premium subscription). Browsing by category and subcategory is also the most common way users are finding content although the various other methods (browse by author, search, text search etc.) are also well represented. Suggestions for improvement included: Improved navigation options including more indexing and cross referencing, categories and sub categories in the main menu and more features for personalising the home page. Making it easier to find new content including more frequent notifications (e.g. email updates) and some great suggestions regarding being able to “follow” authors and topics and view new content since your last login. Additional guidance on where to start with content e.g. a recommended approach or “lesson plan” for different profiles, levels and topics. Current & future content The most used content format is articles which combine […]

On Careless Mistakes

Think back to when you learned to ride a bicycle. It was a process, right? You fell off many times before you figured out how to coordinate your body to stay on the cycle, and when you took a tumble nobody reprimanded you for it nor did you give up. You knew deep down that these “mistakes” were nothing more than the learning process itself. The first time we learn something new it is difficult – it takes effort and perseverance until it becomes natural and easy. Professor Robert Winston explains. Relating this to piano playing, I want to distinguish between three different types of what we might label mistakes: clumsiness or awkwardness as we acquire and refine the motor skills necessary for a particular piece or technical skill accidental mistakes that happen in performance when we are under stress honest mistakes that happen during a lesson, when you know you can play it perfectly well at home mistakes that arise in our practice room from a careless and sloppy attitude I am not going to concern myself with the first three points. We are not robots, and therefore fallibility is part of our story. Why is it, when the consequences of sloppy practice are so debilitating when we have to perform, do players indulge in it? I think it is because serious piano practice is actually rather difficult. It takes as much concentration as we can muster, constant listening, evaluating and reflecting and a fair amount of frustration at times. Much easier just to sit there and enjoy the music, and the physical act of playing the piano. Busking With a new or newish piece, there’s a great temptation to learn it by repeatedly reading it through. […]

Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor

The Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines fantasia as “a piece of instrumental music owning no restriction of formal construction, but the direct product of the composer’s impulse.” The term itself is somewhat loose, its definition changing over the course of music history. Elizabethan fantasias for keyboard were built from whatever musical idea took the “fancy” of the performer, who made as much or as little of it as he wanted. It was a good way to warm up while checking the tuning of the instrument at the start of a performance. Here is William Byrd’s Fantasy in A from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, played on a spinet harpsichord built in London in 1718. One of the best examples of the Baroque fantasia is  JS Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. I have chosen a version by the great pioneer of the harpsichord Wanda Landowska, who manages to extract a huge variety of colours from her hybrid Pleyel instrument. The performance (recorded in 1935) is magnificent – almost gothic, and very much of its time. In the early Classical period, the fantasia evolved into two types, the prelude and the episodic. The composers who belonged to the keyboard school of JS Bach’s second son, CPE Bach, continued the Baroque improvisatory tradition and wrote bold, imaginative prelude-type fantasias. Think of an improvised prelude, where the composer-performer presented their ideas and demonstrated their knowledge and inspiration moment by moment to a small group of connoisseurs – literally making it up as they went along. When writing this out in conventional notation, frequent changes of tempo and meter are needed (you’ll see what I mean from the scrolling score in the following clip). Here is Robert Hill playing CPE Bach’s rather splendid Fantasia in F# minor (1787), played on a […]

Focus Your Practice with Zigzag

I use a form of practice for myself that I call zigzag practice. It helps test and strengthen my memory by keeping me incredibly focussed, but there’s no way it will work unless I am concentrating fully. I also recommend it to my students, and I have noticed it has a multitude of uses, not least keeping eyes on the page when they are at the stage when muscle memory is taking over but when there is still plenty of guesswork going on in terms of notes, rhythms and fingerings. Rather than look at the page for direction, they seem to look at their fingers for inspiration. With zigzag practice you’ve got to look up, and I’ve noticed people enjoy it and seem to rise to the challenge. Intrigued? I’ll show you how it works with one of the pieces I selected for the Online Academy’s Essential Guide to ABRSM Examinations portfolio of pieces – Handel’s Sonatina in G, set for Grade 3. After you have a certain amount of familiarity with the piece and can play reasonably fluently hands together as well as hands separately, play one bar in one hand followed by the next bar in the other hand. If you started with the right hand and followed in bar 2 with the left, the next time you practise the phrase do it the other way around (begin with the left hand and continue with the right). Try not to interfere with the rhythmic flow and keep the pulse rock steady as you switch from one hand to the next. There are two ways of zigzagging: End on the very last note of the bar – one hand passes the beat to the next, as […]

Developing Sight Reading Skills

I get a lot of questions about how to improve sight reading. Teachers don’t seem to find the time to cover it in lessons, meaning students have little incentive to practise it at home. And yet the ability to read and process information readily from the printed score is surely one of the most important skills they should be acquiring? Players with weak reading skills often have good muscle memory, they are able to look away from the printed page quite early on in the note learning process – little wonder their reading skills suffer when their eyes are permanently focussed on the fingers. Sight reading involves assimilating information from the page and decoding it on the spot. The ability to do this presupposes a certain amount of theoretical knowledge (another area that is sorely neglected), but the single most important factor in getting good at it is to be doing it regularly. With Other Musicians Sitting at home ploughing through dreary sight reading tests just doesn’t seem to cut it. Even though you know you’re not supposed to stop for mistakes, you just hate getting it wrong. You’re not inspired and you can’t wait to move on to more interesting things – such as your pieces. A great way to develop sight reading skills is to play with other musicians. Duets or music for two pianos, collaborating with singers, instrumentalists or choirs – I suggest finding any situation where you cannot stop under any circumstances (or you’ll be letting the side down). Singing teachers, instrumental teachers and choir directors who don’t have a pianist would be grateful for your efforts, no matter how rudimentary they may be to begin with. You will get better as you go on, […]

Are Scales Fun?

The very mention of the word scales to a piano student is likely to conjure up associations with something they know is necessary but somehow unpalatable, like eating spinach or a visit to the dentist.  I think it is actually possible to make scale practice fun, rewarding and challenging – provided it is presented in clear, step-by-step stages that students can easily follow by themselves in their daily practice between lessons. Scales and arpeggios have traditionally been examined as the so-called 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 wouldn’t think of beginning his daily practice without a thorough regimen of scales and arpeggios in all keys. Once learned, scales can be used as the starting point for all sorts of problem-solving exercises – if you are struggling to feel a polyrhythm in your piece, practise a scale up and down in that polyrhythm. If you want to refine a particular touch or for independence between the hands, use scales. Practice Worksheets In addition to walk-throughs and worksheets for the ABRSM exam pieces I decided to include some resources for scales in the Online Academy, since it is easy […]

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