Pedalling the Moonlight Sonata

Beethoven wrote the Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor (Quasi una fantasia), Op. 27, No. 2 in 1801, dedicating it the following year to his pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The title “Moonlight” was given not by Beethoven, but by poet Ludwig Rellstab; even though Rellstab dreamed this up five years after Beethoven’s death, his nickname stuck. At the start of the first movement, Beethoven directs the performer to hold down the sustaining pedal throughout the whole movement, so that the strings are never damped. Above the opening bar, Beethoven instructed “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordini” (the entire piece should be played with the greatest delicacy and without mutes), followed by another direction between the staves “semper pp e senza sordini.” “Senza sordini” is an instruction to play “without mutes,” or with the dampers raised off of the strings – or, in other words, with the pedal down. Beethoven must have meant something important by this, since he felt it necessary to give the same instruction twice. On the pianos of Beethoven’s time the sustain was shorter than the pianos we have today, and this effect surprisingly subtle. Obeying Beethoven’s marking literally on a modern piano, with its much longer sustain, produces chaotic and immediately unacceptable results. However there are ways of pedalling artfully that recreate the type of effect Beethoven was after. I’ll show you in a minute how to produce an aura around the sound, obeying the spirit if not the letter of Beethoven’s instructions. But first listen to Matt Bengtson demonstrating the opening on a fortepiano: Beethoven would have remembered a day, not so long before, when pianos were equipped with a handstop that lifted the dampers away from the strings. […]

On Singing

I had always sung in choirs and choruses from my childhood to the end of my student days, and one of the highlights of my week as a postgraduate student in New York was my voice lesson. I came away from it feeling energised and exhilarated (as well as hungry) from the wonderful sensations I felt in my body as it became my instrument. This background in singing prepared me extremely well for my life in music, and I firmly believe that every pianist needs to know how it feels to shape music by singing the lines – be they melodic lines, bass lines or humble inner parts. I would go so far as to say I believe if you can’t sing a melodic line, you can’t really play it. You might be able to move your fingers over the right notes but you probably won’t be shaping it or feeling it expressively. The roots of music lie in rhythm and song, and we pianists devote our time to making our so-called percussion instrument sing. String players connect notes with their bow and wind players with their breath, but the way pianists achieve a singing style is mostly illusion, of course, since the moment we play a note on the piano the sound begins to decay. Keeping moving at the keyboard is one solution – not letting the arm stop as we move through a phrase and remembering to breathe, as Chopin taught, through the wrist. From the very first lesson to the very last, piano lessons need to be filled with singing, and no pianist should be shy to sing a melodic line in the practice room until they have found the ideal tempo, shaping, […]

“I Haven’t Done As Much Practice As I Wanted This Week”

“I haven’t done as much practice as I would have liked this week” seems to be a very popular statement at the beginning of a piano lesson. Before one note has been played self doubt, anxiety and guilt are already in the room, and impending disaster is sure to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I try to calm the situation by reassuring the student that even seasoned concert artists at the top of their game might sit in the green room before a performance with similar doubts, feeling they could have done more if they had only had a bit more time. And how many exam candidates stew in the waiting room thinking: “If only I had a couple more weeks, or if only I had done this and that, I would be fully prepared”? There is always more we can do, yet we need to trust that what we have done is enough, for now – provided we have not been lazy or negligent in the process of preparation. A lesson does not always have to be a performance! Unless the lesson is in the run-up to an exam, diploma or recital (when a non-stop complete performance is necessary) work in progress is extremely welcome in my studio. I would rather help people to get things right from the beginning of the learning and practice process than go through the arduous task of unpicking and correcting careless errors or learned-in problems. Detailed work involves the opposite of playing through from beginning to end, and in a lesson it should be possible to focus on this – offering a model of what should happen in the daily practice. What do you want from your piano playing? In a recent lesson, […]

How to Manage Repetition in Practice

Recently I overheard someone practising in an institutional practice room (OK, perhaps I was eavesdropping a bit) and had to smile at what was going on in there. It was the very end of Ravel’s Sonatine, where the left hand is called upon to make a daredevil leap over the right hand, and land on two black notes at the top of the keyboard. There are several intelligent ways to practise this jump to increase the chances of getting it right, but what I heard was quite a number of repetitions in a row, played back to back with absolutely no reflection time in between the repetitions. The student got it “wrong” (meaning it was inaccurate, uncomfortable or she felt it was somehow missing something) many times in succession and then after all this did it to her satisfaction just once – and left it. Had she managed to refine the movements during all these inaccurate repetitions to reach a desired result, now permanently on tap, or had she practised getting it wrong nine times in a row and correct on the tenth attempt? If the latter, the chances of getting it right on the first attempt in performance would be 1 in 10 – not favourable odds. There is no doubt that to refine complex motor skills required in such a passage, a certain amount of repetition is necessary. Yet repetition is a double-edged sword, since whatever we repeat we tend to ingrain (errors and all). In order that each repetition takes us closer to our desired result, that which we see on the page and that which we hold in our imagination, the secret is to take time for reflection in between each and every repetition so […]

Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (Op. Post.)

We’re delighted to announce a new Annotated Study Edition and Online Academy walk-through of Chopin’s beautiful Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. Dedicated to his sister, Ludwika “as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto”, the work was not published until 1875. Two different versions of the score exist, with the Henle Urtext being the most commonly accepted. The Nocturne has an illustrious history. It was played by Holocaust survivor Natalia Karp for a Nazi concentration camp commandant, who was so impressed with her playing that he spared her life. It was also featured in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist. The work is included in the ABRSM Grade 7 examination syllabus, and while one of Chopin’s more accessible pieces it still poses several challenges even for accomplished pianists. Our edition and walk-through feature detailed footnotes and practice worksheets designed to assist in tackling everything from balancing the opening chords, creating beautiful trills, shaping the left hand melodically and managing the fiorature in the coda. Annotated Study Edition The Annotated Study Edition is a downloadable, printable PDF featuring the following content: Introductory notes and Urtext score Annotated score with footnotes and QR codes linking to practice worksheets and online videos Four practice worksheets with detailed exercises and numerous video demonstrations focussing on specific areas of the work such as the opening chords, left hand accompaniment and the coda The study edition is available for purchase and download via our eBook store either as a stand-alone publication or as part of one of our bundles via the following links: Annotated Study Edition Annotated Study Edition bundle (includes four current Annotated Study Editions and ongoing updates) Practising the Piano & Study Edition bundle (includes all four volumes of Practising the Piano […]

How to Analyse: Mozart K283

Players who have made some sort of preliminary effort to understand the shape and structure of the music they are about to learn before they rush to the piano tend to learn it quicker and more thoroughly than those who allow the musical design to seep in unconsciously as they learn the piece phrase by phrase from start to finish, repeatedly playing the piece through over time. I consider it essential to have a clear mental map of any piece of music we learn, especially if we plan to memorise it, in advance of ingraining muscular habits at the keyboard.  It should be obvious that while some background in theory is extremely useful when it comes to playing an instrument, not everyone who is capable of playing advanced piano music has had the benefit of a formal education in music theory and harmony. I would like to offer a taste of what I have come to call “quick and dirty analysis” as an example of how to approach analysis freely and personally without too much textbook theoretical or harmonic knowledge. Quick and dirty analysis is something you can do at the keyboard by exploring the music according to the shapes and designs that you notice and that are meaningful to you. Pretty much anything you notice is fair game, and can help you create a mental map of what is going on on the page. In this post you will find a short video of me doing a quick and dirty analysis of the opening few bars of Mozart’s G major Sonata, K283, at the piano using a stream-of-consciousness approach that I think most people could do themselves if given some gentle encouragement (I am assuming anyone who approaches this piece will […]

At the Noodle Bar: Developing Speed in Grieg’s Puck

This is the first in a new series I’m calling “At the Noodle Bar”, where I take a question or a problem and noodle with it at the piano. Here is a question that reached me from Dean from Perth, Western Australia. Dean writes: Q. “I have been having tremendous fun discovering the endless repertoire of classical piano (rather than doing things to pass grades), I came across a piece which I am finding challenging to get up to speed. I was browsing through your website and came across your two blog entries on double notes, and wondered how you might recommend practicing this. Specifically, it’s the double notes that are found embedded adjacent to some single-note quavers, first occurrence in bar 3 of Grieg’s Op 71 no 3 (“Puck“) in the right hand. This kind of pattern repeats its self several times throughout the rest of the piece. Playing this at half tempo is fine, but as soon as I try to speed things up a little bit, I find that I can no longer play the thirds precisely at the same time, making the whole thing sound sloppy. I have tried practising this slowly and staccato, with limited success. Have no idea how one might get this up to the 176 minim per minute!? Listening to various different performances online, it appears to be at least humanly possible to get it fast and crisp, but have absolutely no idea how one might go about practicising this, and if a staccato approach is even productive? This performance appears to be up to the tempo of Grieg’s intentions.” A. Thanks so much for this excellent question, Dean. It raises some interesting points. There is no […]

Solving a Rhythmical Problem

It should be obvious that playing in time and playing rhythmically are two rather different things. It is possible to play in time according to a fixed beat but still be unrhythmical, and – in my book – the only way to be truly rhythmical is to feel rhythm in the body. Rhythmical mistakes can often be fixed by counting a steady beat out loud and clapping or tapping the rhythm of the passage in question. You could do it the other way around if you prefer, and clap or snap a steady beat while you vocalise the rhythmic pattern on the page using words or syllables; it is important to really bring the rhythm to life physically (using more of you than just your fingers) before trying it again on the piano. Bach Prelude in C Minor Students often come adrift in the Adagio bar (bar 34) of Bach’s Prelude in C minor (WTC Book 1), not because the rhythm is especially difficult to feel but because it is confusing to the eye. All those beams, it can be hard to discern where the subdivisions of the beats fall! A simple way of solving this is to grab a piece of manuscript paper and rewrite the passage in note values that are twice as long (quavers become crotchets, etc.). Clap the pulse underneath the stave and vocalise the rhythm using “ta” syllables (or whatever you like). If this still looks a bit foreign, double the note values yet again. The following example is a useful crib to mastering the rhythmical patterns and need only be done two or three times before it has served its purpose. Remember – this bar is cadenza-like and needs to sound free (as though improvised). In […]

How to Analyse Music – Part 1

Why is it important for us pianists to analyse the music we play? Surely analysis is an academic activity that belongs in a classroom? When we dig below the surface to discover how a piece of music is built, we search for its form and structure, and what makes it tick. This helps us not only appreciate the music more, but also helps us to learn it deeply and thoroughly. When we take a bit of time and trouble understanding the shape and structure of a new piece before we rush to the piano to play it, we find not only can we learn it more quickly but we also retain what we have learned over time. Analysis is also absolutely essential for secure memorisation. Despite the importance of analysis, I have noticed how unwilling many players are to spend a chunk what little practice time they have away from the piano. Practice is only meaningful to them when they are making sounds, it seems. Others are scared of analysing, especially if they have not had the benefits of a thorough musical education. The good news is there are many different ways to analyse music, and you don’t have to get bogged down in complex methods (such as Schenker) to find deeper meaning in the music you are playing, and to benefit from the endeavour. Analysis does not have to be textbook, it can be very free and very personal. Whatever you notice about the music is fine and you can see it from many different – and equally valid – angles. Last week I offered two mind maps, one of an elementary piece created (with a little help) by an 8-year old, the other of a more advanced piece done by an adult. Each of these is a type […]

Mindmapping for Enhanced Performance

Part of what induces anxiety among many pianists when performing from memory is just how the kinaesthetic sensations (muscle memory) may change when an audience is present. It doesn’t seem to matter if that audience is one person hovering over the piano in an informal situation or a concert hall filled with people. What we know we know when playing in the comfort of our own studio risks becoming unfamiliar when adrenaline enters the picture, and many excellent pianists and musicians find themselves crumbling inside as fingers refuse to cooperate and the mind freezes and goes blank. For myself, when preparing a programme from memory I find I need to devote a considerable amount of time in my practice to making sure I know the music upside down, inside out, backwards and sideways. I aim to bolster aural and analytic memory while steering clear of muscle memory as far as is possible. Nobody spends a lot on insurance hoping they’ll need to make a claim, but it does offer peace of mind – even if you are not planning to play from memory, a certain amount of memory work (which after all is just deep learning) is indispensable to the security and quality of the eventual performance. For more on analytic memory, follow this link to my blog post Mind Maps In recent years, as part of my work as principal tutor on the Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK, I have discovered the benefit of mind maps in learning and memorising. A musical mind map is a diagram that represents aspects of a piece (structure, poetic meaning, story line, etc.) in colours, symbols, pictures and/or words. The traditional mind map as described by Tony Buzan in his book Quick Steps to a […]

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