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 […]

Mind the Gap!

There is a problem with certain performance directions composers write in the score – or the lack of them. Especially articulation marks. Some of the markings we find can easily be misinterpreted, especially when applied generically across the style periods or from one type of piece to another. The staccato dot is one example – sometimes it means a literal shortening of the note, other times it might mean a type of accent. And it does not mean we can’t use the pedal either. Notice the dot on each of the main beats in the LH of Chopin’s E flat Nocturne. This signifies a slight stress on each bass, and it is evident not only from Chopin’s pedal markings but also from the harmonic context that the bass notes are to be caught in the pedal. In the absence of specific markings, is a piece legato or staccato? May we add slurs and phrasing of our own? This depends on the speed and character, as well as its style period. There is only a certain amount of information a composer can write on the page, and in much music from the earlier periods performance decisions were either left up to the good taste of the performer, or players would have known how things were supposed to be done. Bach left a certain amount of articulation markings but a glance at a page of any Urtext edition may show none at all, or very few. In music from later periods, particularly the Classical period, a question that regularly comes my way is how to play the slurs and short phrases that are marked in the score. Do we always need to make a gap in sound between the note at […]

The Pre-Practice Routine

Anyone who has ever been in a school classroom will have noticed how the behaviour changes the moment the teacher leaves the room. Presiding over the class, bringing authority, discipline and focus, as soon as teacher’s out the door things instantly degenerate into unruly chimp behaviour. In our practice room we call forth our inner teacher to discipline our class – the ten fingers. Unless we direct them clearly they’ll end up doing what the heck they want – doodling instead of knuckling down to some serious work, or playing through pieces they already know rather than putting effort and concentration into correcting and refining sloppy passages. Getting the best results from ourselves (and from our students) comes down to practice and training. While I am no golfer myself,  I am struck by what golfers (and tennis players) do before they hit the ball. I’ve noticed they take quite a bit of time concentrating and focussing before every single shot, presumably so that the ball has the best chance of landing where they want it to go. It led me to question why pianists in their practice rooms often seem to do the exact opposite – bringing their hands up to the keyboard with no real thought or focus as to what they want to achieve. Having researched this subject a bit, I discover golfers use what they call a pre-shot routine. The first part of this pre-shot routine is where the decision-making happens (good shots rarely happen without 100% focus). The golfer needs to build up a mental picture for exactly what a good shot would look like – how it would fly, where it would land and how far it would roll. A vivid visualisation […]

Chopin’s Sostenuto in E flat

A banker by profession, Émile Gaillard was a friend of Chopin, and in his youth apparently the master’s best student. It is thanks to this association that we have two works by Chopin that he might otherwise never have written – one of which could so easily have got thrown away in the bin. More about that later… There was a chance the Mazurka in A minor Chopin wrote for Gaillard might have remained a manuscript dedicated as a souvenir but it ended up being published in 1841. The publication did not get off to an especially auspicious start. It was originally given the opus number 43, but it turned out that had already been assigned to the Tarantella; nowadays the Mazurka “À Émile Gaillard” is known, somewhat unglamorously, as the Mazurka in A minor, KK II b No. 5. For me it’s a very nostalgic piece, and I especially admire the lovely B section with the RH in octaves and the way it ends on a long RH trill. Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy. For the score, follow this link  Sostenuto in E flat When the ABRSM brought out its new piano syllabus earlier this year, I was delighted to discover a piece of Chopin suitable for the intermediate player, the Sostenuto in E flat, set for Grade V. Since there are very few “easy” works of Chopin, it struck me this was going to be a big hit with candidates. But where did this piece spring from – what is its background? Imagine being an administrator at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1940s, one day sorting through a stack of musty old books in the corner of a library store room. By mid afternoon you’ve catalogued several, and your […]

On Studies and Exercises

I follow a middle path when it comes to the studies and exercises I suggest or assign to students, preferring to work on technique from the music itself rather than have them learn a whole slew of dull and dreary studies they won’t especially enjoy. I supplement the repertoire with carefully chosen material, often culled from a variety of unusual sources  – and some of it of my own invention. I am a fan of taking some exercises and using them off-label (finding a different way to use an easily memorable pattern of notes than what the author may have had in mind). There are three main ways of categorising such material. I’m going to make one or two suggestions for each. 1. Exercises The shorter and simpler the better. Exercises should be easy to memorise, so that the whole attention can be focussed on the specific mechanical or technical goal we’re aiming to master. Exercises have no pretensions toward artistic merit, although they can be played musically. Hanon patterns are good examples of the exercise genre. Do them with a definite purpose and they can serve you; do them mindlessly and they will waste your time as well as ingraining whatever you are doing with them. If you practise them without aligning your hand and arm to the finger that is playing you are automating the habit of not aligning your hand and arm to the finger that is playing (seems so obvious, doesn’t it?) and you will develop technical problems and most likely tension. The exercises themselves are neutral, it’s how we do them that counts.  There are numerous books of technical exercises on my shelves. One I especially like for beginners is […]

By |September 21st, 2017|Uncategorized|1 Comment

Which Hand?

It is an integral part of my own work to practise each hand alone on occasion. I have a little twist on this though, because I will expect my left hand to be able to play the music the right hand needs to play, and of course the other way around too. If I can do this comfortably and accurately from memory, then I know I know the music on a deeper level than just from muscle memory – and this gives me greater security in performance. Even with my younger students, if we need to work on one hand by itself, I might ask for it with the “wrong” hand on the last repetition – just to see how well they really know it. And if they are working on an étude, such as Burgmüller’s Arabesque, op 100, no 2, it would be a shame if we did not take the opportunity for the left hand to develop the same skills as the right hand has to acquire. So, we practise little exercises in contrary motion with both hands together based on the three- and five-note slur patterns the right hand plays in the étude. It takes only a little extra effort but adds huge value: These ideas are nothing new. Chopin’s first Etude from the opus 10 set is a tour de force for the right hand, the left hand just planting down octaves. The great virtuoso, Leopold Godowsky recreated this work not once but twice, involving the left hand fully. In fact, the second version is for left hand alone. Here is the first version, played by Marc-André Hamelin. And here is the second version, for left hand alone, played by Ivan Ilić. A while […]

Online Academy – What’s Coming?

It’s been almost a year since the launch of the Online Academy in September 2016 and the site has grown to almost 200 articles and over 700 music excerpts, 150 videos and 100 downloads (a full index of series and articles can be viewed here). A big thank you to all our subscribers who have helped make this possible, your support is very much appreciated! What’s coming? We have many exciting updates in the pipeline for the year ahead which include extending existing resources, delving into specific topics in further detail and covering new topics. The following are some examples of what we’re currently working on and will be adding during the next year: Technique – We will be creating an extensive set of resources covering various components and areas of technique with a combination of text and video demonstrations using different camera angles and playback speeds to illustrate key points. A library of exercises categorised by level and tips on how to best utilise them will also be included. Practice Tools – The current series on Practice Tools will be extended and adapted for the elementary, intermediate and advanced levels. Scales – Following from the highly popular resources on elementary scales, we will shortly be adding a set of resources focussing on scales at the intermediate level. This will include exercises, downloads, video demonstrations and further information on alternative fingerings. Study Editions and Walkthroughs – The existing collection of Annotated Study Editions will grow to include popular works at varying levels by Mozart, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven. We will also be adding walk-throughs and resources for a wide range of new works from across the repertoire. Examination Resources – Our existing resources for the […]

By |September 7th, 2017|General|0 Comments

An Interview with Stephen Savage

I am delighted to announce that my piano workshop at Jackdaws in November is now full, with a waiting list in case anyone drops out. If you are interested in an intimate weekend piano course in an idyllic setting with cordon bleu home-cooked food, follow the link below for details of what’s on offer. I can do no better than suggest a brand new course running in October – given by my very first professor of piano, Stephen Savage. For details of this and other piano courses at Jackdaws, follow this link  I had my first lesson with Stephen Savage when I was about 16 and I still remember it clearly. Before I became his student at the Royal College of Music, I had a few more occasional lessons which were always as inspirational as they were energetic and informative. At the RCM, my lessons took place at 11:00 on a Thursday morning in Room 72 and they were the highlight of my week. Stephen’s approach was very hands-on – he always aimed for sound, character and musical meaning first and then explored the means of achieving it as a logical progression. I learned a tremendous amount from him about how to be a musician as well as a pianist, and came out of each lesson fired up. Here is Stephen playing Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse: Stephen Savage’s early studies brought him recognition with a Beethoven 4th Concerto with the National Youth Orchestra and success in the Daily Mirror National Competition. After his time at the RCM he was given the task of acting as Cyril Smith‘s teaching assistant while also appearing in a series of recitals at the Wigmore Hall and broadcasting a wide range of repertoire for Radio […]

My Jackdaws Course in November

Have you ever sat at the piano, uncertain as to what you should be doing in your practice time or wondered why it takes you so long to learn pieces? Would you like to eliminate mistakes and find a level of consistency and greater ease in your playing? I am offering a weekend course at Jackdaws from Friday 24 November – Sunday 26 November 2017, all ages and levels are welcome and the fee is only £210! In this weekend workshop we will look at what we should be doing in our daily practice to reach our musical goals. Feel free to bring along whole pieces, sections of pieces or even just questions. We are looked after amazingly well – cordon bleu food is freshly prepared for us at each meal, and there are homemade cakes and biscuits during the breaks. All this in the beautiful surroundings of the English countryside! Because the course is limited to 10, there is a friendly and supportive group dynamic and you will leave refreshed and inspired. I always do! However, there are only 2 places left on my course so if you are interested in attending, book now to avoid disappointment. For full details and to register follow this link

Mozart’s Shorter Piano Pieces

A volume that is in almost constant use in my studio is the shorter piano pieces by Mozart in the Henle edition. It contains the tiny pieces Mozart wrote as a child, as well as the Rondos, Fantasies, and other pieces that don’t fall into the sonata or variation categories. All of them are fascinating, and the volume includes some real gems that pianists don’t seem to know. For the Henle Urtext edition, follow this link Among my very favourites is the Adagio in B minor, K. 540, a personal and profound work full of wonders. The magisterial performance of Daniel Barenboim I once owned on LP record still haunts me, but I cannot seem to find it anywhere. Here is Murray Perahia’s equally beautiful performance, and I hope it inspires you to include this piece in your repertoire. From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is known that Mozart had a great sense of humour. In one of his most tragic pieces, the finale of the C minor piano concerto, K 491, instead of writing repeat signs in the conventional manner, he wrote a little smiley face that looks back to where he wants the players to return. The autograph is in the library of the Royal College of Music, London, and when I was a student there I was given the rare privilege of handling the score (yes, I did have to wear gloves). Mozart also wrote a funeral march – as a joke. One of his students, Barbara Ployer, was a fine pianist but apparently did not enjoy her counterpoint studies with him. In order not to discourage her, he wrote a very short piece entitled Marche Funèbre del Signor Maestro Contrapunto, K 453a, in […]

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