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 […]

Stain Removal Tips

I recently started to teach a mature student who, after a successful career in the banking world was itching to get back to his piano playing. He brought a bunch of pieces to his first lesson that he had learned in his youth, ones he had continued to play over the years when time allowed. He explained his frustration at not being able to get through any of these pieces fluently or to his satisfaction, and really wanted my help. When he played for me it was clear he had a firm grasp of the music, and I commended him on the high quality of his sound and his ability to shape phrases artistically.  When fingers don’t go where they are supposed to, or go where they’re not supposed to, it is tempting to seek a technical solution. The root of the problem may be mechanical, or it might arise because of a lack of perception as to the requirements of a passage, or simply because of carelessness allowing approximations or sloppy habits to creep in. It was a lack of basic maintenance that was at the root of many of the stumbles. They had become ingrained like stubborn stains. It felt safe to assume that a banker would appreciate the difference between investing and spending. I told him he had would have been engaging in the latter activity if he expected to have all his old repertoire on tap, and that if he wanted to experience tangible results from lessons he would need to invest a certain amount of time and energy between lessons engaging in practice activities that were the opposite of playing through. I could guarantee he would notice progress, as long as he did not expect dramatic results […]

Developing Sight Reading Skills

Sight reading at the piano is the ability to process information from a score and recreate it to the best of one’s ability on the spot. To get a high mark for a sight reading test in an exam, you might be surprised to learn that complete note accuracy is not at the top of the list. Examiners are interested in the following criteria: A performance that captures the musical essence and character of the test, with attributes such as phrasing and dynamics present A performance that flows rhythmically, sticking to the pulse as priority while allowing note errors to go by without faltering or attempting to correct them As many correct notes as possible under the circumstances; approximations, educated guesses and even omissions here and there are acceptable in the interests of unerring rhythmic flow and musical communication A note-perfect mechanical rendition of a piece of sight reading is often less impressive than one that may have some note errors and omissions and yet which conveys musical character and meaning. Over the years, I have noticed several attributes of good sight readers. Good sight readers seem to be musically literate, with a solid grasp of theory and harmony. They listen to music regularly, perhaps following along with the score, and are familiar with a lot of the standard orchestral, chamber and vocal repertoire in addition to the piano repertoire. They work with other musicians on a regular basis. Playing for a singer, a choir or an instrumentalist or playing in an ensemble tends to develop the ability to learn new pieces very fast, thereby developing reading skills. Circumstances prevent them from stopping and correcting their mistakes, so they learn to carry on regardless. They […]

Summer School for Pianists 2017

It is my privilege to have been invited back for the 6th consecutive year to the Summer School for Pianists, taking place at Wolverhampton University in Walsall this coming August, 12th-18th. If you are a pianist looking for a friendly, safe and supportive course then Walsall is for you. The six days are filled with classes, tutor piano recitals, student concerts and lecture-presentations by the tutors, with plenty of opportunities for socialising. If you don’t fancy participating, you may come as an observer – and there will be plenty to observe! Over the last 40 years, the Summer School for Pianists has established a central and unique position in the field. Combining a friendly atmosphere with musical expertise, the Summer School for Pianists has become an essential annual event for pianists of all levels. The superb facilities at the all-Steinway Performance Hub offer top-class concert instruments and plenty of practice rooms. The dates for this year are 12th – 18th August 2017, and our tutors are James Lisney, Christine Stevenson, Karl Lutchmayer, Ann Martin-Davis and myself. Some of the classes are already full, but there is a waiting list (people have been known to drop out for a variety of reasons) so it is worth applying. With freedom of movement between classes (you may drop in on any tutor’s classes whenever you wish), there’s always the opportunity hear what is going on in another tutor’s class, or to sign up for a private lesson with a tutor of your choice. For full details and how to apply, follow this link to the website

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. […]

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