Senza Pedale

I wonder how many of you have embarked on Dry January, perhaps as a New Year’s resolution? The idea is that by abstaining from alcohol for a month you reset your relationship with it by becoming conscious of what you have been doing habitually. Drinking, particularly in UK culture, is often a habit that can go unchecked – until you deliberately intercept it. What might this have to do with practising the piano? As I was experimenting with a pedalling solution for the Brahms A minor Intermezzo, op 76 no 7 for last week’s post, I started by trying to make the relevant passage sound as good as possible without any pedal at all – in other words, dry! I wanted my fingers to do as much of the work as possible before adding pedal afterwards. With a little effort I found I could get quite a long way towards making it sound good by hand, and when I finally added the pedal it was like the icing on the cake. Piano sound without the pedal can be terribly dry, like eating a bowl of cornflakes without the milk. But if we constantly rely on our foot to make our fingers sound good, we can get way too comfortable and complacent about what is actually going on under our hands. The right foot can make us sound amazing, but it also very good at masking finger sins. While we wouldn’t want to go for a whole month without the pedal, it is a great idea occasionally to practise deliberately without it – as a discipline. When we do this, we might somehow disable the pedal – I am not suggesting anything as drastic as unscrewing […]

Q&A: Pedal in Brahms Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7

Continuing with my occasional Q&A series, a reader wrote in with the following query about Brahms’ Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7, currently on the ABRSM Grade 8 syllabus. I am a teacher and I would be grateful if you could help me with a pedalling query regarding the above piece. It is a current Grade 8 List C option. In my experience, I have learnt that it is fine to pedal through rests in Romantic music. Evidence to support this appears in the introduction notes in another Brahms volume, Seven Fantasies Op.116 where the author says ‘pedalled passages often contain rests……though illogical, this convention is acceptable’ (Ferguson, 1985). However, the current ABRSM Teaching Notes seem to suggest that the pedal should be lifted for the quaver rests eg. in bars 9 and 11 (Grade 8, 2017-2018, p.41). I have tried this, and at the increased speed of minim 60, I find this fussy and awkward, potentially spoiling the line. Is it acceptable to pedal through and just do a quick change on the first note of the quaver groups for each change of harmony? I am also doing two light pedal changes in a row for the RH A quaver and C crotchet slur in bar 9 for example, to relieve any clashing of the G sharp to A semitone. I am lifting and stopping the LH in bars 10 and 12 for the rests in the bass clef. Pedalling is a very personal thing, and very much open to experimentation – even when marked in the score by the composer. Conventional pedal markings cannot take into account depth of pedal depression, or vibrating the pedal to clarify the texture. Pedal markings even […]

Happy New Year – and Plans for 2018

Many thanks to those who entered the Christmas competition. Two lucky winners who correctly identified each extract will each receive a signed hardback copy of Neil Rutman’s Stories, Images, and Magic from the Piano Literature. Congratulations! The answers were as follows: Mozart – Gigue in G, K574 Debussy – La plus que lente Schubert – Sonata in C minor, D958 (2nd movement) Schumann – ABEGG Variations (theme) Byrd – Pavane for the Earl of Salisbury Liszt – Sonetto 123 del Petrarca Beethoven – Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio, Op. 129 (‘Rage over a Lost Penny’) I’ll resume my regular posts from next week but in the interim, here’s a listing of some of the most popular blog posts and Online Academy content from 2017: 1.  “But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!“ 2.  Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice 3.  On Practice versus Playing Through 4.  Exercises for Trills 5.  Developing Sight Reading Skills And now onto the top five Online Academy series & articles: 1.  Burgmüller: 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, op. 100 2.  Scales & Arpeggios – Basic Introduction  – The Basics of Playing Scales 3.  Solfeggietto in C Minor   4.  ABRSM Grade 1 Scales & Broken Chords 5.  Anyone Can Improvise! Plans for 2018 There are several projects on the go at the moment. Those who have enjoyed my series on Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, op. 100 will be glad to know I’ll be continuing with this until we have all 25. Each study is presented with teaching notes and a video walkthrough. I will also be adding more scale and arpeggio groups to the intermediate scale manual, and embarking on some new things. Current projects under development include: […]

Happy Holidays!

This is my final post for 2017, and I hope I am just in time to wish you all very happy holidays, whether you celebrate Christmas or if you are enjoying a bit of down time at the end of the year. I thought I would share a few favourite pieces associated with the season – by Franz Liszt, George Crumb, Arnold Schoenberg and Adolf Schulz-Evler. Some of these might be unfamiliar to you, but one of the best-known piano works associated with Christmas is Liszt’s set of 12 pieces entitled Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) composed from 1873–76, with revisions in 1881. The suite exists in versions for solo piano as well as piano four-hands. Here is Gunnar Johansen in a recording from the 1970s. A piece I love to play is George Crumb’s magical A Little Suite for Christmas ‘AD 1979’, a piece using “extended techniques” involving reaching into the piano to pluck, strum and mute strings. The sounds that come out mimic the effect of harps, bells, and otherworldly resonances. Here is Andrew Brownell in a live recording, so you can get a good look at what the pianist has to do. Arnold Schoenberg was born Jewish but converted to Lutheranism in 1898. He composed some little chamber pieces for his family to play at home, including this beautiful little miniature for two violins, cello, harmonium and piano. The main tune is the German carol Es ist ein’ Ros’ ensptrungen, but listen out for ‘Silent Night’ in the strings. And finally a piece I associate with New Year’s Eve – Schulz-Evler’s transcription of Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz – ‘Concert Arabesques on The Beautiful Blue Danube‘, played here by Benjamin Grosvenor. Happy holidays, everyone!  

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, […]

Black Friday Subscription & eBook Specials!

Tomorrow is Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year and we’re offering a number of specials on both Online Academy subscriptions and all of our eBooks. Therefore, if you enjoy the Practising the Piano blog and are interested in the Practising the Piano Online Academy or eBooks, then you may wish to take advantage of the following offers: Online Academy Subscriptions – Save £20 off Annual & Premium Subscriptions It’s been just over a year since the launch of the Online Academy in September 2016 and the site has grown to over 200 articles and over 700 music excerpts, 150 videos and 100 downloads (a full index of series and articles can be viewed here). 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. There will also be several updates to the website itself, largely focussing on making it easier to find and navigate content. More information on planned content and website updates is available here in a recent blog post. Take advantage of our Black Friday specials and upgrade to an annual or premium subscription for full access to all Online Academy articles and updates: Annual subscription offer – Get an annual subscription for just £59.99 (a saving of £20 on the full price of £79.99) –  Sign-up or upgrade Premium subscription offer – Get a premium subscription which includes the complete multimedia eBook series and Annotated Study Edition bundle for just £59.99 plus a once off payment of £20 (a saving of £20 on the full price of £99.99) – Sign-up or upgrade Click here to find out more about the Online Academy and for further information on subscription options and pricing. eBooks and Annotated Study Editions We’re also offering 40% off all eBooks, annotated study editions and […]

By |November 17th, 2017|eBooks, General, News|0 Comments

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, […]

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