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Rediscovering Bach’s Prelude in C

The C major Prelude from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C (Book 1 of the WTC) is very familiar to us all. This beautiful progression of harmony in broken chord texture continues to inspire generations of keyboard players. Here it is as a chorale. Play it first as solid chords – faster than Bach’s broken patterns allow – to get a stronger sense of the progression in this pure form. If you’re uncertain how to play this Prelude expressively, all you have to do is feel the rising and falling levels of intensity implied by the harmonic progression. This map from Siglind Bruhn’s analysis of the work is a useful guide. For those who have a knack for improvisation, see what you can make from these harmonies. French Romantic composer Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria consists of a melody especially designed to be superimposed over the Prelude – and very beautiful it is too! Perhaps you can come up with something of your own? Here is Rami Bar-Niv’s inventive and amusing Etude-Vocalise on the C major Prelude Transpose I am working with an especially talented and ambitious young student who, if he is going to readily assimilate the mainstream repertoire he is destined to play, needs to develop his harmonic awareness as well as general musicianly skills at this stage of his development. Part of the work we are doing is transposition – a skill I wish my own teachers had stressed more, and one that I feel is indispensable to aural training, general musicianship and as a specific pianistic tool for memory work and solving technical problems. I tend to push this with those who are capable of, and willing to embrace it. Not everyone is, but this particular student […]

Study Edition Survey – The Results Are In!

Many thanks to everyone who completed our recent study edition survey, your input is very much appreciated and provides invaluable input as we plan the content for the Practising the Piano Online Academy. We’ve run through all your responses, and here is some feedback on the results of the survey. The top five list doesn’t hold too many surprises – with Beethoven having two entries: Beethoven Pathétique Sonata Debussy Clair de lune Chopin Ballade No. 1 Rachmaninoff Prelude in C-sharp Minor Beethoven Moonlight Sonata Just behind the Moonlight Sonata was Grieg’s Nocturne and Schubert’s Impromptu in G-flat Major. Chopin was one of the most popular composers although a large number of his works were featured in the original list to begin with. In addition to the Ballade, the Fantasie Impromptu, Etude Op. 10 No. 1, Nocturne in C-sharp Minor Op. Post. and Raindrop Prelude were among the most popular works overall. There were also a few surprises in that there was less support for Brahms, Scarlatti and Mozart than expected (his most popular works were the Fantasie in D minor and Sonata in B-flat). In addition to the format questions in the survey, we’ve also received a number of suggestions that we will definitely take into consideration in our content planning.  These include featuring more works by Brahms and Liszt, more of the Chopin Etudes, works from lower grades and Etudes by Scriabin which we have not included to date. While we won’t be featuring all of the works in the list as complete annotated study editions, we will be using many of them as examples for illustrating various topics in the Online Academy.  We may also feature specific aspects of a work in Online Academy lessons (e.g. […]

The Three Little Pigs

We all know the story of The Three Little Pigs, in which each pig builds a home. One takes hardly any time building his out of straw, so he can spend more time playing and relaxing. The second pig builds his home out of sticks, which takes slightly longer, but he too values his down time. The third pig chooses to build his home out of bricks, which requires a great deal more time and effort, but he values taking the time to build a home properly. When the Big Bad Wolf pays a visit, needless to say only the third pig’s house of bricks stands up to the wolf’s huffing and puffing. Comply with Building Regulations The first two piggies used substandard and unsuitable materials, while the third piggy had checked wind load and used approved and recognised methods of construction. In the UK, Building Regulations are minimum standards for design, construction and alterations to virtually every building. They are developed by the Government and approved by Parliament. In my piano studio, I take pride in teaching tried and tested performance skills to those taking exams and diplomas, or those who want to perform for their own pleasure and satisfaction. My building regulations apply from the very beginning of learning new pieces and ensure, as much as is humanly possible, that the end result (the performance itself) will be strong enough to withstand the pressures of the Big Bad Wolf. The House of Straw The player who builds his house of out straw mistakenly believes that running through a piece over and over again in an occasional practice session will suffice. He assumes that getting a note, chord or a passage wrong nine times and correct on the tenth attempt means […]

Nimble Chromatics

When it comes to fingerings, it helps to understand the principles behind certain fingering patterns we find in our scores, rather than just merely playing what we see. In this post I would like to discuss the best fingering for fast chromatic scales that we find in the repertoire, and chromatic minor 3rd scales using the sliding 2nd finger approach. Basic Chromatic Scale Fingering Here is the first chromatic scale fingering we learn; it is perfectly serviceable for beginner-intermediate levels. 3rd finger on black keys; thumb on white keys – except on the two adjacent pairs of white keys within the octave (E-F and B-C) where 2nd finger acts as a substitute thumb. Thus (RH up from C): 1-3-1-3-1-2-3-1-3-1-3-1-2 Advanced Chromatic Scale Fingering This fingering is much faster. Use a large group of consecutive fingers from 1-4 (or 4-1) whenever possible, except when to do so would position the thumb on a black key – in which case use a smaller group of consecutive fingers from 1-3. The 5th finger can be used at the end of a pattern, or when the scale changes direction. Thus (RH up from C): 1-2-3-4; 1-2-3; 1-2-3-4; 1-2 (etc). If you practise chromatic scales starting on any note, your hand will eventually get used to this fingering and you will find you can do it without thinking. I suggest practising hands together as soon as possible in symmetrical inversion (contrary motion). Using the symmetry of the keyboard, you can create an exact symmetrical version in one hand of any passage you are playing in the other, including scales. You match identical fingers and intervals and play the mirror image of the other hand simultaneously. Thus, when you play a black note with the […]

Guest Post: Why Take a Performance Diploma?

This week’s post is a guest post by Frances Wilson – pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. Frances asks the pertinent question – why take a performance diploma? Why Take a Performance Diploma? by Frances Wilson Grade 8 need not represent the pinnacle of learning, and for the talented student or adult amateur pianist it can act as a springboard to further study. The major exam boards (ABRSM, Trinity College London and London College of Music) all offer Performance Diplomas which provide a framework for the honing and maturing of performing and teaching skills. Anyone who thinks a diploma is a simple step up from Grade 8, think again. While it is a logical next step for a competent musician who has achieved Grade 8, a diploma, even at the lowest, Associate level is significantly more involved, requiring a high degree of attainment, combined with a professional attitude to preparation, technical facility, communication, musicality, presentation and stagecraft. The diploma itself is a professional qualification, recognised by other musicians and music professionals around the world. Diplomas can be taken outside the formal framework of music college or a university course and as such offer opportunities for serious independent learning and personal development. Diplomas also offer the chance to study without restrictions on length of study or the requirement that one is taught within an institution. Trinity College London defines the Associate and Licentiate Diplomas as follows: Associate (ATCL, AMusTCL) The standard of performance is equivalent to the performance component of the first year in a full-time undergraduate course at a conservatoire or other higher education establishment. Licentiate (LTCL, LMusTCL) The standard of performance is equivalent to the performance component on completion of […]

Commission Your Own Study Edition

Following our successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, we’re hard at work on the content for the Practising the Piano Online Academy. The Online Academy will feature a number of different types of content including lessons, masterclasses and resources, one of the which is our annotated study editions (click here to find out more or here for an example). Last week we sent out a survey with a short list of pieces as potential candidates for annotated study editions in order to give you an opportunity to have your say in the works we prioritise. The survey is still open and you are most welcome to complete it here if you still wish to do so. To coincide with the survey, we’re offering an exciting new perk as part of Indiegogo’s Indemand programme which allows successful campaigns to continue making special offers and rewards available in the run up to launch. This perk gives you the opportunity to commission your own study edition from the repertoire list in our survey in addition to an annual subscription to the Online Academy. We’ll also acknowledge you in the edition (optional) and send you a bound, printed copy. If you’ve already contributed to our campaign and purchased a different perk then you can upgrade to this option should you wish to (more info is available on this here). Otherwise if you haven’t yet contributed to our campaign, there are still a number of offers such as discounted subscriptions and subscription plus eBook bundles available in addition to this new offer. Thanks again for your support and we look forward to sharing the results of our survey with you!

Annotated Study Editions: Have Your Say!

In a previous post, I provided an annotated study edition of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor from Book 1 of the WTC with a specific tool, the Practice Stepladder. I hope you are finding it a useful supplement if you are learning the fugue from scratch. If you already play this fugue, I suggest going through the Stepladder daily for a few days and I guarantee you’ll notice a huge improvement in facility and control, also in your ability to bring out an individual voice where you wish to. (click here for the lesson and score) In January of this year, I conducted a survey from which I received numerous repertoire and topic suggestions for the blog and the Online Academy content which I am currently working on. My team has analysed the responses in detail and we’ve created a refined shortlist of works which are possible candidates for further annotated study editions. Many thanks to all who responded! We’re now looking to narrow this list down further and have created a follow-up survey featuring this short-list. This survey will only take a few minutes to complete as the answers are simple checkbox selections. So if you would like to have your say and vote for the pieces you would like to see featured, please click here. This short survey seeks input on annotated study editions; I am also planning to cover other works on this list in some form or other. One idea I have is video walk-throughs that give an overview of the piece, its challenges and how to set about solving them in the practice room. These walk-throughs will be supplemented by text and practice worksheets with musical examples in score form that you can take […]

Applying the Stepladder Approach

At the core of my practice tools are what I call The Three S’s – or Slowly, Separately, Sections. They refer to nitty-gritty practising, the sort of thing we do not only to learn notes, develop reflexes and form habits but also to revive old pieces, and to aid in the process of memorisation – no matter what age or level we are. In a nutshell, The Three S’s help form the basis of craftsmanlike, disciplined work at the piano. For more on the practice tools, follow this link to Part 1 of my ebook series When I published my study edition recently of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor from Book 1 of the WTC, I included my Practice Stepladder in the appendix. This divides the fugue into its main sections, and then gives each voice alone and then in all possible permutations of two voices (together with suggested fingerings and articulations) for the purposes of deliberate practice. If you follow the stepladder approach, you will learn the fugue much more quickly and much more throughly than with any other method. You can discover how to use the edition here – half way down the page there is a download button for the free pdf. Rather than practise a fugue hands separately (not very satisfactory), we might think of our work as firstly strands separately, and then together in combinations of voices. Now, a fugue is an example of strict counterpoint but there are many places in piano music written in independent lines – such as the opening of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, op. 13 (“Pathétique”). The texture starts out as though it were the lower three parts in a string quartet (the first violin joining in […]

Raise the Bar Competition

It is with great pleasure that I announce the publication of a new series from Trinity College London for which I have written the teaching notes, called Raise the Bar. In the three volumes that comprise the series (from Initial to Grade 8), you will find collections of the most popular pieces from past Trinity grade exam syllabuses. There is a wide range of styles and genres included, and I have written a short teaching note for each. The series is designed to be used alongside exam preparation, and also for pleasure. Quick Studies I suggest another excellent use for the series. Players with weak reading skills often have good muscle memory, and can look away from the printed page quite early on in the note learning process. In itself, this is not a bad thing – at all! This is exactly what concert pianists aim to do, to get away from relying on reading the score at the keyboard as soon as possible. For younger or inexperienced pianists who take their eyes off the page before the notes have been properly learned, all sorts of mistakes creep in that may be really hard to eliminate later. A quick study not only forces the eye onto the page, it bolsters reading and musical comprehension skills. I suggest taking a piece a couple of levels below your playing ability and allotting a short period of time to learn and then play it. Teachers can assign three or four quick studies a term, perhaps giving the piece out the week before and spending a few moments in the next lesson hearing it (exploring one or two points that may arise). So, if you are a Grade 5 level player with weak reading skills, the […]

The Practice Stepladder

I’m a great believer in practising fugues one voice at a time, and then in all possible combinations of voices before putting the fugue together. This is valuable not only in the first stages but long after the piece has been mastered. It can take a bit of work untangling the various different voices in a piano score printed on two staves. Publishers attempt to aid the eye by maintaining the direction of the note stems (up or down) for a given voice, but the lines may still take a bit of figuring out. I have long wanted practice editions for the entry level fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier that include in an appendix all the combinations of two voices, together with the required hand distributions and all the fingerings. Including the fingering is important, since when we practice the alto together with the bass line, say, we will want to be practising in the fingering we will end up using when we play all the voices. I call this approach the “Practice Stepladder” and it’s part of the content I’m developing for my Online Academy. As you will probably know by now, our Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign achieved its funding goal last week and as a result, I’m pleased to be able to share another sample lesson with you. This new lesson introduces the stepladder approach and includes an Annotated Study Edition featuring two versions of Bach’s text – an Urtext score and my own edition (with fingerings, dynamic suggestions, articulations and footnotes). Each score has its own separate Practice Stepladder (based on my own edition, and an Urtext for the purists amongst you). I hope you enjoy using it! Previous samples shared via our demo site include: When and how to use slow practice […]