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Czerny Says You Can!

Have you ever pondered how many teaching hours in the course of piano teaching history have been devoted to certain famous passages from the repertoire? How much time, how much blood, sweat and tears have gone into the short introduction to Chopin’s G minor Ballade, for example? I am usually unimpressed when I hear an awe-struck student recount how their teacher spent a whole lesson on just the first phrase, sometimes even on one bar – or one chord! Is this something to be respected and admired, or is it an ego trip on the part of the teacher and actually a colossal waste of lesson time? Some places in the piano repertoire are so loaded with historic angst and baggage that the teacher feels the weight of tradition and, instead of just giving some suggestions or a few specific directions based on what the student might want to do with the passage, spouts forth from on high. No matter how well the student plays, the teacher has his or her prescription and is darned well going to pass it on. Chances are an hour spent thus on a bar of music will forever burden the student, making them feel they are never going to be able to reproduce what the teacher wanted. They will always feel unworthy – jinxed, even. Don’t get me wrong – there is no substitute for incredibly detailed and painstaking work at the piano, sitting hour upon hour day after day in our practice striving to get something just right. However, we all know that there is no such thing as the one perfect interpretation of any piece, and that great art allows a multitude of possibilities. You only have to listen to a number of different recordings […]

No Stopping!

I recently gave a consultation lesson to a diploma candidate, who told me at the end it was the most illuminating lesson he had ever had. I couldn’t think why, so I asked him. He said he had never played his pieces through from beginning to end without stopping. Apparently, his teacher stopped him every time there was a mistake, or something that needed to be corrected, improved or tweaked. It used to take ages to get through a piece this way, and what made matters worse was he took this approach home into his practice. Every time something didn’t go according to plan (real or imagined) there was this Pavlovian response to take his hands off the keyboard. All I did was to allow him to replicate the conditions of his diploma (or indeed any performance) by committing to a start-to-finish, come-what-may, warts-and-all performance. Hardly rocket science. I explained that if he doesn’t practise performing for himself and then in front of others he will never know what it feels like. Effectively, he won’t ever have practised his exam. Practising is a complex and often indefinable art. On the one hand if we don’t stop to attend to repeated uncontrolled or inexpressive playing, won’t we be ingraining it all? On the other hand stopping, especially in the same old places we’re not happy with, sets up unhelpful reflexes that can be hard to eliminate later. The Solution With new pieces in Stage 1 of the learning process, I advocate controlled stops (this is a subject for another post). With pieces that are ready to play through, we make a decision before we start practising whether we are going to stop. If we decide we will stop, […]

Improve Your Thumb Technique

Wouldn’t it be great if Nature had designed our hands with the fingers in reverse order? If the “strong” thumb were on the outside of the hand and the “weak” pinky on the inside, we would easily be able to project melody lines –  supporting them with effortless basses and a suitably light harmonic filling in the middle. But it is actually possible to make the pinky strong and the thumb light and flexible. I would like to share a few ideas on this subject today. I have included the video demonstration I made for Pianist Magazine at the end of the this post, so please don’t worry if the verbiage that follows is a little difficult to follow – all is revealed in the video! The thumb can be a great ally or an enemy – depending on how we use it. In brief, the thumb has two phalanges (proximal and distal) and eight muscles, acting in groups. It can move in several different ways – straight up and down, stretching out laterally (abduction), moving in towards the hand (adduction), as well as moving under the palm to the tips of the fingers (opposition). It can also make grasping and circular movements. When I move my thumb freely, I feel the movement at the base of the thumb, at the wrist. The thumb connects to the keyboard on the tip by the nail (rather than on its flat side), forming an arch with the 5th finger in chords and octaves. If you want to investigate the anatomy of the hand applied to piano playing, I can highly recommend Thomas Mark’s excellent book, What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body. If you’ve heard of the book and have been debating whether to get it, click on the link and go ahead and order (and no, […]

On Pedalling, Slow Practice and Practical Theory

I’ve recently run a survey to find out what repertoire you would like to see me feature in blog articles, annotated study editions and in the Online Academy which I’m currently working on. This survey was a follow-on from an open-ended survey I ran in January which covered both repertoire and topics. My team has analysed the responses and we would like to take the opportunity now to let you know what the most popular topics were. The first question asked what specific areas of technique you would like me to address, and the most popular requests were: Pedalling Ornaments Learning complex, irregular rhythms The next question asked which specific areas of practising you would like to see covered in more detail, and the most popular responses were: Slow practice Quarantining Memorisation I also asked about other topics not currently covered on our blog or within our eBook series, and the following have come up: Practical theory and harmony Injury prevention and healthy playing Improvisation and playing by ear Many thanks to everyone who responded, your feedback is very much appreciated and I will be incorporating it into the content for the Online Academy. I have already taken a number of your suggestions on board, and I am busy working on materials that feature them. Here are some of things I am working on right now: Various articles on The Practice Tools, with video demonstrations and cross references to the repertoire you have chosen. Have you ever wondered how you are going to fill in the gaps in your understanding of theory and harmony? You know you need to know more, and you would be willing to take a course but you just can’t seem to find the right one. I am addressing this […]

Securing a Fast Passage

The other day I was practising Chopin’s 3rd Scherzo, a piece I have played regularly over the years. Because I haven’t touched it in a while, I found it needed a bit of dusting off and some cobwebs removing before I could get it back into shape and find the sparkle and security it needs for performance. The obvious thing was to go back to some slow practice, and this is great of course. But because slow practice is only part of the story, I decided to work on the coda (from Tempo 1 below) by mixing up slow practice with up-to-speed playing. I’ll explain in a moment how this works. With extended fast passages such as this coda, it’s not just finger control we need but of also control of rhythm. It’s so important to know, and to feel, where the first beats of each bar come – even if we don’t want to end up emphasising or accenting them as such. In music in fast triple time, we often feel each bar as one beat of a larger 4-bar unit. We can of course count it “123, 123, 123, 123″, etc. (fine at slower tempos) but at speed it is more natural to feel “1 (23), 2 (23), 3 (23), 4 (23)” or (more simply) “1 2 3 4“. Here are the stages I recommend: At a slow speed, count aloud each crotchet (quarter note) beat, emphasising the first beats. At a medium speed, count aloud the first beats of each bar according to the longer phrase structure (“1 2 3 4“), emphasising the 1s. When this is easy, begin alternating two tempos – fast and half speed – in a controlled and methodical way. Be […]

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 […]

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