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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. […]

Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor

The Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines fantasia as “a piece of instrumental music owning no restriction of formal construction, but the direct product of the composer’s impulse.” The term itself is somewhat loose, its definition changing over the course of music history. Elizabethan fantasias for keyboard were built from whatever musical idea took the “fancy” of the performer, who made as much or as little of it as he wanted. It was a good way to warm up while checking the tuning of the instrument at the start of a performance. Here is William Byrd’s Fantasy in A from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, played on a spinet harpsichord built in London in 1718. One of the best examples of the Baroque fantasia is  JS Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. I have chosen a version by the great pioneer of the harpsichord Wanda Landowska, who manages to extract a huge variety of colours from her hybrid Pleyel instrument. The performance (recorded in 1935) is magnificent – almost gothic, and very much of its time. In the early Classical period, the fantasia evolved into two types, the prelude and the episodic. The composers who belonged to the keyboard school of JS Bach’s second son, CPE Bach, continued the Baroque improvisatory tradition and wrote bold, imaginative prelude-type fantasias. Think of an improvised prelude, where the composer-performer presented their ideas and demonstrated their knowledge and inspiration moment by moment to a small group of connoisseurs – literally making it up as they went along. When writing this out in conventional notation, frequent changes of tempo and meter are needed (you’ll see what I mean from the scrolling score in the following clip). Here is Robert Hill playing CPE Bach’s rather splendid Fantasia in F# minor (1787), played on a […]

Online Academy – Let Us Know What You Think!

Since its launch in late September 2016, the content Online Academy’s library of content has almost doubled to over 100 articles featuring numerous videos, musical excerpts and downloads. We’re busy working on lots more content on topics ranging from technique through to masterclasses on popular works in the repertoire. Because we’re covering such a wide range of topics, it’s important that we prioritise content that is most likely to be relevant and useful to you. Therefore, we’d like to give you an opportunity to provide feedback on the content to date and your views regarding how you’d like to see the Online Academy evolve going forward. Do you want to see more content aimed at adult beginners, more works by a certain composer featured or specific topics relating to practising and technique covered in more depth? This is your chance to have your say! Please click here to take the survey (opens in a new window). As a thank-you for your time and input, we are offering all of our members who complete the survey a discount of £20 on an upgrade to an annual / premium subscription or £20 off their next renewal (please see terms and conditions below). This offer is also available to new members therefore if you haven’t yet signed-up to the Online Academy yet then you can do so here for free or click here find out more. Your input will be invaluable to us for planning purposes and will go a long way to helping us make the Online Academy as good as it can possibly be. Survey Discount Offer – Terms & conditions This offer is only valid for signed-up members of the Online Academy but does include […]

Focus Your Practice with Zigzag

I use a form of practice for myself that I call zigzag practice. It helps test and strengthen my memory by keeping me incredibly focussed, but there’s no way it will work unless I am concentrating fully. I also recommend it to my students, and I have noticed it has a multitude of uses, not least keeping eyes on the page when they are at the stage when muscle memory is taking over but when there is still plenty of guesswork going on in terms of notes, rhythms and fingerings. Rather than look at the page for direction, they seem to look at their fingers for inspiration. With zigzag practice you’ve got to look up, and I’ve noticed people enjoy it and seem to rise to the challenge. Intrigued? I’ll show you how it works with one of the pieces I selected for the Online Academy’s Essential Guide to ABRSM Examinations portfolio of pieces – Handel’s Sonatina in G, set for Grade 3. After you have a certain amount of familiarity with the piece and can play reasonably fluently hands together as well as hands separately, play one bar in one hand followed by the next bar in the other hand. If you started with the right hand and followed in bar 2 with the left, the next time you practise the phrase do it the other way around (begin with the left hand and continue with the right). Try not to interfere with the rhythmic flow and keep the pulse rock steady as you switch from one hand to the next. There are two ways of zigzagging: End on the very last note of the bar – one hand passes the beat to the next, as […]

Developing Sight Reading Skills

I get a lot of questions about how to improve sight reading. Teachers don’t seem to find the time to cover it in lessons, meaning students have little incentive to practise it at home. And yet the ability to read and process information readily from the printed score is surely one of the most important skills they should be acquiring? Players with weak reading skills often have good muscle memory, they are able to look away from the printed page quite early on in the note learning process – little wonder their reading skills suffer when their eyes are permanently focussed on the fingers. Sight reading involves assimilating information from the page and decoding it on the spot. The ability to do this presupposes a certain amount of theoretical knowledge (another area that is sorely neglected), but the single most important factor in getting good at it is to be doing it regularly. With Other Musicians Sitting at home ploughing through dreary sight reading tests just doesn’t seem to cut it. Even though you know you’re not supposed to stop for mistakes, you just hate getting it wrong. You’re not inspired and you can’t wait to move on to more interesting things – such as your pieces. A great way to develop sight reading skills is to play with other musicians. Duets or music for two pianos, collaborating with singers, instrumentalists or choirs – I suggest finding any situation where you cannot stop under any circumstances (or you’ll be letting the side down). Singing teachers, instrumental teachers and choir directors who don’t have a pianist would be grateful for your efforts, no matter how rudimentary they may be to begin with. You will get better as you go on, […]

Are Scales Fun?

The very mention of the word scales to a piano student is likely to conjure up associations with something they know is necessary but somehow unpalatable, like eating spinach or a visit to the dentist.  I think it is actually possible to make scale practice fun, rewarding and challenging – provided it is presented in clear, step-by-step stages that students can easily follow by themselves in their daily practice between lessons. Scales and arpeggios have traditionally been examined as the so-called technical requirements in piano exams from Grade 1 right through the conservatory level – and like it or not, they are here to stay. The advanced pianist will have mastered all major and minor scales in single as well as double notes, plus an array of different types of arpeggios, in all inversions. The result will be an intimate kinesthetic knowledge of the keyboard (how a particular scale feels under the hand) and of all tonalities and key relationships, acquired and honed over the course of time. Whether we continue to practise scales in later life depends on the individual – the great virtuoso Shura Cherkassky wouldn’t think of beginning his daily practice without a thorough regimen of scales and arpeggios in all keys. Once learned, scales can be used as the starting point for all sorts of problem-solving exercises – if you are struggling to feel a polyrhythm in your piece, practise a scale up and down in that polyrhythm. If you want to refine a particular touch or for independence between the hands, use scales. Practice Worksheets In addition to walk-throughs and worksheets for the ABRSM exam pieces I decided to include some resources for scales in the Online Academy, since it is easy […]

Most Popular Posts and Articles

We hope all of our readers have had an enjoyable Festive Season and are being treated well by 2017 so far! We’re hard at work preparing new content and resources which will be announced next week. Until then, here’s a summary of popular posts and Online Academy articles from 2016: Blog posts: “But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!” The Speed of No Mistakes Securing a Fast Passage Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice No Stopping! Online Academy articles and resources: Walkthrough of Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor (1) Ergonomic Fingering for Scales and Arpeggios (1) The Art of Pedalling – The Sustaining Pedal (1 & 2) A Crash Course in Music Theory – Welcome! Technical Exercises and Regimes – Finger Exercises (3) Technical Exercises and Regimes – Introduction (1) Chopin Mazurkas – Walkthrough – Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4 Aria in F – Walkthrough Slow Practice – How and When to Use Slow Practice A Crash Course in Music Theory – Back to the 18th and the 17th centuries In addition to the above, the most popular videos on the Online Academy were the Sustaining Pedal and Lucinda Mackworth-Young’s Beginning to Improvise. A number of the Online Academy articles listed above are available without registration and you can also register for free to view an additional five articles (no credit card required). Click here to find out more about the Online Academy or click here to visit the site, view free content and to subscribe.

Exercises for Trills

This is the final post in my short series on trills. I am going to share with you some exercises to develop speed and fluency, as well as a neat tip for slowing down videos on YouTube so you can listen in very slow motion. This is great if you want to research how different pianists handle trills (and indeed anything else), but more on this later. Trill Exercises The following exercises are in no particular order. I suggest trying them out and finding those that suit you best. From a mechanical point of view, you might want to experience the trill in these ways: from the finger (active finger, and then keeping the finger inside the keys) powered by forearm rotation (the equivalent of power-assisted steering) Repeated Note I’m using as my example a trill between the 2nd and 3rd fingers in the RH, but this whole series of exercises can be applied to other combinations of fingers. Hold onto one finger of the trill and play the other finger (a repeated note) from the escapement, without lifting the key all the way back up to the top between the repetitions. It will feel like you are at the bottom of the key; there won’t be any gap in sound between the repeated notes because you are effectively tying one note to the next. Start slowly and build up speed. Next, try holding the finger you have just been playing and play the finger you have just been holding. The first exercise is done freely; in the next one we’re going to do it rhythmically. It can be useful to feel the rhythm of the finger that plays on the beat in a measured trill when […]

Secrets of Beautiful Trills

In last week’s post, the first of this three-part series on trills, I looked at some of the rules and regulations concerning trills and other ornaments in the music of the Baroque period. Today I would like to explore a little more how to produce a beautiful trill at the piano. Chameleons I am often asked what is the secret of a good trill, and I find myself answering with another question – what sort of trill do you mean? There are so many different types that it is impossible to lump them all together. Some trills are featherlight and delicate, others strident like an alarm. Some are exuberant and invasive, others elegant and sensitive. So let’s think of trills (and indeed other ornaments) as chameleons that blend into and enhance their surroundings. Shape and Speed We pianists tend to think that trills need to be as fast as possible. They don’t! First determine whether the trill is rhythmic or expressive, and whether it is fast or on the slower side. Often trills and tremolos tend to sound better when they are measured out and played evenly, whatever the speed. Evenly means both in terms of time (precisely rhythmic) and tone (with no unwanted accents). There are, however, some situations when we won’t want a precisely measured trill. In slow or expressive music we might prefer to start the trill slowly and gently, perhaps with a crescendo to the middle, then end it with a slight ritardando. We can often make decisions based on our own judgement and good taste. Register The register of the piano determines the speed as much as the musical context. Trills in the high registers are often faster and more brilliant […]

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