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, […]

Intermediate Scales Manual Now on the Online Academy!

I have some good news for those of you practising your scales! I have just published the first part of my new scale manual aimed at intermediate players on the Online Academy.There are several scale manuals already available, but this manual is different in that it offers exercises and suggestions for practice, together with short, easy-to-use video demonstrations. It is my aim that these will be of practical help in the learning and practising process. Teachers will be able to assign specific exercises, and students will have a clearer focus in their day-to-day practice. Using the ABRSM Grade V syllabus as a guideline for this level I will be publishing the manual in stages, beginning with a practice worksheets for the group of scales built on C major fingering, and one example from some of the main groups for arpeggios. I will gradually add to these until the manual is complete. Why Scales? Scales and arpeggios have traditionally been examined as the 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 apparently played scales and arpeggios in every key every day. In fact, many of the world’s greatest pianists wouldn’t […]

Hold Me, I’m a Fermata!

Following on from last week’s post on rests, I’m going to move on to the fermata – or the pause. We find this marked on rests as well as on notes, and also on bar lines. What is a fermata, and how long do we hold it for? Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians tells us the fermata “signifies that the note over which it is placed should be held on beyond its natural duration”, but how long is a piece of string? The pause might indicate nothing much more than a lift or a short breath, or something much more obvious and dramatic. The good news is there is no fixed rule. Some fermatas are vocal in inspiration, reflecting how a singer would hold on to a special note in a line in bel canto aria. If you are not familiar with this particular type of operatic style you’re going to find it very hard to bring off the fermata at the end of the first paragraph of Liszt’s Un sospiro, for example. Notice how Claudio Arrau spreads out the semiquavers at the end bar 11 to accommodate the singing line as the F is held. Harold Bauer does it differently, by suspending the accompaniment until the top F is ready to resolve, and playing the semiquavers with a forward direction over the bar line. On the piano we have to factor in the natural decay of tone – meaning that every sound we make has a finite life before we end it or allow it to blend into silence. Sometimes we want to make the most of the silences after we finish a piece by holding on until there is no sound left at […]

Pause for Thought

Have you ever stressed about what to do during a long rest that appears in a piece you are playing? In my experience of listening to pianists, rests often get shortened – sometimes really drastically. Because you’re at the instrument in the middle of a piece, you should be playing the piano, right? Not sitting there doing nothing. Quite apart from the logistics of maintaining the pulse during the silences, there’s that awkward question of what you should be doing with your hands. Do you keep them hovering eagerly over the keyboard, waiting for the moment you can start playing again? Or do you feel a sort of musical tea break is in order, and simply move your hands into your lap while your inner metronome keeps count? Rests are a vital part of musical communication, and just because for a moment or two we are making no sounds we must not assume that nothing is happening. Actors know that by pausing before they deliver a line they grab our attention – we are agog and wondering what’s coming next. By pausing after a line, they give us the chance to digest what has been said, a moment to think and reflect on it. Great actors milk this. Beethoven was a master of the pause – sometimes writing it out with rests, other times using a fermata. What do you feel is happening during the two rests in bar 9 of the introduction to the Pathétique? Players almost never realise the dramatic significance of this moment, it is as though they can’t wait to get to the next sound (bar 4 in this extract). Very often players do not seem to have worked out this bar rhythmically, […]

New Piano Holiday in France

I am delighted to announce a brand new piano holiday next July in the beautiful surroundings of Saint Laurent, France. It will be tutored by myself, and hosted by Geoff and Penny Douglas. Saint Laurent is situated on 27 hectares (66 acres) of land, with breathtaking views of the countryside and the Pyrenees. The fully refurbished 600 sq metre farmhouse boasts 4 apartments and extensive common space. The apartments at Saint Laurent have kitchens. There is a performance area, which can accommodate up to 60 people, with a Kawai RX2 grand piano. There is also a small swimming pool. For those not staying in the main venue, Le Bernet is 2km away. Perched on one of the slopes of the Volvestre, this former sheepfold awaits you at the end of a small path, and offers another breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside and the Pyrenees. This accommodation has a beautiful swimming pool, and includes a grand piano. This course will be centred around the piano, but our aim is to also enjoy what the local area has to offer – its cuisine and wine, as well as the beautiful countryside (there will be the opportunity for walking or resting as desired). Numbers will be restricted to 10 participants, with classes focussed on performance and practising skills. Participants should be of intermediate to advanced level, and will need to bring three pieces from the classical repertoire that they have prepared to a fluent level (memorisation is not required). The daily classes will be conducted in a pleasant, friendly, supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. Digital practice pianos will be available. For full details and to register, please follow this link.     

Mind the Gap! (Part 2)

Following on from last week’s post on slurs and short phrases in the Baroque and Classical periods, I thought I would look at some other examples from Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Ravel and try to distinguish a bit between those phrase marks that show the grammar of the music (those places where the commas and full stops go, indicating where the music breathes) and those that show the articulation. Phrase marks in Baroque and Classical period music tend to be shorter, and usually indicate articulation. Whether we make an audible separation at the end of a slur or short phrase, or whether we simply play the start of the phrase stronger and then lighten as we move towards the end of the phrase depends on context. It is not possible to make a hard and fast rule, but we do need to consider these markings – we cannot just ignore them. Needless to say, a reliable Urtext edition is absolutely essential. I was working with someone today on the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven, who was using the old ABRSM Craxton-Tovey edition. While it has many excellent qualities, this edition contains numerous errors when it comes to slurs – including a whopping great phrase mark over the whole of the first four-bar phrase when Beethoven’s autograph clearly shows a break. We need to consider how we are going to realise Beethoven’s intentions here, evidently not a long seamless legato line as the Tovey edition suggests. But not a gap either – we might best realise this by giving a slight stress or placement of the first beat of the new phrase. In Romantic music we often find long phrase marks that indicate not only a prevailing legato approach but also the long […]

Mind the Gap!

There is a problem with certain performance directions composers write in the score – or the lack of them. Especially articulation marks. Some of the markings we find can easily be misinterpreted, especially when applied generically across the style periods or from one type of piece to another. The staccato dot is one example – sometimes it means a literal shortening of the note, other times it might mean a type of accent. And it does not mean we can’t use the pedal either. Notice the dot on each of the main beats in the LH of Chopin’s E flat Nocturne. This signifies a slight stress on each bass, and it is evident not only from Chopin’s pedal markings but also from the harmonic context that the bass notes are to be caught in the pedal. In the absence of specific markings, is a piece legato or staccato? May we add slurs and phrasing of our own? This depends on the speed and character, as well as its style period. There is only a certain amount of information a composer can write on the page, and in much music from the earlier periods performance decisions were either left up to the good taste of the performer, or players would have known how things were supposed to be done. Bach left a certain amount of articulation markings but a glance at a page of any Urtext edition may show none at all, or very few. In music from later periods, particularly the Classical period, a question that regularly comes my way is how to play the slurs and short phrases that are marked in the score. Do we always need to make a gap in sound between the note at […]

The Pre-Practice Routine

Anyone who has ever been in a school classroom will have noticed how the behaviour changes the moment the teacher leaves the room. Presiding over the class, bringing authority, discipline and focus, as soon as teacher’s out the door things instantly degenerate into unruly chimp behaviour. In our practice room we call forth our inner teacher to discipline our class – the ten fingers. Unless we direct them clearly they’ll end up doing what the heck they want – doodling instead of knuckling down to some serious work, or playing through pieces they already know rather than putting effort and concentration into correcting and refining sloppy passages. Getting the best results from ourselves (and from our students) comes down to practice and training. While I am no golfer myself,  I am struck by what golfers (and tennis players) do before they hit the ball. I’ve noticed they take quite a bit of time concentrating and focussing before every single shot, presumably so that the ball has the best chance of landing where they want it to go. It led me to question why pianists in their practice rooms often seem to do the exact opposite – bringing their hands up to the keyboard with no real thought or focus as to what they want to achieve. Having researched this subject a bit, I discover golfers use what they call a pre-shot routine. The first part of this pre-shot routine is where the decision-making happens (good shots rarely happen without 100% focus). The golfer needs to build up a mental picture for exactly what a good shot would look like – how it would fly, where it would land and how far it would roll. A vivid visualisation […]

Chopin’s Sostenuto in E flat

A banker by profession, Émile Gaillard was a friend of Chopin, and in his youth apparently the master’s best student. It is thanks to this association that we have two works by Chopin that he might otherwise never have written – one of which could so easily have got thrown away in the bin. More about that later… There was a chance the Mazurka in A minor Chopin wrote for Gaillard might have remained a manuscript dedicated as a souvenir but it ended up being published in 1841. The publication did not get off to an especially auspicious start. It was originally given the opus number 43, but it turned out that had already been assigned to the Tarantella; nowadays the Mazurka “À Émile Gaillard” is known, somewhat unglamorously, as the Mazurka in A minor, KK II b No. 5. For me it’s a very nostalgic piece, and I especially admire the lovely B section with the RH in octaves and the way it ends on a long RH trill. Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy. For the score, follow this link  Sostenuto in E flat When the ABRSM brought out its new piano syllabus earlier this year, I was delighted to discover a piece of Chopin suitable for the intermediate player, the Sostenuto in E flat, set for Grade V. Since there are very few “easy” works of Chopin, it struck me this was going to be a big hit with candidates. But where did this piece spring from – what is its background? Imagine being an administrator at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1940s, one day sorting through a stack of musty old books in the corner of a library store room. By mid afternoon you’ve catalogued several, and your […]

On Studies and Exercises

I follow a middle path when it comes to the studies and exercises I suggest or assign to students, preferring to work on technique from the music itself rather than have them learn a whole slew of dull and dreary studies they won’t especially enjoy. I supplement the repertoire with carefully chosen material, often culled from a variety of unusual sources  – and some of it of my own invention. I am a fan of taking some exercises and using them off-label (finding a different way to use an easily memorable pattern of notes than what the author may have had in mind). There are three main ways of categorising such material. I’m going to make one or two suggestions for each. 1. Exercises The shorter and simpler the better. Exercises should be easy to memorise, so that the whole attention can be focussed on the specific mechanical or technical goal we’re aiming to master. Exercises have no pretensions toward artistic merit, although they can be played musically. Hanon patterns are good examples of the exercise genre. Do them with a definite purpose and they can serve you; do them mindlessly and they will waste your time as well as ingraining whatever you are doing with them. If you practise them without aligning your hand and arm to the finger that is playing you are automating the habit of not aligning your hand and arm to the finger that is playing (seems so obvious, doesn’t it?) and you will develop technical problems and most likely tension. The exercises themselves are neutral, it’s how we do them that counts.  There are numerous books of technical exercises on my shelves. One I especially like for beginners is […]

By |September 21st, 2017|Uncategorized|1 Comment

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.