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.

By |January 5th, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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 […]

On Trills and Twiddles

I am dusting off the Goldberg Variations for a couple of performances early next year, and I decided to consult my Kirkpatrick edition (Schirmer, 1938). When I have the best modern editions on my shelves, why would I choose to revisit such an old and surely outdated source? Well, there is much to gain from using an interpretive edition such as Kirkpatrick’s alongside a modern Urtext. The lengthy preface is divided into 9 chapters on the origin of the work, its form and the instrument. Then Kirkpatrick delves into the topics of ornamentation (general rules as well as each ornament treated individually), phrasing, fingering, tempo, dynamics and general interpretation. His scholarship has withstood the test of time and this edition still has much to offer. The score itself presents the canons in open score (a great plus point), and is mercifully free of fingerings and other editorial tamperings. Having not played the work for 5 years, I wanted to refresh my memory on the exact shapes of each ornament and I am always fascinated to discover how great performers realise them. Kirkpatrick decided to write each ornament out in full. While this is helpful to a certain extent it is also problematic. Certain ornaments that fulfil a rhythmic function in fast music might well be played in a clearly discernible rhythmic way; others need to sound more expressive and free. Kirkpatrick’s realisations of the ornaments in Variation 7, for example, will sound just fine if played metronomically according to his recipe. However, there is no way Kirkpatrick or anyone else can possibly notate the necessary freedoms in inflection in slower or more expressive music such as the Aria. The mordants in the first couple of bars feel more or less fine as they are […]

New Elementary Level Resources Available Now!

We’re pleased to announce that a number of new resources for elementary musicians and their teachers are now available via the Online Academy. As mentioned in a previous post, we decided to start off by picking a few sample pieces from the early grades in the new ABRSM syllabus and creating walkthroughs with downloadable, printable worksheets that players can take with them to the piano to guide them in their practice. The first example was JC Bach’s Aria in F from the Grade 1 syllabus. The next piece featured is Handel’s Sonatine in G from the Grade 3 syllabus. Also under development are worksheets which serve as a creative way to introduce a new piece to a learner. The first two examples feature pieces in the ABRSM syllabus that are arrangements of folksongs or well-known melodies – When the Saints (Grade 1) and The Piper o’ Dundee (Grade 2). The worksheets can be assigned by teachers a week or so before introducing the arrangement as it appears in the exam book. In addition to resources featuring specific pieces, we’ll be adding other material aimed at the elementary level, including: General tips for exam preparation The Practice Tools adapted for beginners A guide to elementary level scales and arpeggios Click here to view an index of the available and forthcoming content in these series or click here to find out more about the Online Academy. ***   ***   *** The Practising the Piano Online Academy If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in The Practising the Piano Online Academy. Building on my blog posts and eBook series, it takes my work to the next level with a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses […]

By |November 29th, 2016|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Exam Resources for Elementary Players

When I started this blog in 2011, I wanted to set out what I called The Practice Tools. These are universal principles for what we do when we practise, applicable to all ages and levels of ability no matter our pianistic heritage or technical approach. You could even think of these tools as techniques of learning. Even though I do not teach many beginners nowadays, I have taught plenty in the past – and continue to do so from time to time. Based on survey results and feedback I have had, there is a desire for more material in the Online Academy geared towards beginners and elementary level players and their teachers. I am happy to report my first offerings in this direction are coming soon! In this post, I offer a few suggestions regarding practice tools for elementary level players. Clapping and Counting Aloud Virtually everything we do at the piano is connected to a pulse. That includes scales, exercises, studies and what we do when we practise. In my work as a principal tutor on the Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK I notice that the trainee teachers do not help their pupil set the pulse before they play. It can be as simple as counting a bar or two, or clapping or snapping your fingers while speaking a few words rhythmically (…“can you hear the qua-ver beats?”). This should be done relentlessly before every activity until the pupil learns to do it for themselves. To make sure we are really feeling the rhythm, not just thinking it in our head, clapping and counting aloud is a great thing to do before we practise each phrase. Rhythmical errors can be fixed, or preempted, by clapping and counting aloud before […]

On Editions

When we learn a piece of music from a score, it is important to be able to distinguish those markings that are from the pen of the composer, and those that have been added by an editor. There are two main types of edition available to us – Urtext (the composer’s original intentions reproduced as exactly as possible) and interpretive editions (where a famous player or scholar offers their personal opinions on how to play the work). There are a couple of problems with Urtext editions. One is the editorial fingerings that appear on the same level as the composer’s otherwise unadulterated text. So often I find these fingering solutions just don’t work for the particular student I am teaching. In a score of Bach these editors’ fingerings can be particularly unhelpful and misleading, since they generally don’t factor in how our choice of articulation influences the fingering we settle on. Pianist and teacher Hans-Martin Theopold at first refused Henle’s invitation to select the fingering for their publications, saying “For fingerings are and remain something individual no matter what their quality”. He later relented and produced 226 fingered editions in total. When we work from Urtext editions, and indeed from any edition, we need to feel completely free to change fingerings in the score and come up with something that works for our hand and for the phrasing and articulation we have in our imagination. For more on this subject, follow this link to my blog post Bespoke Fingerings. The other obstacle in Baroque and Classical period Urtext scores is the relative lack of performance directions that in the day would have been up to the individual performer to decide. 21st century musicians often feel uncomfortable and ill-equipped making such decisions, and end up playing safe by playing grey. If you’re short on […]

Pedalling by Hand

Pianists have always felt that the music of J S Bach is accessible to them. The Early Music Movement (1970s wave) did put some pressure on those of us who presented Bach’s music to do so in particular ways that were perhaps more suitable to the instruments of his day than our mighty grand pianos, but fortunately the greatness of the music transcends the medium – harpsichord, piano, synthesiser, whatever. The perennial question of pedal always comes up when discussing Bach style on the piano. The argument goes that, because Bach’s instruments were not equipped with any sustaining mechanism, we should steer clear of our right pedal (for some players this means completely). “The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation. Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility, and one can only create an illusion of achieving it. To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well worth trying. Bach certainly didn’t want his music to sound easy; it’s demanding for players and listeners alike.” – Sir András Schiff. Here is Sir András discussing the subject with Arie Vardi in a television interview (watch from 1:17). How interesting to discover that, in his remarkable performance of the Goldberg Variations in last year’s Promenade concerts, Sir András did make discreet use of pedal in the cavernous space of […]

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