General tips

Chopin and Bach

We know that Chopin began his piano practice every day with some preludes and fugues from Bach’s 48. It is said this is the only score he took with him to Majorca in 1838, where he completed his own set of 24 Preludes. There is nothing purer for the mind or for the fingers than Bach’s supreme examples, which are models of compositional clarity and logic. It is not just the composer’s own beautiful handwriting, but also the design of his musical structures that leap off the page, that have often made me wonder why no wallpaper manufacturer has come up with the idea of using his manuscripts as prints. A bit too busy, perhaps… I stumbled across a score of the C sharp major Prelude from Book 1 that Chopin annotated, and thought it should make an appearance here: Earlier today I was teaching Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu. Because of the polyrhythms, it is challenging to practise the outer sections slowly and be rhythmically absolutely precise (the LH is in sixes, the RH in eights). Provided we play the LH with a circular (or spinning) motion generated from the arm, the body coordinates the two rhythms (after a while), requiring no conscious thought from the mind as to how the two hands go together. This is not the case when practising slowly – and practise it slowly we must! You can, of course, struggle with “What Atrocious Weather”, the 3 against 4 equivalent to 2 against 3’s “Quick Cup of Tea” (or “Fried Fish and Chips”, if you come from up North): Or you might take inspiration from another prelude of Bach, the Prelude in D major from Book 1. …and practise a skeleton version of […]

Making Friends with Fiddly Fiorature

Over the past couple of weeks I have had a few requests for advice on how to handle the flurries of little notes we find in the music of Chopin. I am republishing a post I wrote back in 2013 – I hope it helps! When you’ve been teaching the piano for as long as I have, there are certain problems that are universal. It might be a particular spot in a particular piece that will always need to be brought up, or it might be a concept – such as how to manage the fioratura in the music of Chopin. Before we go any further, let me explain what this term means. Taken from “fior”, which means “flower” in Italian, fioratura refers to the flowery, embellished vocal line within an aria. Chopin was a diehard fan of the bel canto tradition, and we find its influence throughout his music. Some of these passages look extremely scary, for example the coda of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne: The first thing to realise here is that Chopin did not intend the notation of his fiorature to be mathematically precise. The whole point is for them to sound free, improvisatory and personal. In my lessons with Ann Schein on Chopin’s Second Concerto, I was instructed to start the fiorature fast and take time at the end of the groups. Since Ann was one of only two students of Artur Rubinstein – no slouch when it came to the interpretation of Chopin – this has always been good enough for me. Because the notation is free, I feel we should retain a sense of freedom and even whimsy about how we play our fiorature, being unconstrained by the mathematics […]

Resources for Studying Bach

Quite a lot of my students bring the works of JS Bach to lessons, which is always a delight. I often find myself directing them to various different sources to enhance their study of this music, so I thought I would put a few of these together for ease of reference. I hope you will find these resources useful and interesting. I am also hoping you will send me your links, which I will add to this post. Since Bach’s music is contrapuntal, even in the simplest works, we need to know how to listen to, balance, blend and articulate two or more independent lines simultaneously. If we have been brought up on a path from the Anna Magdalene Notebook to the Little Preludes and the Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias, we will be able to tackle the Preludes and Fugues from the ’48’, not to mention the suites. Before that, listen to what Rosalyn Tureck brought to some of the baby pieces (click here) Resources for ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier” Anatomy of a fugue (click here) How to analyse a fugue (click here) Ebenezer Prout’s analyses (click here) Siglind Bruhn’s homepage (with analyses) (click here) Cecil Gray’s analyses (not at all dry, poetic and rather lovely actually!) (click here) Yo Tomita’s website (click here) Performing Bach’s fugues on the piano (David Korevaar) (click here) Dr. Philip Goeth’s website, containing much material of interest (click here) Recordings Anyone can trawl YouTube and find recordings easily. Here are just three (of very many) worthy of attention. András Schiff’s recording of Book 1 (click here) Samuil Feinberg‘s recording of Book 2 (click here) Gustav Leonhardt’s recording of Book 1 (harpsichord) (click here) Here are my suggestions for fugue practice […]

Q&A: How Can We Use Rotation in a Scale?

Q. You speak about forearm rotation in your eBook and in your YouTube video on scales and arpeggios, but I think of rotation as a large movement for things like tremolos and trills. Can you explain how to use it in scales? A. Great question, I’m very glad you have raised it. Until I studied the theory of forearm rotation with Julian Martin (who was working with Dorothy Taubman at the time), I had also only thought of rotation as a large movement  – something you could really see and really feel. I had two eureka moments close to the beginning of my investigations into all this, one was during a large leap when I was told to “untwist” during the journey from one position to the next (this made the leap feel fast, extremely free and reliable) and the other was in the broken diminished 7th in the Adagio espressivo section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 109: I was struggling to get enough power in this place, especially because I needed to hold onto the notes of the chord as I was spreading it. Even when I incorporated the finger strokes into one slower movement of the arm, the fingers were still doing an awful lot of the work. There was undue effort and a moment of tension. When I was able to experience the rotary movements, it suddenly became effortless and strong – as though I had flipped a switch to a new power source. The tiny backflips of the forearm are absolutely possible at high speed, and even though they are virtually imperceptible to someone watching I could definitely feel them. The difference in sensation between the rotary version and the […]

Our Inner Conductor

In some Romantic music it may be appropriate to change tempo slightly when the musical idea changes, even if this is not specified in the score. This is just one of many personal freedoms that is part of Romantic style. However, in a Classical sonata we need to be able to contain the various different musical ideas in a movement more or less within one basic tempo – contrast within a unified tempo is what helps everything hang together. Quality of Beat I am no conductor, but when I wave my arms around in a lesson I feel that the energy of the beats varies from one section of the music to another, even though the tempo may stay exactly the same. The beat may have a strong, explosive attack which I show with a snap of the wrist. If this needs to happen at the piano or pianissimo level, I might make the movements quite small and high up. If the beats blend into one another smoothly, I might show this with more circular motions or even a figure of eight. The tempo stays the same but the energy and quality of the beat can change markedly within that tempo. This is often what happens in a Classical sonata first movement – the first subject may be extrovert and the second subject more expressive and intimate. As players respond to the different musical material, they often seem to change tempo without even realising. This is obviously an issue that needs our attention. Our Inner Conductor Of course we can use the metronome to stabilise the beat as we practise, this is such a tried and tested way of doing things that I am not going to dwell […]

The Myth of the Easy Piece

Very often people tell me as they skim through a score “I don’t really need to practise this bit because it’s easy”. I also hear “I totally messed that bit up, and yet it’s so simple!”. While the notes themselves may be readable at sight and present no apparent technical difficulties, I don’t believe there is any such thing as an easy piece – when it comes to performance.  We soon realise this when we take this so-called easy piece into a performance situation and suddenly it is not such plain sailing. All the same prerequisites of performance apply to this piece as to the next piece – communicating the musical message, playing with rhythmical awareness, quality of sound and phrasing, and good tonal balance between the hands. Let’s look at an example from Mozart’s C minor Concerto, K.491 – a small phrase from the Larghetto (solo piano part is on the upper systems):   Any self-respecting relative beginner would be able to read the notes of this passage, they are simplicity itself. And yet to create the right sound and mood with just these few notes, to feel the phrase gradually gaining in intensity until it flowers in the last bar without overdoing it – these things are far from easy and take quite a bit of judgment and control. In the hands of a great artist this passage sounds sublime, as it should. During the Mozart year in 2006 I played a solo programme consisting of some sonatas, variations and a selection of baby pieces (assorted Klavierstücke, some of which are suitable for elementary players). I did this not only to give the programme a bit of lightness, but also to show that these small pieces […]

Some Historic Pianos

As I wind up my short tribute to the pianos of yesteryear, I want to mention two particular pianos that stand out in my memory. Last week, I wrote about my experience playing Chopin’s music on the very Broadwood that Chopin himself selected to play when he was in London. This week, I recall a more recent concert of music for four hands by Schumann with my former student, Daniel Grimwood on a very lovely Erard built in 1851 (we played the early Polonaises and Bilder aus Osten, op. 66). There was a beautiful clarity in the sound, and (unlike our homogenised modern piano) a noticeably different tonal quality in each register. This made problems of balance much easier to solve. Here is Daniel talking about his award-winning recording of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage made on this instrument (he has also recorded the Chopin Preludes on it). Another instrument that stands out in my memory is the Horowitz Steinway. In the late 80’s I had the opportunity to try out Vladimir Horowitz’s own personal Steinway, at Steinway Hall in New York City.  In the early 1940’s, Steinway & Sons presented Horowitz and his wife Wanda with a Steinway Model D, Serial #279503. Known simply as CD503, this is the piano Horowitz kept in his New York townhouse. He used it in many recitals and recordings in the 70’s and 80’s, and he famously demanded that the piano be his exclusive touring instrument during the last four years of his life, including for his triumphant return to the former Soviet Union for performances in Moscow and Leningrad in 1986. Horowitz had the piano set up to suit his own playing style and concept of sound, and when I played it it was […]

John Broadwood and the Evolution of the Piano

When I was a student I was ignorant about early pianos, dismissing the sound as honky-tonk. This was until I attended lectures by my harpsichord teacher-to-be, Ruth Dyson, who opened my mind and my ears to the charms of instruments considered neither inferior nor lacking by the composers, players or audiences of the time. Now I have come to appreciate what historical instruments can offer by way of sound possibilities, and listening to them (played well!) is endlessly fascinating. Listen to Malcolm Bilson speak about articulation in Mozart on an early piano versus our modern instrument. Bilson points out that even in his sketchiest manuscripts, Mozart always included articulation marks – to Mozart, music was like speech and needed to be inflected properly. As a young professional pianist, I had the good fortune to play Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata, op. 35, on the Broadwood piano Chopin himself used when he was in London (now in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands). It took me a while to adjust to the feel of the keyboard and the different level of resonance between this piano and those I was used to. To my surprise, I found I could follow Chopin’s pedal marks at the opening of the Sonata without affecting the clarity. On our modern machines, it is necessary to adjust the pedal either by fluttering it or by having it only partially down, because the resonance is so much greater. Remember this when trying to make sense of pedal markings from music written for earlier pianos!   Here is Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Chopin on this very instrument: The piano firm of John Broadwood and Sons, Ltd. has been around almost as long as the piano itself. Founded in […]

Most Popular Posts of 2013

2013 was a big year for Practising the Piano with the launch of my enhanced, interactive eBook series.  The website readership has also grown significantly with almost 40,000 unique visitors and almost 300,000 page views over the course of the year.  In order to make sure I continue to publish relevant and engaging articles I’ve been going through an exercise analysing my usage statistics in order to glean some information as to what content has been the most popular with my readership.  The following is a listing of the top ten postings of 2013:   “But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!” “Sorry, I haven’t done as much practise as I would like this week…” A Beautiful Process for Scales But I Can Play It Perfectly Well At Home! The Weakest Link A Tool for Memory Work: Tracking Five Fingers Marking the Score The History of Piano Technique: Studies and Exercises Some Thoughts on Mental Tension Interestingly, while many of the posts are from earlier on in the year (and therefore have had more of an opportunity to attract visitors), the article on Hanon (number 9) was the fastest post to rise into the rankings which suggests that Hanon is still the subject of much debate over one hundred years on! Please feel free to get in touch if there are any topics you would like to see me cover in future posts.  I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support to date and to wish you all the best for 2014!  

Top Ten Tips to Maximise Your Practice

At the start of the New Year, everyone is making resolutions. I have noticed that these usually have to do with self discipline – not eating or drinking so much and exercising more seem to top the list. Piano practice, in order to be effective, must be disciplined. If there is no thought or organisation behind our work, it will be hard to find the impetus to make a regular commitment. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics just round the corner, I think of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to each day in their training regimes. We pianists have to train also – countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! It seems timely to republish one of my most popular blog posts, so here are a few tips (in no particular order) that will help you get the most out of your practice time. A Teacher. Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a restarter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons. Commitment. Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. “Little and often” will help you achieve FAR more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to […]

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