Practising

Practising Polyrhythms

Following a question on a Facebook page about coping with polyrhythms, I decided to republish this post from 2012. I hope it helps! I want to suggest some ways of solving a polyrhythm where one hand is playing in divisions of four while the other in divisions of three. I am going to leave out 2 against 3, as this is relatively straightforward – as long as the second note of the duplet comes precisely between the second and third note of the triplet, then bingo! I’ve decided to go with a common example that trips people up, the 4 against 3 in the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (last beat of the second bar): Fitting together the two hands slowly here relies first of all on knowing precisely where each note goes in one hand in relation to the other. In a 4 against 3 group, the only place where the hands coincide is the first note of the group. To work the placements out mathematically, on a piece of graph paper draw two lines and divide the top one in 4 and the lower one in 3. You will see that the second LH triplet comes between the second and third demisemiquaver of the RH but not half way (it actually comes a third of the way between). The third LH triplet comes just before the last demisemiquaver. Do this first by tapping your hands on your knees, using the words “What Atrocious Weather” or “Pass the Goddamn Butter” to help. If you repeat this enough times, you’ll get better and better at it, and you can transfer the activity from patella to keyboard. The main thing is to feel the rhythm in […]

The Floating Fermata

So you’re learning a new piece and you’ve done as much slow and separate-hands work as you feel is penance enough – at least for today – and now you want to play the darned thing through up to speed and just enjoy. Sounds familiar? My first suggestion is go ahead and try that, see what happens. If you are consistently able to play accurately, fluently and comfortably then chances are you have indeed done enough groundwork. But if you find yourself stumbling, baulking, stiffening up or playing wrong notes, rhythms and fingerings then it would seem that the playing is not yet capable of being on autopilot and you still need the help of your brain! You need to dig the foundations still deeper and slow down while you process the information from the score. Call on your inner craftsman and take pleasure in the building process itself, knowing the playing will be stronger and more secure later on as a result. You will reap what you now sow. There are several practice tools I use as a bridge between the slow, painstaking work and the exhilaration of playing through at speed. I have written about these extensively in Volume 1 of my ebook series on The Practice Tools, but I would like to share one with you here that is extremely effective. I call it The Floating Fermata. The Floating Fermata When we listen to unprocessed playing, we are aware of frequent stops and pauses while the player figures out what is supposed to be happening next. They are suffering from buffering, the playing sounds like a clip that hasn’t fully loaded. All might go well for a few bars and then there […]

On Practising and Performance

I have been writing this blog since March 2011, putting up weekly posts except over Christmas when I take a bit of time off. Before I sign off for the holidays, I would like to leave you with three old posts that I think describe the difference between the opposite states of practising and performing. If we can keep these differences in mind when we practise, we will reach our destination more quickly and efficiently. Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills I wrote this post in May, 2012 in response to a BBC TV programme on the English Civil War. It struck me that we need to call on our inner Roundhead when we practise (puritanical, serious-minded, hard-working and religious) and the devil-may-care, spontaneous, reckless and flashy Cavalier when we perform. If we take our Cavalier into the practice room, we wouldn’t get any work done; if we take our Roundhead onto the stage with us when we perform, we will bore the pants off our audience. To read this post,  click here. Practice v Performance There is a lovely quote from legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz which applies equally to us pianists, and indeed any other performer: Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn. This is really another way of saying the same thing – find a way of developing a Jekyll-and-Hyde mindset between your practice room and the concert stage or examination room. To read this post, click here. Going into the Zone There is a crucial stage in performance preparation when we need to get out of our comfort zone and begin to sense what it feels like to play a work or a programme in […]

Look, No Feet!

People think in terms of pianists’ fingers – not their feet – but a direct line of communication from our ear to our right foot is an absolute necessity and there’s no doubt that fancy footwork is an integral part of our technique. I once witnessed a masterclass given by an expert in contemporary music where the sostenuto (middle) pedal was in constant use, and occasionally controlled by a left foot that was operating the left (una corda) pedal at the same time. When the right foot wasn’t busy with the right (sustaining) pedal it too took turns on the middle pedal. In my previous post on pedalling, The Dance of the Dampers, I discussed partial pedalling and the imprecise nature of pedal marks we usually find in the score. How can we possibly notate pedalling when it will vary from player to player, from piano to piano and from one room or performance space to another? Many composers and editors of piano music have felt it necessary or helpful to add pedal markings, but I would not recommend slavish adherence to these. One of the most confusing and irritating pedal notations is the abbreviation “Ped” with a star mark * indicating the release. The placement of the * mark is very often so imprecise as to be plainly wrong – lifting at the * and then waiting for the next “Ped” to put it down again would leave a gap. While this sort of disjointed pedalling was more common in the nineteenth century, we don’t tend to do much of it nowadays. I doubt that the composer actually meant this most of the time anyway and I advise players to use their discretion when figuring […]

There’s a Hole in my Bucket

Imagine a situation where you have to fetch water using a bucket. The problem is your bucket has a few holes in it, and on the journey from the well to your bathtub most of the water leaks away. You’ve got two choices – either make dozens of journeys before the tub is filled, or fix the bucket! Now imagine you are preparing a recital or examination programme, and there are holes in that. That part of your fugue where you know you haven’t organised a good enough fingering, those few bars on the third page of your Schumann that always seem to trip you up, and you’ve never quite sorted out the coda in the first movement of your Beethoven sonata. Of course, you will finally start practising your scales soon, it’s just that there never seems to be enough time to practise the pieces… How tempting it is, having become aware of these issues, to carry on playing with thoughts like: “Oh darn, that keeps happening. Still, let’s hope it will correct itself tomorrow”. This is rather like trying to enjoy a bicycle ride in the countryside aware you have a slow puncture or your saddle is loose. The Pareto Principle The Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 Rule, is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who had a eureka moment when he made two unrelated observations. He noticed that during 1906, 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pea pods! This principle is widely used in the fields of business- and time management, and is very useful to know about in relation to practising […]

An Arpeggio Practice Plan

If you’re preparing your scales and arpeggios for an exam, or if you want to include some as part of your warm-up routine or technical regime, it is a good idea to be creative about how you’re going to tackle them day by day. Recently, I gave a practice plan for scales so I thought I would also give you a possible way to organise your arpeggio practice. Assuming you already know your arpeggios in all the inversions, and have overcome the basic technical difficulties, use this plan as a springboard for further creative ideas. Arpeggio Bouquet This is a useful process for self-testing, and it also helps develop mental flexibility and concentration. From a given note, generate as many different arpeggios as possible that use that note, and play all on one continuous loop without stops (the last note of each arpeggio becomes the first note of the next). For example, if we choose the note C, our loop will consist of the following different arpeggios (aim to change only one note at a time where possible, this won’t work as neatly as you go through the dominant 7ths). I suggest changing the note each day. Keep an eagle eye on fingerings: C major, root position C minor, root position A flat major, first inversion F minor, second inversion F major, second inversion A minor, first inversion Dominant 7th, key of F, root position Dominant 7th, key of D flat, first inversion Dominant 7th, key of B flat, second inversion Dominant 7th, key of G, third inversion Diminished 7th on C   Be creative with how you do this – you might vary the dynamics between one arpeggio and the next, play some half or […]

Managing Arpeggios

Scales and arpeggios are an important part of the developing pianist’s technical regime, especially for those who go through graded examinations. Having looked at scale playing in recent posts, I thought I would explore arpeggios a little. Arpeggio playing relies on similar technical skills to scale playing, only an arpeggio is more demanding for two main reasons: A scale is built up of eight notes per octave (counting the key note twice), the arpeggio four (for major or minor). Thus, arm and whole-body movements are twice as fast in an arpeggio. The greater distance the thumb has to cover compounds the difficulty – in a scale the distance from one thumb note to the next is a fourth or a fifth, in an arpeggio it is a whole octave. Unless the correct technical conditions are met precisely, an arpeggio is likely to be accident-prone and to feel awkward and precarious – like walking on ice. The Arm Looking at a beautifully controlled and choreographed arpeggio, we notice a smoothness and fluidity in the way both arms move across the keyboard, seamlessly connected together and describing a gentle curve. If the arpeggio is played continuously as though on a loop, the curve turns into a figure of eight (or the infinity symbol), all angles rounded out. My general advice for arpeggios is to hold the elbows slightly higher than in scale playing. There will be a bit more space under the arms, as though a current of air from beneath were lifting the arms up slightly so that they appear to float. The golden rule is never drop the elbow down onto the thumb!  The Thumb There are three main approaches to the thumb in arpeggio playing, all […]

Making Scales Sound and Feel Good

Some years ago I was invited to give a class on scales and arpeggios for a piano teachers’ association. There was one advancing student who was really struggling with them – everything was faulty and she could barely manage to get through. I only had a brief time with her, and I decided not to spend too long trying to correct the technical faults because they were just too numerous. Besides, I knew her teacher had already shown her what needed to be done. I asked her if she knew Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and she said she did. I then invited her to imagine the piano entry in the first movement and, when she was ready, to play a scale of C minor in that style. To everyone’s surprise (including her own), she played the scale flawlessly. Instead of trying to remember what her elbows and her thumbs ought to be doing, she had an artistic goal in mind before she played – a definite mood and character. This is what enabled her to forget about the “how” and instead focus her mind on achieving her musical intention. This is how it is when we play real music; we can’t be thinking about the means in performance. Scales are not music of course, but we can still imbue them with character and imagination.   Styles When playing a scale, rather than simply thinking of the note patterns of that particular scale, have a style or character in mind. Here are some examples useful at a more advanced level (there are loads more you can come up with). Take a moment or two before you play to get in character: E major in the style of […]

A Scale Plan

So you know you have to practise your scales but you’re not really that keen, and you find your mind is constantly wandering. You need some sort of plan, and you need a definite way of doing things – or you’ll just aimlessly doodle up and down the scale a few times. Let’s assume you’re advanced enough to be playing your scales 4 octaves, and that you now them all well enough to be able to immediately call up a mental image of how the scale looks and feels on the keyboard. If I suggested E major, you need to be able to see in a flash the pattern the four black keys make with the four white ones (counting the key note twice) and to recall its tactile memory and possibly the sound world (or key colour). If you are still struggling with the notes, I would not suggest following this plan. Practising scales in a variety of different rhythms is a tried and tested method and is not going to be a new concept to any of you. However, when you practise in a rhythm, it is really important to be as precise as possible and to keep the pulse rock steady. If you are playing a dotted rhythm, make sure it really is dotted (and not triplety) by overcompensating and doing it double dotted. When you invert “l-o-n-g/short” to “short/l-o-n-g”, you’ll get much more value out of it if you keep the accent on the first note (i.e. on the “short”) rather than let it happen on the long note (where it will want to go). I have published a series of rhythm charts (including some syncopated ones) in Part 3 of Practising […]

Don’t Play!

We tend to think of sitting at the piano and practising totally in terms of making sounds. If we’re not moving our fingers up and down, we’re not really practising, right? Following on from last week’s post on performing, I mentioned in passing the need to focus our full attention before we start to play, and to blank out the audience as much as possible. This is true whether we are performing for a teacher, an examiner or an audience – or even just for ourselves. We always need to take a few moments to prepare ourselves, to frame our performance with meaningful silence. I have found many people in such a hurry to play that they omit this crucial step. So what goes on during this time of silence, exactly? We need to conjure up the sounds, atmosphere and the feeling of the music we are about to engage with. We might hear the opening in our inner ear, imagining the tempo and the energy of the piece. We might find our tempo from some place other than the start – perhaps a bar or two later in the piece where the tempo feels inevitably right. When I play Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, I find my tempo not from the theme itself but from the first variation. I imagine the semiquaver movement in the first variation, and when I play the theme I have a better sense of how I want it to move. The theme is a slightly more static version of the tempo, by the time I reach Variation 1 the semiquavers give the music a forward flow. I keep my hands in my lap until the last moment, approaching the keyboard in […]

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