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Practice Tips from Itzhak Perlman

There are many parallels between piano playing and string playing, and a lot we pianists can learn from violinists about phrasing, timing, tone and much more besides. One of the great violinists of our age is undoubtedly Itzhak Perlman, who has spoken a fair bit about practising. The violin, that is. But I think you’ll find you can apply the same ideas to your piano practice, and I am delighted to be able to share some of the maestro’s pearls of wisdom here today. As it happens these ideas, which come from experience and the great lineage he has come from, are almost identical to the ones I have inherited from my rich pianistic legacy. What’s the deal about practising? How long should one practise? Lots of people think the more you practise the better this is. Perlman advocates no more than 4 or 5 hours a day (and those are psychotherapist’s hours, 50 minutes with a 10 minute break). You won’t absorb anything after this, and you can cause yourself little physical problems if you persist. Think of a sponge, which can only absorb a certain amount of water. If you pour more water onto a saturated sponge the water will trickle off and become wasted. On Slow Practice Perlman stresses the need for slow practice, in small sections. Also, your practice has to be mindful, not mindless. Have an agenda, and know what you want to achieve. Don’t repeat anything without hearing what you’re doing, because whatever you practise you embed. It’s also important to have patience. If something sounds great on Monday, and it doesn not sound so good on Tuesday, don’t give up! It means that it’s not yet there. Keep […]

An Interview with Nicola Cantan

A few weeks ago I had a visit from Nicola Cantan of Colourful Keys to record an interview with me for her blog. We spent a very pleasant half hour or so chatting about teaching, practising and performing and I thought I would share the video with you here. You’ll notice it is audio only for the first few minutes (there was a technological glitch with Nicola’s camera) but the picture does appear after a while – so stick with it! There are several things Nicola and I discussed that I have written about in my blog, so if you would like to read more about practising then start clicking these links. Speed of No Mistakes  Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice  Quarantine  Part 1 of my ebook series Practising the Piano is all about practising – exactly what we should be doing in our practice time to get the very best results. If you have not already seen this, then do check out the free preview. Nicola Cantan is a piano teacher, author, blogger and creator of imaginative and engaging teaching resources. She loves getting piano students learning through laughter, and exploring the diverse world of music making; through improvisation, composition and games. Nicola’s Vibrant Music Teaching Library is helping teachers all over the world to include more games and off-bench activities in their lessons, so that their students giggle their way through music theory and make faster progress. Nicola also runs a popular blog, Colourful Keys, where she shares creative ideas and teaching strategies, and hosts regular training events for piano teachers. ***   ***   *** If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in the following resources: Practising the Piano eBook Series  There are surprisingly few books […]

Shifting Accents

I was brought up with a very craftsmanlike attitude to practising, and was shown concrete practice tools that I was supposed to implement between lessons. When I pass these on to my own students, I can always hear to what extent they have taken them on board. I understand the reluctance to fully embrace some of the work necessary to construct solid and permanent foundations for mastering a piece because it can take quite a bit of time and effort, and a leap of faith that the practice methods will actually yield tangible results later. And sometimes during this process we have to wait patiently before we get to enjoy the emotional and visceral impact of the music we are studying – at this stage, the satisfaction comes from the construction process itself. I find this seriously enjoyable, but I realise not everyone does. People study the piano for different reasons, and not everyone will want to follow a practice path that involves a fair bit of dedication, discipline and effort. But if you want to experience a level of skill and reliability in performance that goes way beyond the hit-and-miss results that come from repeatedly reading through a piece in the hope that it will improve, then read on. I was browsing through Book 1 of Alberto Jonas’ Master School of Piano Playing and Virtuosity and came across some preparatory exercises for the notorious finale of Chopin’s Bb minor Sonata. The idea is very simple, actually. You practise with shifting accents, moving the accent from its metrical place in the bar (where we would naturally feel the beats) one note across. Once you have heard and felt it this way, with complete technical control, you move it […]

Learning Away from the Piano

One of the reasons modern aircraft are so safe is the number of backup systems they have on board in case one system fails. Apparently there is a backup to extend the landing gear if the primary hydraulic system fails – flaps and flight spoilers have backup systems too. But what happens to the poor pianist when disaster strikes? If we are to perform to our best abilities in turbulent weather, such as might be generated by our mind in an exam room or recital situation, surely we need backup systems too? Even a casual performance in front of just one person (who might even be in an adjoining room) can cause system failure. While we can never guarantee a performance is going to be trouble-free, we can build in enough safety features to prevent a little slip turning into a catastrophe. It’s not so much the amount of practice we do that makes us secure – although we should never skimp on preparation time or underestimate how long it will take us to fully assimilate a new piece – but the quality, breadth and depth of it. The intelligent pianist prepares for performance by focussing on five main areas: Background Research and Developing a Personal Narrative Researching the background of a work can only enhance our appreciation of the music. Knowledge of what was going on in the composer’s life at the time the work was written feeds the imagination and enriches our performance – and all it takes is a little research. Immersing ourself in the storyline or narrative we have allowed our imagination to conjure up, focussing on an image or scene (such as dancers dancing, a moonlit evening, a colour scheme) is so much […]

At the Noodle Bar: Practice Tips for a Chord Stream

I have just featured the hauntingly beautiful B minor Intermezzo of Brahms (from the op 119 set) in a series of video demonstrations for Trinity College London on their new piano syllabus. This work appears in the Grade 8 list and will pose some challenges to the candidates who choose to master it, mostly to do with finding the right sound. It’s the change of texture in the second section in D major that I am interested in today (at the end of the first system after the double bar). I am struck by how Brahms lays out the RH chords by first presenting the middle notes, tying them over and then adding the outer notes. Apart from supplying rhythmic flow this way of breaking the chords encourages us not to voice too brightly to the top but to find a chocolatey warmth and richness for our sound from the middle notes. Staggering the chord layout is of course a great way to practise any chord stream. Practising chords from the inside out and from the outside in helps us achieve superlative tonal and technical control. I have been doing this for years and my students find it works wonders for them. I have chosen just one short example to take to the noodle bar today, a tricky LH chord stream from the Ravel Sonatine (bars 54 and 55). Online Academy’s Study Edition I have published a study edition of Ravel’s Sonatine, available through the Online Academy. It features video clips demonstrating various features of the work, together with footnotes, video walkthroughs and score examples with exercises. I hope you will it a valuable resource as you practise this piece. For details, follow this link ***   ***   *** […]

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

I am very happy to announce a new publication for the Online Academy – a study edition of Debussy’s Prelude La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair). This is among Debussy’s best-loved works for the piano, and a piece many pianists choose to play. Despite its apparent simplicity, this short 39-bar piece is actually deceptively difficult to bring off. My enhanced study edition aims to give practical solutions to the numerous problems in pedalling the work poses, together with fingerings and exercises that will make some of the more awkward passages much easier to manage. The study score contains comprehensive footnotes with text and musical examples; there are also short video clips you can view by scanning the QR codes with your phone as you practise. The title La fille aux cheveux de lin came from Leconte de Lisle’s poem by the same name, included in the Chansons ecossaises (Scottish Songs) from 1852. In this, the eighth piece from the first book of Préludes composed around 1910, Debussy is painting a picture of an innocent and naive Scottish girl. He uses conventional diatonic harmony blended in with pentatonic scales, modal cadences as well as parallel chord movement. As in all the preludes, the title comes at the end of the piece, in brackets. It is as though Debussy wanted the listener to form their own impressions of the music first – unencumbered by any preconceptions. Debussy’s own style of playing was based on simplicity; it was unmannered and free of rhythmic distortions. French music of this period requires a style of playing that is in general much cooler and more objective than Germanic music, for example. We should guard against romanticising the piece by not adding extra rubato – Debussy marks […]

My Upcoming Piano Courses

I am pleased to be able to give you a rundown of the piano courses I shall be tutoring on during 2018, and there are quite a few. Hoping to see some of you there, whether in the UK or in France! Piano Holiday, Saint Laurent, France – July I shall be leading a brand new piano holiday in 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 […]

Be Your Own Teacher

If you are a piano student taking regular lessons do you expect your teacher to do all the work, or do you take some initiative to solve problems yourself and to make your playing sound as good as you can? You will really accelerate your progress if you can get into the habit of listening to yourself critically, and what better way of doing it than recording yourself from time to time! You can of course record into a phone or tablet, or go with something fancier. If you have a digital piano, why not use the record and playback feature? I sometimes use my Casio grand hybrid for this purpose. What I like about it is it is so easy to use, and I get an honest and accurate playback of what I actually did, with no background noise, interference or distortion. What I hear back is what I delivered. It is helpful when you listen back to your recording to write down some reflections in bullet point form, remembering to include those things you were happy about as well as those things you notice need some improvement (it is all too easy to be self critical in a negative way). Unless you write it all down, you are likely to be overwhelmed and feel swamped. I prefer a simple practice checklist.  Recently I made a short series of videos for Casio and Pianist Magazine demonstrating some of the features of the grand hybrid piano. In the following video, I took an elementary piece (Petzold’s G major Minuet) in which I made a few deliberate mistakes (for the purposes of the demonstration). When I listened back, I reflected on what I had done by […]

Can Sight-Reading be Taught?

The Online Academy’s collaboration with the Read Ahead team is a very happy one for me, since I can heartily endorse the innovative programme they have created to help pianists develop their sight-reading skills. Today’s post is a guest post by Ken Johansen and Travis Hardaway from Read Ahead, and I shall now pass you over to them. ***   ***   *** Most piano teachers agree that fluent sight-reading is a very important skill, one that ideally all students should develop. Fluent readers are more at ease at the piano, learn music more quickly, have broader musical horizons, make music more often with others, and receive more opportunities to perform. The question is, how do we help our students to develop this fluency? We can start, first of all, by teaching them the skills that make good sight-reading possible. In reality, sight-reading is not one skill, but a set of several inter-related skills that include: scanning the score intelligently before starting, maintaining a steady pulse, keeping our eyes on the score, hearing the music in our minds, reading in groups of notes, looking ahead as we play, and simplifying the music when necessary. With the exception of the last one, these are all skills that apply not only to sight-reading, but also to learning repertoire. If we bring these elements into play at every lesson, in every piece the student learns, we will be teaching him or her not only the piece, but also the musical skills needed for fluent sight-reading. Of course, it is not enough to work on these skills solely on repertoire pieces, and only during the weekly lesson. Students must sight-read unfamiliar pieces regularly, not only at lessons, but at […]

Observing the Score

I remember playing those spot the difference puzzles when I was a kid – where you have to find a number of differences between two images that at first glance look the same. With a little perseverance and a canny eye, it is a satisfying pastime. Perhaps this is a good thing for encouraging an essential skill for musicians – the ability to really observe what is there in the score. I am thinking of those pieces where a passage comes back again, not identically but with small variations. Two such examples come immediately to mind – of diploma repertoire that I teach regularly, where students often go astray stumbling over the notes. The cause of the stumble is not necessarily a technical error, rather a lack of clarity and perception about the structure of the music and the changes from one similar spot to another. Is the solution to practise the places more until they finally fall into place, or to sit away from the piano with a score making notes about the differences? Brahms Intermezzo in A, op 118 no 2 In Brahms op 118 no 2 we find several examples of developing variation technique, where returning material is subject to change. The changes create contrast with what has gone before by embellishing a certain feature for emphasis, or providing a change of texture or mood. Look at the first version of this ending (bars 6-8), where Brahms arrives in the dominant key of E. Notice there is a separate note stem for the top line (RH stems up), implying the top line is perhaps a little more important: The next time we find this ending (bars 14-16), we discover this stem has been […]

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