Over the years in my teaching, I have noticed the tendency for some students to need to preface their playing with an often lengthy verbal introduction – a description of what is going to go wrong in their performance, delivered with a sense of impending doom. Either they think I am not going to notice or they are somehow trying to hold on to their dignity by alerting me that they are aware of their errors.
"I always go wrong in this bar"
"The LH in that passage is lumpy and uneven"
"I can't get the pedalling right here"
"It's taking me ages to learn this piece"
A genuine problem with a passage is one thing, and if you are able to get everything right by yourself you may not be in need of lessons. Those who know me realise I do not expect a performance of a piece until it has been fully digested and assimilated (this is always a process). But a post-mortem before we even play belies either guilt that we've not done enough work that week or – more likely, I’ve found – shame that we believe we are not good enough, not up to the task.
Our brain will believe what we say over and over again. If we say we can't do something, we will always feel we can't do it. This may not be rational, but we already said it: "I can't do it". The brain hears and takes that thought in. Over time it becomes a belief. When we believe we can't do it, we are caught up in a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. And if we think learning a particular piece or solving a particular problem Read more »
I had an interesting question from a reader in Australia, so this week I thought I would address the issue of how to learn a programme consisting of multiple pieces. Do keep your questions coming in, I will do my best to answer them.
Q. I want to learn to play, say, two sonatas, or six difficult pieces, or (if have just started to play) three small "easy" pieces. How should I learn them? Say the sonatas have three movements each. Should I learn one movement at a time until I have it under my belt, and then go to the next, do the same, and afterwards go and learn the third? Once completed, do I then start the next sonata and learn it in the same way, or would it be more (or less) productive to start learning all six movements at the same time?
A. The question is an excellent one as it shows how necessary it is to bring planning, organisation and time management skills into the practice room. Assuming I want to have all these pieces peak together, let's work backwards from the end point. For example, if my recital or exam date is March 1st, I will need to aim to be fully prepared two weeks before that. Prior to that, I'll need to arrange three run-throughs in front of different people (teacher, trusted friends, piano meet-up group, festival, etc.). The stages of our work will look approximately like this:
Day of exam or recital.
The week or so before: under-tempo run-throughs combined with spot practice and general maintenance (including some slow practice and using Read more »
I am busy writing Part 3 of my eBook series, Practising the Piano, a volume on scales and arpeggios. After outlining the basic skills needed, I look at both scales and arpeggios from the point of view of elementary, intermediate and advanced level players. There are lots of demonstrations on the main technical points as well as exercises, suggestions for practice, and ideas to keep scale playing interesting and vibrant. This should be available for purchase very soon.
One of the interactive tools we are developing for the publication is a “scales generator” which randomly selects scales to play from a prescribed list. I am very excited to be able to introduce a demo version of it to you now in advance! At present it is still in the beta testing stage, so we would value your comments and suggestions. Any feedback you have is helpful so we can improve this. At present only ABRSM Grades 1 and 5 are available, but we will be including all the grades from 1 to 8.
To test out the generator, please click here.
Please leave your comments, suggestions and feedback at the bottom of this page. Thank you in advance!
This is the follow-up to last week's post, in which I outlined the first few stages for cleaning up a piece beset by errors, stumbles, approximations and other anomalies that might have crept into the playing either as a result of overplaying, or faulty (or incomplete) learning in the first place. Actually, the process I describe is good for initial note-learning as well - it's just a thorough method for inputting the correct information into our brains, ears and fingers in as deep and permanent a way as possible. We build our house on bedrock and not on shifting sands.
Let me clarify what I mean by overplaying. While I am fascinated by all the neurological research I read in other blogs, I am not a scientist and my findings come mostly from my wonderful training and from my own experience as a pianist and teacher. One thing I know for certain is that playing a piece over and over again usually leads to sloppiness, imprecision (as motor skills lose finesse), ennui and a certain staleness. The clue to keeping everything in tip-top condition is the use of routine maintenance procedures in the practice room. This includes slow practice (for fast pieces), fast practice (for slow pieces), working with each hand alone, practising in sections and many other practice tools I have given before. I include quarantining those areas of the piece that cause you trouble - isolate these spots and work on them daily, before during and after your scheduled practice. Don't Read more »
I am pleased to announce that all three volumes of Part 1 of my Practising the Piano eBook series are now available on the Amazon Kindle store via the following links:
Please note that while the full content of each publication is included within the Kindle versions, due to the limitations of the platform, the multimedia content is not accessible offline. Furthermore, while the text content and images are accessible on eInk devices (e.g. Kindle eReaders), a device with media playback capabilities (e.g. Smartphone, Tablet or Computer) is required for video and audio.
As with the iBooks versions of the publications, existing customers who have purchased directly from my publisher will also get access to the Amazon Kindle editions of the publications they own via their library. However, those of you who have existing Amazon accounts now have the option to purchase via Amazon should you prefer to do so. Read more »
Do you have a favourite piece you just love to play, but end up feeling disappointed that you're just not doing the piece (or yourself) justice each time you drag it off the shelf?
If you learned it thoroughly from the start, remember with anything we play we can't just put a cork in the bottle and expect the genie to emerge fit and healthy after the passage of time. Some of the great pianists have described the process of relearning, restudying or resurrecting works that they may not have played for a while but there is no pianist worth his or her salt who does not labour in the practice room.
Shura Cherkassky described his practising thus:
I practise by the clock, for me this is the only way. Four hours a day. If I wasn't absolutely rigid about the whole thing I'd go to pieces. You need iron discipline - sheer will power. So many great talents disappear about a short while because they get conceited and don't work properly anymore. You have to work all the time. (From an interview with Stephen Hough, 1991)
I would like to propose a challenge. Take a piece you would really like to get on top of, but have never felt totally comfortable with - probably something you have never really done the basic groundwork with. Decide on a timeframe that is meaningful and realistic to you and set aside a certain amount of time daily to attend to this task. It might be a week, it might be a month. You are about to undertake a commitment to a process, the end result of which will be Read more »
Many of us are caught in the trap of perfectionism, and yet attaining flawlessness is so anti-human. Music played perfectly would actually be boring and predictable - what makes performance interesting is the human element, and what makes it electrifying is the element of risk when the performer is pushing the boundaries of what is possible or imaginable (and might even teeter over the edge here and there). Here's what Beethoven had so say about this!
To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.
No live performance can ever truly be note-perfect, and no single interpretation can ever be the one true realisation of the musical possibilities of particular piece. It's precisely this difference between the ideal and the reality where the humanity of musical performance lies, and the wrong notes in Alfred Cortot's recordings matter not one iota to the communication of the music's beauty. I would even go as far as to say it what makes me love his recordings all the more - they show greatness and fallibility at the same time. The problem is that audiences raised on a steady diet of today's recordings (often a collection of the best takes spliced together) only recognise the perfection possible in that scenario, and are unprepared for live performances.
Perfectionism has been defined in psychology as:
A personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied Read more »
As many of you who have purchased my eBooks are probably aware, my publisher has been busy producing versions of my publications for Apple iBooks. This is intended to offer existing customers another option for accessing the publications on Apple devices in addition to making the publications available for purchase via the Apple iBookstore.
I’m now pleased to announce that all six volumes of Part I and Part II are now available in this format. Please click here for more information on how to access them or click here to log-in to your library (note that you may need to refresh your library page in order to see the new download option).
The first volume of Part 1 is now also available for purchase via the iBookstore here. Subsequent volumes will be made available in the iBookstore in due course subject to Apple’s review process. Versions for Amazon Kindle are also in the pipeline although these will not support some of the interactive publication features or offline video due to the limitations of the Amazon platform.
Please note that purchasing direct from my publisher will give you access to all of the available formats for each publication you purchase (in addition to the iBooks versions mentioned above). However, those of you who have existing Apple iTunes accounts may prefer purchasing via this route (or via Amazon in future). Read more »
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 Read more »
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 Read more »