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 Read more »
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.
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 Read more »
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 Read more »
Most of us were probably brought up on the middle C approach to learning the piano, and the first scale we ever learned was C major. We probably got tangled up with the fingering, since there are no black notes there to help us. Chopin taught the B major scale (RH) and D flat major scale (LH) before C major, not only because the fingerings are self-evident, but also because the hand positions are more natural and therefore these scales are the most comfortable. The long fingers (2, 3 and 4) are more suited to the black keys and the short fingers (1 and 5) to the white keys.
It is useless to start learning scales on the piano with C major, the easiest to read, and the most difficult for the hand, as it has no pivot. Begin with the one that places the hand at ease with the longer fingers on the black keys, like B major for instance. (Chopin, quoted by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger)
If we begin with B major in the RH and D flat major in the LH, there is virtually no chance of confusion with the fingerings. There are only two white notes in those scales and the thumb takes both of them - there is nowhere else for it to go!
While adult minds will want to know the theory behind the construction of the major scale, there is absolutely no need to teach this to a child beginner for them to be able to play their scales. This would be as ludicrous as teaching the rules of grammar to a child who is just learning to speak. We can save theory until later and start teaching the scales using Read more »
It seems to me that a thorough knowledge of scales and arpeggios is an absolute necessity for all serious students of the piano. Western music is built on the major/minor tonal system, and to attempt to study the piano without scales (or basic theory) would be as nonsensical as learning language without the alphabet or without bothering with grammar. You would get so far, then reach a dead end.
Scale work is an ongoing process from the relative beginning stages of piano study through to conservatory level and beyond. The professional 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 apparently played scales and arpeggios in every key every day! Many of the world’s greatest pianists and teachers wouldn’t think of beginning their daily practice without a thorough regimen of scales and arpeggios (possibly along with other exercises and studies), and they expect their students to do the same.
Practising the Piano Part 3
It can be difficult to summon up the necessary enthusiasm to practise scales unless they are presented in ways that are fun, rewarding Read more »
I’m delighted to announce the launch of Part 3 of my eBook series, Practising the Piano. Part 3 is a single, bumper volume on scales and arpeggios starting with a guide to the basic skills required followed by chapters for the elementary, intermediate and advanced levels.
As with my other eBooks, Part 3 features numerous video demonstrations, exercises written out in manuscript and practice suggestions. It also features a number of resources and interactive tools to keep you motivated and to make your practising more effective:
This section provides an index of all major, harmonic and melodic minor scales with key signatures, fingerings and variations for practice. There is also a keyboard diagram of each scale so the beginner will be able to see the note patterns at a glance.
Scales and arpeggios charts
Download printable practice charts for ABRSM Grades 1 through to 8 featuring a grid layout with the keys listed vertically and the types of scales horizontally. Teachers can use these to assign scales for practising in between lessons, and for students to keep a record of what they have practised.
Scales and arpeggios generator
Don’t you wish there was a way to test yourself on the scales and arpeggios for your grade? Part 3 includes a scale generator that randomly selects these from the ABRSM syllabus for you. It will keep you on your toes by requesting additional ways of doing them (different touches and speeds, and so on) and Read more »
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 Read more »
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!