The Fantasie-Impromptu

Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, op. post. 66, is surely one of the composer’s most popular works – one that many pianists often try to play before they are quite ready for the technical challenges it poses.  The story goes that Chopin wrote the piece in 1834 but never published it. Instead, his friend and executor, Julian Fontana published it posthumously – but why? We have to wait until 1960 for the answer, when Artur Rubinstein acquired an album owned by Madame la Baronne d’Este. The album contained a manuscript of the Fantasie-Impromptu in Chopin’s own hand, dated 1835. It would appear that the reason Chopin had not published the work is because he had received a commission from the Baroness, and the piece was therefore her property.  The Henle Urtext edition contains both versions. There are a number of differences between the two, mostly in the left hand, so you will first need to decide which version to play. I have a preference for the Fontana, probably because I learned it this way as student, but either is fine. Readers of this blog will be looking for solutions to the challenges of the piece, so how to begin it? I have created a series of six substantial video tutorials, in which I look at all aspects of the piece, offering detailed technical solutions and suggestions for practice. The series which features six video walk-throughs is available now on the Online Academy here.  Separate Hands It is obvious that the main stumbling block is how to manage the 6:8 polyrhythm that pervades the outer sections, and while it is of course possible to practise this slowly (provided you know exactly how one hand fits together with the other) it’s probably not the best […]

Schumann’s Romance in F Sharp

In 1839, Clara Wieck received a Christmas present from her fiancé, Robert Schumann – a set of three Romances (published with some slight alterations the following year as opus 28). She was particularly smitten with the second one, describing it as “the most beautiful love duet”. Fast forward several decades to her deathbed, when Clara asked her grandson Ferdinand to play her husband’s F sharp major Romance for her. It was the last music Clara Schumann heard; she died on May 20, 1896. Robert Schumann’s Romance in F sharp major, op 28 no 2, remains one of the composer’s best-loved short pieces for the piano. In ternary form, the mood is contemplative, serene and tender in the outer sections, somewhat turbulent and dark in the middle section. It is an ideal repertoire piece for the intermediate student and I think it makes a great encore.  Written on three staves to make the main melodic line clear, the piece is still a bit of a trap when it comes to reading it (the key signature is six sharps, and there are plenty of accidentals along the way). Take care when learning the notes and you’ll find after a while that the plethora of black notes means the piece lies very well under the hands.   On closer inspection we find that the profiled melodic line is shadowed in the other hand, giving the sense of two companions staying close together. I hear two cellos, and I imagine Robert and Clara walking hand in hand. The arpeggiated chords radiate outwards from the melodic lines in such a beautiful (and very pianistic) way. The two melodic lines could be played using just the two thumbs, but you may find […]

Q Spots Series: Bach Invention in D Minor

For my first piece in the Q-Spots Series I have chosen Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, and identified two Q-spots that very often cause players to falter (click here for an introduction to the series). If you are a piano teacher you will immediately know that I am referring to the places where one hand has a long trill, and the other hand a passage of even semiquavers (16th notes): Bar 18 – Downbeat of 23 Bar 29 – Downbeat of bar 35 The idea behind Q-spots is to identify and isolate awkward places where we stumble and fumble, and go through a systematic sequence of practice activities that helps us break the section down into stages. We practise each stage until our inner quality control inspector is happy to sign it off, before moving on to the next stage. We repeat these stages for a few days in a row, by which time we should find the passage is not only possible but actually feels easy. Let’s look at the first Q-spot in the Bach Invention and analyse the nature of the difficulty. There are two main problems here – coordinating the two hands together at the required speed, and managing the trill without tightening up. Part of the solution is to play a rotary trill (from the forearm) rather than lifting the fingers from the main knuckle; for the trill to fit together with the left hand we will need to organise it rhythmically. Probably the neatest way of doing so is to play a measured trill in demisemiquavers (32nd notes), beginning on the upper auxiliary (D) and stopping on the main note on the last demisemiquaver before the tie. Before we […]

New Series on the Quarantine Spots

We’ve probably all come up against difficulties in a piece where our fingers seem to baulk – we hesitate, stumble, or approximate the notes with a mañana attitude to fixing them. Our unconscious thoughts go something like: “All I need is a few days, it’ll sort itself out eventually”, or “I’ll wait for my teacher to correct it in the lesson”, and so on. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and unless we address these problem passages thoroughly they are likely to let us down in performance. The Problem We all know that in a performance we commit to playing from the beginning of a piece to the end, with no stops or corrections. However, unless we are practising a non-stop run-through of a finished piece, we will likely need to stop regularly in our practice. And not only to make corrections, but to go through certain practice procedures that make our end result technically strong and secure. The Solution: Quarantining The concept of quarantining is firstly to identify as precisely as possible where the problem spots in our piece are, and why they might be occurring. We mark these quarantine spots (or Q-spots for short) in on our score, perhaps using a square bracket, and begin our practice session by doing some proper work on these spots using the practice tools, as opposed to just playing them through a few times. We could even devote a separate practice session to the Q-spots from all of our pieces. Rather than rummaging through our scores, it is a good plan to take photos of the bars in question and insert them into a slideshow. That way, we can practise from a tablet and […]

New Piano Pedagogy Course at Morley College

I am delighted to announce that the PTC (Piano Teachers’ Course) UK is going to teach a new Piano Pedagogy course at Morley College in London. This course is specifically for pianists and piano teachers who wish to enhance their professional teaching skills, come together for inspiration and become part of a motivated & supportive musical network. The PTC is delivered by a dynamic team of experts, each specialists in their field, in classes, lectures and workshops exploring the very latest in piano teaching pedagogy. By the end of the course you will be able to expand your knowledge of good practising habits demonstrate skills for deep learning, memorisation and security in performance deal with difficult situations piano teachers face demonstrate skills on how to motivate your students present yourself as a piano teacher is a professional way overcome the particular challenges in teaching different compositional styles of writing Class format and activities This is a 10-week course and each workshop will focus on a different aspect of piano pedagogy. The course will be delivered by Graham Fitch (Course Leader), Lucinda Mackworth-Young, Sally Cathcart, Ilga Pitkevica, Masayuki Tayama and Beate Toyka. Workshop 1: The Practice Tools Workshop 2: How to Introduce Style and Texture in the Early Stages Workshop 3: Practical Psychology 1: New Beginnings Workshop 4: Beginners Need the Best Teachers Workshop 5: Being Professional Workshop 6: Baroque to Modern Style Workshop 7: Working with Intermediate Pupils Workshop 8: Demystifying pedalling Workshop 9: Practical Psychology 2: Dealing with Difficulty Workshop 10: Developing Skills for Deep Learning, Memorisation and Security in Performance In order to ensure that you make the best possible progress on your course, you will have regular feedback from your tutor, in a constructive and supportive environment. Entry requirements You should […]

By |September 17th, 2019|News|0 Comments

Interpretation: Can it be Taught?

I am delighted to publish this guest post from Katrina Fox, a graduate of The Piano Teachers’ Course UK whom it was my pleasure to work with in my tutor group. More details about Katrina at the end of her article… *  *  * Interpretation: can it be taught? Should it be taught? How can someone be taught how to feel and think about a work of art? Defined by Wiktionary as “an act of explaining what is obscure”, interpretation involves making meaningful music from a bunch of notes on the page. My childhood teachers told me exactly how I should be playing, where I should express excitement or sadness, and as a good student I tried my best to meet their expectations. However, these efforts to force me to “play expressively” led to me expressing nothing at all – at least nothing personally authentic. I felt lost when approaching new music, unsure as to what I should think, or feel, or what I should be expressing. I often felt fraudulent as I saw “better” students playing with a seemingly deep connection to the music, and yet I couldn’t muster any. I began to wonder if I was just completely unmusical. So, should teachers address the issue of interpretation, beyond an explanation of the various dots and dashes and symbols on the page? Whilst a few pupils come along that seem to connect with the music instinctively and naturally play with expression and emotion, in my experience the majority need a helping hand. However, rather than imposing one’s own interpretative ideas on a pupil, there is a need to provide gentle and open-ended guidance so that pupils can develop their own, authentic musical voice. Notorious […]

Write it Out!

I first published this post way back in June, 2013, and it has been buried in the archives ever since. I decided to update it and republish after the subject of copying out music by hand came up in a recent lesson. You can do this from the score or from memory. ***   ***   *** Back in the 90s when I used to commute from London to New York each month to see students there, I was thinking of a profitable way of filling in the flying time. During that period, I was preparing for my first few performances of The Goldberg Variations and decided to do something I had heard Rosalyn Tureck speak about – write out the piece from memory in manuscript. Naturally, this took many hours over the course of some months, but I succeeded in doing it and it was a real eye-opener. Did I know the music absolutely, or was I relying on fingers slyly drumming on my tray table to prod me when I hit a blank? In all honesty, I probably did recourse to some mile-high finger twiddling but my aim was to draw on my ear and my brain, which I managed to do by and large but certainly not perfectly. It was an exercise that proved far from easy, but I am extremely glad I did it. It gave me extra confidence that I ended up knowing the piece deeply from memory. This was going to extremes, I fully recognise (frankly, life is too short). However, I often do find myself writing out a small section (it might be a bar or two, or a phrase) that does not seem to succumb to the rigours of routine practising. […]

A Useful Research Tool

I was working with someone on the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven this week. The rhythmic organisation of the trill in bar 3 was not clear to me, so I asked to hear this bar slowly. Slowing the trill down proved a bit of a challenge, so I came up with a solution along the lines suggested by Artur Schnabel in his landmark edition. The principle here is that since a trill has a finite number of notes, it greatly assists performer and listener if these notes can be accounted for metrically. Here is Schnabel’s first recommendation: He goes on to give an alternative, but more difficult version: So which to choose, and are there other possibilities? I often find myself advising students to practise two or three strict versions of trills (if possible) in order that a freer version might emerge spontaneously in performance. And speaking of performances, we can easily research the vast number of different recordings available on YouTube using a simple tool hidden within the settings. This feature enables us to slow the speed down so that fast surface detail becomes clear and audible – at three-quarters, half or a quarter speed. The slower the setting, the lower the sound quality and of course the musical meaning is almost entirely lost. But how useful to discover how other pianists organise details such as this trill! I have made a short video to show you how to do it. ***   ***   *** If you enjoyed this article then please click here if you’d like to sign-up to our mailing list to receive future articles, content updates and special offers. You may also be interested in the following resources: Practising the Piano eBook […]

On Tempo Relationships

I was working with someone on Schubert’s B flat Impromptu last week, a set of variations on the so-called “Rosamunde” theme. Variation form always poses a tempo challenge to the performer – how to adapt the basic tempo we have chosen for the theme as the variations unfold.  The edition my student was using was by the one by Howard Ferguson, from the ABRSM’s Signature Series. Ferguson is a musician and scholar for whom I have a lot of respect, so I was very interested to find in the preface some tempo suggestions that are “in no way authoritative, but may prove helpful if only as points of departure”.  Schubert marks the theme Andante – most important, of course, to notice the all breve time signature, so that’s two beats in a bar (on no account must it feel like four). I’ve just been on YouTube to sample the tempo from a few recordings, here are the first five that came up in the search: Lisitsa – c. 35 Pires – c. 35 Brendel – c. 40 Schiff – c. 45 Zimerman – c. 46 It was difficult to find a fixed pulse for the Horowitz recording I found. He brings his own inimitable Romantic approach to the work that has a magic all it’s own. Howard Ferguson gives his suggestions in crotchet beats (strangely), and a tempo of 80 for the theme (40 for the minim beat). This increase to 88 (44) for the Variation 1, the slight increase making sense in light of the forward-flowing semiquaver movement that always reminds me of the sort of music Schubert writes when describing brooks or streams of water. Variation 2 pushes the pulse still further, at 96 (48), before a new, […]

Pedalling Chopin’s B minor Prelude

Chopin’s 24 Préludes, op. 28 were composed at a difficult time in the composer’s life. It was the winter of 1838-9, and Chopin and his lover George Sand had decided to visit Majorca for a romantic holiday. He had contracted tuberculosis and, for fear of contamination, none of the local inhabitants would allow them to stay. So they ended up in the abandoned monastery in Valldemossa – miles from anywhere. To make matters worse, Chopin’s piano was held up by customs so he had to rent another, a small upright known as a pianino built by Bauza, a local. To say it was not up to the job would be an understatement, but this unpretentious little instrument ended up with a fascinating history and was later owned by the great Polish harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska. Paul Kildea has written an entertaining and informative book about this piano – Chopin’s Piano – A Journey Through Romanticism  While the Préludes make a magnificent set when heard all together, several of them are manageable by intermediate players. Number 6 in B minor is currently on ABRSM’s Grade 6 exam syllabus, and while at first glance it appears relatively straightforward, it is actually far from easy. The cello-like melody in the left hand needs to be played with projection, shape and an understanding of legato cantabile touch, and because the player’s attention is likely to be focussed on the left hand it is all too easy to neglect the tolling bell we hear in the repeated right hand B’s. The quaver pairs need a lot of control and careful listening if we are to stress the first and lighten the second as marked. Pedalling is another issue in this Prélude. Are […]

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