Practising a Performance

In a recent stint of adjudication work, I was struck by those who were able to steer themselves confidently through a performance on an unfamiliar piano in front of an audience, and those who let the sudden spike in adrenaline at an erratic moment get the better of them. The result might have been a stumble, or a total derailment or playing that just felt anxious and on edge. Small slips and blemishes are a part of any performance. Our ability to recover from these (or rise above the voices in our head that can suddenly cause us to lose concentration or doubt ourselves when we play) comes down to a large extent on procedure in the practice room. Or, to put it another way, our training routine. If we always allow ourselves the luxury of stopping and correcting an error when it happens in our practice, or stop when we don’t like the sound of something, we soon establish pretty strong reflexes for stopping. It is extremely unhelpful to have to inhibit these reflexes when we are in front of an audience, an examiner or adjudicator. At that moment we become well aware that we must keep going. There are two fundamentally different types of practice that we do in our studio, by ourselves as part of our routine. Practice Mode 1 allows us to stop whenever we need. This could be when we notice a wrong note, or when we hear our pedalling isn’t quite working, or when a passage feels clumsy and out of control. We address this by using certain practice tools, experiment with different speeds, finessing our sound until we get it the way we want it. This might mean repeating […]

Playing Double Notes at the Advanced Level

When I was a student, I was struck by the two opposing camps that seemed to exist among my peers. There were those whose teachers expected them to be practising finger exercises and studies religiously each day for at least an hour, and others who were supposed to build up their technique almost exclusively from the repertoire they were learning. Whether you were assigned reams of Pischna, Dohnányi, Czerny and Clementi, or managed to escape this treadmill largely depended on which school of pianism you inherited, and where in the world you received your pianistic education. The concept of a thorough training in the mechanics or gymnastics of piano playing as a separate activity from real music became very popular at the time the conservatories were being founded and is still very much alive today – even though some newer systems of pedagogy challenge the fundamental concept. In the twentieth century, celebrated Juilliard teacher, Adele Marcus (herself a product of the great Russian tradition) required her students to spend ninety minutes daily working on technique, and had a strict regime they had to follow. While many well-known teachers advocate this today, many others do not. Does this system produce better pianists that those who build up technique from repertoire, inventing their own exercises from their pieces to help solve specific problems? Certainly a great pianist will always emerge from any school or tradition of piano playing. I am about to launch a substantial new collection of resources exploring areas of technique on the Online Academy, and this will involve looking at a selected number of exercises and studies. From this you may draw the conclusion that I am a great fan of studies and exercises, but […]

Feeling Comfortable in All Keys

Do you feel comfortable playing in all keys? Are you able to transpose technical exercises without notation? The ability to play by ear in every key is an important musicianly skill, one that cannot be developed soon enough. When we transpose technical exercises not only do we develop our aural awareness but also our keyboard geography as we experience the different black-white terrain under our fingers that each new key offers. This adds enormous value to the gains from any exercises we might be practising, and to our technical development in general. Most of the exercises we find in the various books of technique regimes give the full version of a particular exercise only for one or two keys (usually C major, and if we’re lucky Db) before trailing off with an unhelpful “etc”, or the instruction to “continue through all keys”. The ability to carry on without any further notation relies on two skills: An understanding of the structure behind the given note patterns found in the particular exercise Thorough knowledge of each key (major and minor) Knowledge of the basic chord shapes and qualities – many exercises use mainly major, minor, diminished and dominant 7th chords Pattern Recognition It is far better to memorise the exercises as soon as possible so all your attention can be focussed on the matter at hand. It is infinitely more beneficial that your eyes are directed at the keyboard and that your mind is focussed on the task (not being distracted by having to read from the printed page). The ability to memorise relies on pattern recognition, a skill that improves with practice. Let’s explore this a bit, using the infamous and all-too-familiar note pattern from the first exercise of […]

Virtuosic Pedalling

Are you squeamish about using the soft pedal? Some players never venture there, because at some point their teacher has told them they need to be able to control soft playing by hand – and if they resort to the soft pedal they will soon come to use it as a crutch and will have no control of their sound. Those who fear their playing is disturbing others often seem to slam down the soft pedal at the start of a practice session and leave it there until they are done. They have set up such a strong reflex that their left foot just goes there automatically, no matter the piano or the situation. The effect is to muffle the sound and remove clarity and focus, a bit like someone apologetically covering their mouth as they speak. This is not good for general, habitual use at all but is a wonderful resource if it’s the sound you’re after for a particular effect. Have you stopped to consider that every single piano in the world comes equipped with a soft pedal, from the humblest upright to the mightiest concert grand? A muting device was even included on the earliest pianos (at that stage a hand stop), and in more recent developments from Fazioli we now have fourth pedal to the left of the others on the F308 model. The new pedal reduces the hammer-blow distance, thus reducing the volume without modifying the timbre (akin to the mechanics of the soft pedal on an upright piano). One might deduce from all of this that the soft pedal is here to stay – and is certainly there to be used. There is a fascinating new video just out from Frederic […]

On Demonstration

There are those teachers who demonstrate for their students all the time in piano lessons, and those others who don’t go near the instrument. I have studied with both types. Does a demonstration necessarily have to be a perfect model though, to be listened to reverentially and copied verbatim? Or might a teacher’s hands on the keyboard serve other purposes? To illustrate different ways of practising, or to give various suggestions as to how a phrase might be shaped, or indeed how not to do something? In his interview with Frederic Gaussin for iplaythepiano.com Yevgeny Kissin reminisces about his teacher, Alice Kantor. Mrs. Kantor never played herself during her lessons. She never voluntarily played piano, for me or her other students. In studio classes, she never demonstrated herself what she expected from us, simply because she didn’t want us to mimic her. Mrs. Kantor only used verbal cues. Her teaching was entirely passed on through speech. And everyone, every single student, kept their own demeanor, their particular manner. Regarding this last point, I knew – and I knew this even at the time – that this was not necessarily the case in other schools. For me the term “demonstration” does not capture what’s really going on, it feels way too pretentious. I like to think of what I do at the piano in a lesson as an extension of speech, a soundtrack over what I am saying. The Dangers of Copying Have you noticed how listening to a recording of a great artist playing a piece you are learning can immediately change your own playing? The danger of listening to recordings is that you can easily end up copying without developing your own authentic ideas about the […]

Eunice Norton on Schnabel and Matthay

It can be awe-inspiring to talk to someone who studied with a legendary musician about their personal memories, anecdotes and experiences of their lessons. I have a particular fascination with two great figures from the past who contributed so much to the legacy of piano playing – Tobias Matthay and Artur Schnabel. It was a great privilege to have participated in Leon Fleisher‘s weekly piano classes for piano majors at Peabody during my year there in 1982, and to have received so much of Schnabel‘s wisdom (Fleisher is connected via Schnabel to a tradition that descended directly from Beethoven himself, handed down through Carl Czerny and Theodor Leschetizky). A student of both Schnabel and Matthay was American pianist Eunice Norton (1908 – 2005). She studied as a child at the University of Minnesota with William Lindsay, who later introduced her to Dame Myra Hess. Hess was so impressed with the 15-year-old Norton’s playing that she arranged for her to study in London in 1923 with Hess’s own mentor, Tobias Matthay, with whom Norton would remain in association for 8 years. A glittering career then followed. A decade later she heard Schnabel’s performances of Beethoven’s sonatas and spent three successive seasons under his tutelage in Berlin and Italy, and later enjoyed many rewarding years of friendship and association with him. Fortunately, Eunice Norton has documented her experiences with both Matthay and Schnabel in a series of extended video lecture-demonstrations, and there is a substantial archive of her work available on this YouTube channel. Schnabel (Part 1 of 18) Matthay (Part 1 of 10) There is a little book I can highly recommend to anyone playing music from the mainstream classical period, and that is Schnabel’s Interpretation of Piano Music by Konrad […]

The Mysterious Ending of Mozart’s D minor Fantasy

Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor, K. 397, is one of his most popular and accessible works for the piano. It may surprise you to learn that Mozart left it unfinished (his manuscript stops on a dominant 7th chord in bar 97), and that the ending we all grew up with was probably finished by August Eberhard Müller. Scholars believe Mozart might have intended to write something else in conclusion, possibly a fugue, but mystery still surrounds his plans for the work. The idea of a fugue is a distinct possibility as there is a precedent, the Fantasy and Fugue in C minor, K. 394, written around the same time (1792). Here it is (with rolling score) played by Gianluca Cascioli in a performance that shows great attention to the composer’s articulation markings but without sounding at all dry or pedantic. If you are looking for an interesting alternative to a Bach Prelude and Fugue, you might want to consider this piece. Returning to the D minor Fantasy, many listeners are startled to hear what Mitsuko Uchida does at the point Mozart left off. Rather than finish with the traditional ending (we can’t be 100% sure it was by Müller, but we know it wasn’t by Mozart), she feels justified in coming up with her own ending. And fascinating it is too (listen from 5:50)! If you would like to delve further into the story of the D minor Fantasy, Ephraim Hackmey’s thesis is well worth reading. I have made my own walkthrough of the piece for the Online Academy, giving suggestions for pedalling, articulation and practice. Here is a short excerpt, focussing on the Adagio. Click here to view the complete video on the Online Academy (requires login or sign-up) […]

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 […]

Brahms Intermezzo op 76 no 7 Study Edition

Brahms’s sets of miniatures are among the best-loved shorter works in the whole piano literature, regularly programmed by concert artists and yet approachable by piano students and amateurs. The Intermezzo in A minor, op. 76 no. 7, is currently on the ABRSM Grade VIII syllabus, and will pose several challenges for those who wish to master it. I am pleased to announce that I have published some new resources featuring this work this week. These resources include an Annotated Study Edition and video walkthrough which have a special emphasis on artistic pedalling. In the video walkthrough, I look mainly at how to overcome the obstacles posed by the rests in the RH without drying out the pedal. If we pedal through the harmony as we would want to, we create the harmonic cloud the LH produces but we cover over the RH rest. If we interpret the rest as a literal and audible silence, we risk disturbing the harmonic underpinnings. There is a neat solution, involving phrase shaping, slow release pedals and overlapping touch in the LH. I admit its subtle and will take a bit of practice, but then playing a Brahms Intermezzo beautifully is no easy task! Apart from showing you how this pedalling solution works, in the Study Edition I also explore some fingering possibilities in the introduction – do we use legato fingerings and substitutions in the RH chord stream (bars 4-8) or do with go with all 5s in the top line? It depends on your hand size, but the principle is to avoid twisting at the wrist. I’ll also point out a neat exchange between the hands later in the piece that you won’t want to miss! Please click on […]

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