Tips for a Natural Hand Position

My approach to piano technique is based on using movements that are most natural to the body, movements that are free, loose and that feel good. It is most important that we are in touch with physical sensations as we play – our feet in contact with the ground, freedom in the legs and thighs, support from the piano stool, mobility in the torso, looseness in the shoulders and arm, and not least the absence of tension from our wrists, hands and fingers. Touching the keyboard can feel delicious and sensual, or strong and energetic. It should never feel tight or awkward. Hand position I have read elaborate descriptions for the correct hand position for piano playing, but finding the position is actually surprisingly simple. If you stand up and allow your arm to swing freely from your shoulder, you will discover your palm is facing behind you. Swing your arm up to a table or your piano keyboard and land there. Provided you have not tensed up or done anything to change the hand shape, you will have found your ideal hand position. There will be a natural curve in the fingers, and all the knuckles will be aligned and supported.  Curved, not curled We avoid the two extremes, flat fingers and overly curled fingers because they tend to lead to tension. The natural curve is the best default position for piano playing as it encourages the best coordination.  Don’t isolate the fingers Traditional pedagogy supplied the pianist with copious finger exercises in which each finger was to be lifted high in isolation from the other fingers, which were to remain on the surface of the keyboard. Modern thinking has moved on, and we don’t […]

A Fantasy Analysis of Brahms Op. 118 No. 2

Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in A, op. 118 no. 2 is surely one of the most beloved short piano pieces from the Romantic period. The second from the set of six Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces), op. 118, the A major Intermezzo can stand alone and as such is a very popular choice among good amateur pianists. Who can resist its passionate tenderness, nostalgic mood and the feeling of yearning it evokes? Brahms & Clara Schumann There is a very personal and very touching background story to Brahms’ late piano works. The op. 118 set was written in 1893, towards the end of Brahms life. Along with the others sets of short pieces (op. 116, 117, and 119), these are his final works for the piano. Behind the somewhat bland titles (Intermezzo, Fantasie, Ballade, Romance, Rhapsody, etc.) we find music of great introspection and beauty. Written for Clara Schumann to play in her autumn years these pieces are full of yearning for her and the relationship they might have had. Playing the music without this realisation is to deprive the pianist of this extra dimension. As an aside, for those interested in dated biopics, this short clip from the 1947 movie Song of Love shows the arrival of the 20-year old Brahms to the Schumann household. We can see how smitten Clara (played by Katharine Hepburn) was with Johannes right from the start of their long friendship. Because the A major Intermezzo shows up often in lessons and classes, I decided to make my own set of resources to help players uncover the treasure trove of beautiful things Brahms presents to us, but which can often go unnoticed. I wanted to create the sort of analysis that serves not only those with a background […]

Brahms’s Buried Treasure

The six Klavierstücke that make up the op. 118 set were published in 1893 and dedicated to Brahms’ lifelong friend, Clara Schumann. In the late summer of 1893, Brahms sent Clara manuscripts of the pieces, which thrilled her. She wrote to him how remarkable it was that he had managed to convey “a wealth of sentiment in the smallest of dimensions”. Brahms did not want fanciful or poetic titles for the pieces, instead giving them the rather generic titles Intermezzo, Ballade and Romanze. They are among the very last pieces Brahms wrote, revealing the composer at the very height of his powers. We sense the assurance of a master craftsman at work, with all the features of his compositional style evident: motivic development, imitative counterpoint, cross rhythms and dense, rich textures. The wistful Intermezzo in A, op. 118 no. 2, is surely one of the best-loved short works for piano from the Romantic period. It is full of nostalgia and yearning, of tender feelings tinged with passionate memories. Having taught this piece very many times over the years, I have been struck by the wealth of buried treasure contained in the score – important details that are just underneath the surface and easy to miss. How many players have not noticed the canon in the chorale-like centre of the B section? Or the subtle changes of colour required to underscore the different harmonies and voice leading in the variants of phrases as they recur, transformed? It takes a keen eye and a keen ear to do justice to this piece. Study edition and video walkthrough I am delighted to announce the publication of a comprehensive collection of resources for this work on the Online Academy, […]

Tips for Learning New Pieces Faster

Do you wish that you could learn new pieces on the piano faster? Do you find that you spend hours learning a piece only to find that you don’t know it nearly as well as you hoped when you attempt to play it? Here are some of my top tips for how to learn new piano pieces more effectively: Know the score before – It helps to have some context before you begin. Do some background research, listen critically to a few recordings and do simple analysis (ask yourself questions about the form, and the character of the piece). Choose your fingering – Attempt to work out a good fingering for both hands together and write it in the score. You may find you need to adjust this as you start the learning process, so allow for any changes. However, once you’ve settled on the fingering make sure to stick with it each time you practise. Work on small sections at a time – Avoid overloading your working memory by breaking your piece down into small sections. Use mindful repetition to work on each section before moving on. A practice method I call “bar by bar plus 1” is a very effective tool for this (click here to read more about it)! Deconstruct and simplify – In addition to separate-hand practice, deconstruct the music by break it it up into separate strands and simplify it e.g. play only the bass notes, or first note of an arpeggiated pattern. Practise at the “speed of no mistakes” – Slow down difficult passages to a snail’s pace so you can play the notes, rhythms and fingerings perfectly. Do this several times, resisting the urge to play at speed […]

Choreographing Bach’s D Minor Invention

I’m going to look at Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, aiming to help you solve a couple of the issues that seem to bother some players in this piece.  The Subject The first thing is to find a good fingering for the main subject based on its tempo and character. For me, it’s a vigorous forte at the start, somewhere around M.M. = 60 (+/- 10%) for the bar. I play the semiquavers (16th notes) legato and the quavers (8th notes) detached, allowing for the possibility of more finessed articulation here and there.  The Invention would be extremely difficult to manage if we stuck to the myth that the thumb should not go on a black key. Here is the fingering I prefer, by no means the only solution but the one I find works best. In order for this fingering to work we need to remember one important fact: when we place a short finger (thumb or 5thfinger) on a black key we need to make an adjustment up and in towards the back of the keys, since the black keys are higher up and further away. There is no mystery here. Start from your lap and land with your RH on the two black notes with thumb and 5th finger. You should find the way you align will be perfectly natural – there won’t be any twisting in the wrist, and you will have found a comfortable position on the black keys to feel balanced there. When we play the five-finger position, E-Bb in the RH, a certain amount of motion towards the black key area is necessary so that when we arrive at the Bb the hand will be in the right place – in other words, we […]

A Practical Guide to Forearm Rotation

In my work as a teacher, I regularly encounter pianists even at the advanced level who ask me for my special exercises to “strengthen” their fingers. Initially they react with disappointment when I tell them I don’t have any such exercises nor do I believe in them, and that their fingers are strong enough already. My job is to show them how to coordinate the fingers with the arm in ways that end up feeling strong, but this has nothing to do with developing muscles.  The Finger School There is still a strong legacy from the old Finger School in the piano teaching world, which has its roots in the pedagogy of Clementi and Czerny. While their approach may have been just fine for the early pianos with their short keyboards and light actions, it proved less and less efficient as the piano and the music written for it evolved. Teachers kept at it though. If you were a student at the Stuttgart Conservatory in the mid 1800‘s during the reign of Sigismund Lebert and Ludwig Stark, you would have had to practise a strict regime of finger exercises, preferably with the aid of a hand rail (a device attached to the piano enabling the player to rest their wrists on it). The point was to achieve everything with the fingers and the wrist, the rest of the arm remaining quiet and passive. The elbow was to stay close to the body and only the forearm was supposed to move if the hands needed to move outwards. The basic finger touch was known as the “hammer touch”, where each finger was lifted as high as possible and then slammed into the key fortissimo (with no help from the arm). When […]

Chopin’s Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor

Chopin wrote the Nocturne in C-sharp minor (op. posth.) in 1830, but it was only published 40 years later in 1870. Dedicated to his sister, Ludwika “as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto”, there are some interesting parallels with some of the themes between the Nocturne and the Concerto no. 2 in F minor, op. 21. Getting to know the concerto will certainly enhance your appreciation of this beautiful Nocturne. I decided to put together a video walkthrough of the introduction only. The reason for this is I have noticed over the years examining and adjudicating this piece that I have never once heard the introductory bars played to my satisfaction. Maybe it’s because they look easy, and players don’t bother to practise them much. However, like any introduction first impressions count for a lot. If these bars don’t engage the listener, communication of the rest of the piece is likely to suffer. Further reading & resources For my blog post on the annotated study edition and video on how to play the LH arpeggio patterns, click here A full series of detailed video walkthroughs and worksheets for this work is available on the Online Academy here. My Annotated Study Edition for this work can also be purchased separately from our store here.

A Free Online Course on Piano Practising!

With many of us confined to our homes due to current circumstances, it does potentially make for a great opportunity to make the most of the situation by practising the piano! However, the subject of how to practise effectively is rarely taught. Much practice is unfocused and unproductive (or worse, leads to bad habits that might be hard to break in future). To help you get the best results from your time spent practising, I’ve created a free two-week email course based on the videos from my Practice Tools video lecture series. Suitable for pianists of any level, it comprises ten lessons introducing various practice tools that will help you to: Structure your practice sessions and practise efficiently Learn new pieces faster and build more solid foundations Develop speed using a better approach then simply increasing the metronome with each repetition Improve the quality of your playing As one of our initiatives to provide useful and inspiring content during this time, we’re making this course available for free to anyone and no subscription to the Online Academy is required for participation. All you need to do in order to register is sign-up with your email address, and you will receive your first lesson on the 14th of April (or immediately upon sign-up thereafter). Please click here to sign-up and for further information and use the buttons below to share this course with anyone you think might be interested! It it my hope that this course will inspire you to practise well and give you the necessary motivation to keep this going until you have some momentum. Remember – it’s the quality of the practice that counts, not the quantity! (Tweet this quote) *** Further reading […]

Teaching Bach’s Musette in D without the Score

At the start of my teaching career I taught a number of child beginners who I soon discovered were capable of playing more difficult and interesting pieces than they were able to read from conventional staff notation. In addition to giving them a thorough grounding in theory and note reading, I developed a system of teaching them certain pieces where the score assumed secondary significance. Not only did this keep them motivated, it helped them build coordination and listening skills that accelerated their technical and musical development so that they could make very quick progress without missing out any important steps.  If you think about the stages involved in learning other skills, such as language, the reading part comes quite a long way down the road. The child learns to speak by hearing and imitating, the reading following later (the study of grammar later still). How many youngsters keen to explore the exciting journey of learning to play the piano have had their enthusiasm dampened or completely killed off by boring pieces using a few notes in the middle of the keyboard, and an over-insistence on theory? Using this approach exclusively they would need to wait quite a while before they could play pieces that capture their imagination, and they don’t need to. Patterned pieces, such as Kabalevksy’s 24 Little Pieces, op 39, are ideal for the sort of learning I am describing. But I am going to jump ahead a little, and show how we might present Bach’s Musette in D, BWV Anh. 126 from the Anna Magdalene Notebook to an elementary level student who already has a bit of background and experience with piano lessons.  Rote Learning? I don’t like the term “rote learning” because it doesn’t really […]

Being Creative with Scales

Does scale playing scare you? Does the thought of practising scales for an exam intimidate you? Scales have a reputation for being among the least interesting activities we pianists face, but there is no reason scale practice should be dry and boring. Last week we launched a new module in the Online Academy’s technique library. The module includes detailed instructions on how to play and how to practise scales and arpeggios. You will find short videos, along with exercises and their demonstrations to assist you on your journey. Once we’ve learned all our scales and arpeggios and no longer need them for any exams, it’s up to us whether we continue to practise them or not. Some professional pianists of the highest calibre go through their scales daily as part of their warm-up routine, others see no value whatever in doing this. Readers of this blog will know that I rather like to use scales as vehicles for other things. For example, if you are struggling with a two against three polyrhythm in a piece, before you grapple with the passage itself practise first a scale in this polyrhythm (one hand will play three octaves, the other hand two). For good measure, switch this around too. The point here is that you already know your scales, so you will not have to read any notes or think about fingering. You will be able to look at the keyboard and focus on the particular difficulty you are trying to master. The first Arabesque of Debussy is a good example: We might also use scales to explore touch and articulation. A very good example of this came up in a recent lesson. My student was about to learn […]