Tips & Tools for Learning New Pieces

When learning a new piece from scratch, there are a number of tools we can use to get the maximum benefit from our practice time and to lay the foundations for a secure and successful performance.

Piano Conversations with William Westney

William Westney and Graham Fitch discuss their experience with Dalcroze, desire to empower students, and the various ways they have found to achieve this.

The Hanon Debate (Part 2)

This blog post features the views of pianist Peter Donohoe on the use of Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist as part of our debate on the subject.

By |February 9th, 2021|Technique|0 Comments

The Hanon Debate (Part 1)

As we saw from responses to last week’s post, the exercises of Hanon are a hotly debated topic. It seems there is nothing more provocative than uttering the name of Hanon to a group of pianists and teachers in a social media forum. The ensuing discussion about the use of the exercises in The Virtuoso Pianist so often becomes tainted by bias and polemic and ends up like a debate on religion, with neither side coming out the winner. Those against cannot imagine there might be such a thing as “using” the blank patterns we find in Hanon for various specific reasons, rather than “doing” Hanon as it says on the tin. I think it is very important to make this distinction. Many drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies are found to be useful for other purposes and end up being prescribed off-label. This principle can certainly be applied to Hanon’s exercises. The Controversy Modern piano teaching has moved away from an insistence on mechanical exercises devoid of musical meaning, and away from the notion of lifting and isolating the fingers from the rest of the hand and the arm (as Hanon’s exercises will do if you follow his instructions to the letter). By spending hours drilling the fingers in the way Hanon indicates, we not only risk wasting practice time that might better be spent on music but – much worse – we ingrain muscular habits that will almost certainly be detrimental and potentially injurious. The Middle Path It can be convenient to use the blank, easy-to-remember (and totally harmless) note patterns we find in the exercises as vehicles to easily experience choreography or coordination between the hands so that these skills can be transferred across to […]

By |February 4th, 2021|Technique|2 Comments

Learning Khachaturian’s Toccata

Aram Khachaturian’s Toccata is one of the most effective showpieces for the advancing pianist. Although it looks and sounds very difficult, it is actually much more approachable than you might think, with patterns that are always highly pianistic and often surprisingly simple to memorise. There is plenty of scope for narrative and imagery in this piece, the pedal bringing textures together to create a soundscape that is at times savage and barbaric, then scintillating and brooding. In this excerpt from my video walk-throughs for the piece, I demonstrate an approach to learning bar 74 which looks daunting due to numerous accidentals: The full video walk-through of Khachaturian’s Toccata featuring over an hour of detailed information on learning, memorising and performing it is available on the Online Academy here. Other walk-throughs of pieces from the 2021 – 2022 ABRSM Piano Examination Syllabus are available here. Guide to the ABRSM 2021 & 2022 Piano Examination Syllabus We have published a comprehensive collection of resources for the 2021 & 2022 syllabus. The full set of over seventy video walk-throughs is included with a subscription to the Online academy. Please click here to subscribe or click here to find out more about the Online Academy. Alternatively, the complete set of video-walkthroughs for all ABRSM grades can also be purchased separately along with recordings from our recent workshop day on the syllabus. Please click here for more information or if you have already purchased a ticket then you can access the videos by signing in to your account.

Applying the Practice Tools

If you would like to lay foundations for much more productive and effective practising in the year ahead, you might want to join my upcoming interactive practising workshop. The workshop takes place on Saturday, January 16th from 14:00 – 17:30 GMT and in it I will demonstrate some of the important practice tools and show you how to apply them to learning a new piece, as well as keeping old pieces in good shape. The material will be useful to players from lower intermediate up to advanced levels, and of special interest to piano teachers. Background to the Workshop In the summer of 2019, I was invited by Casio to present a day’s course on piano practice at a central London hotel. I felt we could add huge value to the event if everyone had their own piano to practise on during the frequent breakout sessions. Casio arranged for each participant to have a digital piano and headphones, enabling them to try out the ideas I had just demonstrated using worksheets provided without being overheard. This attracted visitors from all over the UK as well as Europe, and was a great success. we were considering doing this event again when COVID struck. My team and I realised we could adapt this workshop format and present it online and ran a pilot of the format in December last year. From the feedback received, this turned out to be one of our best received events. The format actually worked better online as it made the event more accessible. Having microphones muted during the break-out allowed participants to practise in the comfort of their homes. The only thing missing was the sumptuous lunch and delicious cakes during the […]

Happy Holidays!

This is my final blog post for 2020, so let me take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy and peaceful holiday season. It has been a year of tremendous growth for the Online Academy, with many new subscribers joining us from all over the globe and lots of new content from our team of contributors. Needless to say we have many exciting plans in place for the New Year! The global pandemic has been disastrous for live music and for the arts in general. And yet some silver linings have come out of it. The Online Academy has been able to offer an extensive series of Zoom workshops and presentations on a variety of different topics, from practising to technique, to exam preparation, sight-reading and more. My own Facebook Live practice clinics, which I give monthly, have become a regular fixture, offering subscribers the opportunity to send in questions and problems they are having from specific pieces. We are planning a new series of Zoom workshops for the 2021, so make sure you are subscribed to our mailing list for more information (details of the next fixtures are available here). Let me leave you with a piece I always associate with the holiday season, and New Year’s Eve – Schulz-Evler’s transcription of Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz – ‘Concert Arabesques on The Beautiful Blue Danube‘, in this scintillating performance by Mikhail Pletnev. I’ll now be taking a break for the festive season, so see you in the New Year. Happy holidays, everyone! *** Looking for a gift for a pianist?   Our range of eBooks, digital editions, online lessons and subscriptions make ideal Christmas presents for piano lovers!  A selection of our digital products […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus – Initial Grade

The final instalment in my exploration of the pieces from the new ABRSM piano syllabus is now available on the Online Academy. This features video walk-throughs for each of the main pieces for the Initial Grade, an important exam on the path to Grade 1 (where a large number of technical and musical skills are already a requirement for success). In each of the videos, I stress the importance of developing a strong technical foundation that needs to get laid down right from the word go, at the most elementary level of piano instruction. These videos demonstrate the movements involved in the Initial grade, some of the pitfalls to avoid, and how to stimulate the imagination so that we might play with a sense of narrative. There are plenty of tips that will be helpful to the teacher and player. The following video provides a brief preview of the type of content featured in these walk-throughs (click here for links to previews for other grades): How to access? Please click here to view the full videos for the Initial Grade or click here for an index of other grades if you are an Online Academy subscriber (further information about the Online Academy is available here). The complete set of video-walkthroughs for all ABRSM grades can also be purchased separately along with recordings from our recent workshop day on the syllabus. Please click here for more information or if you have already purchased a ticket then you can access the videos by signing in to your account. What’s next? With the addition of the Initial Grade, I have now covered repertoire from all of the grades (over seventy pieces!) in the new syllabus. These will now be followed by: General […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus Workshop & Grade 1

The next instalment in my exploration of the new ABRSM piano syllabus features video walk-throughs of all of the main pieces from the Grade 1 syllabus. The following video provides a brief preview of the type of content featured in these walk-throughs: With this new instalment, the Online Academy’s resources for the new ABRSM syllabus now features over seventy video walk-throughs for grades 1 – 8 (with a set of videos for the Initial grade to follow very soon!). The videos offer guidance and demonstrations for players and for teachers on style and interpretation, technique, practice method, fingering, pedalling and more (click here for links to previews for other grades). Please click here to view the index of available walk-throughs if you are an Online Academy subscriber or click here if you’d like to to subscribe. Full Day ABRSM Workshop Sunday, December 6th (9:00 – 5:00 GMT) We’re delighted to be bringing you a new interactive online workshop this coming Sunday on all aspects of exam preparation from Grade 1 though to Grade 8. The first session explores ways to keep scale and arpeggio practice creative and vibrant, offering technical suggestions as well as practice ideas. We move to a session on the aural and sight-reading tests, looking at ways to improve our results and incorporate these into lessons and the routine practice. After a coffee break we move on to the repertoire. In two 90-minute sessions (the first featuring Grades 1-5, the second Grades 6-8) we will look at how to begin a new piece step by step, with plenty of advice on effective practice, problem solving, interpretation and creating teaching. The last session of the day covers strategies for exam preparation, including practising a performance, the psychology of […]

“Everything You Know Is Wrong!”

When I first witnessed international piano guru, Peter Feuchtwanger, demonstrate his exercises in a class I was so shocked by them that I had to leave the room for a short while. They struck me as diametrically opposed to everything I had come to understand about playing the piano, but as I later came to realise, this was exactly the point. The traditional exercises pianists practise aim to solve specific technical issues using muscular or athletic approaches, whereas Peter’s exercises are effectively anti-exercises. Putting the playing into neutral, they rely on flat fingers, hanging hand positions and a completely loose, passive arm that generates most of the motions involved in putting the keys down.  It took a leap of faith to embrace these exercises and, while I did not need to throw out the technical approach I had received from my main teachers, I found I was able to incorporate Peter’s ideas into my playing and into my teaching. They certainly made a significant difference. Having spent some time working on the exercises under Peter’s supervision, I began to feel a significant difference in the amount of effort I needed to use at the piano. Often, I just needed to do much less to get the same, or a better result.  Because I find these exercises very useful in my own playing and my teaching, I decided to include a feature giving my take on them in the Online Academy. To get the best out of the exercises, you would really need to study them with someone who has received them from the source, but I offer them here as a tribute to my work with Peter and to satisfy the curiosity of the many […]

By |November 19th, 2020|Technique|0 Comments