Top Tips for Choosing Fingering

If you are a serious student of the piano you will certainly want to use an Urtext edition where applicable. Some Urtext scores come with no fingering, but others contain fingerings that are by an editor. The fingerings might be excellent (they often are not, by the way), but because this is one level of the score that is not usually Urtext (namely from the composer) they do not have to be obeyed. What about fingerings that do come from the composers themselves – are we duty-bound to stick to these? Absolutely not! The composer’s hand was also unique, just like yours and mine. There can be no standardisation of fingering, no matter whether it is from the composer, an editor, or a teacher. The only correct fingering is the one that works for your hand. Fingering in any score is a suggestion only! Once a fingering has been selected, practising always with that fingering means that after a while the series of finger strokes will become automated – we will not have to think about which finger goes where because when we master a new motor skill, we go from active effort (thinking and concentrating) to automatic ability. If we haven’t taken the trouble to organise a good fingering or we practise with different fingerings each time, we make life difficult for ourselves – especially if we are preparing a memorised performance. Practice makes permanent, so whatever we engrave on our motor cortex is going to stick. This is why it is very difficult to correct embedded errors later – and this includes sloppy fingering. I have just written three articles on fingering for Pianist Magazine – the first two are already published, and the third (on redistribution) […]

  • The 20-Minute Practice Session The 20-Minute Practice Session

    The 20-Minute Practice Session

The 20-Minute Practice Session

First published in April, 2015 The 20-Minute Practice Session remains one of my most popular blog posts. Here it is again, slightly modified and updated – the first of this short summer series of reposts from past years. I hope you find it helpful! ***   ***   *** If we want to develop as a pianist, there’s no escaping regular, routine practice. Passion for the music and for the piano are essential ingredients – if we are not fully engrossed in what we are doing, we are not going to want to put in the necessary hours and we won’t learn. In this post, I aim to show you how to structure your precious practice time to get the best results. If your practice is feeling overwhelming or aimless, then the 20-minute approach is really going to help you! Attention Span Our attention span is the amount of time we can stay fully focussed on a particular activity without becoming distracted. Time is a precious resource, so it is in our best interests to use our time to our best advantage – aiming for maximum efficiency. It always worries me when a student claims to practise 8 hours a day. Unless they have accepted a last-minute engagement requiring frantic practice tactics, spending this long is neither wise nor necessary. A sponge can only hold so much water; if we pour more on an already saturated sponge it is going to trickle off and get wasted. Perhaps constant texting and checking your Facebook status have completely eroded your attention span? You can use this test to find out how long your focus is. If you want to significantly increase your attention span, I can recommend meditation as a very […]

Flexibility in Pulse

I heard Chopin’s beautiful Waltz in A minor in a class the other day. The basic feeling, tempo, balance between the hands and the pedalling were extremely good, and there were some lovely sounds. But I was struck by how straightjacketed the performance felt to me from a rhythmical perspective. When I asked if he had been using a metronome, he told me he had been practising on a digital piano with a waltz backing track. Doing this regularly had completely ironed out any sense of natural phrasing and timing, and the sort of gentle ebb-and-flow rubato this piece needs to bring it to life in performance. When I was a boy, fascinated with music and how it all worked, I once tried to synchronise the new metronome I was given for Christmas with an LP recording – just to check whether whoever was playing was doing so in time, since this was stressed as being very important by my teacher. I had a few LP vinyl records at that stage, but no matter which recording I used I was unable to get the metronome to line up with the beats from the record for more than a bar or so. Naturally I assumed it was my metronome that was faulty, and thought of asking for it to be fixed, or swapped for one that worked properly. I didn’t know at the time that no artistic performance of any piece of music could be bound to a fixed beat, rigidly applied. You’re probably thinking – sure, Romantic period music would obviously make no sense when played against a metronome but anything Baroque would synch up, wouldn’t it? Certainly so strict-looking a page of semiquavers as […]

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) […]

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