Some Practical Suggestions for Debussy’s Voiles

There is one scale that can take plenty of pedal without sounding in any way offensive, the whole-tone scale. Because all six notes of the whole-tone scale are the same distance apart, there is no leading note or tonic, thus no feeling of a stable tonal centre. The only triads possible are augmented ones, which feel the same in their inversions. Try an experiment. Put the right pedal down and play a whole-tone scale; if you do this fast and light, you will invoke the magical spirit of Tinkerbell herself. This arrangement between the hands works well, crossing over from right hand to left up and then back down as you like.  Debussy’s Voiles, the second Prélude from Book I, moves between whole-tone and pentatonic harmonies. If the whole-tone scale itself is ambiguous, so is the title. Voiles translates as sails or veils; the piece might be about either, or both. Currently set for ABRSM Grade 8, it offers the player vast scope for creating variety in touch and tone, skilful layering of sounds and subtle pedalling. I’m going to look at one or two things in the blog post that I hope will help you as you discover what is possible, especially with regard to pedalling.  Pedalling is always problematic in Debussy’s music since he left so few markings, preferring to leave it to the performer. Voiles contains the only pedal mark in Book 1 of the Préludes – the long pedal at the end.  Why was Debussy so reticent about marking pedalling in the score when he notated all other details of performance so scrupulously and painstakingly? It is of course impossible to notate the depth of sustaining pedal depression and indispensable techniques such as flutter and fractional pedallings, since these will […]

Edvard Grieg’s Arietta

Edvard Grieg’s collection of 66 short Lyric Pieces includes some of his best known music. They were published in 10 volumes between 1867 and 1901 and because most are accessible to the intermediate player, they will always find a place in the pianist’s heart. This does not mean that the music is only for the amateur; on the contrary, many of the world’s greatest pianists have recorded and programmed them. The theme of the very first piece of the collection, Arietta (Little Song), was one of Grieg’s favourite melodies. You might begin by singing and then playing this beautiful melody alone, taking time where the music needs to breathe. Once you have a sense of its shape and flow, add the bass line, noticing its contours and how it supports the upper line. The middle element consists of broken harmony shared between the hands, similar in texture and design to Schumann’s Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and People), the opening piece from Kinderszenen, op. 15. Balancing the texture is one of the main challenges of the piece. It is a good plan to practise the middle semiquaver (sixteenth note) line by itself, making the connections as seamless as possible as one hand passes to the other (do this with and without the pedal). It is also excellent practice to omit the melody line; if you are feeling ambitious, try singing the top line as you play the accompaniment and bass line (tricky, but worth it!).  A few pointers for practice: Hold on to the long bass E flats (bars 1-4, 15-16), so that when you change the pedal the bass note is still present. Avoid pedalling through the rests, but elsewhere change […]

Happy Holidays

This is my final post for 2019 – 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, and we have some exciting plans in place for the New Year (about which more later!). As a thank you for your support over the past year, I’m delighted to offer a free gift of two study editions for Burgmüller’s Op. 100 set that we’ve been featuring throughout the year. The study editions include a teaching note, practice and performance suggestions (with exercises in manuscript) as well as a link to a video walkthrough. All you need to do to receive your free gift editions of L’arabesque and Ballade is sign-up for our mailing list here and they will be sent to you next week. Let me leave you with Frederic Chiu’s transcription of Prokoviev’s Troika from the Lieutenant Kijé Suite. A troika is a traditional Russian three-horse sled that takes us on an exhilarating ride through the snow, accompanied by the sounds of sleigh bells.  Looking for a gift for a pianist?   We’ve just added a new feature to our site which makes it possible to purchase a range of digital products and subscriptions as gift vouchers. Our range of eBooks, digital editions, online lessons and subscriptions make ideal Christmas presents for piano lovers!   How it works Select a gift from our catalogue (a full listing of products and subscriptions available for gift purchase can be viewed here) and click “Buy gift” Enter the details of the payment card that you wish to use to make the purchase and click “Pay” On successful completion of your payment you will be taken to a confirmation page which provides […]

By |December 12th, 2019|General, News|2 Comments

Inventing an Exercise from a Piece

People often ask me what sort of studies they can do to improve a particular difficulty they are experiencing in a given piece. The underlying assumption is we can just practise some studies for a while, and transfer whatever skills we gain from these across to our piece. It would be nice if it were as simple as that; an alternative and often more expedient approach is to aim to solve problems from within the piece we are studying by formulating, more or less on the spot, simple contraptions that focus on the difficulty itself. I’m especially keen on creating such exercises based on the difficulty we are trying to solve, making these as short and simple as possible so we can look down at our hands as we practise. Let me give you an example, from the middle section of Rachmaninov’s G minor Prélude, op. 23 no. 5. The LH has to find a way of moving across to the F# on the fourth semiquaver (16th note) of the first bar. There is obviously no finger connection possible at this point; because of the speed of the passage the movement has to come from the arm, the hand staying as close as possible to the keyboard (there’s no time to come up too high). For me, the optimal motion is an arm shift combined with a rotation from the D, whereby the pinky side of the hand is lifted by the forearm as we play the thumb D. We feel the untwist in the arm as the pinky lands in the F#, the result of a rotation from right to left as we connect with the key. This is difficult and cumbersome to put […]

Burgmüller’s Op. 100: The Complete Series

I am delighted to announce my series on Burgmüller’s 25 studies, the Easy and Progressive Études, Op 100 is now complete and available as a full set. In my Online Academy series on op. 100, I take each étude in turn. You will find a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough highlighting the learning outcomes, with advice on the technical aspects as well as how to practise.  When it comes to studies at the intermediate level, there is of course a wealth of material available. For me, Burgmüller’s Op 100 is among the best. Each étude is short and to the point, with a descriptive title to stimulate the imagination. The technique always serves a musical goal, and because they are so well written each is useful as a way to learn about harmony, as well as form and structure. In my previous two posts I looked at a handful of these études, with a brief video excerpt of what to expect from the full one. I will continue now, focussing on Nos. 10 – 13. 10. Tendre fleur (Tender Flower) Tendre fleur (Tender Flower) is all about pastel colours, sensitivity of touch and mood, and delicate expression. Marked p delicato, we discover two-note sighing slurs in arpeggio patterns that rise then fall, meandering quaver (eighth note) lines and sparse harmonies. The harmonic language is extremely simple – tonic and dominant harmonies alternate with each other in the home key of D (A section) and then in the dominant key of A (B section). Here I am noodling around with a few ideas to bring out the sweetness of the music. 11. La Bergeronnette (The Wagtail) La Bergeronnette (The Wagtail) depicts a genus of bird that constantly moves […]

Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata Video Walkthrough Series

For Beethoven, the key of C minor was especially associated with tragedy, drama and intensity; he wrote three piano sonatas in this key (op. 10 no. 1, op. 13, and op. 111). The Grande Sonata Pathétique, op. 13, (this title from the publisher had Beethoven’s blessing) was written in 1798 when Beethoven was 27 years old. It is dedicated to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, one of Beethoven’s most significant aristocratic supporters. The work is comprised of three movements: Grave (slow and solemn) – Allegro di molto e con brio (very quickly, with vigour) (C minor) Adagio cantabile (slowly, in a singing style) (A-flat major) Rondo: Allegro (quickly) (C minor) The sonata was a great success in establishing Beethoven’s reputation as a composer at the time – the work was instantly popular and has remained so to this day. Pianists respond to the drama and intensity of the music and clamour to learn it. I decided to make a series of video walkthroughs of the work, where I look at a few of the challenges the work poses, offering some interpretative and technical guidelines as well as suggestions for practice. There are 11 videos in all, which I hope will help players deal with the common questions and problems that tend to arise when learning it. For example, the spot from bar 93 – 98 is a common minefield for inaccuracy and tension. I have 8 processes that, if you go through these systematically and patiently for a few days in a row, will make these bars feel comfortable so that you can enjoy their exhilarating effect. In this video excerpt, I demonstrate two or three of these practice ideas. You will find plenty of advice in the other videos in the series […]

Q-Spots Series: Ibert’s The Little White Donkey

The ten pieces that make up Jacques Ibert’s collection of impressionistic piano pieces, entitled Histoires, sound as fresh to us now as the day they were written. Actually, they were composed over the course of a decade, between 1912 and 1922 when Ibert was based in Rome. Many of the pieces drew their inspiration from the sights of Spain, Italy and Tunisia as Ibert travelled around.  We are going to look at a small section from the second piece, Le petit âne blanc (The Little White Donkey). This delightful work is suitable for the intermediate player; it needs plenty of imagination to play it with the colour and vibrancy it requires. It is not hard to hear the trotting of the donkey in the left hand, or the gentle braying in the right hand that comes later. In the key of F sharp major, the piece might pose some challenges initially, but once the notes have been learned you will find that the music lies very well under the hand.  As part of my Q-spot series, I have selected two places from The Little White Donkey that will need your careful attention for the piece to flow well as a whole: Bars 20 – downbeat 25 Bars 25-29 In my full article on the Online Academy, I give detailed step-by-step practice guides for both these quarantine spots together with a video tutorial. Let’s have a look at an especially challenging moment from the second Q-spot, from bars 27 – 29. How many players have stumbled here, uncertain as to how to improve the passage? This short extract makes an excellent exercise in double note playing, where the intermediate player can learn the same practice techniques […]

The Transcriptions of Alexander Siloti

As an impressionable teenager I was awestruck by the incredible sounds Emil Gilels managed to draw from the piano in Alexander Siloti’s gorgeous Prelude in B minor, a transcription of Bach’s E minor Prelude that appears both in the Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and as Prelude no. 10 from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The way Gilels let the melodic line emerge from the rippling accompaniment in the repeat without any trace of harshness made a huge impression on me. I now realise that Gilels’ performance was an object lesson in voicing and tone colour.  Siloti moves the music from Bach’s original key of E minor down to the darker key of B minor, and gives a repeat where the player has to change the texture and voicing. The first time through, we focus on the right hand semiquavers; on the repeat, we shine a light on the melody created by the left hand thumb (the semiquaver figuration now retreating into the background). According to the dedicatee, the composer’s daughter Kyriena Siloti, it was her father’s practice to leave out left hand arpeggiation the first time through, but to include it on the repeat so that the thumb line could be emphasised more easily.  Here is Bach’s original, played with great energy and quirkiness by Friedrich Gulda. And here is Gilels in Siloti’s transcription in a recording from a Berlin recital in 1965 (it was his last encore). If you love to play this transcription you might consider exploring some of the other Bach transciptions made by Siloti, and there are quite a few. Here is the Andante from the Sonata for solo violin, BWV 1003, played by Alessio Bax. I have on […]

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 […]