Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind

This week’s guest blog post features an article on using mental practise techniques when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken uses an example from his From the Ground Up edition featuring Chopin’s Waltz in E minor (Op. Posth.) to illustrate how to use a rhythmic context to achieve evenness in passage work. *** *** *** Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind We pianists tend to think of technique as a purely physical matter, a sort of gymnastics for the hands and arms. We imagine that if we develop the right muscles and make the right movements, the music will somehow come out right. But the way we move at the keyboard is deeply influenced by the way we think the music inwardly. It is therefore possible to make technical changes and improvements simply by hearing and thinking the music differently. In this way, a clearly imagined musical goal calls forth the technical means of achieving that goal. One of the technical challenges we work on most is evenness in passage work. We spend countless hours learning to play smooth, even scales, without unwanted accents at the changes of hand position. We work on the smooth passing of the thumb, the correct hand positions and arm angles, and so on, as indeed we must. But all this work will be in vain if we do not first hear inwardly what a smooth, flowing scale should sound like. This inward hearing is really a matter of rhythmic imagination. If we imagine a scale to be a series of equal, uniform notes, without nuance or direction, it will come out that way. If instead we give the scale a rhythmic context (two notes per beat, for example), then […]

Create First! Teaching Improvisation from Lesson One 

This week’s guest post features an article by pianist, composer, and educator Forrest Kinney. In his post, Forrest introduces his approach to a creativity-based model for music education in which improvising (or what he prefers to call “creating” or “free play”) is taught alongside traditional approaches from the outset. *** *** *** Create First! Teaching Improvisation from Lesson One  Improvisation. It means many things to many people. To me, it’s a rather clumsy five-syllable word that could easily be the name for some sort of invasive medical procedure. It doesn’t convey the delight that comes from freely creating music, an activity that has enriched and sustained my musical practice for over four decades. I prefer to call it “creating” or “free play.” For hundreds of years, improvisation has been taught in a certain way when it has been taught at all. First, you learn to play a song—melody with accompaniment. Often this means you will learn about chords in the process and how to style them. (I call this activity “arranging” because it can be taught without involving improvisation.) Then, as you play and repeat the tune, you vary it while keeping the harmonic pattern of the accompaniment. And so, you might first play Amazing Grace in the key of G, then embellish the melody, and then perhaps freely create melodies using the notes of a G major scale. This time-honoured approach is undeniably practical. After all, keyboardists in churches and dance bands have been varying tunes for hundreds of years. And this is largely what jazz musicians do today—they learn and play tunes and then freely improvise over the chord progression, the “changes.” However, there are some serious drawbacks to this approach. The main one […]

By |September 24th, 2018|Teaching|2 Comments

The New Look Online Academy!

We’re delighted to announce that after some extensive development work during the course of the summer, the new look Online Academy website is finally live. The Online Academy’s content has grown substantially since its launch and therefore it was necessary to make some improvements to the way the site is navigated. In addition to these improvements, we’ve also taken  suggestions provided by our users into account and have made a few further refinements and cosmetic enhancements. The following is a summary of the new features and functionality updates: A new sidebar menu with quick access to main topics, search and other quick links More intuitive navigation of content by grouping articles within series or collections and new series landing pages which provide an index of articles within a series Redesigned user dashboard with new methods of accessing content including a “recently viewed” article listing Browse tabs and carousels (or sliders) which make it easier to browse, find and access multiple content items on a single page A simplified search interface which allows for filtering by criteria (including tags) and sorting by most recent or most popular content Grouping of search results by series for greater simplicity with text searches providing more granular results at article level thus giving the best of both worlds Improved handling of bookmarks with articles grouped and managed by series (Click in image to enlarge) Following on from these updates, we will be rolling out a number of further developments over the remainder of the year. These will include better personalisation of content, improved subscription management and new purchase and licensing options for teachers, schools and other institutions. Click here to sign-in to view the new site or click here for more […]

By |September 13th, 2018|News|0 Comments

Mid-year Wrap-up and What Lies Ahead…

We’re now just over half way through 2018 and as always, it’s been a very eventful year for both the Practising the Piano blog and Online Academy. With the summer holidays soon upon us, we will be winding down briefly before resuming an extensive schedule packed with publishing of new resources and updates for the remainder of the year. Therefore, we’d like to take this opportunity to review some of the highlights from the year so far and to share some insights as to what’s in store. Online Academy Highlights It’s been almost two years since the launch of the Online Academy in September 2016 and the site has grown to over 300 articles, 1000 music excerpts, 200 videos and 100 downloads (more information on featured content and resources is available here). Some of the highlights of the year so far include: A new series of resources focussing on technique kicked-off with a comprehensive guide to playing double notes at the advanced level. This guide is comprised of several chapters featuring over 100 musical excerpts, 40 video demonstrations and downloadable worksheets. Click here to view the introduction and index. Launch of an extensive new collection of walkthroughs called From the Ground Up devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorize more consciously, and interpret music more creatively. Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation to which detail is then added in layers with successive scores. Click here to find out more about this series or here to view a listing of available works. Two new Annotated Study Editions and online walkthroughs featuring Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair and Brahms’s Intermezzo in A Minor (Op. […]

By |July 17th, 2018|eBooks, News|0 Comments

Where Do We Find Musical Expression?

This week’s guest blog post features an article on finding musical expression when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken suggests practise methods using examples from various pieces featured within his From the Ground Up series to help you discover an interpretation for yourself from the inside rather than relying on external instructions. *** *** *** Where Do We Find Musical Expression? Some years ago, I took a class and several individual lessons in the Feldenkrais Method, a technique developed to improve physical functioning by imparting an awareness of how we habitually use our bodies. In this training, the instructor doesn’t issue prescriptive instructions (“keep your back straight,” “don’t let your shoulders sag,” etc.). Instead, she guides the students through simple movements and exercises that allow them to experience new sensations. Simply by being consciously aware of these sensations, the students re-program their own brains to learn new, healthier movements and habits. It immediately struck me that this kind of instruction, in which the teacher is more of a facilitator who creates conditions that allow students to make their own discoveries, rather than a master who dictates the “correct” way of doing something, was of great relevance to music teaching. So much music teaching relies on correcting mistakes (“your left hand is too loud,” “don’t accent that note”) and giving instructions (“make a diminuendo here,” “slow down there”). What if, instead of correcting mistakes, teachers could help their students to discover the logical, natural expression of a piece from the beginning? Perhaps instead of just giving students instructions about how something should sound, we could devise exercises that would help them to experience the music directly and develop their own responses to it. Why, one might ask, […]

Making the Well-Known Our Own

This week’s guest blog post features an article on how to approach interpretation of well-known works by Ken Johansen, author of the From the Ground Up series. In this post, Ken shares his thoughts on preparing a new edition for his series featuring Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 (please see further information at the end of this post) and provides some suggestions as to how one can develop a personal interpretation of popular works. *** *** *** Making the Well-Known Our Own Thoughts on Learning Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Why do certain piano pieces become so well known? A catchy title seems to help, whether given by the composer or not. One thinks immediately of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. In addition, these popular pieces combine high musical quality, compelling emotional content, and technical approachability. And of course, the more they are performed and recorded, the more other people hear them and want to play them, making them still more popular. Playing a popular piece of music brings a certain pleasure, like visiting a monument we’ve seen countless pictures of (the Eiffel Tower, the Little Mermaid). We already have an emotional connection to the piece, and our aural familiarity with it gives us easier access to it. But familiarity also poses challenges. It’s difficult to explore a score with fresh eyes and ears when we’ve already heard others play it countless times. Rather than searching for our own understanding of the music, we may subconsciously be trying to recreate a recording we admire. These thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing an edition of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 for my series, From the Ground Up. […]

6 Helpful Tips for Using Our Products & Services

In order to continually improve our products and services, we regularly review correspondence and support queries from our readership. Therefore we thought it might be helpful to compile a listing of tips provided in response to some of the most common questions just in case they are useful to you. We’re also making a few updates to our various systems in order to comply with the new General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”), that comes into effect May 25, 2018. As part of these updates, we’re  consolidating our various mailing lists and are making a number of improvements which will make it much easier for you to manage and customise the content you receive from us. Therefore we’ve also included some further information on this process (#1) and how you can use these new features to manage your email preferences. #1 Manage your email subscriptions and preferences If you would like to sign-up for any of our mailing lists then please click here. If you are already subscribed then we will need you to confirm whether you would still like to receive content from us. You can do this by visiting this form and entering your email address and clicking “Subscribe”. You will then be able to request an email with a link to a form for updating your preferences. You can also update your preferences via your Online Academy account if you have one (further details are provided below) or using the “Update Subscription Preferences” link in the footer of any of the emails that we send you. If you have an Online Academy account then you can also click here (you will need to sign-in first) or visit “My Account” and then “Click here to edit email preferences” to subscribe, […]

More Than Just The Music

This week’s guest post features an article by pianist, teacher and performance coach Charlotte Tomlinson. In her post, Charlotte shares her journey towards becoming a performance coach and her approach to helping musicians enjoy a free, enjoyable and inspired performing life. *** *** *** More Than Just The Music: My Journey Towards Performance Coaching Performance Coaching is still quite a new concept in the music profession at large, although over the last few years there has been a much greater openness towards anything that supports a musician’s overall health and wellbeing. In the sports world, it’s a well understood term and Performance Coaches are common – you just have to google the term to see that there are far more performance coaches for athletes than there are for musicians. There is also a vast literature of performance psychology in the sports world that’s been around for about fifty or sixty years. For whatever reason, athletes appear to have understood sooner than musicians, that there is more to being successful in your chosen area than technique, talent and hard work. In musical circles, nobody has yet defined what performance coaching actually is, or what it should be, so I am just going to share with you my version and what I offer. As a Performance Coach, I aim to support a musician in clearing everything that gets in the way of them performing to their full potential. This can be on a physical, emotional, psychological or musical level. The next step is to help that performer get into a good emotional state so that they give of their best while loving the whole performing experience. I came to performance coaching through years of piano teaching and […]

Seeing the Forest

This week’s guest blog post features an introduction to the From the Ground Up series by its author, Ken Johansen, following its launch last week on the Online Academy. In his post, Ken describes the “from the ground up” approach to learning pieces and the rationale behind his project. I wholeheartedly recommend this approach for anyone who wants to learn new works in a less daunting and more enjoyable way! *** *** *** A page of piano music, taken at a glance, looks a bit like a forest, the black notes forming more or less dense thickets of trees and shrubbery against the white page. Seen from afar, this forest looks fairly uniform; it’s difficult at first to distinguish its content and boundaries, or to see the variety behind the uniformity. But we’ve heard that this forest is enchanted, and we want to explore it for ourselves, so we approach it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How do we enter this musical forest, which may sometimes appear dark and impenetrable? Some pianists choose to listen to a recording first, but that is a second-hand experience. We want to walk in the woods ourselves, not listen to someone else’s account of it. A few musicians spend some time just sitting with the score, listening to it inwardly, finding its phrase and section divisions, perhaps analysing the harmony. But most pianists are too impatient for this; they want to start playing right away. If they are good sight-readers and the piece is not too difficult, this can make for an easy and pleasant stroll. But if their reading ability is mediocre, or if they are learning a piece that is at the upper limit of their technical ability (which […]

Can Sight-Reading be Taught?

The Online Academy’s collaboration with the Read Ahead team is a very happy one for me, since I can heartily endorse the innovative programme they have created to help pianists develop their sight-reading skills. Today’s post is a guest post by Ken Johansen and Travis Hardaway from Read Ahead, and I shall now pass you over to them. ***   ***   *** Most piano teachers agree that fluent sight-reading is a very important skill, one that ideally all students should develop. Fluent readers are more at ease at the piano, learn music more quickly, have broader musical horizons, make music more often with others, and receive more opportunities to perform. The question is, how do we help our students to develop this fluency? We can start, first of all, by teaching them the skills that make good sight-reading possible. In reality, sight-reading is not one skill, but a set of several inter-related skills that include: scanning the score intelligently before starting, maintaining a steady pulse, keeping our eyes on the score, hearing the music in our minds, reading in groups of notes, looking ahead as we play, and simplifying the music when necessary. With the exception of the last one, these are all skills that apply not only to sight-reading, but also to learning repertoire. If we bring these elements into play at every lesson, in every piece the student learns, we will be teaching him or her not only the piece, but also the musical skills needed for fluent sight-reading. Of course, it is not enough to work on these skills solely on repertoire pieces, and only during the weekly lesson. Students must sight-read unfamiliar pieces regularly, not only at lessons, but at […]

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