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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 […]

Fundamentals of Scale and Arpeggio Playing

Scales and arpeggios are part of the requirements of all examination boards, and every pianist will encounter them. The importance of knowing scales and arpeggios in every key cannot be exaggerated, but many players struggle with them because of poor technique. How do we learn to play any scale at the drop of a hat? How do we play an even scale at a suitable tempo, with the correct fingering? How do we manage the thumb movements in an arpeggio accurately without bumping? How do we sit, how do we move across the keyboard without tension? I have addressed all these questions and others in my new module in the Online Academy’s technique library. With detailed instructions in the videos, along with printed exercises and their demonstrations, I hope this material will assist you on your journey to making friends with scales and arpeggios. Once we realise that all scales are made up of short (1, 2, 3) and long groups (1, 2, 3, 4) in alternation we are in a much better position to learn the fingerings. Not all scales begin at the start of a fingering group; to embed the fingerings, blocking practice is helpful. How do we solve the problem of the thumb in scale playing? There are several ingredients – a smooth arm with no drops in the elbow, mobility in the thumb itself, and freedom in the wrist. This video excerpt offers some suggestions for practice. Attention to whole-body choreography is especially important to feeling comfortable in arpeggio playing. This video demonstrates how we sit and how we move across the keyboard. *** Elementary Technique – Fundamentals of Scales & Arpeggios is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. […]

Some Ideas for Mental Practice

Many of you will have read the fascinating story of Andrew Garrido’s piano journey. As an 11-year old boy keen for lessons which his family could not afford, he did not even have access to a piano to start with. Undeterred, Andrew made a paper keyboard which he stuck to his desk. By clicking notes on an online keyboard, he was able to remember the sounds and “play” them back on his paper one. Apart from a short series of lessons, he made significant progress all by himself – ending up firstly at the Purcell School and now on a scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Even though he now has access to pianos, Andrew states: “The irony is that I continue to do a lot of my practice away from the piano: what we call mental practice. It unlocks key areas of the mind that are less readily accessed by piano playing alone.” Mental practice is something I wish I had done more of when I was a student. I was acting on the mistaken belief that only time spent practising at the piano would make any difference to my playing. Had I known better, I could have spent time sitting on the train visualising the pieces I was studying; this would have created pathways though my brain cells as if I were actually playing the piece – all without moving a muscle. According to his memoirs, Artur Rubinstein learned César Franck’s Symphonic Variations on a train on his way to the concert. As there was obviously no piano on the train, he practised passages in his lap. Once we understand that effective piano practice does not necessarily involve making sounds, we might […]

Laying Solid Foundations in a New Piece

Do you get frustrated when learning a new piece that it doesn’t seem to stick from one day to the next? If you approach a new piece using the repeated read-through method, you’ll probably find at the end of a practice session you have managed to get it sounding better than it did at the start of the session, but how frustrating when you come back to it the next day it feels like it hasn’t stuck at all. Practice makes permanent, and only perfect practice makes perfect! Fortunately, there is a much better way to learn. In this video, I demonstrate The Three S’s in action – slowly, separately, sections – using Petzhold’s Minuet in G minor (BWV Anh. 115) from the Anna Magdalene Notebook. Working in units of one bar (plus one note) and with each hand alone, we find as many patterns as we can as we practise. By patiently repeating a small unit of music (enough to hold in our working memory) at the speed of no mistakes and with our mind fully engaged, we are digging firm foundations for security later on. Practice like this takes a fair deal of discipline, but the rewards are significant – and permanent! For more detailed information on the process, follow this link to my blog post, A Daisy Chain Further Information & Resources The Practice Tools Lecture Series (click here to view the series index) Q-Spots Series (click here to view a blog post on this series) Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – Part 1: Practice Strategies and Approaches (click here for more information)

Thoughts on Piano Technique

After some initial trepidation regarding how to approach extending our resources on the complex subject of piano technique on the Online Academy, I am happy to say that we have just published the first module in a new collection, with others to follow in due course. Because there can be no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching technique, as it grows, our technique library will also contain content from other leading experts offering different angles on the subject. As such it will be a research-based, organic and consistently growing resource representing diverse viewpoints. I have several worthy books on piano technique on my shelves, some are clearer and more usable than others. However, as soon as an author starts writing about hand positions, arm movements, giving detailed instructions about what the fingers are supposed to be doing in a given situation, etc., they immediately run the risk of being misunderstood. Very often the excessive verbiage involved is hard to fully understand, even by the most educated of readers, and any images included can only tell part of the story.   In the modern age, many of these problems can be resolved by video demonstrations. Building text-light modules around a number of videos has been my default choice of format this new material. Some videos are longer with more description; others are very short indeed – with few words, if any, and filmed close up. The beauty of the short videos is they can easily be watched repeatedly, when you might want to check and recheck how a particular movement looks. My aim is to identify and use the best format to communicate the subject matter at hand.   My attitude to technique is based […]

By |February 20th, 2020|Technique|0 Comments

Technique Library & Resources Preview

Following our announcements last year regarding upcoming projects and content, we’ve been hard at work on a collection of modules on piano technique, the first of which is now available on the Online Academy – with others to follow thereafter. These initial modules will cover technical fundamentals, scales and arpeggios and a detailed exploration of forearm rotation. The first module explores the basics of piano technique, covering seating position, posture, whole-arm and legato touches. Using a combination of bite-sized annotated video demonstrations, musical examples and downloads, this module shows how to move in ways that are natural to the body and to achieve physical freedom for playing that feels and sounds good. It will be a good starting point for beginners and useful for piano teachers who teach beginners as well as those seeking a refresher or “health check” on the basics.    The next module will look at the basics of scale and arpeggio playing, featuring close-up video demonstrations of the movements involved. The following video example takes a break from the technical aspects and offers a practical keyboard theory lesson showing how we can go through the circle of fifths one key at a time, clockwise in the sharp direction or anti-clockwise in the flat direction by playing the scale as a chord (all eight notes together, one tetrachord per hand). The scale-chord gives us a bird’s-eye view of the scale and is an excellent way of seeing the pattern of black and white keys as a whole. Building on the first two modules is an extended video-based course on the principles of forearm rotation and its application, with many musical examples and text. This video excerpt shows a short example of how […]

By |February 13th, 2020|Technique|2 Comments

Q-Spots Series: Beethoven’s Für Elise

This is the third in my series on Q-Spots, and I’m going to feature one short excerpt from Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor, WoO 59 – otherwise known as Für Elise. Q-Spots (short for Quarantine Spots) is a practice tool whereby we identify and mark in the score those sections in a given piece where we stumble, fumble or approximate the notes. As we play we know things are not quite right, but a little voice in the back of our mind says “it’ll be OK tomorrow” or “once I run through the piece a few more times I’ll eventually get it”. A much more effective and economical approach is to identify and then quarantine such sections (they might be as short as a bar or two) and apply a step-by-step approach to our practice before reintegrating the Q-Spot backs into the piece. This means not starting at the beginning each time we practise, and going back to the step-by-step process each day for several days until our inner Quality Control Inspector is happy to sign off the work.  In my Online Academy article on Für Elise I have come up with two Q-Spots that cause players to baulk. The Q-Spot I want to look at today is the C major episode (bars 29 – 35), the site of many a derailment. I have included the bar before the problem begins because it is important to be able to lead into the difficult spot from slightly before (besides which the LH fingering in bar 29, if you go with it, could use a little reinforcement from the extra practice this bar is going to get).  Start with the left hand! Whenever there is a difficulty present […]

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 […]

Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum Launched!

This week’s guest blog post announces the launch of a unique new online sight-reading curriculum for advanced pianists by Ken Johansen, associate professor at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and Online Academy contributor. *** *** *** Introducing the Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum It gives me great pleasure to introduce the Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum to readers of this blog. This is the curriculum that I use in my class for piano majors at the Peabody Conservatory. It has been nearly twenty years in the making, and I believe that there is at present nothing else quite like it, in print or online. Virtually all piano teachers agree that sight-reading is an extremely important skill, perhaps even the most important. At the same time, it is a difficult skill to teach. It requires a vast quantity of carefully-chosen music, and the gradual, but concurrent, development of multiple aural, analytical, technical, and cognitive abilities. In this curriculum, we work on each of these component abilities – twenty of them altogether – individually, tackling the complex multi-tasking activity of sight-reading from twenty different angles, as it were. Improvement in sight-reading comes not simply from playing lots of pieces, but from acquiring new habits, and learning to think in new ways. Each of these new habits of mind needs first to be isolated, worked on with deliberate attention, and repeated in enough musical examples to become second nature. Whether we are learning how to read ahead, mastering dotted rhythms, or practicing the simplification of complex textures, we first need ways to think about these things, then lots of musical excerpts to practice them on, without too many other difficulties to distract or confuse us. Each of the twenty […]

By |January 23rd, 2020|News, Practising|0 Comments