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Mendelssohn’s Children’s Pieces, op. 72

This week I am featuring a video tutorial on Mendelssohn’s beautiful miniature, the second from the set of Kinderstücke, op. 72, currently on Trinity College London’s Grade 7 syllabus.  Mendelssohn wrote his set of six Children’s Pieces for his young relatives during his summer holiday to England in 1842. No. 2, an andante sostenuto in the key of Eb, close in spirit to the composer’s many Songs Without Words, features a lyrical melody in the right hand supported by gently flowing semiquaver patterns in the left.  Cantabile style After a short introduction based on the tonic and dominant chords the melody appears with the indication cantabile (in a singing style). What does this mean for the pianist? Apart from playing the melody more strongly than the accompaniment, we also need to add shaping and shading to the line. Singing it is the very best way to find where the line needs to breathe; you will also discover where the high and low points occur. When you play, aim to replicate the line as though you were singing it. Intervals that are close together are easier to sing (seconds and thirds); those that are further apart may need a little more time to be expressive. We will surely want to give a little more space to the interval of the sixth in bar 9, for example.  The Left Hand The left hand needs lightness and delicacy of touch, subtly pointing out the implied bass line (the melodic element in the left hand that underpins the right hand’s song) while hiding the repeated notes in between the beats. The left hand, like any good accompanist, needs to accommodate the singing line between phrases as well as helping to move it forwards […]

The Floating Fermata

I first published The Floating Fermata in 2015, and was surprised by how much positive feedback I had on it. I decided to republish it now, with a few small tweaks. I hope it helps you in your day-to-day practice! ***   ***   *** So you’re learning a new piece and you’ve done as much slow and separate-hands work as you feel is penance enough – at least for today – and now you want to play the darned thing through up to speed and just enjoy. Sounds familiar? My first suggestion is go ahead and try that, see what happens. If you are consistently able to play accurately, fluently and comfortably then chances are you have indeed done enough groundwork. But if you find yourself stumbling, baulking, stiffening up or playing wrong notes, rhythms and fingerings then it would seem that the playing is not yet capable of being on autopilot and you still need the help of your brain! You need to dig the foundations still deeper and slow down while you process the information from the score. Call on your inner craftsman and take pleasure in the building process itself, knowing the playing will be stronger and more secure later on as a result. You will reap what you now sow. There are several practice tools I use as a bridge between the slow, painstaking work and the exhilaration of playing through at speed. I have written about these extensively in Volume 1 of my ebook series on The Practice Tools, but I would like to share one with you here that is extremely effective. I call it The Floating Fermata. The Floating Fermata When we listen to unprocessed playing, we […]

The Pitfalls of Mechanical Practice

I get quite a lot of inspiration for topics to write about on my blog from my students. During a lesson something might crop up that seems important, or certainly worth writing about. On two separate occasions this week people had been attempting to solve what they perceived as technical difficulties by practising passagework in a variety of different rhythms. Rhythm practice seems to be yet another of those divisive topics in the piano world. Some pianists swear by it and others dismiss it. My own teachers fell into both camps – two of them insisted on it, and two others told me it was not going to help and that I shouldn’t do it. As my readers will have figured out by now, I tend to prefer a middle path. When done mindfully, in the right doses and for the right reasons, my own experience shows me that rhythm practice can certainly be beneficial as a part of the practice routine. However, it is not a cure-all and can have negative consequences if overdone (tension being a significant potential downside). Someone brought the Schubert E flat Impromptu, and had been using the rhythmical variants I suggest in my own study edition. He said he was still struggling with the first bar, despite practising the rhythms daily. When I looked at what was going on the solution was extremely simple. The problem had to do with the pivot over the thumb F to the 3rd finger Eb, and the elbow was in the wrong position to negotiate this. To find the best position, we first played the thumb and the 3rd finger together and started the piece from this position (the elbow slightly raised and […]

Bach Partita in B Flat Video Walkthroughs

Even though they were among the last keyboard suites Bach wrote, the six Partitas, BWV 825–830, appeared from 1726 to 1730 as Clavier-Übung I, the first of Bach’s works to be published under his direction.  The format follows the typical recipe for a suite, the mandatory allemande–courante–sarabande–gigue framework expanded by the addition of an opening movement, and then the galanteries (chosen by Bach from a pool of optional extra dances) towards the end of each suite.  The Partita in B flat, the first of the set, is the lightest and most intimate, and to my mind the most charming. The gigue even ends in mid air! The ABRSM has set the Menuets I and II for Grade 6. They make a beautiful contrasting pair of dances – the first sprightly and elegant, the second more solid and sustained.  Menuet I Make sure to add your own dynamics (probably between a range from forte to piano) as well as articulations (a range of touches including legato, staccato, tenuto, leggiero, slurs and short phrasings, etc.). If you look into the score you will discover most of this is implied by the structure of the music – its shapes, designs, modulations, and patterns. Remember there is no one right way of playing this music, but many possibilities. Menuet II Menuet II is only 16 bars in length, and thicker in texture than Menuet I. This texture implies a stronger dynamic, more legato cantabile – a more solid approach in general. If you play the repeats (not required in the exam) you might play them softer and more reflectively; experiment too with the left pedal (una corda) on one of the repeats. The soft pedal can be effective in baroque music if used very occasionally on a repeat – not necessarily to change the […]

Why Perform? Resources for Pianists

I first published this post a few years ago, but I have recently been sent details of brand new piano meetup groups in the UK, and decided to republish this post with all the updates. Please let me know if you run a piano group and I will be happy to include your details. * * *   * * *   * * *  When we perform, we call on a different part of ourselves from when we practise or play alone, because these are completely different activities. The concert stage is no place for shrinking violets. In performance we need to project our ideas about the music – as well as our sound – outwards to the listener, and we must make sure we do this convincingly so they really get it! When we perform authoritatively we summon feelings of abandon, spontaneity, and creativity. These qualities are associated with right-brained activity, whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we constantly evaluate – repeating and refining our results until we are satisfied they are correct. These are more left-brained activities. We must be prepared to go with the punches – there’s no point worrying about the piano, or that you weren’t happy with how you played that opening phrase. In practice we go back and get it right, in performance we have to accept what comes out and just deal with it. Performance Mindset In performance, we need to leave our inner critic in the green room and go into another state of mind once we are on the stage, one where we are not engaged in thinking, but rather in being and doing. We probably all know an excellent pianist who is not able […]

Piano Pot-Pourri in France

Following on from the Piano Holiday at Saint Laurent I tutored last summer, this new Spring Course will include master classes, workshops, individual tuition, a student concert and opportunities to play duets. In addition, I will entertain you with a short lecture recital. There are still a few places remaining, so book now and enjoy a week of piano, French culture, Penny and Geoff’s wonderful cooking and the beautiful surroundings of Saint Laurent. Numbers will be restricted to 10 participants, with classes focussed on performance and practising skills. Participants should be of intermediate to advanced level, and will need to bring three pieces from the classical repertoire that they have prepared to a fluent level (memorisation is not required). The daily classes will be conducted in a pleasant, friendly, supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. Digital practice pianos will be available. Saint Laurent is the venue for this Piano Pot-Pourri. It is situated on 27 hectares (66 acres) of land, with breathtaking views of the countryside and the Pyrenees. The fully refurbished 600 sq metre farmhouse boasts 4 apartments and extensive common space. The apartments at Saint Laurent have kitchens. There is a performance area, which can accommodate up to 60 people, with a Kawai RX2 grand piano. There is also a small swimming pool. For full details, and to book your place, click here

What is an Exercise?

The subject of technical exercises is a thorny and controversial one. At one stage in the evolution of piano playing, it was mandatory to spend hours a day practising technical exercises and studies that were often extremely dry and unmusical. In the nineteenth century many method books were published, filled with them. Some teachers even instructed their students to read a book while doing all the copious repetitions, to ward off boredom!  The rationale behind all this was that such gymnastics would allow the pianist to cope better with the greater size of the pianos being manufactured, the increase in the touch weight of the keys and of course the increase in difficulty of the music composed for the instrument. Rather than find a new technique more suited to the heavier keyboard and the greater technical demands, players and teachers stuck with what they knew. Without realising it, they were flogging a dead horse. Unfortunately, endless drill often led to playing that was fixated on mechanics, to the detriment of artistry or musical merit, as well as the real risk of pain and injury. So not only is this kind of mindless mechanical practice largely a waste of time, it can actually do more harm than good. Although spending a lot of time practising repetitive mechanical exercises is out of favour amongst many teachers at the moment, it is very possible, and sometimes preferable, to study a particular aspect of playing by using carefully chosen exercises and studies that have enough musical interest to hold the attention. Exercises serve three main purposes: to warm us up, to build and maintain technical skills, and to help us tackle general difficulties or specific trouble spots in our pieces. […]

Precision Measurement in Jumps

Today I present an excerpt from my walkthrough of Max Bruch’s delightful Moderato from the Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 12, No. 4 (currently on the ABRSM Grade 6 syllabus). In the video I illustrate three practice tools that will help gain control of the jumps. You may think my demonstration is a bit long-winded and laborious, but the idea is to show you principles of practice that you can apply to any jumps that cause difficulty – no matter the grade or level. In the Bruch piece, the jumps are in the left hand and it is important that the left hand be very comfortable with what it has to do, so that you can put your full attention on making the right hand sing expressively. For a link to the score, click here You will probably want to begin by playing and singing the right hand, to get a sense of the character of the melody. Next, look at the left hand and notice there are two components – a bass line in single notes (on the main beats, played with the pinky) and a harmonic filler (on the off beats). For the second step, play the melody line against the bass line (omitting the chords). Then, to help you relate one chord to the next, you might try playing the left hand chords without interrupting them with the bass notes to create a harmonic progression (just make sure you use the fingering you will end up using when you put everything together).  Now we are going to work at the left hand by itself, using the three practice tools: Quick Cover Play the bass note and hold it. Prepare yourself to move to the chord that follows […]

Do We Need Special Exercises for the Left Hand?

I am often asked about what to practise to make the left hand feel strong, and equal in technical ability to the right hand. Are special exercises necessary? In 2011, researchers in Germany published an article which showed a surprising fact: Whether the pianist identified as right- or left-handed, the performance of the right hand always displayed a higher degree of evenness between notes, and therefore a higher degree of motor control, than did the left hand. And the more practice time that a left-hander had accumulated, the better the performance of his or her right hand. Another statistic that came up is perhaps more understandable and obvious – we often listen more to the right hand, because in most music from 1750 onwards it assumes greater importance. The melodic interest tends to be more on the top, the left hand in a supporting role. Not that I’ve counted them up myself, but in Beethoven’s sonatas there are apparently 122,650 notes in the left hand and 133,064 in the right! If we really want to develop our left hand, perhaps we should always be working on contrapuntal music – especially fugues, where both hands are completely equal in terms of input. German Romantic composer, Hermann Berens published his Training of the Left Hand in 1870, at a time when mechanical exercises were especially lauded. I have noticed that many players seem to enjoy practising technical exercises and studies. As I always stress, it is how you do them that is important and if you follow a middle path and do them mindfully and in small doses, Berens’ left hand exercises can certainly be of some value.  But why not include one or two pieces of music written for […]

More Videos on the Trinity College London Series

As part of the Online Academy’s series on Trinity College London’s current syllabus, I am happy to let you know that four more video walkthroughs have been added this week (with plenty more still to come). This week we are presenting Telemann’s Rigaudon (Grade 2), Ben Crosland’s The Clown and the Ballerina (Grade 3), Mozart’s Minuet in D, K. 355 (Grade 7), and C. P. E. Bach’s Allegro Assai (Grade 8). Telemann: Rigaudon (Grade 2) This video explores some possibilities for touch and articulation in this baroque work, and looks at some of the technical considerations for the elementary level. Specifically, how to develop touch varieties using five-finger positions that are easily played from memory, while looking at the hands. Having experienced these touch varieties in the exercise, we can more easily transfer the skills back to the piece. Click on the video to view the preview or click here to view the full video on the Online Academy. Ben Crosland: The Clown and The Ballerina (Grade 3) There is so much to enjoy in this beautifully written piece. Aside from capturing two contrasting characters most imaginatively, we are presented with one of the most basic pianistic problems – how to move from white key to black key positions by moving inwards and upwards. Click on the video to view the preview or click here to view the full video on the Online Academy. Mozart: Minuet in D, K. 355 (Grade 7) One of the most interesting stand-alone minuets from the Classical era, Mozart’s Minuet in D, K. 355 is surprising in its use of chromaticism. It is an ideal piece for the upper intermediate player’s repertoire, and I am very glad to see it on the […]

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