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On Rhythm: Some Resources

A number of pianists report having issues with rhythm. To help solve the problem we need to be able to set a steady pulse and to internalise this as we play, pushing and pulling according to the natural ebb and flow that virtually all music requires. This is vastly different from playing metronomically, since no performance of anything is going to conform to an unbending metronomic beat, and while a certain amount of metronome practice can be beneficial if you know what you’re doing, too much of it ends up being detrimental. When I was a student at the Royal College of Music, we used Paul Hindemith’s Elementary Training for Musicians as a text book for handling complex rhythms against a steady pulse. Some of the exercises are pretty gruelling, and would challenge anyone. In this exercise, you are required to play the notes with one hand, but a tone higher than written, while tapping the rhythm below the stave on your knee (and then play again in two other stipulated keys). Yes, really… Hindemith requires what he calls “coordinated action” in the exercises. This might involve speaking the given rhythm while conducting with one hand, or perhaps tapping it with the left hand while conducting with the right, tapping it with the foot while conducting, and so on – a literal embodiment of rhythm. Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer There is no doubt that practising the rigorous exercises in Hindemith’s book will prove beneficial for the more advanced player, but let’s start somewhere simpler. I can highly recommend a little book by Robert Starer, entitled Rhythmic Training. It’s been around for years, and is excellent if you follow the directions. The author states in […]

By |October 18th, 2018|Rhythm|3 Comments

The Piano Teachers’ Course UK Continuing Professional Development Days

I am one of the principal tutors on The Piano Teachers’ Course UK, and am delighted to announce a new venture that we’re starting this year, a series of seven days of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) lectures, workshops and teachers’ discussion forums discussing issues and sharing expertise. These are available to PTC Alumni and all interested pianists, piano teachers & students. There is no minimum requirement for these sessions. There will be two lecture workshop sessions each day, with an open Discussion Forum facilitated by a PTC Tutor during a long lunch break. Alternatively, instead of attending a Teachers’ Discussion Forum, you can book a private consultation and/or lesson with an available tutor. OR – book a massage with Jennie, our BAPAM registered practitioner, either after lunch or at the same time as a workshop session (not available in May). For full details, and how to book, click here

Pedalling for Resonance

In the days before the piano was invented, harpsichordists did not have any sort of sustaining device and so created resonance using the technique of overholding (or finger pedalling). On a harpsichord (just like on a piano) holding onto a key with a finger ensures the damper associated with that key remains in the up position, allowing the string to resonate. Sometimes composers wrote finger pedalling out, other times they assumed the player would just do it anyway. Here is an example of the former, scrupulously notated by François Couperin in his Les Barricades Mystérieuses. A universal tendency I have noticed among piano students is the missed opportunity for resonance in a piece that requires pedal from the start. What is the point of putting the pedal down only after you have played the first chord, when putting it down beforehand opens up the instrument for maximum resonance immediately the hammers hit the strings? Take the opening of the Grieg Concerto. If the pedal is down before you play the opening chord, then the whole instrument resonates at the start of the sound. Try it for yourself – play the chord without the pedal and you will get a very dry result, since only four dampers will be raised (the RH notes in that particular chord are too high even to need dampers). If you pedal just after the chord, you will miss the full resonance. Instead of an explosive accent, you get a sort of hairpin crescendo. With the pedal down before, all the dampers are raised and the whole instrument can resonate. I have recently published a video walkthrough on the Rachmaninov Prelude in C# minor on the Online Academy, here is a short […]

The Principles of Scale Fingering

I have recently published a series of three articles for Pianist Magazine on fingering, and as always there is a video demonstration for each available on YouTube. In my first article, I outline some of the basic fingering principles as well as giving some suggestions for choosing a fingering. In the second article, I explore fingerings for scales, arpeggios and chords. The principles for scale fingerings in use today were first proposed by C.P.E. Bach in his treatise, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753). There are two main principles. Neither the thumb nor the 5th finger are used on black keys (the exceptions are the arpeggios of F sharp major and E flat minor) Each scale is made up of a short group (123) and a long group (1234) in alternation. There are some useful pointers: Long fingers (2nd, 3rd and 4th) usually play on black keys Short fingers (thumb and 5th) go on white keys The 4th finger appears only once in each octave* – if you are struggling to remember the fingering for a scale, just notice where the 4th fingers go and use these notes as anchors. *not counting situations when the 4th finger substitutes for the thumb (B major and minor LH bottom; F major and minor RH top) C Major Fingering We get great value from the C major fingering, since it applies to several other scales too. Once we have learned C major we can use the identical fingering for C, D, E, G and A majors and minors. That’s 10 scales in all! The diagram below shows the fingering for an ascending then descending scale over two octaves. It’s helpful to notice: 3rd fingers always come together […]

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

On Rhythm: How to Develop a Steady Pulse  

I decided to put together an occasional series on rhythm, in response to readers who say they experience rhythmical issues when they play. There are many factors that may contribute to this problem, and I am going to cover one point at a time. Welcome to the first post in this series, on the importance of setting and maintaining a steady beat. I can’t think of many activities we do at the piano that are not connected to a pulse, therefore establishing and maintaining the pulse should be the first priority in all we do. This demands special attention during our practice when we are stopping and restarting. At the elementary level it’s the job of the teacher to set the pulse in lessons by counting out aloud energetically one or two bars before every scale, before every piece, and before every time a passage is repeated. After a while, the pupil is invited to set their own pulse by counting out aloud before they play. Laborious? A bit, but well worth the effort. In this way the process becomes internalised, and happens as second nature. Clapping to the Metronome How good are you at maintaining a steady beat? In this metronome experiment, continue to clap the beats when the metronome suddenly drops out. Can you maintain the pulse? Find out here… And now for another exercise. Set a metronome to whatever speed you like, and clap so that your claps drown out the sound of the metronome. If you hear the metronome, the chances are that your clap is a bit before or after the beat. Clapping is just one way of responding to the pulse, but notice how in this Dalcroze Eurhythmics class […]

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

How to Begin a New Piece: Part 1

In 2015 I published a series of what turned out to be six posts on how to begin a new piece. At this time of the year, many people are starting a new academic year and embarking on a new programme of study, and judging from readers’ responses this series really helped them. I decided to republish them, and you’ll find links to the remaining posts series at the end of this post. Next week will see a return to new and original posts – do please let me know in the comments area below if there are any topics you would especially like me to cover. ***   ***   *** I have a pet theory that, if playing the piano were easy, everyone would be doing it. I mean – who wouldn’t want to create moments of beauty and meaning in their day by strolling over to a piano and playing a Bach Suite, a Chopin Nocturne or a Beethoven Sonata? The fact is playing the piano to a standard we can be proud of is very far from easy; it is a highly challenging and skilled activity requiring intelligence, sophisticated motor control – plus tons of hard work and dedication on an ongoing basis. The Process of Practice One of the biggest obstacles to reaching our goal is not appreciating the difference between the process of practising and the act of performing (or playing through). This dichotomy is often misunderstood even by conservatory piano students who assume they are practising when they hammer through their pieces, hacking at errors until they consider them vanquished. Hours can be wasted doing it this way, with no guarantee of successful results at the end of it all. We may be […]

The Myth of Perfection

The Myth of Perfection was first published in February of 2014. I’ve decided to republish as part of this summer holiday series of posts from the past, in the hope that it will give a little perspective on the subject. ***   ***   *** Many of us are caught in the trap of perfectionism, and yet attaining flawlessness is so anti-human. Music played perfectly would actually be boring and predictable – what makes performance interesting is the human element, and what makes it electrifying is the element of risk when the performer is pushing the boundaries of what is possible or imaginable (and might even teeter over the edge here and there). Here’s what Beethoven had so say about this! To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable. No live performance can ever truly be note-perfect, and no single interpretation can ever be the one true realisation of the musical possibilities of particular piece. It’s precisely this difference between the ideal and the reality where the humanity of musical performance lies, and the wrong notes in Alfred Cortot’s recordings matter not one iota to the communication of the music’s beauty. I would even go as far as to say it what makes me love his recordings all the more – they show greatness and fallibility at the same time. The problem is that audiences raised on a steady diet of today’s recordings (often a collection of the best takes spliced together) only recognise the perfection possible in that scenario, and are unprepared for live performances. Perfectionism has been defined in psychology as: A personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical […]

On Practice versus Playing Through

I am republishing this relatively recent post (from March, 2017) because I think it is crucial to keep reminding ourselves that playing through a piece is a different activity from actual practice, and that we need to regularly maintain a piece we want to keep in our repertoire using many of the same practice tools we used when we first learned it. ***   ***   *** Have you considered the differences between sitting down at the piano and playing through your pieces and the processes of practising? The first situation might feel rather like taking a pleasant drive in the countryside. If your car is in good shape (the battery charged and the tanks full of the various fluids car tanks are supposed to be full of), you won’t have to worry about anything. You will of course need to keep your eye on the road, but you’ll just be coasting along admiring the view and enjoying the time out. I find the distinction between cruising around the piano for fun and serious practice is something I need to point out, regularly. If you are the sort of player who wants to sit at the piano and play for pleasure, you will probably notice a certain frustration after a while that your pieces don’t seem to be getting any better, or that a piece you used to be able to play well is now actually getting worse. You may well discover that on one day your playing flows beautifully and it all feels easy, but on the next day it all falls apart – as though you didn’t know the piece at all. Why is this? I can always hear when someone has been rattling through their […]

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