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Why a Healthy Technique is Important

This weeks’ guest blog post by Penelope Roskell looks at the importance of a healthy technique and how to go about acquiring it. *** *** *** Should we suffer for our art?  Piano playing is a physically demanding activity. Just as elite athletes understand and care for their bodies, so should pianists and their teachers think carefully about their approach to playing and practising.  A healthy piano technique not only avoids injury, ensuring a life-long enjoyment of music-making – it also helps to achieve a more beautiful sound, greater artistic freedom and faster progress.     Minimising effort The old maxim ‘no pain, no gain’ has been proven wrong over and over again, but still musicians find it difficult to ignore that inner voice that tells you that unless you are working very hard, then you are not really progressing.  A healthy technique, however, prevents injury by minimising the physical effort we use to play the piano. Movements become more co-ordinated: the small muscles are supported by the larger muscles; the sound is produced naturally by gravity rather than pressure; and stretches are minimised to avoid build-up of tension. Real progress comes, not from endless hours of mindless mechanical practice but from acquiring the technical know-how which allows the fingers, hands and arms to move freely around the keyboard.    Minimum effort for maximum expression  Every movement we make at the piano affects the quality of the sound; the freer the movements, the more flowing the musical phrase. Our technical skills must always serve a clear musical purpose – to express the meaning of the phrase as eloquently as possible, without exaggeration or inhibition – just enough and no more.  Achieving balance If the body is out of balance, […]

Voicing in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata

Beethoven’s Sonata in C# Minor (Sonata quasi una fantasia), Op. 27 No. 2, is surely one of the most famous pieces of music of all time. Completed in 1801, it was dedicated to his student, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The name “Moonlight Sonata” was not given by Beethoven but comes from German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab who, five years after Beethoven’s death, compared the effect of the first movement to moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. Given the popularity of the first movement, I decided to make my own series of video walkthroughs that guide you through the piece step-by-step. You will find advice on style, tempo, pedalling, fingering, practice method and technique, especially how to avoid tension in the right hand as it is called upon to play both the soft triplet accompaniment and to project the melodic line on top. Voicing the Right Hand How do we set about voicing the right hand when the main theme comes in? Despite the pp dynamic marking, the upper voice needs to be projected with a firmer tone than the misty triplets underneath. It is helpful to think of two dynamic levels: mp (top voice) and pp (triplets). The following exercises will help with the voicing. The process involves first playing the upper voice at the stronger dynamic, then afterwards the thumb note at the softer dynamic. Gradually allow these two events to happen closer together until you find you can synchronise them: Another practice suggestion that works wonders is to play the upper stave using two hands. Thus the right hand plays the melodic line, and the left hand the accompaniment triplets. Achieving the right sound this way is of course much easier. Once you have the ideal sound […]

New Online Workshops

Our online workshops and events programme for the next few months features a combination of repeats of popular events and new sessions based on requests and feedback from our participants to date. We’re also delighted to welcome two new presenters, Ken Johansen and Penelope Roskell to our programme! The following are some of the events that we have lined up for the summer: Practice Tools (Part 1 & Part 2) – A repeat of Graham Fitch’s Practice Tools workshops which give detailed demonstrations of how to apply various tools to make your practising more effective. Memorisation – By popular request, this new workshop follows-on from the Practice Tools workshops and focuses on methods and techniques for deep learning and memorisation. Developing Sight-reading Skills (Part 1 & Part 2) – A workshop in two parts by Ken Johansen based on his advanced sight-reading curriculum, providing an interactive demonstration of essential sight-reading skills, including eye training and flexibility. Click here for more information or to book your place. Healthy Technique & Injury “Clinic” – Penelope Roskell will be presenting her approach to healthy piano technique, followed by a pianist injury “clinic” in which she will answer questions on preventing and recovering from injury. Click here for more information or to book your place. Piano Technique Workshop – A repeat of Graham Fitch’s workshop on various aspects of piano technique covering topics such as technical fundamentals, scales and arpeggios, building speed and an introduction to the concept of forearm rotation. In addition to these online workshops, we regularly broadcast various free live events from our Facebook page. Videos from past live events can also be watched on our YouTube channel. Further details regarding these events will be announced shortly […]

By |June 25th, 2020|News|0 Comments

Burgmüller’s La candeur

At first glance La candeur, the first of Burgmüller’s twenty-five studies, opus 100, looks like any other elementary study in C major – with a stream of quavers (8th notes) in one hand and some chords in the other. On closer inspection we discover a satisfying musical structure – a clear modulation to the dominant key at the end of the first half, and an effective coda that wraps the piece up, with moments of chromatic colouring that add interest.  When we start singing the lines we discover they are rather lovely (not at all dry or mechanical-sounding), offering us the opportunity to explore melodic shaping and to concentrate on balance between the hands and beauty of tone.  In last week’s post, I introduced my new study editions for Burgmüller’s Op. 100 (La candeur being the first in the set), in which I focus not only on the technical factors but also highlight some compositional techniques used by the composer. This is an important consideration when the ability to analyse becomes necessary further along our musical journey! I have added a number of footnotes to the score that will assist you as you practise. For example, as we approach the climax of La candeur, Burgmüller divides the RH into two lines: This requires a certain amount of coordination and organisation in the hand, hence my suggestions for practice in footnote 7. If you scan the QR code a short video will pop up on your device of me demonstrating how this is done. You will notice that footnote eight points out a stock harmonic progression that can be appreciated even by inquisitive players at the elementary level.  The study editions also contain links to a detailed video walkthrough, as well […]

New Study Editions for Burgmüller’s Op. 100

As readers of my blog will know, I am not a great believer in too much separation of the study of technique from real music. Therefore, when I recommend studies and exercises they have to be really good – either easy to memorise and very much to the point (if an exercise) or on the short side and with enough musical interest to capture the imagination (if a study).   Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Études (Op. 100) have been a mainstay of elementary étude repertoire for many generations – and deservedly so. Like all great études, the study of technique merges with attention to quality of sound and a musical purpose. The musical content of these pieces is on a level with the technical challenges they pose, so that the listener would not necessary realise they have any didactic focus whatsoever. Because each has its own descriptive title, the études inspire imagination and characterisation in the player, elevating the works to the status of real music (as opposed to the dry and boring studies that are so often the diet of pianists). I cannot imagine any young pianist or elementary player who would not immediately engage with this charming set of pieces, or benefit from learning them. Following on from my series of video walk-throughs for the full set of twenty-five études, I’ve been working on creating accompanying study editions to assist you in learning these works. These editions focus not only on the technical considerations but also on the compositional techniques used by the composer – including an appreciation of harmony. Each edition has a number of footnotes that are designed to assist you as you practise. There are also QR codes that can be […]

Simplifying the Score

When we begin work on a new piece, we might feel bewildered by all the information on the page. The score is dense with notes, fingerings, pedallings and other instructions and it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Where do we begin? Starting from the beginning and attempting to process everything at once can often be frustrating and overwhelming, and we feel we are not getting to grips with the piece at all. Making our own simplified versions of the score can be a very useful tool when starting on a new piece, and there are many ways to do it depending on the piece. Not only does it make the music easier to process and digest, it helps with memory too. Blocking Blocking is where we take a passage written in broken chord figuration and practise it as solid chords. For example, let’s look at this Prelude by Bach (the C minor, from Book 1 of the 48) The underlying harmonic progression gives a sense of how to shape the constant stream of semiquavers (16th notes). To discover the chorale (the harmonic framework), play the first two notes in each half bar together thus: In this video, I illustrate a few different examples of blocking, starting with the Bach Prelude (above) and ending with the opening of the slow movement of Mozart’s Sonata in F, K.332. Further reading & resources Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – click here for more information Skeleton Practice – click here to view my Online Academy series on using skeleton practice Annotated Study Edition – click here to purchase my annotated study edition for the Bach Prelude & Fugue featured in this article From the Ground Up […]

A Lesson in Sight-Reading from Julia Child

This weeks’ guest blog post introduces the newly published second part of our advanced sight-reading curriculum by Ken Johansen, associate professor at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and Online Academy contributor. *** *** *** The first requirement of sight-reading is that we keep going and not stop to correct mistakes. This is fundamentally different from practising, where we stop to root out mistakes as soon as they occur. This requirement obliges us, first of all, to choose our sight-reading repertoire carefully, so that we are able to keep going without making too much of a hash of things. Secondly, it means that when mistakes do occur, as they inevitably will, we must be able to sail through them without fear or regret. What Julia Child said about cooking applies equally to sight-reading: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” A “what-the-hell attitude” in sight-reading doesn’t imply that we don’t care about what we’re doing, but that we give priority to our musical experience – our first encounter with an unknown piece of music – rather than to monitoring our success or failure in reading the score accurately. After all, in cooking it is our enjoyment of the food we’ve created, and what we’ve learned from making it, that matters most, not whether or not we’ve followed the recipe in all its details. Such an attitude requires flexibility, not only in the spirit with which we confront challenges, but in the musicianship with which we adapt to them. Just as experienced cooks know how to adapt when the soufflé has collapsed or the roast is undercooked, so experienced sight-readers find ways to […]

New Practice Tools Workshop!

Due to the popularity of our online workshop on the Practice Tools, we are pleased to announce a new follow-on workshop. This second workshop builds on the concepts introduced in the first and introduces additional practice tools, including: How to deconstruct the score to learn pieces more efficiently Using transposition to solve technical problems Inventing exercises from within pieces Using shadow practice for tonal and motor control Deep learning with memory tools such as visualisation and mental practice for deep learning. As with all of our online workshops, the workshop will include opportunities for questions and answers, along with practice worksheets and resources. The session will also be recorded, and all participants will receive a link to download the video. We will also be running a repeat of the initial workshop (Part 1) if you missed one of the sessions in April / May and would like to attend (We recommend attending the first workshop before attending the second). Tickets can be purchased for each workshop individually for £25 or together for both workshops for £40 (please select “Combined Ticket” when purchasing your tickets). Online Academy subscribers get a further 40% off individual or combined tickets. Please use one of the following links to book your place: Part 1 (Saturday 6th June @ 15:00 BST) – Click here for more information or to book tickets. Part 2 (Saturday 13th June @ 15:00 BST) – Click here for more information or to book tickets. Frequently asked questions How do your online workshops work? We use Zoom, a widely used platform to deliver the workshops which is free for participants and easy to use and install. The workshops are presented over video using a combination of camera […]

Tips for a Natural Hand Position

My approach to piano technique is based on using movements that are most natural to the body, movements that are free, loose and that feel good. It is most important that we are in touch with physical sensations as we play – our feet in contact with the ground, freedom in the legs and thighs, support from the piano stool, mobility in the torso, looseness in the shoulders and arm, and not least the absence of tension from our wrists, hands and fingers. Touching the keyboard can feel delicious and sensual, or strong and energetic. It should never feel tight or awkward. Hand position I have read elaborate descriptions for the correct hand position for piano playing, but finding the position is actually surprisingly simple. If you stand up and allow your arm to swing freely from your shoulder, you will discover your palm is facing behind you. Swing your arm up to a table or your piano keyboard and land there. Provided you have not tensed up or done anything to change the hand shape, you will have found your ideal hand position. There will be a natural curve in the fingers, and all the knuckles will be aligned and supported.  Curved, not curled We avoid the two extremes, flat fingers and overly curled fingers because they tend to lead to tension. The natural curve is the best default position for piano playing as it encourages the best coordination.  Don’t isolate the fingers Traditional pedagogy supplied the pianist with copious finger exercises in which each finger was to be lifted high in isolation from the other fingers, which were to remain on the surface of the keyboard. Modern thinking has moved on, and we don’t […]

A Fantasy Analysis of Brahms Op. 118 No. 2

Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in A, op. 118 no. 2 is surely one of the most beloved short piano pieces from the Romantic period. The second from the set of six Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces), op. 118, the A major Intermezzo can stand alone and as such is a very popular choice among good amateur pianists. Who can resist its passionate tenderness, nostalgic mood and the feeling of yearning it evokes? Brahms & Clara Schumann There is a very personal and very touching background story to Brahms’ late piano works. The op. 118 set was written in 1893, towards the end of Brahms life. Along with the others sets of short pieces (op. 116, 117, and 119), these are his final works for the piano. Behind the somewhat bland titles (Intermezzo, Fantasie, Ballade, Romance, Rhapsody, etc.) we find music of great introspection and beauty. Written for Clara Schumann to play in her autumn years these pieces are full of yearning for her and the relationship they might have had. Playing the music without this realisation is to deprive the pianist of this extra dimension. As an aside, for those interested in dated biopics, this short clip from the 1947 movie Song of Love shows the arrival of the 20-year old Brahms to the Schumann household. We can see how smitten Clara (played by Katharine Hepburn) was with Johannes right from the start of their long friendship. Because the A major Intermezzo shows up often in lessons and classes, I decided to make my own set of resources to help players uncover the treasure trove of beautiful things Brahms presents to us, but which can often go unnoticed. I wanted to create the sort of analysis that serves not only those with a background […]