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Perspectives on Technique

Like many of us, I have come from an eclectic background as a pianist. There are strong influences from the British School, with its emphasis on craftsmanship (especially in the practice room), the German school, with its focus on musical structure and clarity of thought, and not least the great modern Russian School (the Neuhaus line from Nina Svetlanova), with its rich traditions of pianism, artistry and attention to creating an incredible sound. Since one of my teachers studied in Paris with Marguerite Long and another with Artur Rubinstein, there will be some French and Central Europe in there too. I also undertook an in-depth study of what has become known as the Taubman Method from a student of Dorothy Taubman in New York, and I worked for a time with piano guru Peter Feuchtwanger in London on his various exercises. No description of my background would be complete without acknowledging the enormous debt I owe to Leon Fleisher, whose weekly classes for piano majors at Peabody during 1982 were among the highlights of my pianistic education. And of course my masterclass and subsequent lessons with Andras Schiff in the early 80s were hugely influential. My own approach to piano technique is therefore rich and varied with all these various influences, and I have found it possible to use the best parts of all of them. Consequently I do not subscribe to the view that there is one correct way to play the piano – rather many different and equally valid ways depending on the physiology, mind and aesthetics of the individual. In my video lecture series on technique on the Online Academy, I offer some very detailed instructions on how to achieve results at […]

Take a Rest

When it comes to what ought to go on in a practice session, we would do well to recall the saying attributed to the famous pedagogue, Theodore Leschetizsky: “Think Ten Times and Play Once”. In his excellent (but now out of print) book, Practising the Piano, Leschetizky’s student, Frank Merrick, recounts some advice in one of his last lessons with the master. I advise you very often to stop and listen when you are practising and then you will find out a great deal for yourself. Frank Merrick: Practising the Piano Merrick suggests we should sing through a phrase (or musical unit) before we play it – in real time, not at fast-forward speed. If the music lends itself to actual singing, then so much the better; if you feel more comfortable imagining the phrase, that’s fine too. But sing or imagine it in as much detail as you can before you play it, so you have something tangible to aim for when you play. After you have played the phrase, stop for a moment and reflect. Did your playing match your intentions? If not, in what ways and where – precisely – did it fall short? This moment of reflection is a very important part of the practice session, and critical to the learning process. However, it is all too easy to skimp on this because we pianists tend to believe that piano practice is all about physical manipulation of the keyboard – that every second of our allotted time should be filled with sound.  According to new research, National Institutes of Health team members found that by taking a short ten-second break our brains may solidify the memories of new skills we just practised a few […]

The Practice Tools Lecture Series

I am very pleased to announce a new video lecture series on the practice tools available now on the Online Academy. The Practice Tools What are the practice tools? There are some instances where in a lesson a word of instruction can cause the playing to change immediately, but there are plenty of other occasions when we need to go through a process in our practice room to achieve a certain intended result – learning notes, finessing and polishing, and correcting sloppiness. This is rather like a course of medication, one pill will probably not make that much difference – it is the cumulative effect of the whole course that counts. Another analogy is that of a gardener. If I am planning a new garden, I will first need to have a vision of how I want the garden to look when it is finished. Then I will need to prepare the soil, which will probably involve a bit of spade work and some hard graft. Now, the real gardener will tell you that all this is part and parcel of it, taking pleasure in all the stages from start to finish. There is a certain amount of patience needed to delay gratification and not to skimp on the first stages. If I don’t fertilise my soil, aerate it, add worms to it or whatever else gardeners must do, I can’t expect my plants and flowers to blossom, grow and withstand the frosts and hardships of winter. So when I outline a specific practising activity, I also underscore the importance of doing this type of work daily with full concentration, resisting the overwhelming temptation to finish off the practice session by playing the piece at […]

Introduction to the Practice Tools

I’m pleased to announce my new course, Introducing the Practice Tools, which is taking place on Saturday, 13th of July 2019 at the Victoria Park Plaza Hotel in central London.  Aimed at teachers and pianists at an intermediate level or above, this one-day course is based on my eBook Series and blog. It will introduce highly effective strategies which will assist you and your students in getting the most out of time spent practising the piano. The course will be delivered in an innovative, interactive format with introductory presentations followed by breakout sessions. Each participant will have their own private digital piano with headphones to test out a particular practice skill. There will be plenty of opportunity for feedback with question and answer sessions forming the backbone of the day. The following topics will be covered: Introduction: An overview of the practice tools Using the feedback loop: How to plan and focus your practice session for maximum benefit in every area. Slow practice: How to use ultra-slow speeds for learning notes, correcting errors and finessing sound, and when not to use it! Gaining speed: We explore two methods of taking a piece from the slow stages to performance speed, developing fluency and accuracy as well as ease and grace. Repetition in practice: We form habits by repetition, but only perfect practice makes perfect. In this session we learn how to manage repetition in our practice mindfully and creatively to achieve tangible, lasting results. Preparatory materials for breakout sessions will be provided in advance and all participants will receive handouts and complimentary online access to my video lecture series on the Practice Tools (valued at £20). Please note that participants will not be required to play in front of […]

Arpeggiation in Piano Playing

I first published this post in July of 2016. Here it is again with one or two updates – including a link to the Online Academy’s series on spread chords, and the recent video I made for Pianist Magazine. ***   ***   *** I once attended a piano recital where the pianist continually broke the hands, so that the right hand sounded slightly after the left. He did this consistently with all the repertoire on his programme regardless of its period, and after a very short time indeed this had become a major distraction to me. I found I was unable to enjoy the music or appreciate the playing, it was irritating in the extreme. However, there was a time in the history of piano playing where this sort of desynchronisation of the hands was actually part of style. If you were trained in Leipzig in the nineteenth century you would certainly have done this without giving it a second thought, as well as arpeggiating chords at the drop of a hat. Here is Carl Reinecke in a piano roll recorded in 1905 of the Larghetto from Mozart’s K537. How times change – this style of playing, while prevalent at the time, would simply not be acceptable nowadays. If this style were based on performance traditions from Mozart’s day, you might expect modern fortepianists to have picked up on it. This cleanly articulated performance by Malcolm Bilson shows otherwise; it is (mercifully) free of such excesses. Last week I wrote about how Beethoven himself spread the opening chord in his Fourth Piano Concerto. In the Baroque period, keyboard players routinely rolled chords for expressive purposes –  either slow or fast, downwards as well as upwards. There were signs to indicate this […]

Burgmüller’s Op. 100

Burgmüller’s charming set of 25 studies, the Easy and Progressive Études (Op 100) still manages to sound fresh after all these years, and continues to inspire intermediate pianists. Each étude is short and to the point, with a descriptive title to stimulate the imagination. The technique always serves a musical goal, and because they are so well written each is useful as a way to learn about harmony, as well as form and structure. In my Online Academy series on op. 100, I take each étude in turn. You will find a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough that highlights the learning outcomes, with advice on the technical aspects as well as how to practise. So far, we are up to no. 18 and look forward to completing the series within the next few weeks. A short while back I wrote a blog post featuring short excerpts about the first five études, in this post I’m going to look at the next few – Progrés, Le courant limpide, La gracieuse and La chasse. 6. Progrès We return to C major for this lively, cheerful piece entitled Progrès (Progress). With touches of laughter suggested by the staccato quavers, this study celebrates the pleasure in making progress, featuring scales in parallel tenths, a contrary motion scale, changes of touch from legato to staccato, rapid changes in hand position with jumps in both hands, and syncopated slurs. Some of the patterns we find in Progrès can be practised not only upwards as written, but also backwards – on a loop, repeating up and back until fluent and comfortable. In this snippet from my full-length video demonstration, I look at how to practise the semiquavers in a dotted rhythm (long-short, and short-long), a good exercise […]

Top Tips #1: Start Anywhere!

I first published this post on top tips in October, 2015. I am republishing it now, with a couple of updates. ***   ***   *** The first of an occasional series of tips – these are quick and easy to read, and I hope they will be useful in your practice. Top Tips #1: Start Anywhere! When you have thoroughly learned a piece and you’re getting it ready for a performance or an exam, it’s a great idea to be easily able to start from anywhere in the piece. Left to your own devices you would probably start in a comfortable place, such as the beginning of a phrase or section. That’s fine, but for a challenge use a random number generator to decide for you where to start. 1. Figure out the number of bars in your piece – let’s say it’s 87 bars long 2. In the Min field, enter 1. In the Max field, enter 87 3. Press the Generate button 4. Play from the bar that comes up – not the bar before or after for convenience but the bar specified, even if it is in the middle of a phrase There are many ways to do this – make a decision beforehand how far you’re going to play on from the bar you started at. It could be 1 bar, or 4 bars – whatever! Tracking If you have divided your piece into sections, you can use the random number generator for that too. For details of this approach, click here. Tied Notes If the bar you land on has tied notes, depress the key(s) silently before you begin. Here’s why… ***   ***   *** If you enjoyed this article then please click here if you’d […]

Vandalising Mozart’s K. 331?

In 2014, an amazing discovery was made in the National Széchényi Library in Budapest – a four-page fragment of part of Mozart’s Sonata in A major, K. 331, in the composer’s own handwriting. As a result, new editions have been able to correct some small errors on the part of the first edition by Artaria (Vienna, 1784) that pianists have been playing wrongly for over two centuries. The story is an extremely exciting one – you can read all about it on the sonata’s very own website. Bärenreiter’s 2017 edition I wonder how many players who invest in elite Urtext editions actually bother to read the prefaces? The 2017 Bärenreiter edition not only informs us about the genesis of the work, but also provides an evaluation of the sources as well as helpful notes on performance practice by Mario Aschauer. These notes give information about the types of pianos Mozart would have played – very useful when it comes to making decisions about pedalling, touch and articulation – and the always-tricky subject of ornamentation. Staccato dots and strokes The notation for different lengths and qualities of staccato differs depending on the composer and the style period. According to the preface of the Bärenreiter edition, the staccato stroke was, for Mozart, interchangeable with the staccato dot.  A particular problem of Mozart philology is the reproduction of staccato marks [the staccato dot or the staccato stroke]. The first edition of K. 331 exclusively uses strokes, except for the combination with slurs (portato) where dots are used. Mozart’s autograph features dots and strokes, but above all numerous intermediate forms that cannot be easily identified. In addition, Mozart occasionally notates simultaneously dots and strokes in different voices…or in parallel passages, one time […]

An Elizabethan Gem

When Trinity College London commissioned me to write the teaching notes for the advanced grades of the current syllabus, I was delighted to discover a little gem by William Byrd heading up the Grade 6 group A pieces. The Coranto gives the intermediate player an excellent opportunity to explore music of one of the leading Elizabethan virginalist composers, and learn a bit about the style. William Byrd (c.1540-1623) was an English composer of the Renaissance period, remembered for his church music, choral works, consort music and pieces for keyboard. This Coranto is among his many contributions to an important collection of keyboard music from the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, known as The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. A virginal (or pair of virginals) is a rectangular type of harpsichord, smaller and simpler in construction. The sound is produced by quills that pluck the strings, creating a crisp and incisive tone quality. A coranto is a type of triple-meter dance common in instrumental music from the period (the title literally means “running”). Annotated Study Edition Byrd’s example is lively in spirit, and needs to be articulated cleanly, especially with regard to the ornaments (indicated by diagonal slashes). It is advisable to practise the piece without the ornaments at first, adding them in very lightly only when you have developed some fluency. In my annotated study edition and online resources for this work, I give some written-out realisations of the ornaments, and above each ornament suggest one or two options for how they might be done. You might experiment until you find the ornament design that you prefer on each occasion. Unlike ornament symbols from other periods, there is no ornament chart for Elizabethan music and the same diagonal-slash sign is used for […]

Silent Movie

First published in March, 2015, I decided to republish this post on the importance of imagination in preparing for performance. ***   ***   *** Someone recently asked me what I think about when I am performing, and whether this is different from what I think about when I practise. Very good question – I am going to aim to address it here. When I practise, I need to listen very critically and analytically to what I am doing. Practising involves experimentation and working often in small sections at a variety of different speeds – with frequent stops.  Performing is all about letting go of self consciousness, getting into a flow state and communicating the message of the music to the listener. Essentially practising is more a thinking activity, and performance a feeling one. The critical inner voice is therefore necessary in practice, but a liability if we bring it with us onto the concert platform or the exam room. I don’t want to be consciously thinking about fingering or pedalling on the stage, or judging myself. Concentration is very necessary, but what is it that I’m concentrating on exactly? For more on the different states involved in practice and performance, follow this link to my blog post Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills Total Immersion I once gave a class at which a student presented Des Abends from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. She played accurately and fluently but she clearly hadn’t any idea of what the piece was all about. I asked her what the title meant, and she told me she didn’t know. I explained it was German for “of the evening” and that this was a gentle picture of dusk where atmosphere, calm and stillness are paramount. I […]

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