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The Myth of Evenness

This week’s guest blog post features an article on evenness and rhythmic groupings by Ken Johansen with an example from his From the Ground Up edition for Bach’s Prelude in D Minor (BWV 935). *** *** *** For many pianists, playing evenly is a bit of an obsession. We spend long hours trying to make our scales, arpeggios and passage work perfectly smooth and equal. This ideal is embodied in the famous jeu perlé, in which each note is like a pearl on a necklace – separate and identical, though united on the same string. But do we really want every note to be identical? Clearly, we don’t want unintended irregularities of tone or timing, such as bumps on the thumb in scales and arpeggios. Music, however, absolutely requires constant expressive, intended inflections of tone and rhythm. A string of equal notes doesn’t make a musical line. To modify Socrates’s famous saying, the uninflected line isn’t worth hearing. Nowhere is the need for expressive inflection more important, or its absence more noticeable, than in the music of Bach. The continuous sixteenth-note (semiquaver) motion of much of his music seems to invite the kind of uninflected, mechanical playing that used to be called “typewriter” playing. At the same time, the beauty of Bach’s writing can inspire playing of great rhythmic subtlety and vitality. For Bach designs motives and melodies to have a built-in momentum and rhythmic drive. He does this in the subtlest of ways using the simplest of means – namely, the intervals and melodic changes of direction he chooses. This subtlety is on full display in the Prelude in D minor, BWV 935, currently set in the Trinity College London piano examination syllabus, Grade […]

Top Tips: Bar by Bar Practice

I would like to share a very helpful tip for when you need to begin somewhere other than the start of a section or phrase during practice.  You’ve identified the need for greater security, and are practising bar by bar. The rule is to play from the first note of a bar and stop on the first note of the next bar, resisting the temptation to carry on past this point. This is great for control, and also for memory work. It does take a fair amount of discipline and concentration though. Having played the bar, we stop, remove our hands from the keyboard and reflect on our results  Were the notes all correct? Did I play rhythmically, with flow, dynamics, organisation and shaping? Did it feel and sound good? If not, you’ll need to repeat the bar until your inner quality control inspector gives it the green light before moving on to the next bar. But let’s say you get to a bar that starts with a tied note – how do you accommodate that? If you leave that note out you create a problem, because you are not accounting for the finger whose job it is to be resting in that particular key at the precise moment you play the other notes. Playing the note where the tie originates is certainly an option, but my preference is to put the key down silently ahead of time so the finger is in its place the moment we start. In the third bar of this example from the D minor Fugue from Bach’s WTC (Book 1), first put down the Bb with your RH 5th finger silently (a useful skill in itself) and you’ll be ready […]

The Trinity College London Series

Good news! The Online Academy Trinity Series is now complete, and in this post I shall be looking at a representative selection of pieces from some of the grades. In the full series, each piece that we’ve featured comes with some teaching notes and a detailed video tutorial – here are samples and excerpts from the most recent works published: Nathalie Béra-Tagrine: Conversation (Grade Initial) Let’s start with Nathalie Béra-Tagrine’s Conversation. This is an excellent little study in combined touches, beginning with three-note drop-roll slurs in the right hand against a legatoline in the left. There is plenty of articulation detail to work on here between the hands, relying on mobility in the arms and hands.  Felicitas Kukuck: The Rowboat (Grade 2) The Rowboat is a miniature tone picture relying on imagination and a sense of storyline to convey the musical message. What story is this piece telling? Remember this is personal, and every player can come up with their own version of what is going on – for them. Sensitivity to phrasing, developing a cantabiletouch and the technique of chord legato are explored in this video. Here is a snippet of it. Michael Proksch: And Now Let’s Handel (Grade 5) German composer Michael Proksch gives us a fun piece in neo-baroque style. And Now Let’s Handelfeatures a simple harmonic progression based on a cycle of fifths that repeats three times, each time with a different texture. The quaver patterns give each hand in turn the opportunity to develop forearm rotation while shaping the line. In this video extract, I demonstrate the technique. Joaquín Turina: Fiesta (Grade 7) Fiesta is one of a set of eight pieces entitled Miniaturesby Spanish composer Joaquín Turina. It makes a very effective recital piece for […]

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. […]

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