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Tips for Improving Your Sight-Reading

Improving your sight-reading is not just about getting a good score in an examination. It enables you to derive more pleasure from your playing through discovering new music and broadening your repertoire. It also opens up more possibilities for enjoying making music with others. As with any skill, it requires practice and can be challenging to develop. The following are some tips to help make sight-reading less daunting and practising it more enjoyable! Use pieces you like – Instead of playing through numerous dry exercises, find pieces you want to play and treat your sight-reading as a journey of discovery. There are many collections of varying styles on sites like the Petrucci Music Library which are suitable for sight-reading. Examples at an intermediate to advanced level include Bach Chorales, Czerny Studies, Schumann’s Album for the Young and Bartok’s For Children. Keep your eyes on the score – Avoid looking at your hands and focus on the score. You can test your ability to do this with this diagnostic test and this simple, but effective device can also be useful for training your eyes. Read ahead – Our natural tendency is to look at the notes we are currently playing, but this leaves no time to prepare the next move. Reading ahead is one of the most important skills in sight-reading. A good place to start is to use natural resting places e.g. long chords, phrase endings, fermatas as opportunities to look ahead. You can also use this app which provides an interactive way to develop this skill. Keep going – Sight-reading is different to practising because it requires us to play a piece straight through, without stopping to correct errors. A more flexible attitude is required to keep […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus – Grade 4

Continuing my exploration of the new ABRSM syllabus, this week I am having a look at the pieces in the main book for Grade 4 (click here to view my previous post featuring Grade 3, and click here to view Grade 2). The following video is a preview where I highlight one piece from each list (A, B, and C) for the grade: The complete collection of video walk-throughs for ABRSM Grade 4 is now available on the Online Academy and includes detailed video walk-throughs with practice suggestions, tips on style and interpretation. Please click here to view if you are an Online Academy subscriber or click here if you’d like to to subscribe. You can get further updates on my resources for the ABRSM syllabus by signing up for our mailing list here and subscribing to our YouTube channel for additional video previews.  The following are brief overviews of each of the main pieces (an index with links to the full videos on the Online Academy is available here): LIST A J. S. Bach: Prelude in C minor, BWV 999  Built from a harmonic progression and originally written for lute we can recreate some of the resonance of that instrument either by short touches of pedal, or by overholding some notes of the broken chords.  Kabalevsky: Etude in A minor (No. 3 from 30 Children’s Pieces, Op. 27)  A valuable étude for the lower intermediate player that will accelerate technical development, this piece is built from familiar scale patterns in right hand against a simpler left hand featuring slurred quaver pairs. It makes an excellent recital piece.  Schubert: Minuet and Trio, D. 41 No. 21  An elegant minuet and trio with some pleasing chromatic touches, this pair of dances is full of interest as well as challenges […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus – Grade 3

I’m currently in the process of producing an extensive collection of resources for the syllabus on my Online Academy. These include detailed video walk-throughs providing practice suggestions, tips on style and interpretation and other ideas for each of the main pieces (from initial to Grade 8), and a selection of alternative pieces. Continuing my exploration of the new ABRSM syllabus, this week I am having a look at the pieces in the main book for Grade 3 (click here to view my previous post featuring Grade 2). But first here is a preview where I highlight one piece from each list (A, B, and C), as a taster of the type of content you’ll find in the Online Academy’s ABRSM resources: The following are brief overviews of each of the main pieces (an index with links to the full videos for my ABRSM resources on the Online Academy is available here): LIST A Beethoven: Ecossaise in E (No. 4 from Six Ecossaises, WoO 83)  A lively dance in 2/4 time, an ecossaise is actually the French word for “Scottish”! Flexibility in the right hand is necessary to avoid tension, and flexibility in the pulse (while not indicated in the score) is essential to bring grace and elegance at the start, and then some forward movement in the forte ending. Burgmüller: Innocence (No. 5 from 25 études faciles et progressives, Op.100)  A study in delicacy of touch and articulation, tonal balance between the hands and control of scale patterns in the upper register, Innocence gives plenty of scope for developing an understanding of harmony. The beauty of Burgmüller’s études is that they develop musical as well as technical skills.  Handel: Gavotte in G, HWV 491  A model of symmetry and tightly organised musical structure, Handel’s Gavotte […]

Online Workshops Update

We’ve expanded our increasingly popular online workshops programme further this month by adding sessions on several new topics. The first of these were on developing sight-reading skills and healthy piano playing. The next workshops towards the end of the month will look at memorisation and learning new pieces. Sight-Reading & Healthy Piano Playing In our first event of the month, Ken Johansen provided an interactive demonstration of how to develop sight-reading skills. Based on his advanced sight-reading curriculum, Ken shared his structured approach to training the eye and adopting a flexible attitude in order to keep going no matter what! “This has been the most useful and comprehensive set of strategies I have found for working on sight reading. I feel enthused!” The next sessions featured expert in healthy piano playing and pianists injuries, Penelope Roskell. In the first part, Penelope introduced key principles behind a healthy technique and demonstrated her “parachute” touch for controlling arm weight and minimising effort. The second part was an injury clinic in which Penelope responded in detail to numerous questions from our audience all over the globe! “Thank you so much for the sessions today. This was the best event I have ever attended and more successful than I could have imagined a Zoom meeting could be. Penelope was so generous with her advice and I have learned so much that will stop me incurring further injury!” We are planning on repeating these sessions due to their popularity. Therefore please sign-up for our mailing list if you missed them and would like notifications of future dates. Learning Pieces & Memorisation Our next workshops will be presented by Graham Fitch on Friday 31st July. The first features a step-by-step guide to learning […]

The New ABRSM Syllabus

It was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of the initial selection committee for the 2021-2022 piano syllabus (grades 5-8), published last week. Along with two colleagues from the Piano Teachers’ Course UK, I spent a happy day or two browsing the library of scores in the ABRSM’s main London offices. I also received a fair number of scores through the post from various publishing houses, and got to try out loads of music (familiar and unfamiliar). In addition to this, I went through my own substantial library of scores and from all of these sources and compiled my selection. There was a subsequent committee who made the final choices, so I was not sure of the final repertoire until the exam books arrived last week. On receiving them, it was very exciting to see some of my choices in the books! I’m currently in the process of producing an extensive collection of resources for the syllabus on my Online Academy. These will include detailed video walk-throughs providing practice suggestions, tips on style and interpretation and other ideas for each of the main pieces (from initial to Grade 8), and a selection of alternative pieces. I kick off this week with a very brief overview of the Grade 2 syllabus, choosing one example from each of the three lists (A, B, and C). This will give you a taster of the sort of content to expect in the very near future. Overviews and preview videos for other grades are available via the following links: Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6 and Grade 7. *** The complete collection of video walk-throughs for ABRSM Grade 2 is now available on the Online Academy. […]

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. Click here for more information or to book your place. 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. Click here for more information or to book your place. 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 […]

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 […]