General tips

Write it Out!

I first published this post way back in June, 2013, and it has been buried in the archives ever since. I decided to update it and republish after the subject of copying out music by hand came up in a recent lesson. You can do this from the score or from memory. ***   ***   *** Back in the 90s when I used to commute from London to New York each month to see students there, I was thinking of a profitable way of filling in the flying time. During that period, I was preparing for my first few performances of The Goldberg Variations and decided to do something I had heard Rosalyn Tureck speak about – write out the piece from memory in manuscript. Naturally, this took many hours over the course of some months, but I succeeded in doing it and it was a real eye-opener. Did I know the music absolutely, or was I relying on fingers slyly drumming on my tray table to prod me when I hit a blank? In all honesty, I probably did recourse to some mile-high finger twiddling but my aim was to draw on my ear and my brain, which I managed to do by and large but certainly not perfectly. It was an exercise that proved far from easy, but I am extremely glad I did it. It gave me extra confidence that I ended up knowing the piece deeply from memory. This was going to extremes, I fully recognise (frankly, life is too short). However, I often do find myself writing out a small section (it might be a bar or two, or a phrase) that does not seem to succumb to the rigours of routine practising. […]

A Useful Research Tool

I was working with someone on the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven this week. The rhythmic organisation of the trill in bar 3 was not clear to me, so I asked to hear this bar slowly. Slowing the trill down proved a bit of a challenge, so I came up with a solution along the lines suggested by Artur Schnabel in his landmark edition. The principle here is that since a trill has a finite number of notes, it greatly assists performer and listener if these notes can be accounted for metrically. Here is Schnabel’s first recommendation: He goes on to give an alternative, but more difficult version: So which to choose, and are there other possibilities? I often find myself advising students to practise two or three strict versions of trills (if possible) in order that a freer version might emerge spontaneously in performance. And speaking of performances, we can easily research the vast number of different recordings available on YouTube using a simple tool hidden within the settings. This feature enables us to slow the speed down so that fast surface detail becomes clear and audible – at three-quarters, half or a quarter speed. The slower the setting, the lower the sound quality and of course the musical meaning is almost entirely lost. But how useful to discover how other pianists organise details such as this trill! I have made a short video to show you how to do it. ***   ***   *** If you enjoyed this article then please click here if you’d like to sign-up to our mailing list to receive future articles, content updates and special offers. You may also be interested in the following resources: Practising the Piano eBook […]

On Rhythm: Classical v Romantic

Have you considered there might be a different way of playing rhythmically depending on the style period? I’m not talking about rhythmic conventions (such as double dotting, rhythmic assimilation, etc.), but how we organise the relationships between long and short notes, where we might take time, and where to do so would disturb the music. Leon Fleisher explains this beautifully using the famous theme from the 18th Variation from Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. He plays it in two ways – one Romantic (the way this piece should of course be done), and the other Classical (to illustrate his point). This sort of rhythmic articulation and shaping is a million miles away from the tyranny of the metronomic beat. As I have discussed before, too much metronome practice will tend to kill natural rhythm – but as I eavesdrop in institutional practice room corridors I am struck by how many pianists are using it as the backbone of their daily practice. While there are some effective ways of using this tool, coinciding each beat of the music to a metronome click is a very good way of filling in practice time without necessarily achieving anything helpful at all. We’ve all experienced how occasional, focussed metronome practice can help stabilise a wayward pulse by drawing attention to those places where we might be rushing or dawdling, but we have to be very careful about this or we risk ending up flattening out the natural ebb and flow of the music until we sound like a robot. Consider the opening of Schubert’s first Moment Musical in C, op 94 no 1. Marked Moderato, this looks like it should be played pretty much in time, right? I sampled 5 random elite recordings from YouTube, and found that […]

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 […]

Top Tips for Choosing Fingering

If you are a serious student of the piano you will certainly want to use an Urtext edition where applicable. Some Urtext scores come with no fingering, but others contain fingerings that are by an editor. The fingerings might be excellent (they often are not, by the way), but because this is one level of the score that is not usually Urtext (namely from the composer) they do not have to be obeyed. What about fingerings that do come from the composers themselves – are we duty-bound to stick to these? Absolutely not! The composer’s hand was also unique, just like yours and mine. There can be no standardisation of fingering, no matter whether it is from the composer, an editor, or a teacher. The only correct fingering is the one that works for your hand. Fingering in any score is a suggestion only! Once a fingering has been selected, practising always with that fingering means that after a while the series of finger strokes will become automated – we will not have to think about which finger goes where because when we master a new motor skill, we go from active effort (thinking and concentrating) to automatic ability. If we haven’t taken the trouble to organise a good fingering or we practise with different fingerings each time, we make life difficult for ourselves – especially if we are preparing a memorised performance. Practice makes permanent, so whatever we engrave on our motor cortex is going to stick. This is why it is very difficult to correct embedded errors later – and this includes sloppy fingering. I have just written three articles on fingering for Pianist Magazine – the first two are already published, and the third (on redistribution) […]

6 Helpful Tips for Using Our Products & Services

In order to continually improve our products and services, we regularly review correspondence and support queries from our readership. Therefore we thought it might be helpful to compile a listing of tips provided in response to some of the most common questions just in case they are useful to you. We’re also making a few updates to our various systems in order to comply with the new General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”), that comes into effect May 25, 2018. As part of these updates, we’re  consolidating our various mailing lists and are making a number of improvements which will make it much easier for you to manage and customise the content you receive from us. Therefore we’ve also included some further information on this process (#1) and how you can use these new features to manage your email preferences. #1 Manage your email subscriptions and preferences If you would like to sign-up for any of our mailing lists then please click here. If you are already subscribed then we will need you to confirm whether you would still like to receive content from us. You can do this by visiting this form and entering your email address and clicking “Subscribe”. You will then be able to request an email with a link to a form for updating your preferences. You can also update your preferences via your Online Academy account if you have one (further details are provided below) or using the “Update Subscription Preferences” link in the footer of any of the emails that we send you. If you have an Online Academy account then you can also click here (you will need to sign-in first) or visit “My Account” and then “Click here to edit email preferences” to subscribe, […]

Practice Tips from Itzhak Perlman

There are many parallels between piano playing and string playing, and a lot we pianists can learn from violinists about phrasing, timing, tone and much more besides. One of the great violinists of our age is undoubtedly Itzhak Perlman, who has spoken a fair bit about practising. The violin, that is. But I think you’ll find you can apply the same ideas to your piano practice, and I am delighted to be able to share some of the maestro’s pearls of wisdom here today. As it happens these ideas, which come from experience and the great lineage he has come from, are almost identical to the ones I have inherited from my rich pianistic legacy. What’s the deal about practising? How long should one practise? Lots of people think the more you practise the better this is. Perlman advocates no more than 4 or 5 hours a day (and those are psychotherapist’s hours, 50 minutes with a 10 minute break). You won’t absorb anything after this, and you can cause yourself little physical problems if you persist. Think of a sponge, which can only absorb a certain amount of water. If you pour more water onto a saturated sponge the water will trickle off and become wasted. On Slow Practice Perlman stresses the need for slow practice, in small sections. Also, your practice has to be mindful, not mindless. Have an agenda, and know what you want to achieve. Don’t repeat anything without hearing what you’re doing, because whatever you practise you embed. It’s also important to have patience. If something sounds great on Monday, and it doesn not sound so good on Tuesday, don’t give up! It means that it’s not yet there. Keep […]

Shifting Accents

I was brought up with a very craftsmanlike attitude to practising, and was shown concrete practice tools that I was supposed to implement between lessons. When I pass these on to my own students, I can always hear to what extent they have taken them on board. I understand the reluctance to fully embrace some of the work necessary to construct solid and permanent foundations for mastering a piece because it can take quite a bit of time and effort, and a leap of faith that the practice methods will actually yield tangible results later. And sometimes during this process we have to wait patiently before we get to enjoy the emotional and visceral impact of the music we are studying – at this stage, the satisfaction comes from the construction process itself. I find this seriously enjoyable, but I realise not everyone does. People study the piano for different reasons, and not everyone will want to follow a practice path that involves a fair bit of dedication, discipline and effort. But if you want to experience a level of skill and reliability in performance that goes way beyond the hit-and-miss results that come from repeatedly reading through a piece in the hope that it will improve, then read on. I was browsing through Book 1 of Alberto Jonas’ Master School of Piano Playing and Virtuosity and came across some preparatory exercises for the notorious finale of Chopin’s Bb minor Sonata. The idea is very simple, actually. You practise with shifting accents, moving the accent from its metrical place in the bar (where we would naturally feel the beats) one note across. Once you have heard and felt it this way, with complete technical control, you move it […]

At the Noodle Bar: Practice Tips for a Chord Stream

I have just featured the hauntingly beautiful B minor Intermezzo of Brahms (from the op 119 set) in a series of video demonstrations for Trinity College London on their new piano syllabus. This work appears in the Grade 8 list and will pose some challenges to the candidates who choose to master it, mostly to do with finding the right sound. It’s the change of texture in the second section in D major that I am interested in today (at the end of the first system after the double bar). I am struck by how Brahms lays out the RH chords by first presenting the middle notes, tying them over and then adding the outer notes. Apart from supplying rhythmic flow this way of breaking the chords encourages us not to voice too brightly to the top but to find a chocolatey warmth and richness for our sound from the middle notes. Staggering the chord layout is of course a great way to practise any chord stream. Practising chords from the inside out and from the outside in helps us achieve superlative tonal and technical control. I have been doing this for years and my students find it works wonders for them. I have chosen just one short example to take to the noodle bar today, a tricky LH chord stream from the Ravel Sonatine (bars 54 and 55). Online Academy’s Study Edition I have published a study edition of Ravel’s Sonatine, available through the Online Academy. It features video clips demonstrating various features of the work, together with footnotes, video walkthroughs and score examples with exercises. I hope you will it a valuable resource as you practise this piece. For details, follow this link ***   ***   *** […]

Hold Me, I’m a Fermata!

Following on from last week’s post on rests, I’m going to move on to the fermata – or the pause. We find this marked on rests as well as on notes, and also on bar lines. What is a fermata, and how long do we hold it for? Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians tells us the fermata “signifies that the note over which it is placed should be held on beyond its natural duration”, but how long is a piece of string? The pause might indicate nothing much more than a lift or a short breath, or something much more obvious and dramatic. The good news is there is no fixed rule. Some fermatas are vocal in inspiration, reflecting how a singer would hold on to a special note in a line in bel canto aria. If you are not familiar with this particular type of operatic style you’re going to find it very hard to bring off the fermata at the end of the first paragraph of Liszt’s Un sospiro, for example. Notice how Claudio Arrau spreads out the semiquavers at the end bar 11 to accommodate the singing line as the F is held. Harold Bauer does it differently, by suspending the accompaniment until the top F is ready to resolve, and playing the semiquavers with a forward direction over the bar line. On the piano we have to factor in the natural decay of tone – meaning that every sound we make has a finite life before we end it or allow it to blend into silence. Sometimes we want to make the most of the silences after we finish a piece by holding on until there is no sound left at […]

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