General tips

Which Hand?

It is an integral part of my own work to practise each hand alone on occasion. I have a little twist on this though, because I will expect my left hand to be able to play the music the right hand needs to play, and of course the other way around too. If I can do this comfortably and accurately from memory, then I know I know the music on a deeper level than just from muscle memory – and this gives me greater security in performance. Even with my younger students, if we need to work on one hand by itself, I might ask for it with the “wrong” hand on the last repetition – just to see how well they really know it. And if they are working on an étude, such as Burgmüller’s Arabesque, op 100, no 2, it would be a shame if we did not take the opportunity for the left hand to develop the same skills as the right hand has to acquire. So, we practise little exercises in contrary motion with both hands together based on the three- and five-note slur patterns the right hand plays in the étude. It takes only a little extra effort but adds huge value: These ideas are nothing new. Chopin’s first Etude from the opus 10 set is a tour de force for the right hand, the left hand just planting down octaves. The great virtuoso, Leopold Godowsky recreated this work not once but twice, involving the left hand fully. In fact, the second version is for left hand alone. Here is the first version, played by Marc-André Hamelin. And here is the second version, for left hand alone, played by Ivan Ilić. A while […]

By |September 14th, 2017|General tips|3 Comments

At the Noodle Bar: Developing Speed in Grieg’s Puck

This is the first in a new series I’m calling “At the Noodle Bar”, where I take a question or a problem and noodle with it at the piano. Here is a question that reached me from Dean from Perth, Western Australia. Dean writes: Q. “I have been having tremendous fun discovering the endless repertoire of classical piano (rather than doing things to pass grades), I came across a piece which I am finding challenging to get up to speed. I was browsing through your website and came across your two blog entries on double notes, and wondered how you might recommend practicing this. Specifically, it’s the double notes that are found embedded adjacent to some single-note quavers, first occurrence in bar 3 of Grieg’s Op 71 no 3 (“Puck“) in the right hand. This kind of pattern repeats its self several times throughout the rest of the piece. Playing this at half tempo is fine, but as soon as I try to speed things up a little bit, I find that I can no longer play the thirds precisely at the same time, making the whole thing sound sloppy. I have tried practising this slowly and staccato, with limited success. Have no idea how one might get this up to the 176 minim per minute!? Listening to various different performances online, it appears to be at least humanly possible to get it fast and crisp, but have absolutely no idea how one might go about practicising this, and if a staccato approach is even productive? This performance appears to be up to the tempo of Grieg’s intentions.” A. Thanks so much for this excellent question, Dean. It raises some interesting points. There is no […]

Developing Sight Reading Skills

I get a lot of questions about how to improve sight reading. Teachers don’t seem to find the time to cover it in lessons, meaning students have little incentive to practise it at home. And yet the ability to read and process information readily from the printed score is surely one of the most important skills they should be acquiring? Players with weak reading skills often have good muscle memory, they are able to look away from the printed page quite early on in the note learning process – little wonder their reading skills suffer when their eyes are permanently focussed on the fingers. Sight reading involves assimilating information from the page and decoding it on the spot. The ability to do this presupposes a certain amount of theoretical knowledge (another area that is sorely neglected), but the single most important factor in getting good at it is to be doing it regularly. With Other Musicians Sitting at home ploughing through dreary sight reading tests just doesn’t seem to cut it. Even though you know you’re not supposed to stop for mistakes, you just hate getting it wrong. You’re not inspired and you can’t wait to move on to more interesting things – such as your pieces. A great way to develop sight reading skills is to play with other musicians. Duets or music for two pianos, collaborating with singers, instrumentalists or choirs – I suggest finding any situation where you cannot stop under any circumstances (or you’ll be letting the side down). Singing teachers, instrumental teachers and choir directors who don’t have a pianist would be grateful for your efforts, no matter how rudimentary they may be to begin with. You will get better as you go on, […]

Rediscovering Bach’s Prelude in C

The C major Prelude from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C (Book 1 of the WTC) is very familiar to us all. This beautiful progression of harmony in broken chord texture continues to inspire generations of keyboard players. Here it is as a chorale. Play it first as solid chords – faster than Bach’s broken patterns allow – to get a stronger sense of the progression in this pure form. If you’re uncertain how to play this Prelude expressively, all you have to do is feel the rising and falling levels of intensity implied by the harmonic progression. This map from Siglind Bruhn’s analysis of the work is a useful guide. For those who have a knack for improvisation, see what you can make from these harmonies. French Romantic composer Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria consists of a melody especially designed to be superimposed over the Prelude – and very beautiful it is too! Perhaps you can come up with something of your own? Here is Rami Bar-Niv’s inventive and amusing Etude-Vocalise on the C major Prelude Transpose I am working with an especially talented and ambitious young student who, if he is going to readily assimilate the mainstream repertoire he is destined to play, needs to develop his harmonic awareness as well as general musicianly skills at this stage of his development. Part of the work we are doing is transposition – a skill I wish my own teachers had stressed more, and one that I feel is indispensable to aural training, general musicianship and as a specific pianistic tool for memory work and solving technical problems. I tend to push this with those who are capable of, and willing to embrace it. Not everyone is, but this particular student […]

Top Tip: Voicing Chords

Down the years, I have been passing on a tip for voicing chords that was given to me by Philip Fowke. No doubt Philip inherited this from his teacher, Gordon Green, who had in turn studied with Egon Petri (a student of Busoni and Teresa Carreño, and thus a descendent of Carl Reinecke, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Frédéric Chopin, and so on). This tip works beautifully, so I thought I might pass it on to you all here! Play the strongest note of the chord first alone with the level of sound you want (or slightly more). While holding the note and in your own time, put the remainder of the chord down extremely softly. If you prefer, you may depress the keys without allowing the notes to sound. Now aim to decrease the time distance between these two events gradually until the strong note sounds almost as an acciaccatura to the rest of the chord (in other words – very slightly split). Next sound the notes of the chord simultaneously (and I mean dead together), preserving the tonal balance you have just practised. Do this the other way round too – by starting with the soft (or silent) notes and then playing the strong note afterwards. If you want further reinforcement, play the chord as a unit and then: Replay the strongest note two or three times, forte tenuto, while resting gently (no pressing) in the softer notes of the chord. Replay the softer notes pianissimo staccato from key surface and returning to key surface (just once or as a double tap). For an interview with Stephen Hough on this studies with Gordon Green, follow this link Alisdair Hogarth interviews his teachers, Philip Fowke and John Blakely, about their legendary […]

Making Friends with Fiddly Fiorature

Over the past couple of weeks I have had a few requests for advice on how to handle the flurries of little notes we find in the music of Chopin. I am republishing a post I wrote back in 2013 – I hope it helps! When you’ve been teaching the piano for as long as I have, there are certain problems that are universal. It might be a particular spot in a particular piece that will always need to be brought up, or it might be a concept – such as how to manage the fioratura in the music of Chopin. Before we go any further, let me explain what this term means. Taken from “fior”, which means “flower” in Italian, fioratura refers to the flowery, embellished vocal line within an aria. Chopin was a diehard fan of the bel canto tradition, and we find its influence throughout his music. Some of these passages look extremely scary, for example the coda of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne: The first thing to realise here is that Chopin did not intend the notation of his fiorature to be mathematically precise. The whole point is for them to sound free, improvisatory and personal. In my lessons with Ann Schein on Chopin’s Second Concerto, I was instructed to start the fiorature fast and take time at the end of the groups. Since Ann was one of only two students of Artur Rubinstein – no slouch when it came to the interpretation of Chopin – this has always been good enough for me. Because the notation is free, I feel we should retain a sense of freedom and even whimsy about how we play our fiorature, being unconstrained by the mathematics […]

Resources for Studying Bach

Quite a lot of my students bring the works of JS Bach to lessons, which is always a delight. I often find myself directing them to various different sources to enhance their study of this music, so I thought I would put a few of these together for ease of reference. I hope you will find these resources useful and interesting. I am also hoping you will send me your links, which I will add to this post. Since Bach’s music is contrapuntal, even in the simplest works, we need to know how to listen to, balance, blend and articulate two or more independent lines simultaneously. If we have been brought up on a path from the Anna Magdalene Notebook to the Little Preludes and the Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias, we will be able to tackle the Preludes and Fugues from the ’48’, not to mention the suites. Before that, listen to what Rosalyn Tureck brought to some of the baby pieces (click here) Resources for ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier” Anatomy of a fugue (click here) How to analyse a fugue (click here) Ebenezer Prout’s analyses (click here) Siglind Bruhn’s homepage (with analyses) (click here) Cecil Gray’s analyses (not at all dry, poetic and rather lovely actually!) (click here) Yo Tomita’s website (click here) Performing Bach’s fugues on the piano (David Korevaar) (click here) Dr. Philip Goeth’s website, containing much material of interest (click here) Recordings Anyone can trawl YouTube and find recordings easily. Here are just three (of very many) worthy of attention. András Schiff’s recording of Book 1 (click here) Samuil Feinberg‘s recording of Book 2 (click here) Gustav Leonhardt’s recording of Book 1 (harpsichord) (click here) Here are my suggestions for fugue practice […]

Q&A: How Can We Use Rotation in a Scale?

Q. You speak about forearm rotation in your eBook and in your YouTube video on scales and arpeggios, but I think of rotation as a large movement for things like tremolos and trills. Can you explain how to use it in scales? A. Great question, I’m very glad you have raised it. Until I studied the theory of forearm rotation with Julian Martin (who was working with Dorothy Taubman at the time), I had also only thought of rotation as a large movement  – something you could really see and really feel. I had two eureka moments close to the beginning of my investigations into all this, one was during a large leap when I was told to “untwist” during the journey from one position to the next (this made the leap feel fast, extremely free and reliable) and the other was in the broken diminished 7th in the Adagio espressivo section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 109: I was struggling to get enough power in this place, especially because I needed to hold onto the notes of the chord as I was spreading it. Even when I incorporated the finger strokes into one slower movement of the arm, the fingers were still doing an awful lot of the work. There was undue effort and a moment of tension. When I was able to experience the rotary movements, it suddenly became effortless and strong – as though I had flipped a switch to a new power source. The tiny backflips of the forearm are absolutely possible at high speed, and even though they are virtually imperceptible to someone watching I could definitely feel them. The difference in sensation between the rotary version and the […]

Our Inner Conductor

In some Romantic music it may be appropriate to change tempo slightly when the musical idea changes, even if this is not specified in the score. This is just one of many personal freedoms that is part of Romantic style. However, in a Classical sonata we need to be able to contain the various different musical ideas in a movement more or less within one basic tempo – contrast within a unified tempo is what helps everything hang together. Quality of Beat I am no conductor, but when I wave my arms around in a lesson I feel that the energy of the beats varies from one section of the music to another, even though the tempo may stay exactly the same. The beat may have a strong, explosive attack which I show with a snap of the wrist. If this needs to happen at the piano or pianissimo level, I might make the movements quite small and high up. If the beats blend into one another smoothly, I might show this with more circular motions or even a figure of eight. The tempo stays the same but the energy and quality of the beat can change markedly within that tempo. This is often what happens in a Classical sonata first movement – the first subject may be extrovert and the second subject more expressive and intimate. As players respond to the different musical material, they often seem to change tempo without even realising. This is obviously an issue that needs our attention. Our Inner Conductor Of course we can use the metronome to stabilise the beat as we practise, this is such a tried and tested way of doing things that I am not going to dwell […]

The Myth of the Easy Piece

Very often people tell me as they skim through a score “I don’t really need to practise this bit because it’s easy”. I also hear “I totally messed that bit up, and yet it’s so simple!”. While the notes themselves may be readable at sight and present no apparent technical difficulties, I don’t believe there is any such thing as an easy piece – when it comes to performance.  We soon realise this when we take this so-called easy piece into a performance situation and suddenly it is not such plain sailing. All the same prerequisites of performance apply to this piece as to the next piece – communicating the musical message, playing with rhythmical awareness, quality of sound and phrasing, and good tonal balance between the hands. Let’s look at an example from Mozart’s C minor Concerto, K.491 – a small phrase from the Larghetto (solo piano part is on the upper systems):   Any self-respecting relative beginner would be able to read the notes of this passage, they are simplicity itself. And yet to create the right sound and mood with just these few notes, to feel the phrase gradually gaining in intensity until it flowers in the last bar without overdoing it – these things are far from easy and take quite a bit of judgment and control. In the hands of a great artist this passage sounds sublime, as it should. During the Mozart year in 2006 I played a solo programme consisting of some sonatas, variations and a selection of baby pieces (assorted Klavierstücke, some of which are suitable for elementary players). I did this not only to give the programme a bit of lightness, but also to show that these small pieces […]