General tips

Some Historic Pianos

As I wind up my short tribute to the pianos of yesteryear, I want to mention two particular pianos that stand out in my memory. Last week, I wrote about my experience playing Chopin’s music on the very Broadwood that Chopin himself selected to play when he was in London. This week, I recall a more recent concert of music for four hands by Schumann with my former student, Daniel Grimwood on a very lovely Erard built in 1851 (we played the early Polonaises and Bilder aus Osten, op. 66). There was a beautiful clarity in the sound, and (unlike our homogenised modern piano) a noticeably different tonal quality in each register. This made problems of balance much easier to solve. Here is Daniel talking about his award-winning recording of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage made on this instrument (he has also recorded the Chopin Preludes on it). Another instrument that stands out in my memory is the Horowitz Steinway. In the late 80’s I had the opportunity to try out Vladimir Horowitz’s own personal Steinway, at Steinway Hall in New York City.  In the early 1940’s, Steinway & Sons presented Horowitz and his wife Wanda with a Steinway Model D, Serial #279503. Known simply as CD503, this is the piano Horowitz kept in his New York townhouse. He used it in many recitals and recordings in the 70’s and 80’s, and he famously demanded that the piano be his exclusive touring instrument during the last four years of his life, including for his triumphant return to the former Soviet Union for performances in Moscow and Leningrad in 1986. Horowitz had the piano set up to suit his own playing style and concept of sound, and when I played it it was […]

John Broadwood and the Evolution of the Piano

When I was a student I was ignorant about early pianos, dismissing the sound as honky-tonk. This was until I attended lectures by my harpsichord teacher-to-be, Ruth Dyson, who opened my mind and my ears to the charms of instruments considered neither inferior nor lacking by the composers, players or audiences of the time. Now I have come to appreciate what historical instruments can offer by way of sound possibilities, and listening to them (played well!) is endlessly fascinating. Listen to Malcolm Bilson speak about articulation in Mozart on an early piano versus our modern instrument. Bilson points out that even in his sketchiest manuscripts, Mozart always included articulation marks – to Mozart, music was like speech and needed to be inflected properly. As a young professional pianist, I had the good fortune to play Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata, op. 35, on the Broadwood piano Chopin himself used when he was in London (now in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands). It took me a while to adjust to the feel of the keyboard and the different level of resonance between this piano and those I was used to. To my surprise, I found I could follow Chopin’s pedal marks at the opening of the Sonata without affecting the clarity. On our modern machines, it is necessary to adjust the pedal either by fluttering it or by having it only partially down, because the resonance is so much greater. Remember this when trying to make sense of pedal markings from music written for earlier pianos!   Here is Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Chopin on this very instrument: The piano firm of John Broadwood and Sons, Ltd. has been around almost as long as the piano itself. Founded in […]

Most Popular Posts of 2013

2013 was a big year for Practising the Piano with the launch of my enhanced, interactive eBook series.  The website readership has also grown significantly with almost 40,000 unique visitors and almost 300,000 page views over the course of the year.  In order to make sure I continue to publish relevant and engaging articles I’ve been going through an exercise analysing my usage statistics in order to glean some information as to what content has been the most popular with my readership.  The following is a listing of the top ten postings of 2013:   “But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!” “Sorry, I haven’t done as much practise as I would like this week…” A Beautiful Process for Scales But I Can Play It Perfectly Well At Home! The Weakest Link A Tool for Memory Work: Tracking Five Fingers Marking the Score The History of Piano Technique: Studies and Exercises Some Thoughts on Mental Tension Interestingly, while many of the posts are from earlier on in the year (and therefore have had more of an opportunity to attract visitors), the article on Hanon (number 9) was the fastest post to rise into the rankings which suggests that Hanon is still the subject of much debate over one hundred years on! Please feel free to get in touch if there are any topics you would like to see me cover in future posts.  I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support to date and to wish you all the best for 2014!  

Top Ten Tips to Maximise Your Practice

At the start of the New Year, everyone is making resolutions. I have noticed that these usually have to do with self discipline – not eating or drinking so much and exercising more seem to top the list. Piano practice, in order to be effective, must be disciplined. If there is no thought or organisation behind our work, it will be hard to find the impetus to make a regular commitment. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics just round the corner, I think of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to each day in their training regimes. We pianists have to train also – countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! It seems timely to republish one of my most popular blog posts, so here are a few tips (in no particular order) that will help you get the most out of your practice time. A Teacher. Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a restarter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons. Commitment. Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. “Little and often” will help you achieve FAR more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to […]

The History of Piano Technique: Studies and Exercises

There has been much feedback and lively debate on last week’s post about Czerny and his legacy of studies and exercises. It seems some piano teachers firmly believe in assigning them, whereas others are dead against them. Some take the middle path and may use them (and studies by other composers) when necessary. When discussing this controversial subject, I feel there are certain things that need to be clarified. Let’s first of all distinguish between an exercise and and a study, since these two are certainly not the same thing: Exercise Often short – a contraption for practising and mastering a specific mechanical or technical goal Not usually very complex, with just one basic pattern (usually repeated several times) Easy to memorise No pretensions toward artistic merit Study A more extended composition with elements of musical form and structure  For practising and mastering a specific mechanical or technical goal May be satisfying for the player, not usually so for the listener! Concert Study  The artistic content is of sufficient quality that it can stand alone as a piece of music The listener can appreciate it as a work of art without the need to know anything of the demands it makes on the player One thing that strikes me a vital in all discussion on this subject, that should be emblazoned above the door on all practice rooms: HOW we do a study or exercise matters more than WHAT we do When I studied Peter Feuchtwanger’s exercises with him back in the early 90s, I quickly came to appreciate this truth. The exercises themselves would look simplistic on paper and actually cannot really be taught from the printed page. Proper realisation of them relies on demonstration […]

The History of Piano Technique: The Finger School

The connecting link between the harpsichord and the early piano was undoubtedly Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), whose treatise Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments was revered by Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), Johann Baptist Cramer (1717-1858) and Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), and laid the foundations for their method books. Muzio Clementi required his students to practise with a penny on the back of the hand so that the hand remained still, all the work being done by the fingers (which were to stay close to the keys) with the arm staying fixed, quiet and passive. His music is written idiomatically for the piano and includes octaves, tremolos, double thirds, rapid repeated notes, crossed hand passages, and so on. He is known for his many sonatas and sonatinas, his method book Introduction to the Art of Playing the Pianoforte, op. 42, and the set of studies Gradus ad Parnassum. In the opening piece of Children’s Corner, Debussy pokes fun at Clementi. Here is Ivan Moravec in a gently lyrical reading of Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum. Carl Czerny (1791-1857) has been hailed as the forefather of modern piano playing, and most of us can trace our lineage directly back to him. For example, Rachmaninov was taught by Alexander Siloti who was taught by Eugen D’Albert who was taught by Emil von Sauer who was taught by William Mason who was taught by Moriz Rosenthal who was taught by Liszt who was taught by Czerny. If you wish to see a fuller family tree, here is the link. Czerny’s father, Wensel, was a piano teacher and trained Carl from an early age, presenting him before the public at the age of 9 (Carl commenced his own career as a teacher at the tender age of 14). He became a student of […]

The History of Piano Technique (Part 2)

One of the things that really gets my goat is the totally erroneous statement that the harpsichord is incapable of expression. Many famous and influential pianists who should know better regularly fall into this trap. We need to remember that the harpsichord from the High Baroque was a fully developed and mature instrument, perfect for the music written for it. In order to play expressively on the harpsichord, it is necessary to have a highly developed sense of touch. Harpsichord players make a slight articulation before a note to give it an accent, or they might delay it or hold onto it a little longer. In an expressively slurred pair of notes, the player overlaps the two notes by holding onto the first until just after playing the second note – this overlap masks the attack of the second note, thus making it sound softer. You really can create the impression of strong-weak in a slur, especially if you let go of the second note early. Sensitive under- and overlapping of notes combined with skilful timings cause the playing to sound musical and expressive. This is but illusion, I hear you say! I suggest that making an actual honest-to-goodness crescendo in a melodic line on the piano also relies on illusion, since the individual tones begin to decay the moment they have been sounded. We achieve a crescendo by artfully blending the end of one sound into the beginning of the next. Pianists spend most of our lives attempting to make a percussion instrument sing. As a youngster, I was fascinated by the hybrid harpsichords made by Pleyel, Goble and others, with their array of pedals. Here is the inimitable and great Wanda Landowska playing Bach […]

The History of Piano Technique (Part 1)

Writing about the history of piano technique for my new eBook I recalled vividly my harpsichord studies with Ruth Dyson at the RCM, and her insistence that the fingers play from the surface of the keyboard, not striking from above. In addition, no involvement of the arm was either desirable or necessary. During the 300 year history of the piano we have seen two main technical approaches – what we might call the Finger School and, later, the Arm School.   Since the early pianos were similar in touch and action to the harpsichord, it was appropriate to approach them in the traditionally accepted way – using individuated finger strokes with no active participation of the arm. As the piano and the music written for it evolved, so the size of the instrument increased. The range and touch weight of the keyboard also increased, making greater technical demands of the player. Pianists responded by doggedly sticking to what they knew, believing (erroneously, as it turned out) that all that was necessary was to make the fingers stronger. The futility of this eventually became apparent and a new school of playing based on anatomic principles and the use of arm weight, transplanted the Finger School. The pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, with the idea that the arm should now take over from the fingers. Rather than work like little pistons, the fingers should instead remain fixed for the weight of the arm to be transmitted through them. Thus during this phase active fingerwork tended to get neglected, and players forgot that no matter what was going on in the arm the finger still had to put down the key! In the modern age, new schools […]

Solving a Problem in Beethoven’s op. 79

The other day, a student brought in a problem with Beethoven’s Sonata in G, op. 79 – the cross rhythms in the last movement. In several places, one hand is playing in 3s and the other in 2s, thus: With any passage like this, it is tempting to try to solve it with lots of slow practice but as Hans von Bülow says in a footnote to his edition: Every attempt to divide mathematically the triplets of the accompaniment with the couplet rhythm of the theme will prove futile. A diligent practice with each hand separately will alone lead to the requisite independence. The key is in the word “mathematical”. Rhythm can’t be mathematical, it has to be felt physically –  experienced through the body.  Sure, we can divide up the beats on paper and see where one note goes in relation to the others but this gives us a distorted and mechanical view of the passage that in my experience won’t translate well into performance. My solution to passages like this is to practise alternating one hand with the other, having established an absolute and unerring sense of pulse. We maintain this pulse at all costs, feeling it in our body as though we were conducting and not letting it sag for a moment. With this process, using the metronome is not a bad idea. I prefer to leave a bar’s rest between each repetition or new variant, being strict about keeping the beat going during this measured silence. Having alternated one hand with the other, here is a possible plan: This ends with both hands playing together, but it is bound to take several attempts before the hands synchronise correctly. Rather than playing the hands […]

Double Trouble

This week, the latest issue of Pianist Magazine arrived through the post with my article Confidence with Double Notes inside. Those of you who have seen the magazine will have noticed the indent Watch Graham Online, with the link to the video tutorial on the website (I have embedded the video later in this post). I have to be very careful when I write about technique, as there are two distinct problems. The first problem is the multitude of different approaches, depending on what particular pianistic lineage you come from. Even though there will be many inefficient or even downright bad ways to play the piano, there is no one right way. The second problem is how to explain all this in writing clearly enough so as not to confuse. This is why a video demonstration is a very good idea, since the text can be backed up by seeing how it is done. All we pianists know that playing an extended double note passage, especially when it’s fast, is one of the most difficult things to pull off. It requires a high level of finger independence and superfine coordination, which doesn’t usually come easily. Double notes make demands of the weaker fingers on the outside of the hand, and can be dangerous if done incorrectly. This is why I stress wrist flexibility and correct alignment in my article and in my demonstration as being of paramount importance in all double-note playing. A locked or misaligned wrist is almost certain to injure you after a while. Exercises in double notes should come with a health warning for over-zealous students hoping that an hour a day of those Moszkowski exercises will turn them into a supervirtuoso. As with everything else, […]