General tips

Chopin’s First Ballade – a Practice Suggestion

Chopin’s evergreen First Ballade has never been more popular, thanks in part to Alan Rusbridger’s book about his personal quest with the piece, Play It Again. It is a piece that most aspiring young pianists yearn to play (often before they are ready for it) and you’ll hear it coming out of conservatory practice room doors the world over. Given the exposure of the piece, it is easy to forget that it presents formidable challenges for all who choose to play it, amateur and professional alike. I thought I would offer some occasional suggestions for practice, starting with a small section that seems to trip a lot of players up. Let’s look at the section beginning in bar 138, a waltz if ever there was one (compare this with Chopin’s Waltz in A flat, op. 34, no. 1): I am sure many players give a lot of attention to the RH here, and yet without a beautifully crafted LH this passage is doomed to fall off the rails. The filigree passagework of the RH is only going to work if the LH can provide a buoyant, rhythmical underpinning – think of the RH as the dancer and the LH as the orchestra. Make sure you can play the LH by itself fluently, up to speed and beautifully shaped. Listen to the second slurred crotchet, making sure it is softer than the first; enjoy the dissonance between the A flat and the A natural in the second beat. Of the many editions available in The Petrucci Library, only a few include LH fingering for this passage and in his excellent study edition (available in Petrucci in French), Alfred Cortot gives but one practice suggestion here. Cortot’s perverse fingering for […]

Playing by Ear

I had an email from a reader asking how he could learn to play by ear, so here are some random thoughts on the subject. When we play by ear we play an existing piece heard before, without using the notes. Mozart is reported to have learned Allegri’s Miserere from one hearing, after which he wrote it out from memory. I am sure there are other similar stories from prodigious musical figures throughout history, but mere mortals can certainly develop the skills to improve our ear and at the same time our understanding of keyboard geography, musical structure and harmony. Ear training (or aural training as we tend to call it in the UK) is absolutely vital for any musician and, like harmony and theory, shouldn’t be thought of as a separate subject in the context of the weekly lesson. All these areas of music can be integrated into the lesson and during our practice. Examination boards include tests in aural and sight reading for a very good reason – to aid and abet in the process of forming an all-round musician. The more theory you know, the more you appreciate how music is built. You will also be able to decode the information from the printed page more quickly and with deeper understanding, and as a result of this you will have the skills to read at sight, to learn pieces more quickly, efficiently and thoroughly and (not least) to memorise. I find it sad that many young pianists’ experience of piano playing is restricted to sitting one grade exam after the other, sticking with three pieces and a bunch of scales for the best part of a year. Playing by ear, reading at sight, […]

Marking the Score

The other day I opened up a working score of the Frank Bridge Sonata I inherited from one of my teachers, Peter Wallfisch, and was struck by all the markings he had added. Some of these make obvious sense, performance directions such as “rall”, “late” and “canto”. Another word – “spell” – presumably means either that each note needed a certain clarity or that there was some magical atmosphere he wanted to create. There are copious fingerings, as well as more arcane squiggles in at least three different colour crayons that he obviously needed for personal reasons but which make little sense to the casual observer. I had to smile, as I suddenly remembered a word Peter had written in the last movement of my score of the Chopin op. 35 Sonata. It was totally illegible to me for many years. Each time I played the sonata I would stare at this word trying to decipher the scrawl, but I could never make out what it was. And then one day – eureka, I finally saw it. “Hallucinatory” was what he had written! My last teacher, Nina Svetlanova, almost never wrote anything in my score. A student of Neuhaus, she had inherited an opposite tradition. If something was important enough it would resonate deeply within you and no markings were necessary. Fingering For me, working out a fingering that suits my hand is absolutely essential.  I am a stickler for fingering as I know that with regular repetition, the muscular movements become reflex. This bypasses the need for conscious thought about what note or what finger comes next, freeing the mind to focus on the musical intent. Fingerings that appear in editions are generic, designed to suit […]

Spot the Difference

I used to like those spot-the-difference cartoons that appeared in the comics I read as a lad. At first glance, both images look the same but you have to look closer until you find a specified number of differences between the two. Whenever I teach Brahms’ Intermezzo in A from the op. 118 set, I find it strange that pianists rarely seem to notice the differences between these two parallel passages (and another towards the end). What might Brahms have meant by them? How many differences can you spot, and what changes will you need to make to voicings, timings and pedallings to reveal these beauties to the listener?   ***   ***   ***  ***   *** If you are interested to know more about practising, please click on the buttons below to preview or purchase one or both of the publications in my new ebook series.  Alternatively you can find out more about the series by clicking here. Volume 1 Buy a beta version of Volume 1 now for a special introductory price (Full launch price of £4.99 applies from 31 March) or click on the button below for a free preview. Volume 2 Buy a beta version of Volume 2 now for a special introductory price (Full launch price of £4.99 applies from 31 March) or click on the button below for a free preview. Special offer bundle – Volume 1 & 2 Bundle Take advantage of our beta launch bundle and buy Practising The Piano Volumes 1 and 2 for a further 20% off the individual launch prices (Currently £2.50 per volume, full price of £4.99 per volume applies from 31 March).    

Firm Foundations

A late, esteemed colleague who had amazing sight reading skills once told me he never read through more than once a new piece he was about to learn. It was just too risky for him – on a second reading he would already have been forming habits that would hinder him in the finished version, when it eventually rolled off the other end of the production line. This might be sloppy fingering, sketching (rather than etching) accompanimental figuration, or even learned-in wrong notes. Yes, practice makes permanent and habits are formed alarmingly quickly. Let’s make sure they are good habits rather than bad ones. A mañana attitude to proper learning of a piece, while giving us a limited amount of instant pleasure is actually the shoddiest possible of foundations if we have any aspirations to perform it at any point in the future. If we allow ourselves repeated buskings where we guess at those passages we don’t have the patience to work out thoroughly, or gloss over others where our random fingering is clearly not working, we can expect a shoddy end result – no matter how much time we put in later. By then it is often too late, and we can expect to reap what we have sown, no matter how lofty our vision of the music or how talented we are. Just think how much time, energy and money has been spent today propping up The Leaning Tower of Pisa compared with how much it cost to erect it in the first place! Good practice habits not only enable us to feel good about our work and about our playing, they allow a structure to emerge from rock, enabling it to withstand the forces of […]

Trimming Down For The Holidays

A family in my street has gone to absolutely no trouble with their Christmas tree whatever. It has virtually nothing on it, except for a few red ribbons and the tiniest string of plain white lights – not the usual dog’s dinner of glitter, baubles, beads, and candy canes. From its vantage point in the bay window of their living room, it looks stunning. The beauty of the natural shape of the tree is plain for all to see, showing that it needs hardly anything to enhance it at the end of its journey from forest to plant pot. Don’t get me wrong, I like the gaudiness of the tree in the picture above as much as I like the over-ornamented music of the French rococo (when I’m in the mood for it), but sometimes less is more. If a stick figure equivalent of a Christmas tree can be drawn with a few symmetrical zigzags, how about Heinrich Schenker‘s graph of Bach’s C major Prelude (from Book 1)? From this, we can see a representation of the notation pared down to its very barest essentials, enough to give us the highest of aerial overviews: BUILDING A HULL Drawing up such a graph takes quite a bit of doing, and is probably outside of the scope of most practical musicians. I mean, we should be practising, right? However, I think we can take the general idea of coming up with a simplified version of a piece of music by first building a hull.  I mean doing this at the piano, we don’t need to write it down. Definition of hull (noun) the main body of a ship or other vessel, including the bottom, sides, and deck but not […]

Some Thoughts on Five-Finger Exercises: Variations on a Theme by Hanon

Almost every book of piano exercises has a chapter dealing with five-finger exercises, and a lot of pianists won’t feel warmed up and ready to face their practice session without having spent some time doing these. I have several colleagues who are at the height of the profession who swear by this, and I know a number who don’t believe they help at all. It is like following the American primaries – you are probably either in one camp or the other! There have been those piano teachers who condemn five-finger exercises as not only a waste of time but also contrary to a holistic and natural way of using our body at the keyboard. But, like anything else we do in our practice, it is HOW we do them that counts. If we are doing five-finger exercises mindfully and for a particular purpose, then a few minutes daily can be of great value. My favourite warm-up (when I need it) is exercises in double notes followed by all major and minor common chords in all inversions, but I do occasionally assign five-finger exercises to students. I like to use modified versions of Hanon, whose patterns I use to my own devious ends. For those who like practising Hanon, have you tried doing them in other keys? Perhaps this is obvious, but I don’t understand the value of sticking with C major when no piece of real music ever avoids black notes. The point is how we steer around the keyboard, how we negotiate the ever-changing black/white terrain. Playing in other keys means we end up using the whole length of the key as the short thumb slides in to deal with the black keys, […]

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

I once had to do up someone else’s tie and found the only way I could do it was to stand behind and pretend I was putting it on myself. I had simply forgotten which bit went over where, how the loop was formed, and so on. If you asked me how it was done, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, I could only show you. This is because the series of actions had long ago become unconscious and was now a muscular habit, a reflex. Playing the piano is a bit like this, except it is infinitely more complex! Let’s say a passage from a piece you have been playing for years suddenly goes awry for no apparent reason – perhaps the memory is giving you problems – one solution is to play it cross-handed. The left hand plays the right hand part, and vice versa. Do this extremely slowly, and maybe even arhythmically. Playing this way gives you a completely new experience of the passage, because you are using a totally different series of muscles. You have to think about each and every note, and its relationship to its neighbours – there’s no relying on motor memory. If you can do this, then you know the passage deeply – inside out, back to front and sideways. More to the point, you know you know it! Use this sparingly – it is certainly worth experimenting with, if you can bear it. SYMMETRICAL INVERSION There is another practice technique, whereby you create an exact symmetrical version in one hand of a passage you are playing in the other. You match identical fingers and intervals and play the mirror image of the other hand simultaneously. Virtuosos such […]

A Short Essay on the Life of a Pianist

After a recent post, I received a request in the form of a comment from a reader, suggesting I might expand on my last paragraph. The last paragraph was as follows: I wonder how many people embark on serious piano studies because they want to be performers or because they are passionate about music, about the piano and about playing the piano? Public performance is quite a different thing, it’s not for the thin-skinned or the faint-hearted. The act of performance is an art in itself, distinct from one’s abilities as a musician or as a pianist. It is like any sort of performance art, be it acting, dancing, or walking the tightrope. Actually, walking the tightrope is an analogy I often use for performing solo piano works from memory in public. The only safety nets are the ones we build in during our practising, and I reckon I spend a huge amount of time and energy in my own practice securing the memory. This is basically the equivalent of spending a fortune on insurance policies you hope you never need to use. In his later years, the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter gave up playing from memory and brought his scores, along with a trusted page turner on to the platform with him. He even eschewed the limelight, preferring a muted lamp by the side of the piano. In interviews, he said the time spent memorising or maintaining the memory was no longer worth it, and that he could learn a multitude of new pieces in the time it would have taken him to attend to his memory. There are those, it seems, who were born to play the piano in public, and I don’t […]

Top Ten Tips to Maximise your Practising

I have had a lot of requests for this article, which first appeared in Pianist Magazine last year. Here it is! With the Olympics very much in the news at the moment, 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! 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 put a little time in at the beginning of the day, and again later – whatever works for you. Organisation. Divide up what you have to do into compartments, such as scales and technical work, pieces, sight reading, etc. You may find it helpful to keep a practice diary, and a scale chart is also a good idea. Concentration […]