General tips

Some Useful Books

It’s that festive time of year, and you may want to do a little book shopping. Here is a selection of books on piano playing that are at the top of my list, presented here in no particular order. I have, inevitably, missed out many others – perhaps I can save those for another post! The Art of Piano Playing – Heinrich Neuhaus If you like the idea of tracing your pianistic lineage (which I don’t actually), Neuhaus is my “grandfather” via my final teacher, Nina Svetlanova who studied with him for many years. This book is arguably the best single book on piano playing, which it discusses in every aspect from the physical to the philosophical. It is a mine of information and anecdote, and no serious pianist should be without it on their bookshelf. *** The Art of Piano Playing – George Kochevitsky I discovered this book as a postgraduate student and again I would recommend it to everyone (especially piano teachers) as it discusses areas not covered in most books on the subject. Kochevitsky delves into the history of piano playing from the finger school to the anatomic-physiological school to more modern schools where the mind plays a vital part. There is a lot of invaluable scientific information on the central nervous system and the role of neurophysiology. The book is short, easy to read and contains illustrations and a very full bibliography. *** Pianists at Play – Dean Elder This inspiring book is a collection of interviews, master lessons and technical regimes culled from issues of Clavier Magazine over the years. It features such luminaries as Artur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Casadesus, Serkin, Lili Kraus, Bachauer, and many other great pianists and […]

Taking Ownership

Some years ago, Dame Fanny Waterman gave a masterclass for the BBC (Beethoven Sonata, op. 2 no. 2 , I think it was) and had made some suggestions to the student who then proceeded to play it back, respectfully verbatim. Dame Fanny likened this to loaning the student a dress for a party, but that to prevent it from looking borrowed or passed on, the student would need to add a brooch, a belt or some other accessory to make it her own. The lesson, of course, being that aping someone else’s playing or ideas won’t end up sounding authentic no matter how well you do it. The first stage of taking ownership of a piece of music is to process all the information from the composer’s score. This is the explicit instruction (notes, rhythm, tempo modifiers, articulations, character descriptions, dynamic markings, etc.) as well as the implicit. Examples of the latter might be the implication of più forte when the composer doubles in octaves a bass line previously written in single notes, or diminuendo when the texture thins out. It may take a while to understand the meaning behind all this so that we come up with our own understanding of the composer’s message, but digest it we must. (Implicit directions are much more significant in baroque music, say, when the composer’s score is devoid of much else, but that’s probably a subject for another post.) I am sure we have all heard performances where all the notes were there, all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, but you weren’t moved or stirred. There is nothing worse than a safe, boring, non-committal, grey, correct performance and obeying the composer’s instructions is only the first step – […]

The Study Editions of Alfred Cortot

I first heard Alfred Cortot when I was a boy. The magic of his recording of Chopin’s Étude op. 25 no. 1 made an indelible impression on me – it made me almost gasp. It wasn’t just the incredible beauty of his sound but also the flexibility of his timings – especially the way he stretched the melody line, and the personal stamp he brought to it. It makes me hopping mad when people go on about the numerous wrong notes in his recordings. Would that they could begin to hold a candle to playing of such genius, flawed as the results sometimes were. But these surface blemishes (which would not pass the censors nowadays, admittedly) detract from the playing not one iota – besides, he admitted he hardly had time to practise, busy as he was with his teaching, conducting, administrative duties and touring. In my student days, a teacher lent me Cortot’s edition of Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata, a work I had been studying for a while. After just one week of practising the exercises, my playing of the piece improved dramatically. I rushed out to buy his edition of the Sonatas, and both books of the Études, published by Salabert (and ferociously expensive they were too). I still use them all the time, not just for the exercises Cortot designs, but also for his fanciful and poetic running commentaries which illuminate the music wonderfully. The only drawback is that the score has been sloppily edited (I’m not sure who was at fault there) with quite a number of wrong notes, so it is not advisable to use these editions as the sole source, rather as a supplement to a more reliable Urtext edition (I […]

By |September 26th, 2011|General tips|5 Comments

Voicing Chords

A chord is officially two or more notes played simultaneously, but there are probably as many species of chords as there are of spiders. There is so much to say about practising chords that this is part one of a multi-part series of posts (not sure how many yet) on the subject. Except for percussive tone clusters, a chord on the piano is rarely intended as an amorphous blob of sound. It is a living organism where each finger involved contributes to the hierarchy of tonal priorities, so that the melody finger will be stronger than the filler (or harmony) notes. If both hands are involved, there will be this sense of top (melody) as well as bottom (bass), with harmony notes in between, graded by the ear of the individual player so that no two pianists will reproduce exactly the same tonal balance. I have often joked that piano playing would be easier if our hands were attached the other way round, so that strong thumbs (instead of puny pinkies) were on the outsides of the hands, and would be responsible for top melodies and foundation basses (the latter so often neglected). I am going to quote again from Heinrich Neuhaus’ The Art of Piano Playing (if there were one definitive book on piano playing, it would surely be this one). It is very appropriate here to remember that Anton Rubinstein called the two fifth fingers “conductors” leading the music. The limits of sound (both upper and lower) are to music what the frame is to a picture, the slightest blurr  [sic] (which is particularly frequent at the lower limit) in the bass results in a diffuse, shapeless picture; the musical composition then turns (as […]

Top Ten Tips for Trouble Spots

It is possible to hack away at a trouble spot for several minutes, constantly repeating it and beating it into submission, and then be able to manage it, more or less. I am sure a statistician would be able to come up with the odds for this being so. Apart from being incredibly unskillful, it is a waste of time because the following day you will most likely be back to square one. Practising like this is like building your house on sand – some days all will be well, but on others, the whole thing just collapses. In performance we can’t take multiple stabs at something, it has to be right first time and this fact needs to be reflected in our practice. Think about it – if we never practised errors, we’d probably never play any! I would have to go further – it has not only to be right but also to feel easy. There is no such thing as a Difficult Piece.  A piece is either impossible – or it is easy. The process whereby it migrates from one category to the other is known as practicing.  (Louis Kentner) Trouble spots are like bad apples or unruly kids in a class. Left unattended, they ruin the good ones. Identify the trouble spots in the piece, those places that trip you up and cause you to stumble and fall (and affect subsequent parts of the piece you know perfectly well) and isolate them. They will usually consist of small parts, perhaps a bar, or even a couple of notes that derail you (but may of course be longer). Put them in the equivalent of pianistic detention for a few days and give […]

Painting the Forth Bridge: Learning the Goldberg Variations

My first experience with this incredible work of art was hearing Andras Schiff play it at Dartington, as the preface to his inspiring week of teaching in the summer of 1982 – masterclasses that remain as vivid as yesterday. Eighty minutes of music and a peerless performance that touched every part of me, so that when I left the Great Hall, the trees and the lawn were different, everything had changed. This experience had quite literally changed my life. The Sirens were calling immediately, and I knew I had to learn and to play this magnum opus, so when the week of classes was over, I duly began. But postgraduate studies in the USA were imminent, and it would be twelve years before I would first dare play the piece. I would like to describe the labour pains that I went through before my first performance in Chichester Cathedral. Since then I have played the work many times over the course of over a decade, on four different continents, and I am booked to play it again next year in Singapore and Australia. Having returned from my postgraduate years in New York in 1990, I settled into a life in London where I was teaching specialist young pianists at the Purcell School three days a week, teaching also at St. Paul’s Girls’ School and the Centre for Young Musicians, a fair amount of private work and playing a LOT of chamber music and other professional engagements in London, Europe and the USA. I should add that I commuted to New York once a month for teaching purposes but when I think of it now, I shudder at the prospect. (I made use of the flying time […]