General

Happy Holidays!

This is my final post for 2017, and I hope I am just in time to wish you all very happy holidays, whether you celebrate Christmas or if you are enjoying a bit of down time at the end of the year. I thought I would share a few favourite pieces associated with the season – by Franz Liszt, George Crumb, Arnold Schoenberg and Adolf Schulz-Evler. Some of these might be unfamiliar to you, but one of the best-known piano works associated with Christmas is Liszt’s set of 12 pieces entitled Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) composed from 1873–76, with revisions in 1881. The suite exists in versions for solo piano as well as piano four-hands. Here is Gunnar Johansen in a recording from the 1970s. A piece I love to play is George Crumb’s magical A Little Suite for Christmas ‘AD 1979’, a piece using “extended techniques” involving reaching into the piano to pluck, strum and mute strings. The sounds that come out mimic the effect of harps, bells, and otherworldly resonances. Here is Andrew Brownell in a live recording, so you can get a good look at what the pianist has to do. Arnold Schoenberg was born Jewish but converted to Lutheranism in 1898. He composed some little chamber pieces for his family to play at home, including this beautiful little miniature for two violins, cello, harmonium and piano. The main tune is the German carol Es ist ein’ Ros’ ensptrungen, but listen out for ‘Silent Night’ in the strings. And finally a piece I associate with New Year’s Eve – Schulz-Evler’s transcription of Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz – ‘Concert Arabesques on The Beautiful Blue Danube‘, played here by Benjamin Grosvenor. Happy holidays, everyone!

By |December 24th, 2017|General|0 Comments

Christmas Prize Draw Competition

Have you ever considered the back stories of the pieces you are playing? This can make a very considerable difference to our appreciation of the music; knowledge of what was going on in the composer’s life at the time he wrote a work feeds the imagination and enriches our performance – and all it takes is a little research. A popular recital piece – and one often selected for diplomas – is Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, K 310. Do you know the background to this work? Put yourself in Mozart’s shoes in the summer of  1778. He was 22 years old on tour in Paris with his mother, who was accompanying him. Suddenly Frau Mozart became ill and unexpectedly died there on July 3rd. Since his father, Leopold, had stayed at home, Wolfgang would presumably have been in charge of dealing with the situation. To make matters worse, when he eventually learned his wife had died, Leopold blamed Wolfgang. Knowing this story, we can identify with and bring meaning to the tension, despair and turbulence that pervade the work. If you hadn’t taken the trouble to find out about this, there’s a risk you might miss the point and become preoccupied only with matters of performance – what the tempo should be, how long to make the appoggiaturas, how much pedal to use, and so on. Another popular choice for diplomas is Brahms’ set of Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces) op. 118. There is a very personal and very touching background story here too.  The set was written in 1893, towards the end of Brahms life. Along with the others sets of short pieces (opp. 116, 117, and 119), these are his final works for the piano. […]

By |December 14th, 2017|General|0 Comments

Online Academy – What’s Coming?

It’s been almost a year since the launch of the Online Academy in September 2016 and the site has grown to almost 200 articles and over 700 music excerpts, 150 videos and 100 downloads (a full index of series and articles can be viewed here). A big thank you to all our subscribers who have helped make this possible, your support is very much appreciated! What’s coming? We have many exciting updates in the pipeline for the year ahead which include extending existing resources, delving into specific topics in further detail and covering new topics. The following are some examples of what we’re currently working on and will be adding during the next year: Technique – We will be creating an extensive set of resources covering various components and areas of technique with a combination of text and video demonstrations using different camera angles and playback speeds to illustrate key points. A library of exercises categorised by level and tips on how to best utilise them will also be included. Practice Tools – The current series on Practice Tools will be extended and adapted for the elementary, intermediate and advanced levels. Scales – Following from the highly popular resources on elementary scales, we will shortly be adding a set of resources focussing on scales at the intermediate level. This will include exercises, downloads, video demonstrations and further information on alternative fingerings. Study Editions and Walkthroughs – The existing collection of Annotated Study Editions will grow to include popular works at varying levels by Mozart, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven. We will also be adding walk-throughs and resources for a wide range of new works from across the repertoire. Examination Resources – Our existing resources for the […]

By |September 7th, 2017|General|0 Comments

An Interview with Stephen Savage

I am delighted to announce that my piano workshop at Jackdaws in November is now full, with a waiting list in case anyone drops out. If you are interested in an intimate weekend piano course in an idyllic setting with cordon bleu home-cooked food, follow the link below for details of what’s on offer. I can do no better than suggest a brand new course running in October – given by my very first professor of piano, Stephen Savage. For details of this and other piano courses at Jackdaws, follow this link  I had my first lesson with Stephen Savage when I was about 16 and I still remember it clearly. Before I became his student at the Royal College of Music, I had a few more occasional lessons which were always as inspirational as they were energetic and informative. At the RCM, my lessons took place at 11:00 on a Thursday morning in Room 72 and they were the highlight of my week. Stephen’s approach was very hands-on – he always aimed for sound, character and musical meaning first and then explored the means of achieving it as a logical progression. I learned a tremendous amount from him about how to be a musician as well as a pianist, and came out of each lesson fired up. Here is Stephen playing Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse: Stephen Savage’s early studies brought him recognition with a Beethoven 4th Concerto with the National Youth Orchestra and success in the Daily Mirror National Competition. After his time at the RCM he was given the task of acting as Cyril Smith‘s teaching assistant while also appearing in a series of recitals at the Wigmore Hall and broadcasting a wide range of repertoire for Radio […]

Developing Sight Reading Skills

Sight reading at the piano is the ability to process information from a score and recreate it to the best of one’s ability on the spot. To get a high mark for a sight reading test in an exam, you might be surprised to learn that complete note accuracy is not at the top of the list. Examiners are interested in the following criteria: A performance that captures the musical essence and character of the test, with attributes such as phrasing and dynamics present A performance that flows rhythmically, sticking to the pulse as priority while allowing note errors to go by without faltering or attempting to correct them As many correct notes as possible under the circumstances; approximations, educated guesses and even omissions here and there are acceptable in the interests of unerring rhythmic flow and musical communication A note-perfect mechanical rendition of a piece of sight reading is often less impressive than one that may have some note errors and omissions and yet which conveys musical character and meaning. Over the years, I have noticed several attributes of good sight readers. Good sight readers seem to be musically literate, with a solid grasp of theory and harmony. They listen to music regularly, perhaps following along with the score, and are familiar with a lot of the standard orchestral, chamber and vocal repertoire in addition to the piano repertoire. They work with other musicians on a regular basis. Playing for a singer, a choir or an instrumentalist or playing in an ensemble tends to develop the ability to learn new pieces very fast, thereby developing reading skills. Circumstances prevent them from stopping and correcting their mistakes, so they learn to carry on regardless. They […]

Most Popular Posts and Articles

We hope all of our readers have had an enjoyable Festive Season and are being treated well by 2017 so far! We’re hard at work preparing new content and resources which will be announced next week. Until then, here’s a summary of popular posts and Online Academy articles from 2016: Blog posts: “But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!” The Speed of No Mistakes Securing a Fast Passage Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice No Stopping! Online Academy articles and resources: Walkthrough of Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor (1) Ergonomic Fingering for Scales and Arpeggios (1) The Art of Pedalling – The Sustaining Pedal (1 & 2) A Crash Course in Music Theory – Welcome! Technical Exercises and Regimes – Finger Exercises (3) Technical Exercises and Regimes – Introduction (1) Chopin Mazurkas – Walkthrough – Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4 Aria in F – Walkthrough Slow Practice – How and When to Use Slow Practice A Crash Course in Music Theory – Back to the 18th and the 17th centuries In addition to the above, the most popular videos on the Online Academy were the Sustaining Pedal and Lucinda Mackworth-Young’s Beginning to Improvise. A number of the Online Academy articles listed above are available without registration and you can also register for free to view an additional five articles (no credit card required). Click here to find out more about the Online Academy or click here to visit the site, view free content and to subscribe.

By |January 5th, 2017|General|0 Comments

On Editions

When we learn a piece of music from a score, it is important to be able to distinguish those markings that are from the pen of the composer, and those that have been added by an editor. There are two main types of edition available to us – Urtext (the composer’s original intentions reproduced as exactly as possible) and interpretive editions (where a famous player or scholar offers their personal opinions on how to play the work). There are a couple of problems with Urtext editions. One is the editorial fingerings that appear on the same level as the composer’s otherwise unadulterated text. So often I find these fingering solutions just don’t work for the particular student I am teaching. In a score of Bach these editors’ fingerings can be particularly unhelpful and misleading, since they generally don’t factor in how our choice of articulation influences the fingering we settle on. Pianist and teacher Hans-Martin Theopold at first refused Henle’s invitation to select the fingering for their publications, saying “For fingerings are and remain something individual no matter what their quality”. He later relented and produced 226 fingered editions in total. When we work from Urtext editions, and indeed from any edition, we need to feel completely free to change fingerings in the score and come up with something that works for our hand and for the phrasing and articulation we have in our imagination. For more on this subject, follow this link to my blog post Bespoke Fingerings. The other obstacle in Baroque and Classical period Urtext scores is the relative lack of performance directions that in the day would have been up to the individual performer to decide. 21st century musicians often feel uncomfortable and ill-equipped making such decisions, and end up playing safe by playing grey. If you’re short on […]

By |November 10th, 2016|General|7 Comments

Summer Holiday Reading

Graham is currently away and will be back in the beginning of September. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some summer reading, here’s a listing of the most popular posts on Practising the Piano this year so far: Speed of no mistakes But it takes me ages to learn a new piece Securing a fast passage The three little pigs Enjoying ultra-slow practice

By |August 25th, 2016|General|0 Comments

An Interview with Penelope Roskell: Part 2

I am very happy to be working with a number of guest experts who will be contributing to the Online Academy when it launches in September. I now continue my conversation with Penelope Roskell, acclaimed pianist and teacher, professor of piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London and expert on healthy piano playing and injury prevention and cure. Penelope will be contributing a number of resources to the Online Academy – covering topics such as warming up, yoga, posture, fingering, healthy playing and injury prevention. Here is the second part of our interview (part 1 is available here). You have created a DVD on Yoga for Musicians – could you say a bit about this and why you consider yoga is important? When I first started studying yoga in a class, the general health benefits were obvious, but I struggled to see how it could be related to piano playing.  I also struggled with many of the more extreme postures as they often required more flexibility than I as a Westerner had. I later spent some time with an excellent private teacher exploring how the principles of yoga could be applied to piano playing and then distilled some of these thoughts into my DVD. I have now nearly finished writing a book more specifically about all aspects of piano playing, based on holistic principles. You have also written a book on piano fingering: how does that relate to your interest in holistic playing? I have always been fascinated by fingering, and the positive effect that good fingerings can have on our interpretation of a piece. Many years ago, I realised that a lot of the fingerings that we have all been traditionally taught are not ergonomic […]

An Interview with Penelope Roskell: Part 1

I am working with a number of guest experts who will be contributing to the Online Academy. This is the first in a series of interviews in which I’ll be giving guest experts an opportunity to introduce themselves and their work to our readers.  I’m delighted to be speaking with Penelope Roskell, acclaimed pianist and teacher, professor of piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London and expert on healthy piano playing and injury prevention and cure. Because Penelope has so much interesting and useful information to give, the interview will be in two parts (with the second part coming next week). Penelope will be contributing a number of resources to the Online Academy – covering topics such as warming up, yoga, posture, fingering, healthy playing and injury prevention. Healthy playing and injury prevention are specific areas of focus for you in your career both as a teacher and performer. Can you tell us how this came about? When I was about twenty, I suffered from tenosynovitis (painful inflammation of the thumb tendon sheath) after practising Liszt’s second piano concerto with a faulty octave technique. I learnt the hard way that there was a limit to how much pressure my hands could take. At that time I couldn’t find anyone who could help me, so I started on a long journey of exploration, searching for a technique that didn’t cause further pain. I discovered to my delight that each time I adapted my technique it not only benefitted my thumb, it also improved my sound, general dexterity and expressiveness. I still continue to experiment, both with my own playing and with students, and find that the exercises I have devised help students as much […]