Freshen it Up

One of my young ABRSM Grade VIII candidates brought Bach’s C minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 1 for his lesson. It is a piece he knows very well, having successfully performed it already some months ago. He had put the piece away for a while, and now has to revise it for an exam. In the lesson, it was clear the Prelude had become rather stale and lacklustre. Recent practice hadn’t quite had the desired effect of getting the hands to play precisely together at all times, and his interest in the piece seemed to have waned. Because of this, he was not engaging in the practice room – just dutifully going through the motions from time to time. I needed to get him to reconnect with the piece, to rekindle some passion and interest for the music itself. Even though the hands not always being quite together seemed like a technical issue, I decided to try and find a creative solution first. I could have sat with him analysing each movement, correcting and adjusting it, but in this instance I wanted to try working with the imagination. All I did was to pick up an album of pieces sitting by the piano. We opened it up to some random piece and observed the title, tempo and character indications; we also aimed to catch the general feel of the piece from a cursory glance. The first one we got was Nocturne in B, op. 32 No. 1, by Chopin, marked Andante sostenuto. My student sat for a moment taking in as much as he could, before I asked him to play the Prelude in that style – in the spirit of a game, as though Bach were wearing Chopin’s clothes. What came out was something quite lovely. He […]

Beethoven Masterclasses

Beethoven wrote his 32 piano sonatas between the ages of 25 and 55, thus they span the composer’s so-called early, middle and late periods and paint a rich picture of his stylistic development. When I study a Beethoven sonata, I like to consult two or three different editions but my working score is Henle Urtext – that’s where I put in my fingerings and other annotations. While I have a soft spot for the commentary and fingerings in the old Craxton-Tovey ABRSM edition, the latest ABRSM version by Barry Cooper is more scholarly, with editorial slurs and other unhelpful markings removed from their earlier publication (when such tampering mattered less). Artur Schnabel’s edition makes an excellent supplement to a standard Urtext, and it is also worth looking at Hans von Bülow’s for fingerings and footnotes (available on IMSLP). There are some recent Henle editions of individual sonatas with excellent fingerings by Murray Perahia, I heartily recommend these. I would urge you to listen to the podcasts of András Schiff’s Wigmore Hall lecture recitals on each of the sonatas. Books I can recommend include A Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas by Donald Francis Tovey; Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas: A Short Companionby Charles Rosen and for a more general handbook I think Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music by Sondra P. Rosenblum should be on every pianist’s bookshelf. I have heard great things about Jonathan Biss’s online course, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. I was a contributor to the latest special edition from Pianist Magazine – Great Piano Composers of the Classical Era, with my article on the Beethoven sonatas. For more details, click here. Here are some of the best of the masterclasses available on YouTube. Please let me know if you find any more you feel […]

The Myth of the Instant Fix

I have admitted before that I like to stand outside institutional practice room doors and listen to what is going on inside. So often the practiser is just hammering through their piece at full speed, and triple fortissimo. When they make a mistake they hack away at it until it finally yields, and simply move on. What they have actually practised is getting it wrong three or four times in a row and right on the fifth attempt. What, then, are the chances of getting it right the first time in the context of the flow of the piece? I’m no statistician, but I would have thought very slim indeed. They are far more likely to get it wrong again until they take steps to get to the root of what derailed them in the first place. This takes conscious thought, self reflection and a spirit of enquiry. Remember – practice makes permanent, and whatever you repeatedly do will become ingrained. Instead of thinking of the mistake as an enemy we throttle until we destroy it, we might instead consider it a messenger. The mistake is there to tell us something, and we can learn from it. What went wrong, and where exactly did it go wrong? If the derailment or slip happened in bar 28, was it something just before that caused it? Was it a lapse of memory or concentration, or a technical problem? Or was it that I haven’t really settled on a workable fingering, or organised my pedalling? Am I really sure exactly what is happening in that bar, or am I winging it? Does my LH really know the middle notes of that chord? How would I label that chord, and […]