Learning Pieces

Voicing in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata

Beethoven’s Sonata in C# Minor (Sonata quasi una fantasia), Op. 27 No. 2, is surely one of the most famous pieces of music of all time. Completed in 1801, it was dedicated to his student, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The name “Moonlight Sonata” was not given by Beethoven but comes from German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab who, five years after Beethoven’s death, compared the effect of the first movement to moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. Given the popularity of the first movement, I decided to make my own series of video walkthroughs that guide you through the piece step-by-step. You will find advice on style, tempo, pedalling, fingering, practice method and technique, especially how to avoid tension in the right hand as it is called upon to play both the soft triplet accompaniment and to project the melodic line on top. Voicing the Right Hand How do we set about voicing the right hand when the main theme comes in? Despite the pp dynamic marking, the upper voice needs to be projected with a firmer tone than the misty triplets underneath. It is helpful to think of two dynamic levels: mp (top voice) and pp (triplets). The following exercises will help with the voicing. The process involves first playing the upper voice at the stronger dynamic, then afterwards the thumb note at the softer dynamic. Gradually allow these two events to happen closer together until you find you can synchronise them: Another practice suggestion that works wonders is to play the upper stave using two hands. Thus the right hand plays the melodic line, and the left hand the accompaniment triplets. Achieving the right sound this way is of course much easier. Once you have the ideal sound […]

Burgmüller’s La candeur

At first glance La candeur, the first of Burgmüller’s twenty-five studies, opus 100, looks like any other elementary study in C major – with a stream of quavers (8th notes) in one hand and some chords in the other. On closer inspection we discover a satisfying musical structure – a clear modulation to the dominant key at the end of the first half, and an effective coda that wraps the piece up, with moments of chromatic colouring that add interest.  When we start singing the lines we discover they are rather lovely (not at all dry or mechanical-sounding), offering us the opportunity to explore melodic shaping and to concentrate on balance between the hands and beauty of tone.  In last week’s post, I introduced my new study editions for Burgmüller’s Op. 100 (La candeur being the first in the set), in which I focus not only on the technical factors but also highlight some compositional techniques used by the composer. This is an important consideration when the ability to analyse becomes necessary further along our musical journey! I have added a number of footnotes to the score that will assist you as you practise. For example, as we approach the climax of La candeur, Burgmüller divides the RH into two lines: This requires a certain amount of coordination and organisation in the hand, hence my suggestions for practice in footnote 7. If you scan the QR code a short video will pop up on your device of me demonstrating how this is done. You will notice that footnote eight points out a stock harmonic progression that can be appreciated even by inquisitive players at the elementary level.  The study editions also contain links to a detailed video walkthrough, as well […]

New Study Editions for Burgmüller’s Op. 100

As readers of my blog will know, I am not a great believer in too much separation of the study of technique from real music. Therefore, when I recommend studies and exercises they have to be really good – either easy to memorise and very much to the point (if an exercise) or on the short side and with enough musical interest to capture the imagination (if a study).   Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Études (Op. 100) have been a mainstay of elementary étude repertoire for many generations – and deservedly so. Like all great études, the study of technique merges with attention to quality of sound and a musical purpose. The musical content of these pieces is on a level with the technical challenges they pose, so that the listener would not necessary realise they have any didactic focus whatsoever. Because each has its own descriptive title, the études inspire imagination and characterisation in the player, elevating the works to the status of real music (as opposed to the dry and boring studies that are so often the diet of pianists). I cannot imagine any young pianist or elementary player who would not immediately engage with this charming set of pieces, or benefit from learning them. Following on from my series of video walk-throughs for the full set of twenty-five études, I’ve been working on creating accompanying study editions to assist you in learning these works. These editions focus not only on the technical considerations but also on the compositional techniques used by the composer – including an appreciation of harmony. Each edition has a number of footnotes that are designed to assist you as you practise. There are also QR codes that can be […]

A Fantasy Analysis of Brahms Op. 118 No. 2

Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in A, op. 118 no. 2 is surely one of the most beloved short piano pieces from the Romantic period. The second from the set of six Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces), op. 118, the A major Intermezzo can stand alone and as such is a very popular choice among good amateur pianists. Who can resist its passionate tenderness, nostalgic mood and the feeling of yearning it evokes? Brahms & Clara Schumann There is a very personal and very touching background story to Brahms’ late piano works. The op. 118 set was written in 1893, towards the end of Brahms life. Along with the others sets of short pieces (op. 116, 117, and 119), these are his final works for the piano. Behind the somewhat bland titles (Intermezzo, Fantasie, Ballade, Romance, Rhapsody, etc.) we find music of great introspection and beauty. Written for Clara Schumann to play in her autumn years these pieces are full of yearning for her and the relationship they might have had. Playing the music without this realisation is to deprive the pianist of this extra dimension. As an aside, for those interested in dated biopics, this short clip from the 1947 movie Song of Love shows the arrival of the 20-year old Brahms to the Schumann household. We can see how smitten Clara (played by Katharine Hepburn) was with Johannes right from the start of their long friendship. Because the A major Intermezzo shows up often in lessons and classes, I decided to make my own set of resources to help players uncover the treasure trove of beautiful things Brahms presents to us, but which can often go unnoticed. I wanted to create the sort of analysis that serves not only those with a background […]

Brahms’s Buried Treasure

The six Klavierstücke that make up the op. 118 set were published in 1893 and dedicated to Brahms’ lifelong friend, Clara Schumann. In the late summer of 1893, Brahms sent Clara manuscripts of the pieces, which thrilled her. She wrote to him how remarkable it was that he had managed to convey “a wealth of sentiment in the smallest of dimensions”. Brahms did not want fanciful or poetic titles for the pieces, instead giving them the rather generic titles Intermezzo, Ballade and Romanze. They are among the very last pieces Brahms wrote, revealing the composer at the very height of his powers. We sense the assurance of a master craftsman at work, with all the features of his compositional style evident: motivic development, imitative counterpoint, cross rhythms and dense, rich textures. The wistful Intermezzo in A, op. 118 no. 2, is surely one of the best-loved short works for piano from the Romantic period. It is full of nostalgia and yearning, of tender feelings tinged with passionate memories. Having taught this piece very many times over the years, I have been struck by the wealth of buried treasure contained in the score – important details that are just underneath the surface and easy to miss. How many players have not noticed the canon in the chorale-like centre of the B section? Or the subtle changes of colour required to underscore the different harmonies and voice leading in the variants of phrases as they recur, transformed? It takes a keen eye and a keen ear to do justice to this piece. Study edition and video walkthrough I am delighted to announce the publication of a comprehensive collection of resources for this work on the Online Academy, […]

Tips for Learning New Pieces Faster

Do you wish that you could learn new pieces on the piano faster? Do you find that you spend hours learning a piece only to find that you don’t know it nearly as well as you hoped when you attempt to play it? Here are some of my top tips for how to learn new piano pieces more effectively: Know the score before – It helps to have some context before you begin. Do some background research, listen critically to a few recordings and do simple analysis (ask yourself questions about the form, and the character of the piece). Choose your fingering – Attempt to work out a good fingering for both hands together and write it in the score. You may find you need to adjust this as you start the learning process, so allow for any changes. However, once you’ve settled on the fingering make sure to stick with it each time you practise. Work on small sections at a time – Avoid overloading your working memory by breaking your piece down into small sections. Use mindful repetition to work on each section before moving on. A practice method I call “bar by bar plus 1” is a very effective tool for this (click here to read more about it)! Deconstruct and simplify – In addition to separate-hand practice, deconstruct the music by break it it up into separate strands and simplify it e.g. play only the bass notes, or first note of an arpeggiated pattern. Practise at the “speed of no mistakes” – Slow down difficult passages to a snail’s pace so you can play the notes, rhythms and fingerings perfectly. Do this several times, resisting the urge to play at speed […]

Choreographing Bach’s D Minor Invention

I’m going to look at Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, aiming to help you solve a couple of the issues that seem to bother some players in this piece.  The Subject The first thing is to find a good fingering for the main subject based on its tempo and character. For me, it’s a vigorous forte at the start, somewhere around M.M. = 60 (+/- 10%) for the bar. I play the semiquavers (16th notes) legato and the quavers (8th notes) detached, allowing for the possibility of more finessed articulation here and there.  The Invention would be extremely difficult to manage if we stuck to the myth that the thumb should not go on a black key. Here is the fingering I prefer, by no means the only solution but the one I find works best. In order for this fingering to work we need to remember one important fact: when we place a short finger (thumb or 5thfinger) on a black key we need to make an adjustment up and in towards the back of the keys, since the black keys are higher up and further away. There is no mystery here. Start from your lap and land with your RH on the two black notes with thumb and 5th finger. You should find the way you align will be perfectly natural – there won’t be any twisting in the wrist, and you will have found a comfortable position on the black keys to feel balanced there. When we play the five-finger position, E-Bb in the RH, a certain amount of motion towards the black key area is necessary so that when we arrive at the Bb the hand will be in the right place – in other words, we […]

Chopin’s Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor

Chopin wrote the Nocturne in C-sharp minor (op. posth.) in 1830, but it was only published 40 years later in 1870. Dedicated to his sister, Ludwika “as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto”, there are some interesting parallels with some of the themes between the Nocturne and the Concerto no. 2 in F minor, op. 21. Getting to know the concerto will certainly enhance your appreciation of this beautiful Nocturne. I decided to put together a video walkthrough of the introduction only. The reason for this is I have noticed over the years examining and adjudicating this piece that I have never once heard the introductory bars played to my satisfaction. Maybe it’s because they look easy, and players don’t bother to practise them much. However, like any introduction first impressions count for a lot. If these bars don’t engage the listener, communication of the rest of the piece is likely to suffer. Further reading & resources For my blog post on the annotated study edition and video on how to play the LH arpeggio patterns, click here A full series of detailed video walkthroughs and worksheets for this work is available on the Online Academy here. My Annotated Study Edition for this work can also be purchased separately from our store here.

Edvard Grieg’s Arietta

Edvard Grieg’s collection of 66 short Lyric Pieces includes some of his best known music. They were published in 10 volumes between 1867 and 1901 and because most are accessible to the intermediate player, they will always find a place in the pianist’s heart. This does not mean that the music is only for the amateur; on the contrary, many of the world’s greatest pianists have recorded and programmed them. The theme of the very first piece of the collection, Arietta (Little Song), was one of Grieg’s favourite melodies. You might begin by singing and then playing this beautiful melody alone, taking time where the music needs to breathe. Once you have a sense of its shape and flow, add the bass line, noticing its contours and how it supports the upper line. The middle element consists of broken harmony shared between the hands, similar in texture and design to Schumann’s Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and People), the opening piece from Kinderszenen, op. 15. Balancing the texture is one of the main challenges of the piece. It is a good plan to practise the middle semiquaver (sixteenth note) line by itself, making the connections as seamless as possible as one hand passes to the other (do this with and without the pedal). It is also excellent practice to omit the melody line; if you are feeling ambitious, try singing the top line as you play the accompaniment and bass line (tricky, but worth it!).  A few pointers for practice: Hold on to the long bass E flats (bars 1-4, 15-16), so that when you change the pedal the bass note is still present. Avoid pedalling through the rests, but elsewhere change […]

Burgmüller’s Op. 100: The Complete Series

I am delighted to announce my series on Burgmüller’s 25 studies, the Easy and Progressive Études, Op 100 is now complete and available as a full set. In my Online Academy series on op. 100, I take each étude in turn. You will find a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough highlighting the learning outcomes, with advice on the technical aspects as well as how to practise.  When it comes to studies at the intermediate level, there is of course a wealth of material available. For me, Burgmüller’s Op 100 is among the best. Each étude is short and to the point, with a descriptive title to stimulate the imagination. The technique always serves a musical goal, and because they are so well written each is useful as a way to learn about harmony, as well as form and structure. In my previous two posts I looked at a handful of these études, with a brief video excerpt of what to expect from the full one. I will continue now, focussing on Nos. 10 – 13. 10. Tendre fleur (Tender Flower) Tendre fleur (Tender Flower) is all about pastel colours, sensitivity of touch and mood, and delicate expression. Marked p delicato, we discover two-note sighing slurs in arpeggio patterns that rise then fall, meandering quaver (eighth note) lines and sparse harmonies. The harmonic language is extremely simple – tonic and dominant harmonies alternate with each other in the home key of D (A section) and then in the dominant key of A (B section). Here I am noodling around with a few ideas to bring out the sweetness of the music. 11. La Bergeronnette (The Wagtail) La Bergeronnette (The Wagtail) depicts a genus of bird that constantly moves […]