Learning Pieces

Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata Video Walkthrough Series

For Beethoven, the key of C minor was especially associated with tragedy, drama and intensity; he wrote three piano sonatas in this key (op. 10 no. 1, op. 13, and op. 111). The Grande Sonata Pathétique, op. 13, (this title from the publisher had Beethoven’s blessing) was written in 1798 when Beethoven was 27 years old. It is dedicated to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, one of Beethoven’s most significant aristocratic supporters. The work is comprised of three movements: Grave (slow and solemn) – Allegro di molto e con brio (very quickly, with vigour) (C minor) Adagio cantabile (slowly, in a singing style) (A-flat major) Rondo: Allegro (quickly) (C minor) The sonata was a great success in establishing Beethoven’s reputation as a composer at the time – the work was instantly popular and has remained so to this day. Pianists respond to the drama and intensity of the music and clamour to learn it. I decided to make a series of video walkthroughs of the work, where I look at a few of the challenges the work poses, offering some interpretative and technical guidelines as well as suggestions for practice. There are 11 videos in all, which I hope will help players deal with the common questions and problems that tend to arise when learning it. For example, the spot from bar 93 – 98 is a common minefield for inaccuracy and tension. I have 8 processes that, if you go through these systematically and patiently for a few days in a row, will make these bars feel comfortable so that you can enjoy their exhilarating effect. In this video excerpt, I demonstrate two or three of these practice ideas. You will find plenty of advice in the other videos in the series […]

Q-Spots Series: Ibert’s The Little White Donkey

The ten pieces that make up Jacques Ibert’s collection of impressionistic piano pieces, entitled Histoires, sound as fresh to us now as the day they were written. Actually, they were composed over the course of a decade, between 1912 and 1922 when Ibert was based in Rome. Many of the pieces drew their inspiration from the sights of Spain, Italy and Tunisia as Ibert travelled around.  We are going to look at a small section from the second piece, Le petit âne blanc (The Little White Donkey). This delightful work is suitable for the intermediate player; it needs plenty of imagination to play it with the colour and vibrancy it requires. It is not hard to hear the trotting of the donkey in the left hand, or the gentle braying in the right hand that comes later. In the key of F sharp major, the piece might pose some challenges initially, but once the notes have been learned you will find that the music lies very well under the hand.  As part of my Q-spot series, I have selected two places from The Little White Donkey that will need your careful attention for the piece to flow well as a whole: Bars 20 – downbeat 25 Bars 25-29 In my full article on the Online Academy, I give detailed step-by-step practice guides for both these quarantine spots together with a video tutorial. Let’s have a look at an especially challenging moment from the second Q-spot, from bars 27 – 29. How many players have stumbled here, uncertain as to how to improve the passage? This short extract makes an excellent exercise in double note playing, where the intermediate player can learn the same practice techniques […]

The Fantasie-Impromptu

Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, op. post. 66, is surely one of the composer’s most popular works – one that many pianists often try to play before they are quite ready for the technical challenges it poses.  The story goes that Chopin wrote the piece in 1834 but never published it. Instead, his friend and executor, Julian Fontana published it posthumously – but why? We have to wait until 1960 for the answer, when Artur Rubinstein acquired an album owned by Madame la Baronne d’Este. The album contained a manuscript of the Fantasie-Impromptu in Chopin’s own hand, dated 1835. It would appear that the reason Chopin had not published the work is because he had received a commission from the Baroness, and the piece was therefore her property.  The Henle Urtext edition contains both versions. There are a number of differences between the two, mostly in the left hand, so you will first need to decide which version to play. I have a preference for the Fontana, probably because I learned it this way as student, but either is fine. Readers of this blog will be looking for solutions to the challenges of the piece, so how to begin it? I have created a series of six substantial video tutorials, in which I look at all aspects of the piece, offering detailed technical solutions and suggestions for practice. The series which features six video walk-throughs is available now on the Online Academy here.  Separate Hands It is obvious that the main stumbling block is how to manage the 6:8 polyrhythm that pervades the outer sections, and while it is of course possible to practise this slowly (provided you know exactly how one hand fits together with the other) it’s probably not the best […]

Schumann’s Romance in F Sharp

In 1839, Clara Wieck received a Christmas present from her fiancé, Robert Schumann – a set of three Romances (published with some slight alterations the following year as opus 28). She was particularly smitten with the second one, describing it as “the most beautiful love duet”. Fast forward several decades to her deathbed, when Clara asked her grandson Ferdinand to play her husband’s F sharp major Romance for her. It was the last music Clara Schumann heard; she died on May 20, 1896. Robert Schumann’s Romance in F sharp major, op 28 no 2, remains one of the composer’s best-loved short pieces for the piano. In ternary form, the mood is contemplative, serene and tender in the outer sections, somewhat turbulent and dark in the middle section. It is an ideal repertoire piece for the intermediate student and I think it makes a great encore.  Written on three staves to make the main melodic line clear, the piece is still a bit of a trap when it comes to reading it (the key signature is six sharps, and there are plenty of accidentals along the way). Take care when learning the notes and you’ll find after a while that the plethora of black notes means the piece lies very well under the hands.   On closer inspection we find that the profiled melodic line is shadowed in the other hand, giving the sense of two companions staying close together. I hear two cellos, and I imagine Robert and Clara walking hand in hand. The arpeggiated chords radiate outwards from the melodic lines in such a beautiful (and very pianistic) way. The two melodic lines could be played using just the two thumbs, but you may find […]

A Guide to Our Content & Resources

Since its launch just under three years ago, the Online Academy has grown significantly and now contains over three hundred articles, hundreds of videos and thousands of musical examples on playing and teaching the piano from a range of highly respected experts. Whatever your goals and ambitions for your playing or teaching for the new term ahead might be, we have numerous resources to support you in achieving them! To help you find what the content that is most useful to you, we’ve compiled the following index of some of our popular resources (a full index of resources is also available here): Practise more effectively and learn new pieces faster The Practice Tools Lecture Series – An overview of practice tools and methodologies to help you get the most out of your practice time Slow Practice – How and when to use slow practice Skeleton Practice – Deconstructing a score in order to learn new pieces faster and more accurately   Improve your playing and technique – Click here to view a general listing of resources on piano technique or on one of the following specific topics: Scales and Arpeggios – resources on playing scales and arpeggios at the elementary and intermediate levels Fingering – Learn fundamental principles behind comfortable, musically appropriate fingering Pedalling – A comprehensive treatise on the subject of pedalling Double Notes – Detailed advice on how to practise scales, exercises and studies featuring this challenging area of technique Technical Exercises – An overview of exercises and regimes and suggestions for how to use Hanon’s exercises Sight Reading – Improve your sight reading with a range of sample works and exercises from ReadAhead Learn new pieces Click here to view our library […]

Burgmüller’s Op. 100

Burgmüller’s charming set of 25 studies, the Easy and Progressive Études (Op 100) still manages to sound fresh after all these years, and continues to inspire intermediate pianists. 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 Online Academy series on op. 100, I take each étude in turn. You will find a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough that highlights the learning outcomes, with advice on the technical aspects as well as how to practise. So far, we are up to no. 18 and look forward to completing the series within the next few weeks. A short while back I wrote a blog post featuring short excerpts about the first five études, in this post I’m going to look at the next few – Progrés, Le courant limpide, La gracieuse and La chasse. 6. Progrès We return to C major for this lively, cheerful piece entitled Progrès (Progress). With touches of laughter suggested by the staccato quavers, this study celebrates the pleasure in making progress, featuring scales in parallel tenths, a contrary motion scale, changes of touch from legato to staccato, rapid changes in hand position with jumps in both hands, and syncopated slurs. Some of the patterns we find in Progrès can be practised not only upwards as written, but also backwards – on a loop, repeating up and back until fluent and comfortable. In this snippet from my full-length video demonstration, I look at how to practise the semiquavers in a dotted rhythm (long-short, and short-long), a good exercise […]

Vandalising Mozart’s K. 331?

In 2014, an amazing discovery was made in the National Széchényi Library in Budapest – a four-page fragment of part of Mozart’s Sonata in A major, K. 331, in the composer’s own handwriting. As a result, new editions have been able to correct some small errors on the part of the first edition by Artaria (Vienna, 1784) that pianists have been playing wrongly for over two centuries. The story is an extremely exciting one – you can read all about it on the sonata’s very own website. Bärenreiter’s 2017 edition I wonder how many players who invest in elite Urtext editions actually bother to read the prefaces? The 2017 Bärenreiter edition not only informs us about the genesis of the work, but also provides an evaluation of the sources as well as helpful notes on performance practice by Mario Aschauer. These notes give information about the types of pianos Mozart would have played – very useful when it comes to making decisions about pedalling, touch and articulation – and the always-tricky subject of ornamentation. Staccato dots and strokes The notation for different lengths and qualities of staccato differs depending on the composer and the style period. According to the preface of the Bärenreiter edition, the staccato stroke was, for Mozart, interchangeable with the staccato dot.  A particular problem of Mozart philology is the reproduction of staccato marks [the staccato dot or the staccato stroke]. The first edition of K. 331 exclusively uses strokes, except for the combination with slurs (portato) where dots are used. Mozart’s autograph features dots and strokes, but above all numerous intermediate forms that cannot be easily identified. In addition, Mozart occasionally notates simultaneously dots and strokes in different voices…or in parallel passages, one time […]

An Elizabethan Gem

When Trinity College London commissioned me to write the teaching notes for the advanced grades of the current syllabus, I was delighted to discover a little gem by William Byrd heading up the Grade 6 group A pieces. The Coranto gives the intermediate player an excellent opportunity to explore music of one of the leading Elizabethan virginalist composers, and learn a bit about the style. William Byrd (c.1540-1623) was an English composer of the Renaissance period, remembered for his church music, choral works, consort music and pieces for keyboard. This Coranto is among his many contributions to an important collection of keyboard music from the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, known as The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. A virginal (or pair of virginals) is a rectangular type of harpsichord, smaller and simpler in construction. The sound is produced by quills that pluck the strings, creating a crisp and incisive tone quality. A coranto is a type of triple-meter dance common in instrumental music from the period (the title literally means “running”). Annotated Study Edition Byrd’s example is lively in spirit, and needs to be articulated cleanly, especially with regard to the ornaments (indicated by diagonal slashes). It is advisable to practise the piece without the ornaments at first, adding them in very lightly only when you have developed some fluency. In my annotated study edition and online resources for this work, I give some written-out realisations of the ornaments, and above each ornament suggest one or two options for how they might be done. You might experiment until you find the ornament design that you prefer on each occasion. Unlike ornament symbols from other periods, there is no ornament chart for Elizabethan music and the same diagonal-slash sign is used for […]

The Myth of Evenness

This week’s guest blog post features an article on evenness and rhythmic groupings by Ken Johansen with an example from his From the Ground Up edition for Bach’s Prelude in D Minor (BWV 935). *** *** *** For many pianists, playing evenly is a bit of an obsession. We spend long hours trying to make our scales, arpeggios and passage work perfectly smooth and equal. This ideal is embodied in the famous jeu perlé, in which each note is like a pearl on a necklace – separate and identical, though united on the same string. But do we really want every note to be identical? Clearly, we don’t want unintended irregularities of tone or timing, such as bumps on the thumb in scales and arpeggios. Music, however, absolutely requires constant expressive, intended inflections of tone and rhythm. A string of equal notes doesn’t make a musical line. To modify Socrates’s famous saying, the uninflected line isn’t worth hearing. Nowhere is the need for expressive inflection more important, or its absence more noticeable, than in the music of Bach. The continuous sixteenth-note (semiquaver) motion of much of his music seems to invite the kind of uninflected, mechanical playing that used to be called “typewriter” playing. At the same time, the beauty of Bach’s writing can inspire playing of great rhythmic subtlety and vitality. For Bach designs motives and melodies to have a built-in momentum and rhythmic drive. He does this in the subtlest of ways using the simplest of means – namely, the intervals and melodic changes of direction he chooses. This subtlety is on full display in the Prelude in D minor, BWV 935, currently set in the Trinity College London piano examination syllabus, Grade […]

The Trinity College London Series

Good news! The Online Academy Trinity Series is now complete, and in this post I shall be looking at a representative selection of pieces from some of the grades. In the full series, each piece that we’ve featured comes with some teaching notes and a detailed video tutorial – here are samples and excerpts from the most recent works published: Nathalie Béra-Tagrine: Conversation (Grade Initial) Let’s start with Nathalie Béra-Tagrine’s Conversation. This is an excellent little study in combined touches, beginning with three-note drop-roll slurs in the right hand against a legatoline in the left. There is plenty of articulation detail to work on here between the hands, relying on mobility in the arms and hands.  Felicitas Kukuck: The Rowboat (Grade 2) The Rowboat is a miniature tone picture relying on imagination and a sense of storyline to convey the musical message. What story is this piece telling? Remember this is personal, and every player can come up with their own version of what is going on – for them. Sensitivity to phrasing, developing a cantabiletouch and the technique of chord legato are explored in this video. Here is a snippet of it. Michael Proksch: And Now Let’s Handel (Grade 5) German composer Michael Proksch gives us a fun piece in neo-baroque style. And Now Let’s Handelfeatures a simple harmonic progression based on a cycle of fifths that repeats three times, each time with a different texture. The quaver patterns give each hand in turn the opportunity to develop forearm rotation while shaping the line. In this video extract, I demonstrate the technique. Joaquín Turina: Fiesta (Grade 7) Fiesta is one of a set of eight pieces entitled Miniaturesby Spanish composer Joaquín Turina. It makes a very effective recital piece for […]