Learning Pieces

Mozart’s Shorter Piano Pieces

A volume that is in almost constant use in my studio is the shorter piano pieces by Mozart in the Henle edition. It contains the tiny pieces Mozart wrote as a child, as well as the Rondos, Fantasies, and other pieces that don’t fall into the sonata or variation categories. All of them are fascinating, and the volume includes some real gems that pianists don’t seem to know. For the Henle Urtext edition, follow this link Among my very favourites is the Adagio in B minor, K. 540, a personal and profound work full of wonders. The magisterial performance of Daniel Barenboim I once owned on LP record still haunts me, but I cannot seem to find it anywhere. Here is Murray Perahia’s equally beautiful performance, and I hope it inspires you to include this piece in your repertoire. From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is known that Mozart had a great sense of humour. In one of his most tragic pieces, the finale of the C minor piano concerto, K 491, instead of writing repeat signs in the conventional manner, he wrote a little smiley face that looks back to where he wants the players to return. The autograph is in the library of the Royal College of Music, London, and when I was a student there I was given the rare privilege of handling the score (yes, I did have to wear gloves). Mozart also wrote a funeral march – as a joke. One of his students, Barbara Ployer, was a fine pianist but apparently did not enjoy her counterpoint studies with him. In order not to discourage her, he wrote a very short piece entitled Marche Funèbre del Signor Maestro Contrapunto, K 453a, in […]

A Bar at a Time

When I was going through the early grades myself as a lad, my teacher would instruct me to learn my new pieces bar by bar, and with each hand separately. I’m not sure how much I obeyed her when I was home alone though! I really do believe that if we teachers expect our students to practise in a particular way, we need to hear that practice in lessons – or there is little incentive for them to do it. It doesn’t have to take much lesson time – hearing just a bar or two, with words of encouragement and suggestions for improvement (if necessary) is all that is required to help them along in the learning process. I am very happy to announce that we’ll be adding further works to our  Online Academy articles and worksheets on the new ABRSM syllabus, beginning with a selection of pieces from the early grades. The format is somewhat similar to the other study editions I have previously published, featuring text, musical examples and short embedded video demonstrations (as well as video walkthroughs) designed to help teachers and players in the learning process. Naturally, there are detailed practice suggestions suitable for the grade. Bar by Bar – Plus One One of the practice suggestions I use in my worksheets is working in small sections, and a bar is a neat unit. Here’s how it works. In Bar by Bar Plus One we work one bar at a time. If we do this by stopping on the first beat of the next bar, the note(s) we end on will be the same note(s) we start on when we move on to the next bar. When we form good habits at […]

Pedalling the Moonlight Sonata

Beethoven wrote the Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor (Quasi una fantasia), Op. 27, No. 2 in 1801, dedicating it the following year to his pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The title “Moonlight” was given not by Beethoven, but by poet Ludwig Rellstab; even though Rellstab dreamed this up five years after Beethoven’s death, his nickname stuck. At the start of the first movement, Beethoven directs the performer to hold down the sustaining pedal throughout the whole movement, so that the strings are never damped. Above the opening bar, Beethoven instructed “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordini” (the entire piece should be played with the greatest delicacy and without mutes), followed by another direction between the staves “semper pp e senza sordini.” “Senza sordini” is an instruction to play “without mutes,” or with the dampers raised off of the strings – or, in other words, with the pedal down. Beethoven must have meant something important by this, since he felt it necessary to give the same instruction twice. On the pianos of Beethoven’s time the sustain was shorter than the pianos we have today, and this effect surprisingly subtle. Obeying Beethoven’s marking literally on a modern piano, with its much longer sustain, produces chaotic and immediately unacceptable results. However there are ways of pedalling artfully that recreate the type of effect Beethoven was after. I’ll show you in a minute how to produce an aura around the sound, obeying the spirit if not the letter of Beethoven’s instructions. But first listen to Matt Bengtson demonstrating the opening on a fortepiano: Beethoven would have remembered a day, not so long before, when pianos were equipped with a handstop that lifted the dampers away from the strings. […]

Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (Op. Post.)

We’re delighted to announce a new Annotated Study Edition and Online Academy walk-through of Chopin’s beautiful Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. Dedicated to his sister, Ludwika “as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto”, the work was not published until 1875. Two different versions of the score exist, with the Henle Urtext being the most commonly accepted. The Nocturne has an illustrious history. It was played by Holocaust survivor Natalia Karp for a Nazi concentration camp commandant, who was so impressed with her playing that he spared her life. It was also featured in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist. The work is included in the ABRSM Grade 7 examination syllabus, and while one of Chopin’s more accessible pieces it still poses several challenges even for accomplished pianists. Our edition and walk-through feature detailed footnotes and practice worksheets designed to assist in tackling everything from balancing the opening chords, creating beautiful trills, shaping the left hand melodically and managing the fiorature in the coda. Annotated Study Edition The Annotated Study Edition is a downloadable, printable PDF featuring the following content: Introductory notes and Urtext score Annotated score with footnotes and QR codes linking to practice worksheets and online videos Four practice worksheets with detailed exercises and numerous video demonstrations focussing on specific areas of the work such as the opening chords, left hand accompaniment and the coda The study edition is available for purchase and download via our eBook store either as a stand-alone publication or as part of one of our bundles via the following links: Annotated Study Edition Annotated Study Edition bundle (includes four current Annotated Study Editions and ongoing updates) Practising the Piano & Study Edition bundle (includes all four volumes of Practising the Piano […]

How to Analyse: Mozart K283

Players who have made some sort of preliminary effort to understand the shape and structure of the music they are about to learn before they rush to the piano tend to learn it quicker and more thoroughly than those who allow the musical design to seep in unconsciously as they learn the piece phrase by phrase from start to finish, repeatedly playing the piece through over time. I consider it essential to have a clear mental map of any piece of music we learn, especially if we plan to memorise it, in advance of ingraining muscular habits at the keyboard.  It should be obvious that while some background in theory is extremely useful when it comes to playing an instrument, not everyone who is capable of playing advanced piano music has had the benefit of a formal education in music theory and harmony. I would like to offer a taste of what I have come to call “quick and dirty analysis” as an example of how to approach analysis freely and personally without too much textbook theoretical or harmonic knowledge. Quick and dirty analysis is something you can do at the keyboard by exploring the music according to the shapes and designs that you notice and that are meaningful to you. Pretty much anything you notice is fair game, and can help you create a mental map of what is going on on the page. In this post you will find a short video of me doing a quick and dirty analysis of the opening few bars of Mozart’s G major Sonata, K283, at the piano using a stream-of-consciousness approach that I think most people could do themselves if given some gentle encouragement (I am assuming anyone who approaches this piece will […]

How to Analyse Music – Part 1

Why is it important for us pianists to analyse the music we play? Surely analysis is an academic activity that belongs in a classroom? When we dig below the surface to discover how a piece of music is built, we search for its form and structure, and what makes it tick. This helps us not only appreciate the music more, but also helps us to learn it deeply and thoroughly. When we take a bit of time and trouble understanding the shape and structure of a new piece before we rush to the piano to play it, we find not only can we learn it more quickly but we also retain what we have learned over time. Analysis is also absolutely essential for secure memorisation. Despite the importance of analysis, I have noticed how unwilling many players are to spend a chunk what little practice time they have away from the piano. Practice is only meaningful to them when they are making sounds, it seems. Others are scared of analysing, especially if they have not had the benefits of a thorough musical education. The good news is there are many different ways to analyse music, and you don’t have to get bogged down in complex methods (such as Schenker) to find deeper meaning in the music you are playing, and to benefit from the endeavour. Analysis does not have to be textbook, it can be very free and very personal. Whatever you notice about the music is fine and you can see it from many different – and equally valid – angles. Last week I offered two mind maps, one of an elementary piece created (with a little help) by an 8-year old, the other of a more advanced piece done by an adult. Each of these is a type […]

Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Studies, op. 100

Are you a pianist who has come from a tradition studies and exercises – a diet of Czerny, Hanon, Pischna and the others that were once the staples of a pianist’s training? Maybe you developed all your skills from repertoire itself, or you found a middle path, dipping into material with a clear technical goal when the need arose? For me, exercises need to be short and easy to learn, and very focussed on a clear and attainable outcome. Studies, unless they are of the calibre of Chopin and Liszt, are also best when they are short and to the point. Friedrich Burgmüller (1806 – 1874) was a German pianist and composer who moved to Paris at the age of 26 and settled there. In addition to light salon music, he wrote three sets of études for young pianists. His 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, op. 100 have been a mainstay of elementary étude repertoire for many generations – and deservedly so. Like all études worth their salt, 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 whatever. 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 we so often encounter). I cannot imagine any young pianist or elementary player who would not immediately engage with this charming set of études, or benefit from learning them. As the title suggests the études are progressive in their difficulty, ranging from approximately ABRSM grade […]

Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor

The Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines fantasia as “a piece of instrumental music owning no restriction of formal construction, but the direct product of the composer’s impulse.” The term itself is somewhat loose, its definition changing over the course of music history. Elizabethan fantasias for keyboard were built from whatever musical idea took the “fancy” of the performer, who made as much or as little of it as he wanted. It was a good way to warm up while checking the tuning of the instrument at the start of a performance. Here is William Byrd’s Fantasy in A from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, played on a spinet harpsichord built in London in 1718. One of the best examples of the Baroque fantasia is  JS Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. I have chosen a version by the great pioneer of the harpsichord Wanda Landowska, who manages to extract a huge variety of colours from her hybrid Pleyel instrument. The performance (recorded in 1935) is magnificent – almost gothic, and very much of its time. In the early Classical period, the fantasia evolved into two types, the prelude and the episodic. The composers who belonged to the keyboard school of JS Bach’s second son, CPE Bach, continued the Baroque improvisatory tradition and wrote bold, imaginative prelude-type fantasias. Think of an improvised prelude, where the composer-performer presented their ideas and demonstrated their knowledge and inspiration moment by moment to a small group of connoisseurs – literally making it up as they went along. When writing this out in conventional notation, frequent changes of tempo and meter are needed (you’ll see what I mean from the scrolling score in the following clip). Here is Robert Hill playing CPE Bach’s rather splendid Fantasia in F# minor (1787), played on a […]

Q&A: Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata

I had a question from a reader this week who requested some suggestions for the tremolos in Beethoven’s Sonata op. 31 no. 2, often referred to as the “Tempest Sonata”. Q: I find it difficult to make the development section of this piece interesting. The rolled chords seem boring when I play them, and I get self-conscious. Maybe this is why the tremolos in the right hand afterwards feel stiff and awkward too.  I find it most interesting that you relate your awkwardness in the long tremolo section to feelings of self-consciousness in the previous few bars, rather than any specific technical (mechanical) difficulty with the tremolo itself. The opening bars of the development section (marked Largo) are not difficult to play from a technical point of view, but they require some organisation and imagination. The Largo The most obvious practical issue with the Largo (bars 93-98) has to do with how we organise the rolled chords. We are clearly going to need to make a decision about which hand plays what, and there are several solutions to this. My suggestion is to try not only the solution in the edition you have, but to consult other editions too. I work from a Henle score, but I have several others on my shelves for reference. Schnabel has an excellent way of doing this, but here are two from editions freely available in the Petrucci Library – from Sigmund Lebert’s and Alfredo Casella’s editions.   After you’ve decided on which hand plays what, you’ll need to think about the speed and shape of the spread chords. Are you going to play each at the same speed, or are some faster than the others? How do we decide? I suggest first playing the progression […]

Chopin’s Fioritura

When I was a boy, I was given a volume of the Chopin Nocturnes long before I was able to play them. I vividly remember staring at a page containing what looked like hundreds of tiny notes, stumped by how on earth you were supposed to play them. That image has stayed with me, as has the wonder of hearing this music for the first time from an old LP record of Moura Lympany that my first piano teacher put on for me on occasion. Now I know a little more, and I am able to share a recent video I made for Pianist Magazine on solving some of the problems these little notes pose (known as fioritura, sometimes spelled fioratura – from the Italian word “flower”). My article for Pianist appears in the most recent issue (Issue 91) and the accompanying video is now live on YouTube. For more on fioritura, follow this link to my blog post Making Friends with Fiddly Fioritura I will be taking a rest from writing this blog for a few weeks. Wishing all my readers a happy summer break, and looking forward to being back with you in September.