Learning Pieces

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.

Czerny Says You Can!

Have you ever pondered how many teaching hours in the course of piano teaching history have been devoted to certain famous passages from the repertoire? How much time, how much blood, sweat and tears have gone into the short introduction to Chopin’s G minor Ballade, for example? I am usually unimpressed when I hear an awe-struck student recount how their teacher spent a whole lesson on just the first phrase, sometimes even on one bar – or one chord! Is this something to be respected and admired, or is it an ego trip on the part of the teacher and actually a colossal waste of lesson time? Some places in the piano repertoire are so loaded with historic angst and baggage that the teacher feels the weight of tradition and, instead of just giving some suggestions or a few specific directions based on what the student might want to do with the passage, spouts forth from on high. No matter how well the student plays, the teacher has his or her prescription and is darned well going to pass it on. Chances are an hour spent thus on a bar of music will forever burden the student, making them feel they are never going to be able to reproduce what the teacher wanted. They will always feel unworthy – jinxed, even. Don’t get me wrong – there is no substitute for incredibly detailed and painstaking work at the piano, sitting hour upon hour day after day in our practice striving to get something just right. However, we all know that there is no such thing as the one perfect interpretation of any piece, and that great art allows a multitude of possibilities. You only have to listen to a number of different recordings […]

How to Begin a New Piece: Part 2

In the first post of this short series on learning a new piece, I discussed the need to construct firm and very thorough foundations before beginning work at the piano. I appreciate the overwhelming itch to get to the piano for our first physical contact with the new piece, but aim to delay this for as long as possible until we have an overview of the piece as a whole, and an image of how we want it to sound. We will reach our destination much more directly if we have a sense of the bigger picture rather than diving into the detail. Some of the repertoire I was assigned as a young student I learned hurriedly, before I had an appreciation that practice makes permanent. When I replay some of this core repertoire nowadays, the original mistakes reappear. I spend time ironing them out until all is correct, perform the piece then put it away again. The next time I take the piece out, those original mistakes crop up yet again. Delay Gratification François Couperin taught his students at their homes. He would lock the harpsichord at the end of each lesson, reopening it only at his next visit. He did this until they had developed good habits and could practise without ruining all the careful work he had just done with them. After we have done some solid work on our new piece, our highest aim ought to be not to fall into the trap of thinking we are doing any meaningful learning by repeated faltering and inaccurate read-throughs. Having the will power not to do this involves delaying gratification. Have you heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment ? In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately […]

On Schumann’s Kinderszenen

It is summer time, and rather than present my usual type of post, I am planning something a little different for the next few weeks. The first is a selection of recordings of Schumann’s Kinderszenen I particularly like – I hope you enjoy them too! Kinderszenen, op. 15, is a much-loved set of 13 pieces written in 1838. Schumann dashed off the entire set in just a few days. He originally wrote 30 pieces – “pretty little things”, as he called them – from which he chose 13. The unused movements were published years later in Bunte Blätter, op. 99, and Albumblätter, op. 124. Several of Schumann’s piano works are made up of short movements that make up a whole, but you wouldn’t really think of presenting, say, Chopin (or any other movement from Carnaval, op. 9) by itself, or indeed any of the numbers that make up Papillons, Kreisleriana, etc. However, some of the individual pieces from Kinderszenen are often taken out of context and may be played as stand-alone pieces – not just as encores. These are simple, unpretentious pieces  – most are less than a page long. Despite the title of the work they were not intended for children, although children may of course play them! Schumann’s purpose was to create a tender representation of childhood for adults. We know he was very proud of these pieces. Clara was delighted with them, writing to him saying “they belong only to us”. By way of an introduction, I can do no better than invite you to listen to Murray Perahia discussing the pieces and illustrating them at the piano. The most famous piece of the set is probably Träumerei (Dreaming). When Horowitz played it as an encore there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium. And now […]

Chopin and Bach

We know that Chopin began his piano practice every day with some preludes and fugues from Bach’s 48. It is said this is the only score he took with him to Majorca in 1838, where he completed his own set of 24 Preludes. There is nothing purer for the mind or for the fingers than Bach’s supreme examples, which are models of compositional clarity and logic. It is not just the composer’s own beautiful handwriting, but also the design of his musical structures that leap off the page, that have often made me wonder why no wallpaper manufacturer has come up with the idea of using his manuscripts as prints. A bit too busy, perhaps… I stumbled across a score of the C sharp major Prelude from Book 1 that Chopin annotated, and thought it should make an appearance here: Earlier today I was teaching Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu. Because of the polyrhythms, it is challenging to practise the outer sections slowly and be rhythmically absolutely precise (the LH is in sixes, the RH in eights). Provided we play the LH with a circular (or spinning) motion generated from the arm, the body coordinates the two rhythms (after a while), requiring no conscious thought from the mind as to how the two hands go together. This is not the case when practising slowly – and practise it slowly we must! You can, of course, struggle with “What Atrocious Weather”, the 3 against 4 equivalent of 2 against 3’s “Quick Cup of Tea” (or “Fried Fish and Chips”, if you come from up North): Or you might take inspiration from another prelude of Bach, the Prelude in D major from Book 1. …and practise a skeleton version of […]

“But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!”

One of the saddest things about our exam culture is spending the best part of a year on three pieces and a bunch of scales, polishing every little detail until perfect. A couple of weeks after the exam, the student has nothing to play because they have forgotten their old pieces and won’t be ready with the new ones for a while yet. This structure means they often have very poor reading skills and are ill-equipped as practical musicians. It is hard to fathom is that a supposedly advanced piano student with years of lessons behind them would not be able to get up and play Happy Birthday by ear at a party, or to read at sight simple accompaniments when called upon to do so. A very distinguished colleague who taught high-level conservatory students would only ever hear a piece once or twice. Even first year students had to bring something new each week, and while the pressure was often quite intense every single one of them developed the skills to assimilate music very quickly. They had to! Apart from playing extremely well, the best of them became excellent sight readers capable of working out complex scores within a few days. They were flexible and marketable pianists with a large repertoire, just what you want from a conservatory education. Quick Studies Not every one of our students would be able to handle this sort of pressure of course, and don’t get me wrong – spending weeks and months polishing and refining certain pieces is absolutely imperative! There is no way we can develop pianistic excellence and finesse without this. To redress the balance between the type of painstaking and time-consuming practise involved in perfecting a piece and the […]

The Fantasie-Impromptu: Some Ideas (Part Three)

Further to my first two posts, a reader has written in asking how to avoid the problem of fatigue in the RH in the forte passages from bar 13, and at the beginning of the coda. As with all piano playing, we have to use the right tool for the job, and because of Chopin’s patterns, it has to be forearm rotation. I would like to propose a way of practising these RH patterns whereby the fingers themselves are mere extensions of a rotating arm, like the blades of a propeller. We do not use the finger as an isolated unit, the finger is swung into position on the right key at the right moment by the forearm. However – and this is a very big however – the finger is not passive! The tip of the finger remains constantly active, alert and responsive. Rotary movements of the forearm are quicker and faster than digital movements, and WAY more economical. This is because these motions are natural to the way our body moves, and isolated finger movements are not. Clearly I can’t give an effective piano lesson in writing, so I will assume the reader who is capable of playing this piece will have developed forearm rotation to some extent. Here are a few pointers to bear in mind when practising this, and other passages using rotation: The elbow itself is more or less stationary The arm moves on the horizontal plane (from side to side), and not on the vertical (up and down) The firmer the finger, the louder the sound In the following exercise (RH alone), you will notice that each pair of notes is transformed into a sextuplet with an accent on every third […]

The Fantasie-Impromptu: Some Ideas (Part Two)

This is my second post on Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu. In the first, I proposed two different ways of choreographing the LH, the arm steering the hand in both. I also discussed practising the RH first of all slowly and firmly, and then in a bunch of different rhythmic groupings, and then using accents. I am going to do one more post next week, where I’ll talk about individual spots in the piece. This week, my suggestions are more general. I would like to suggest two other ways of practising the RH, which are in many ways much more effective: Finger Staccatissimo If we can reproduce at a slow tempo the exact length of time each semiquaver in the RH lasts at full speed, we will find this is extremely short! Now, if we retain this shortness and practise each note staccatissimo, we will be able to practise slowly and fast simultaneously. The tempo is slow, yet the key speed and the way we react to each note extremely fast. Think of each note as a grain of rice that we unclump from a piece of sushi and lay out with plenty of space in between.  We feel staccatissimo as a plucking or scratching motion in which the active finger tip moves towards the palm of the hand. This motion is generated by and confined to the tip of the finger – the wrist and arm remaining quiet. Start off by placing the finger on the key, and pull the finger quickly into the palm of the hand. Make sure the arm does not pull back, that the motion is only in the finger. Make sure to be in contact with the key before you pluck. Making […]

The Fantasie-Impromptu: Some Ideas (Part One)

I have had several requests to talk about the Fantasie-Impromptu of Chopin. It’s one of those evergreen pieces that everyone wants to play! There is so much to say on practising this piece, so rather than cram it into one long post, I’m going to spread it out over two. Our first job is to prepare each hand separately, and I’m going to begin with the LH. Left Hand Arpeggiated patterns like this cannot be played with any level of skill without the full participation of the arm. There are two ways of choreographing, and I will outline both of these: The Spinning Arm. The LH describes an ellipse that moves clockwise, the thumb brushing off its keys, and the pinky coming up and round. Thus the upper part of the ellipse takes in the ascending note patterns, and the lower part the descending ones. For ease of movement, bring the thumb into the palm of the hand as you play each descending pattern, so that there is no stretching and no tension. A common mistake is to bring the arm up before the pinky has played – think of bringing the arm up and round AS the pinky plays, the fifth finger acting as a lever that lifts the arm. The point here is that the arm is in constant motion, bringing the fingers to their respective keys without the need for the fingers to reach or stretch. Even in those places where a physical legato is not possible (the big jump from bar 7 into bar 8, for example), there is still a connection – in the arm! When we disengage the hand from the keyboard at that instant (the last quaver in […]