Performing

On Tempo Relationships

I was working with someone on Schubert’s B flat Impromptu last week, a set of variations on the so-called “Rosamunde” theme. Variation form always poses a tempo challenge to the performer – how to adapt the basic tempo we have chosen for the theme as the variations unfold.  The edition my student was using was by the one by Howard Ferguson, from the ABRSM’s Signature Series. Ferguson is a musician and scholar for whom I have a lot of respect, so I was very interested to find in the preface some tempo suggestions that are “in no way authoritative, but may prove helpful if only as points of departure”.  Schubert marks the theme Andante – most important, of course, to notice the all breve time signature, so that’s two beats in a bar (on no account must it feel like four). I’ve just been on YouTube to sample the tempo from a few recordings, here are the first five that came up in the search: Lisitsa – c. 35 Pires – c. 35 Brendel – c. 40 Schiff – c. 45 Zimerman – c. 46 It was difficult to find a fixed pulse for the Horowitz recording I found. He brings his own inimitable Romantic approach to the work that has a magic all it’s own. Howard Ferguson gives his suggestions in crotchet beats (strangely), and a tempo of 80 for the theme (40 for the minim beat). This increase to 88 (44) for the Variation 1, the slight increase making sense in light of the forward-flowing semiquaver movement that always reminds me of the sort of music Schubert writes when describing brooks or streams of water. Variation 2 pushes the pulse still further, at 96 (48), before a new, […]

Arpeggiation in Piano Playing

I first published this post in July of 2016. Here it is again with one or two updates – including a link to the Online Academy’s series on spread chords, and the recent video I made for Pianist Magazine. ***   ***   *** I once attended a piano recital where the pianist continually broke the hands, so that the right hand sounded slightly after the left. He did this consistently with all the repertoire on his programme regardless of its period, and after a very short time indeed this had become a major distraction to me. I found I was unable to enjoy the music or appreciate the playing, it was irritating in the extreme. However, there was a time in the history of piano playing where this sort of desynchronisation of the hands was actually part of style. If you were trained in Leipzig in the nineteenth century you would certainly have done this without giving it a second thought, as well as arpeggiating chords at the drop of a hat. Here is Carl Reinecke in a piano roll recorded in 1905 of the Larghetto from Mozart’s K537. How times change – this style of playing, while prevalent at the time, would simply not be acceptable nowadays. If this style were based on performance traditions from Mozart’s day, you might expect modern fortepianists to have picked up on it. This cleanly articulated performance by Malcolm Bilson shows otherwise; it is (mercifully) free of such excesses. Last week I wrote about how Beethoven himself spread the opening chord in his Fourth Piano Concerto. In the Baroque period, keyboard players routinely rolled chords for expressive purposes –  either slow or fast, downwards as well as upwards. There were signs to indicate this […]

Silent Movie

First published in March, 2015, I decided to republish this post on the importance of imagination in preparing for performance. ***   ***   *** Someone recently asked me what I think about when I am performing, and whether this is different from what I think about when I practise. Very good question – I am going to aim to address it here. When I practise, I need to listen very critically and analytically to what I am doing. Practising involves experimentation and working often in small sections at a variety of different speeds – with frequent stops.  Performing is all about letting go of self consciousness, getting into a flow state and communicating the message of the music to the listener. Essentially practising is more a thinking activity, and performance a feeling one. The critical inner voice is therefore necessary in practice, but a liability if we bring it with us onto the concert platform or the exam room. I don’t want to be consciously thinking about fingering or pedalling on the stage, or judging myself. Concentration is very necessary, but what is it that I’m concentrating on exactly? For more on the different states involved in practice and performance, follow this link to my blog post Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills Total Immersion I once gave a class at which a student presented Des Abends from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. She played accurately and fluently but she clearly hadn’t any idea of what the piece was all about. I asked her what the title meant, and she told me she didn’t know. I explained it was German for “of the evening” and that this was a gentle picture of dusk where atmosphere, calm and stillness are paramount. I […]

Pedalling for Resonance

In the days before the piano was invented, harpsichordists did not have any sort of sustaining device and so created resonance using the technique of overholding (or finger pedalling). On a harpsichord (just like on a piano) holding onto a key with a finger ensures the damper associated with that key remains in the up position, allowing the string to resonate. Sometimes composers wrote finger pedalling out, other times they assumed the player would just do it anyway. Here is an example of the former, scrupulously notated by François Couperin in his Les Barricades Mystérieuses. A universal tendency I have noticed among piano students is the missed opportunity for resonance in a piece that requires pedal from the start. What is the point of putting the pedal down only after you have played the first chord, when putting it down beforehand opens up the instrument for maximum resonance immediately the hammers hit the strings? Take the opening of the Grieg Concerto. If the pedal is down before you play the opening chord, then the whole instrument resonates at the start of the sound. Try it for yourself – play the chord without the pedal and you will get a very dry result, since only four dampers will be raised (the RH notes in that particular chord are too high even to need dampers). If you pedal just after the chord, you will miss the full resonance. Instead of an explosive accent, you get a sort of hairpin crescendo. With the pedal down before, all the dampers are raised and the whole instrument can resonate. I have recently published a video walkthrough on the Rachmaninov Prelude in C# minor on the Online Academy, here is a short […]

The Myth of Perfection

The Myth of Perfection was first published in February of 2014. I’ve decided to republish as part of this summer holiday series of posts from the past, in the hope that it will give a little perspective on the subject. ***   ***   *** Many of us are caught in the trap of perfectionism, and yet attaining flawlessness is so anti-human. Music played perfectly would actually be boring and predictable – what makes performance interesting is the human element, and what makes it electrifying is the element of risk when the performer is pushing the boundaries of what is possible or imaginable (and might even teeter over the edge here and there). Here’s what Beethoven had so say about this! To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable. No live performance can ever truly be note-perfect, and no single interpretation can ever be the one true realisation of the musical possibilities of particular piece. It’s precisely this difference between the ideal and the reality where the humanity of musical performance lies, and the wrong notes in Alfred Cortot’s recordings matter not one iota to the communication of the music’s beauty. I would even go as far as to say it what makes me love his recordings all the more – they show greatness and fallibility at the same time. The problem is that audiences raised on a steady diet of today’s recordings (often a collection of the best takes spliced together) only recognise the perfection possible in that scenario, and are unprepared for live performances. Perfectionism has been defined in psychology as: A personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical […]

More Than Just The Music

This week’s guest post features an article by pianist, teacher and performance coach Charlotte Tomlinson. In her post, Charlotte shares her journey towards becoming a performance coach and her approach to helping musicians enjoy a free, enjoyable and inspired performing life. *** *** *** More Than Just The Music: My Journey Towards Performance Coaching Performance Coaching is still quite a new concept in the music profession at large, although over the last few years there has been a much greater openness towards anything that supports a musician’s overall health and wellbeing. In the sports world, it’s a well understood term and Performance Coaches are common – you just have to google the term to see that there are far more performance coaches for athletes than there are for musicians. There is also a vast literature of performance psychology in the sports world that’s been around for about fifty or sixty years. For whatever reason, athletes appear to have understood sooner than musicians, that there is more to being successful in your chosen area than technique, talent and hard work. In musical circles, nobody has yet defined what performance coaching actually is, or what it should be, so I am just going to share with you my version and what I offer. As a Performance Coach, I aim to support a musician in clearing everything that gets in the way of them performing to their full potential. This can be on a physical, emotional, psychological or musical level. The next step is to help that performer get into a good emotional state so that they give of their best while loving the whole performing experience. I came to performance coaching through years of piano teaching and […]

Mindmapping for Enhanced Performance

Part of what induces anxiety among many pianists when performing from memory is just how the kinaesthetic sensations (muscle memory) may change when an audience is present. It doesn’t seem to matter if that audience is one person hovering over the piano in an informal situation or a concert hall filled with people. What we know we know when playing in the comfort of our own studio risks becoming unfamiliar when adrenaline enters the picture, and many excellent pianists and musicians find themselves crumbling inside as fingers refuse to cooperate and the mind freezes and goes blank. For myself, when preparing a programme from memory I find I need to devote a considerable amount of time in my practice to making sure I know the music upside down, inside out, backwards and sideways. I aim to bolster aural and analytic memory while steering clear of muscle memory as far as is possible. Nobody spends a lot on insurance hoping they’ll need to make a claim, but it does offer peace of mind – even if you are not planning to play from memory, a certain amount of memory work (which after all is just deep learning) is indispensable to the security and quality of the eventual performance. For more on analytic memory, follow this link to my blog post Mind Maps In recent years, as part of my work as principal tutor on the Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK, I have discovered the benefit of mind maps in learning and memorising. A musical mind map is a diagram that represents aspects of a piece (structure, poetic meaning, story line, etc.) in colours, symbols, pictures and/or words. The traditional mind map as described by Tony Buzan in his book Quick Steps to a […]

Guest Post: Why Take a Performance Diploma?

This week’s post is a guest post by Frances Wilson – pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. Frances asks the pertinent question – why take a performance diploma? Why Take a Performance Diploma? by Frances Wilson Grade 8 need not represent the pinnacle of learning, and for the talented student or adult amateur pianist it can act as a springboard to further study. The major exam boards (ABRSM, Trinity College London and London College of Music) all offer Performance Diplomas which provide a framework for the honing and maturing of performing and teaching skills. Anyone who thinks a diploma is a simple step up from Grade 8, think again. While it is a logical next step for a competent musician who has achieved Grade 8, a diploma, even at the lowest, Associate level is significantly more involved, requiring a high degree of attainment, combined with a professional attitude to preparation, technical facility, communication, musicality, presentation and stagecraft. The diploma itself is a professional qualification, recognised by other musicians and music professionals around the world. Diplomas can be taken outside the formal framework of music college or a university course and as such offer opportunities for serious independent learning and personal development. Diplomas also offer the chance to study without restrictions on length of study or the requirement that one is taught within an institution. Trinity College London defines the Associate and Licentiate Diplomas as follows: Associate (ATCL, AMusTCL) The standard of performance is equivalent to the performance component of the first year in a full-time undergraduate course at a conservatoire or other higher education establishment. Licentiate (LTCL, LMusTCL) The standard of performance is equivalent to the performance component on completion of […]

Flexibility in Interpretation

You only have to listen to the same piece played by different pianists to appreciate there is no such thing as the one “correct” way to play it. Tempo and timings, pedalling, style, phrasing – the list of variables goes on and on. Here is an example of such diversity, Liszt’s La leggierezza study as recorded by Carlo Vidusso, Earl Wild and Georges Cziffra. Each performer plays the piece in his own unique way. There are some pianists who agonise over each and every detail of their interpretation in the studio, sweating blood until they have crystallised their vision of the music and got it just right. Their one true version remains steadfast, a statue permanently carved in sound. Here is Clifford Curzon‘s working copy of No. 5 from Schubert’s Moment Musicaux, completely covered with his annotations. You can listen to his performance here, from 11:40 Shura Cherkassky, on the other hand, said he never played a work twice in the same way. He didn’t know how he was going to play even as he walked out onto the stage; it was as though he were improvising his interpretation in public. He had the necessary technical control that gave him absolute freedom of expression, and this is one of the reasons his live performances were always so exciting and unpredictable. A paradox exists in musical interpretation. If we haven’t made any decisions about what we want to do, we have no idea what is going to come out in our performance. It might be wonderful or it might be terrible, but it will certainly be unpredictable. If our performance decisions are too rigid, our playing risks sounding stiff, staid and boring. We set ourselves an impossible task, since the rigidly planned approach does not take […]

How to Begin a New Piece: Part 6

Here is the final part of this series on beginning a new piece. Like last week’s offering, it’s mostly going to be a list of resources from this blog and from my ebook series featuring those practice tools that, from my experience, are seriously helpful as we begin the learning process. Actually, not only as we begin but also afterwards – I return to them constantly to keep the playing fresh and in tip top condition. Quarantine Quarantining is the process of identifying mistakes that always seem to trip us up and isolating them from the rest of the piece. Quarantine becomes a designated practice activity distinct from work on that particular piece, since it embraces troublespots from other pieces too. We work on our quarantine spots before, during and after routine practice – also at odd moments throughout the day which wouldn’t normally count as practice time. We can include especially problematic sections of pieces we’re about to study, to get a bit of a head start on them. I have a student who has just started learning the G minor Ballade and asked me how best to approach it. Since he already knows the music extremely well (who doesn’t?), I suggested starting work on the LH of the “big tune”: Also the LH of the E flat waltz section In addition to these, I also advised deconstructing the coda. He put in a couple of weeks serious practice on these 3 spots before starting at the beginning. For more details on quarantining, follow this link to Part 1 of my ebook series. The 20-Minute Practice Session It doesn’t have to be 20 minutes, of course, and there’s no need to be a slave to this […]

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