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 […]

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 […]

How to Begin a New Piece: Part 5

When I started writing this blog I wanted a term for the sort of nitty gritty, nuts and bolts general work we do in practice. I came up with The Three S’s, adapting Sir William Curtis’  The Three R’s (coined during the Victorian era). “Reading, writing and arithmetic” are said to be basic to a school education and the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy for all further learning. My Three S’s – Slowly, Separately, Sections – are the basis of craftsmanlike, disciplined work leading to skillful piano playing and the pathway to artistry and mastery. This short series on beginning a new piece would not be complete without referring back to these basic principles. Because I have already written extensively about them, I include links to my blog posts and the relevant chapters in my ebook series below. The Three S’s These tools are as vital for the beginner as for the experienced concert pianist – in short, a daily necessity. Practising like this is not just for the beginning stages of learning a piece when we’ve almost got no other choice, when we can’t yet manage the whole piece hands together and at speed. Going back to using The Three S’s even after we have got beyond the nursery slopes of learning a piece will help to reinforce and to refine. Separately I am aware that some teachers believe in putting a piece hands together straight away. The argument goes that if you have practised with separate hands you will need to learn another skill when you put the hands together, so why waste the time. I would agree that we first need to understand how the music sounds – and feels – with both hands together. Thereafter, […]

How to Begin a New Piece: Part 4

Last week’s guest post by Julie Garnham raised some interesting discussion in Facebook piano pedagogy groups (click here to read). I feel the idea of beginning a new piece away from the piano needs to be clarified – Julie went through this process as an elected assignment on The Piano Teachers’ Course (UK), in the spirit of research. She decided to do this for a full 20 days. It is not necessary to spend this long if you want to get some of the lasting benefits of having your brain a few steps ahead of your fingers. If doing this type of preparatory work away from the piano intimidates you, just spend a day or two reading the score making as many observations as you can. Or you might want to engage your analytic skills as you learn the piece at the piano – the way we learn is very individual! Julie has written a few words about why she undertook the assignment: The small part of the learning and practising process I described in my article helped me overcome the dangers of dodgy thinking that might arise as a result of the brain’s natural and quick processes of ‘trying to help’ us. It does this by skimming and making decisions quickly, that’s its evolutionary task, to save our lives! In a ‘safer’ environment, (music room) we don’t want our brain to carry out such instinctive, habitual, quick, not properly informed decision-making processes that may make our piano playing hit-and-miss, so we want to retrain it.  (That’s the way I see now how things may have happened in my previous learning, when I didn’t  know sufficiently how a piece was created or perceive aurally the deeper relationships within its musical structures.) If I had had years of conservatoire […]

Zen In The Art Of Plate Spinning

I am sure we have all seen that circus act where the showman puts a few plates on some poles, sets them spinning and then adds more plates to more poles. He keeps on doing this until there is a bewildering array. He needs to keep returning to the original plates before they run out of spin, and the excitement of the act is wondering how he can possibly keep all this going with no breakages with just one pair of hands. Preparing a programme for recital or examination poses similar logistical problems. How do we ensure that all components of our programme peak together on the day, and how do we plan our day-to-day practising so we give enough attention to everything and neglect nothing? This takes some planning, as well as some know-how. Routine I’m a great believer in making lists, or rotas, but flexible ones that take into account the realities of life and also that leave room for spontaneity. Rigid schedules are impractical and demotivating, since they are impossible to stick to. However you plan your work, you will absolutely need to get into a routine. A regular routine helps us to frame our work so that the act of practising becomes a habit. Sure, this takes discipline, but nothing worth achieving is possible without steely determination and self-discipline. Therefore, it is extremely helpful to set aside a regular time during the day for practice. This gives us direction and impetus. Since no two people are the same, it is impossible to come up with an exact formula for the length of time needed, or the best format to organise our work. Some people work best in the morning, others later in the […]

On Practising and Performance

I have been writing this blog since March 2011, putting up weekly posts except over Christmas when I take a bit of time off. Before I sign off for the holidays, I would like to leave you with three old posts that I think describe the difference between the opposite states of practising and performing. If we can keep these differences in mind when we practise, we will reach our destination more quickly and efficiently. Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills I wrote this post in May, 2012 in response to a BBC TV programme on the English Civil War. It struck me that we need to call on our inner Roundhead when we practise (puritanical, serious-minded, hard-working and religious) and the devil-may-care, spontaneous, reckless and flashy Cavalier when we perform. If we take our Cavalier into the practice room, we wouldn’t get any work done; if we take our Roundhead onto the stage with us when we perform, we will bore the pants off our audience. To read this post,  click here. Practice v Performance There is a lovely quote from legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz which applies equally to us pianists, and indeed any other performer: Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn. This is really another way of saying the same thing – find a way of developing a Jekyll-and-Hyde mindset between your practice room and the concert stage or examination room. To read this post, click here. Going into the Zone There is a crucial stage in performance preparation when we need to get out of our comfort zone and begin to sense what it feels like to play a work or a programme in […]

Going into the Zone

There is a stage in the preparation of a recital programme when it is a very smart idea to play the whole thing through in its entirety in front of someone else before the big day. This person could be your teacher, a trusted colleague or indeed anyone who will sit and listen. You could opt for safe circle feedback (see last week’s post) or for a more balanced critique, or no feedback at all. Before you do this, you’ll need to have scheduled into your practice time several regularly-paced run-throughs for yourself. Record some of these in order to hear the sounds that are actually coming out of the piano (rather than those sounds you imagine or wish you were making – there is often a difference!). I have written about this process fully in a previous post, so rather than go into it again I would redirect you here. No matter how well you know the music or how carefully you have practised, the first time you play for someone else you might notice all sorts of things happening you could never have planned for – that memory lapse here, that moment of uncertainty there. Hopefully you will recover and manage to proceed, and there is a lot to be learned and gained from these dings and skirmishes. I think of this as a test flight, the first of several before your performance can be certified as “airworthy”, or concert-ready. The Downside of Careful Practice Instead of errors as such, in a run-through in front of someone else we may feel a certain cautiousness or woodenness as we try to control everything we are doing. The process of practising entails making absolutely sure of every single note […]

Performing in a Safe Circle

Many pianists relish performing and do it all the time, others end up performing as a part of their activities. It may have been a passion for music and a desire for self expression that led them into the profession in the first place and not necessarily a desire for performance itself. Performance skills come with experience, and yet many fine musicians are not really cut out for it. Many amateur players are not content just to sit at home and play for their own pleasure, they need to perform and to share their music with others in order to grow and develop. For both professionals and amateurs alike, the act of performance may be fraught with challenges and problems. There is no doubt that for a performance to be convincing, the performer must be convinced by what they are doing. And if the performer is nervous and allows those nerves to show too much, the listener is going to feel apprehensive and won’t enjoy the performance nearly as much as if the player can manage to let go. One of the blog posts I am most proud of  is Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills, in which I describe the different mindsets between practising and performing, and show how a devil-may-care attitude is a disaster in the former but a necessity in the latter! Inner Judges Some players find it very difficult to let go of nerves, and this may be for a variety of reasons – physical and/or psychological. Our inner judges can be real people who have (or had in the past) influence over us. This might be a parent, grandparent, teacher – anyone whose opinion we allowed to affect us.  Imagine a situation […]

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