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 […]

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 […]

Slaying the Dragon

Piano playing can never be an exact science. We will not always be able to say with absolute precision or certainty how we arrived at a particular result in our playing. We may think we know, but in the end it will be a variety of different – and possibly even contradictory – means that bring about a result. Despite fastidious practising, human error and the sheer elusiveness of the act of performance will always play a part. And this is precisely what audiences like, the buzz of the live performance! There is the possibility of something wonderful, inspirational and spontaneous happening, as much as the performer falling flat on his face. The placebo effect can also enter into this – if you firmly believe you need to do a, b and c to achieve x, then perhaps you do! I am reminded of one of the all-time greats, Shura Cherkassky, who simply couldn’t play unless he went through certain rituals, such as always stepping onto the stage with his right foot first, then counting up to twenty-something before he started. The results were always fascinating. You can hear the audience actually laughing out loud during one of five encores (Shostakovich’s Polka from the Age of Gold) from a Wigmore Hall recital. Then there was the time during a recital in Carnegie Hall in the 1980s when I lifted my eyes to the ceiling realising I was never going to hear piano playing greater than this. Cherkassky was once asked (by a colleague of mine in an interview situation) how he practised on the day of a concert. The response was he played extremely slowly with his eyes closed, aiming to land each finger dead centre […]