Watch What You Say!

Over the years in my teaching, I have noticed the tendency for some students to need to preface their playing with an often lengthy verbal introduction – a description of what is going to go wrong in their performance, delivered with a sense of impending doom. Either they think I am not going to notice or they are somehow trying to hold on to their dignity by alerting me that they are aware of their errors. “I always go wrong in this bar” “The LH in that passage is lumpy and uneven” “I can’t get the pedalling right here” “It’s taking me ages to learn this piece” A genuine problem with a passage is one thing, and if you are able to get everything right by yourself you may not be in need of lessons. Those who know me realise I do not expect a performance of a piece until it has been fully digested and assimilated (this is always a process). But a post-mortem before we even play belies either guilt that we’ve not done enough work that week or – more likely, I’ve found – shame that we believe we are not good enough, not up to the task. Our brain will believe what we say over and over again.  If we say we can’t do something, we will always feel we can’t do it.  This may not be rational, but we already said it: “I can’t do it”.  The brain hears and takes that thought in.  Over time it becomes a belief.  When we believe we can’t do it, we are caught up in a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. And if we think learning a particular piece or solving a particular problem is not possible […]

Tackling a Programme

I had an interesting question from a reader in Australia, so this week I thought I would address the issue of how to learn a programme consisting of multiple pieces. Do keep your questions coming in, I will do my best to answer them. Q. I want to learn to play, say, two sonatas, or six difficult pieces, or (if have just started to play) three small “easy” pieces. How should I learn them? Say the sonatas have three movements each. Should I learn one movement at a time until I have it under my belt, and then go to the next, do the same, and afterwards go and learn the third? Once completed, do I then start the next sonata and learn it in the same way, or would it be more (or less) productive to start learning all six movements at the same time? A. The question is an excellent one as it shows how necessary it is to bring planning, organisation and time management skills into the practice room. Assuming I want to have all these pieces peak together, let’s work backwards from the end point. For example, if my recital or exam date is March 1st, I will need to aim to be fully prepared two weeks before that. Prior to that, I’ll need to arrange three run-throughs in front of different people (teacher, trusted friends, piano meet-up group, festival, etc.). The stages of our work will look approximately like this: Day of exam or recital. The week or so before: under-tempo run-throughs combined with spot practice and general maintenance (including some slow practice and using the memory tools). Marking (going over lightly) the programme, some visualisation, relaxation techniques if needed. Have […]

By |February 28th, 2014|Performing|8 Comments

The Weakest Link

In the run-up to Christmas, I am reminded of the low-tech decorations we used to make at school back in the day – paper chains. We would lick the gummed end of the coloured paper strip, wince a bit because it tasted horrible, then stick it to the other end and make a link. This we did until we had formed a long chain, which we taped to the ceiling and then draped across the room, making a festive decoration. Trouble was, those links we hadn’t stuck down properly caused a breakage later on, and the chain would be on the floor when we got to school the next day. A quick repair and a trip back up the stepladder usually sorted the problem. A break in a musical performance can be much more devastating, and the consequences more far-reaching – especially if the stakes are high such as an exam or a public performance. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link Let’s say you have learned a piece and yet find it difficult to get through without error. Suddenly you go blank, or your fingers stall and you break down. You have rarely managed to get through the piece from beginning to end, but it’s frustrating because the mistakes seem to happen in different places each time. If this happens when you are alone in your practice room, then it probably means you have not done enough spadework. You are likely trying to run before you can walk and you’ll need to go back to some really solid slow practice, with each hand separately, working in small sections at a time. If it happens in a more stressful situation, this is a […]

The Adult Amateur

Some adults play the piano for pleasure, it is a thread that goes through their lives from childhood to old age and what a wonderful joy, solace, outlet for self expression and source of inspiration this is (actually, this list could go on and on). Others start when they retire, and I have seen some beautiful results from people who are suddenly able to devote time and energy to this new discipline. As we all know, playing the piano can be a lonely activity and yet for many adults getting up and playing in front of others is a daunting prospect. Fingers can turn to jelly as weeks of careful preparation appear to come to naught under the effects of a powerful drug secreted by our own body – adrenalin. When we are confronted with a threatening situation the nervous system releases adrenalin into the blood stream, and this produces most of the symptoms associated with stage fright: shallow and quick breathing, increased heart rate, trembling, and nervousness.  While these responses may be appropriate if we were facing a valid threat to survival, none of these effects helps with piano performance at optimal levels. At the end of our performance (if we make it that far!), we may be left feeling disappointed, dejected and even humiliated. It can be a terrifying experience to submit oneself to this experience and while it is true that performing is not for everyone there are things that we can do to improve the situation.   Unfortunately, the nervous system doesn’t distinguish between real threats and perceived threats. If the mind perceives the threat as large enough, even though a rational analysis would say otherwise, our system starts pumping the adrenalin. Adrenalin affects professional […]

Some Thoughts on Mental Tension

When we think of tension in piano playing, we correctly label this as negative – it is a thing that hampers us and our objective should be to locate its source and then eliminate it. This tension might be physical or mental, or perhaps a bit of both! Inadequate or inefficient technique, or incorrect use of the body manifests in physical tension. Mental tension (such as stage fright, exam nerves, etc.) may have its origins in the mind but it soon becomes very apparent in our breathing and the tightening of our arm muscles, the wrist and our shoulders. If we are particularly apprehensive, our legs may also tighten up and this affects our whole system. Adrenaline gets pumped into the body and this alters the way our muscles feel and the way we respond physically to what we perceive as stress and danger. When muscles tense up our ability to move freely across the keyboard is compromised, often severely. This leads to all kinds of clumsy and uncoordinated errors until eventually we can no longer play. Poisonous Pedagogy Unfortunately, many teachers (including some with excellent reputations at the top of the profession) teach by shaming the student, making them feel inadequate and inferior. Once worn down and confidence eroded, the idea is to rebuild them in the image of the teacher. This sets up unhealthy dependency and a host of psychological problems. I am not suggesting this is deliberate cruelty on the part of the teacher, because this behaviour is usually unconscious. The teacher is simply passing on like a hot potato the way they themselves were taught. Despite the quality of the information we might get from such a teacher, nobody needs to be subjected to this […]

Freedom in Interpretation

…what bestows upon the performer the status of artist and on the performance the status of art, is the real, full-bloodied possibility of the performer finding a better or at least different way of performing the music from the way the composer has specifically envisioned and explicitly instructed. This is what bestows upon the performance personal style and originality – what makes it the performer’s “version” of the work and not just the composer’s “version”. Peter Kivy, Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 197. The other day an adult student came for a lesson on the E major Mendelssohn sonata. As he was playing, I was struck by how vibrant and communicative the playing was, except for one small section which felt grey and unconvincing. When I brought this up, he smiled. Apparently another teacher a while ago had told him how that passage should go. As he was explaining all this, I was struck how what this other teacher said was just an opinion – nothing more. There were no indications or directions from the composer to this effect , this teacher had given him an interpretation of the passage that was hers. The trouble was, it just didn’t work for him – he hadn’t managed to make it his own which is why that place in the music didn’t make any sense. There is so much in music that is subjective and open to personal taste and interpretation. In order for us to play convincingly, we have to develop an interpretation that is meaningful TO US, vivid in all its details. Unless we are convinced by what we are doing, we are unlikely to convince our audience. Love them or hate […]

On Touch, Articulation and Phrasing

This week my third video demonstration on touch went live on Pianist Magazine‘s YouTube channel. When I was given the original commission for three articles for the magazine, I knew I wanted to write firstly on legato and staccato touches, and secondly on those grey area non-legato touches, but I wasn’t sure at that stage how to round off the series. It struck me that there was a lot of confusion about how to articulate the music of Bach, in particular, and I’m constantly frustrated by how pianists can misunderstand the short slurs we find from Mozart onwards, right up to Brahms. So, I thought I would pull this all together and give some suggestions for articulation. Three main points come out of all of this for me: In the absence of any markings from the composer, articulation is decided based not on whimsy or for cosmetic reasons, but rather on the structure of the musical material. There is usually a variety of possible articulations of a given subject, theme or motive. When playing Bach, some pianists have the mistaken sense that the music is to be curated rather than enjoyed and fully lived. Here is the video: ***   ***   ***   ***   *** I am launching the first two volumes of Practising The Piano ebook series! It is presently in “beta” mode which means that while the publications are fully functional and the content is of a high quality, there are still a few small issues that we are ironing out.  Furthermore, I would also like to obtain further feedback and suggestions during this beta phase in order to refine the final versions.  As a concession I am offering the publications at a […]

On Touch (Part Two)

My second article on touch has just been published by Pianist Magazine. When I was first commissioned to write a series of three articles on touch, dealing with legato and staccato in the first one was relatively straightforward. However, the subsequent article on non-legato touches was rather more challenging and I found myself getting lost in semantics, particularly over the distinction between portato and portamento.  You Say “Portato“… These two terms are often confused with each other, but only by pianists! Portamento means to glide between two pitches (similar to a glissando, but with all the intermediate pitches). This is the domain of singers, string and (sometimes) wind players and is clearly not possible on the piano. Pianists do sometimes use the term portamento when they might more accurately call it portato, the literal meaning of which is “carried” (implying the notes should be sustained, lengthened, and drawn out). Again, this means to play halfway between staccato and legato, and is indicated by staccato dots under a slur, or by staccato dots under tenuto markings. You might think of this touch as a sticky staccato which is both non-staccato and non-legato, best realised by separate arm strokes for each note, through a loose and flexible wrist. The use of the wrist to add drag to the release of each key is very appropriate with this touch. Depending on the context, the notes may be played legato (but using separate arm strokes) or the notes may be slightly separated. This notation also has connotations of playing the notes freely, with rubato, or even rather slowly and drawn out, and the effect of portato in a melodic line is to communicate serious and expressive emotions. The Pedal And Staccato A vital thing to remember about […]

By |November 29th, 2012|Performing|6 Comments

On Attitude & Gesture

Some years ago, I had the privilege of sitting in on some lessons taught by a colleague who specialised in teaching talented youngsters. Because she also had a background in dance, she managed to bring to each lesson some of the qualities of a classical ballet class where every gesture counted and no sloppiness of any kind was permitted, ever. The lesson began when the child walked into the room. Formalised greetings were exchanged, and there was a tangible sense of occasion in each lesson which bordered on the ceremonial. There was certainly a feeling of  specialness and magic about it all. Nothing was routine about the lesson, everything was focussed on the meaningfulness of every sound and gesture, and the beauty of what was being engaged in – music as art and self-expression. I am certain this attitude of mindfulness and respect in the learning environment has a knock-on effect in the day-to-day practising of the student. Young pianists brought up in such a way learn to love and respect music – doodling at the piano or hacking away at a passage during practice would be as foreign as a slouched seating position. GESTURE Gesture is defined as the movement of part of the body, especially the hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning. We all know that gesture is vital to piano playing – our gestures at the keyboard are translated immediately into sound. If we use smooth and flowing movements, we get a smooth and flowing sound. An actor friend uses the gestures and body language associated with a particular state of mind or emotion to get into character, to evoke a particular emotion and then to communicate this. Lang […]

By |November 17th, 2012|Performing|5 Comments

On Touch (Part One)

I was recently asked by Pianist Magazine to write a series of three articles on touch, which turned out to be more challenging than I had anticipated. The second article on non-legato touches was especially difficult, since these various touches overlap (no pun intended), and any attempt to classify them risks ending up confusing rather than clarifying. The first article, just published, is on legato and staccato. In this, I talk about four different types of staccato and three different types of legato – our plain vanilla default touch, legatissimo for cantabile melody lines and ‘finger pedalling’ where notes are deliberately held down and overlapped. I want to distinguish between finger pedalling as a specific touch and the bad habit of neglecting to pick up the finger after its written note value. Beginner and elementary pianists are constantly being told (quite correctly so) by their teachers to pick up their fingers. Holding fingers down beyond the written note value at this stage is bad technique and produces unwanted blurs and smudges. However, at the advanced level an overlapping touch (finger pedalling) is indispensable. Let’s say we have an Alberti bass (or broken chord pattern) with a melody above it. It sounds dry and clattery, but pedalling blurs the melody and adds too much resonance. The best way of adding resonance is to use finger pedalling. Instead of releasing the notes of the Alberti bass in a conventional legato touch, we hold onto them, creating a harmonic effect. This enables us to play broken harmonies without dryness, and yet to play the melodic line above without the smudging that would happen if we used the sustaining pedal. Actually, we are still able to use the sustaining […]