A Make-Up Removal Tip

Someone once said to me “As long as you are trying to do something, you are not actually doing it”, and this resonated with me. When we first start working on a new piece, there is certainly an element of striving. We desperately want our fingers to obey our vision of  how we feel the music should go, to reproduce the ideal we have in our imagination. I would even go so far as to call this a yearning, and this is what spurs us on. But, if we have put in the slog, there has to come a time when we must let go of the reins and allow the music to take flight. OK, given that we are constantly striving for perfection, a piece will probably always feel like work in progress, but there has to be some mechanism where  in performance we let go of effort, and trust ourselves. For some this is much easier said than done. How often do we walk onto the concert platform feeling totally satisfied that we have put in enough practice hours, that we have covered all our bases (or should that be basses)? My first year of overseas study was at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, and what happy memories I have of that short time! I made many lifelong friends and started to get to know a culture that was very different from the one I grew up in. My formal lessons were with the wonderful pianist Ann Schein, one of Artur Rubinstein’s very few protégés (I have quite a few of the maestro’s special – and rather cheaty! – fingerings for Chopin). I will never forget a recital she gave where we […]

On Dotted Rhythms

Several of you have contacted me about doing a post on the subject of practising in dotted rhythms, that process where we deliberately and willfully go against the composer’s express wish for a passage  to be played evenly by changing the rhythmic notation for our own devious ends. This is a tradition that has been passed down from teacher to student for eons. It can work well when used carefully, but it is not a panacea for all technical problems. Pianists will claim that by taking a passage written in a constant stream of fast, regular notes and playing it several times, each time using a different rhythmic pattern, they have much more control over the passage mechanically.  This seems to strengthen the fingers, apparently (what does that actually mean?), or  it is to do with regrouping the passage – the brain sees the patterns slightly differently with each rhythmical variation and when you return to the original, it is easier to play faster, evenly, more accurately and effortlessly. Quite possibly so, if this has been done well. Are there any negative side effects to this? Absolutely, even if this has been done well! Rather like the ablution ritual of an hour of Hanon exercises, practising using a bunch of different rhythms gives a formulaic, mechanical structure to a practice session that allows both mind and ear a significant tea break while filling in time very nicely. There is a sense of achievement possible here, it can be real halo polish. If you have done an hour of Hanon and then practised your passages in dotted rhythms, you are bound to have practised well! But I often question what, if anything, has been achieved, or […]

More On Stopping

In my quest to establish in the practice session as many of the reflexes we’re going to use in actual performance as possible, I have come to see that stopping for every mistake is troublesome. Surely the art of performance is to form an unerring arch from the first note to the last despite what may happen en route? And yet in our work, we cannot simply ignore the dings, faulty voicings, wrong notes and other blemishes that even the greats are susceptible to. In the last post, I suggested a process whereby one does very deliberately play through all these things, but with the proviso that we clock them as they go by and deal with them later (and by later, I mean ASAP, in the next breath). If  not stopping means we miss a couple of things and don’t get them all immediately, we can be sure that anything really dodgy will reappear and we can snuff it out then. It is possible to get students  to listen critically very early on, to ask them how they think they did and which parts need attention. I am always surprised at how much they notice. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising after all – our errors seem to stick in our consciousness like burrs, and stopping for each of them is a bit like pulling the emergency cord in the train when actually it can be dealt with more efficiently at the next station. So in general I am more in favour of planned stops rather than accidental ones, but it doesn’t always work out like this. Best, then, to have this as a motto than a millstone. LEARNING THE NOTES We will need to take […]

To Stop Or Not To Stop?

I recall an infuriating time with a house guest who found herself confined to the kitchen while I was practising in the living room. Every time she heard the playing stop, she came in to ask a question or otherwise pester me.  In the same way that the rests are as integral to a piece of music as the notes, so silence can also be a vital part of practising. That silence between bursts of sound is where our conscious mind steps in, where we figure out why we went wrong, or why we didn’t produce the sound we wanted. We also need to know precisely what we intend to do to change this. Am I repeating a phrase because I want to reinforce an intended result (to make this into a habit), or am I repeating a phrase in the hope that the right result will somehow leap out at me by magic? I don’t recommend this second approach – it reminds me of the monkey and the typewriter and the complete works of Shakespeare – but judging from my eavesdroppings outside institutional practice rooms, it is much favoured. When all is going well, performing can feel like surfing a wave (or as I imagine surfing a wave would feel). It is an exhilarating sense of doing virtually nothing, of just going along for the ride. But this state of mind is mystical, and we can never predict when it will be with us. Certainly we cannot conjure it up at will. Most times, we will probably feel more like the tightrope artiste who needs to concentrate, who might wobble and who might even fall off (why else is the circus such a spectacle […]