Practice tools

Simplifying the Score

When we begin work on a new piece, we might feel bewildered by all the information on the page. The score is dense with notes, fingerings, pedallings and other instructions and it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Where do we begin? Starting from the beginning and attempting to process everything at once can often be frustrating and overwhelming, and we feel we are not getting to grips with the piece at all. Making our own simplified versions of the score can be a very useful tool when starting on a new piece, and there are many ways to do it depending on the piece. Not only does it make the music easier to process and digest, it helps with memory too. Blocking Blocking is where we take a passage written in broken chord figuration and practise it as solid chords. For example, let’s look at this Prelude by Bach (the C minor, from Book 1 of the 48) The underlying harmonic progression gives a sense of how to shape the constant stream of semiquavers (16th notes). To discover the chorale (the harmonic framework), play the first two notes in each half bar together thus: In this video, I illustrate a few different examples of blocking, starting with the Bach Prelude (above) and ending with the opening of the slow movement of Mozart’s Sonata in F, K.332. Further reading & resources Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – click here for more information Skeleton Practice – click here to view my Online Academy series on using skeleton practice Annotated Study Edition – click here to purchase my annotated study edition for the Bach Prelude & Fugue featured in this article From the Ground Up […]

New Practice Tools Workshop!

Due to the popularity of our online workshop on the Practice Tools, we are pleased to announce a new follow-on workshop. This second workshop builds on the concepts introduced in the first and introduces additional practice tools, including: How to deconstruct the score to learn pieces more efficiently Using transposition to solve technical problems Inventing exercises from within pieces Using shadow practice for tonal and motor control Deep learning with memory tools such as visualisation and mental practice for deep learning. As with all of our online workshops, the workshop will include opportunities for questions and answers, along with practice worksheets and resources. The session will also be recorded, and all participants will receive a link to download the video. We will also be running a repeat of the initial workshop (Part 1) if you missed one of the sessions in April / May and would like to attend (We recommend attending the first workshop before attending the second). Tickets can be purchased for each workshop individually for £25 or together for both workshops for £40 (please select “Combined Ticket” when purchasing your tickets). Online Academy subscribers get a further 40% off individual or combined tickets. Please use one of the following links to book your place: Part 1 (Saturday 6th June @ 15:00 BST) – Click here for more information or to book tickets. Part 2 (Saturday 13th June @ 15:00 BST) – Click here for more information or to book tickets. Frequently asked questions How do your online workshops work? We use Zoom, a widely used platform to deliver the workshops which is free for participants and easy to use and install. The workshops are presented over video using a combination of camera […]

A Free Online Course on Piano Practising!

With many of us confined to our homes due to current circumstances, it does potentially make for a great opportunity to make the most of the situation by practising the piano! However, the subject of how to practise effectively is rarely taught. Much practice is unfocused and unproductive (or worse, leads to bad habits that might be hard to break in future). To help you get the best results from your time spent practising, I’ve created a free two-week email course based on the videos from my Practice Tools video lecture series. Suitable for pianists of any level, it comprises ten lessons introducing various practice tools that will help you to: Structure your practice sessions and practise efficiently Learn new pieces faster and build more solid foundations Develop speed using a better approach then simply increasing the metronome with each repetition Improve the quality of your playing As one of our initiatives to provide useful and inspiring content during this time, we’re making this course available for free to anyone and no subscription to the Online Academy is required for participation. All you need to do in order to register is sign-up with your email address, and you will receive your first lesson on the 14th of April (or immediately upon sign-up thereafter). Please click here to sign-up and for further information and use the buttons below to share this course with anyone you think might be interested! It it my hope that this course will inspire you to practise well and give you the necessary motivation to keep this going until you have some momentum. Remember – it’s the quality of the practice that counts, not the quantity! (Tweet this quote) *** Further reading […]

Laying Solid Foundations in a New Piece

Do you get frustrated when learning a new piece that it doesn’t seem to stick from one day to the next? If you approach a new piece using the repeated read-through method, you’ll probably find at the end of a practice session you have managed to get it sounding better than it did at the start of the session, but how frustrating when you come back to it the next day it feels like it hasn’t stuck at all. Practice makes permanent, and only perfect practice makes perfect! Fortunately, there is a much better way to learn. In this video, I demonstrate The Three S’s in action – slowly, separately, sections – using Petzhold’s Minuet in G minor (BWV Anh. 115) from the Anna Magdalene Notebook. Working in units of one bar (plus one note) and with each hand alone, we find as many patterns as we can as we practise. By patiently repeating a small unit of music (enough to hold in our working memory) at the speed of no mistakes and with our mind fully engaged, we are digging firm foundations for security later on. Practice like this takes a fair deal of discipline, but the rewards are significant – and permanent! For more detailed information on the process, follow this link to my blog post, A Daisy Chain Further Information & Resources The Practice Tools Lecture Series (click here to view the series index) Q-Spots Series (click here to view a blog post on this series) Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – Part 1: Practice Strategies and Approaches (click here for more information)

Inventing an Exercise from a Piece

People often ask me what sort of studies they can do to improve a particular difficulty they are experiencing in a given piece. The underlying assumption is we can just practise some studies for a while, and transfer whatever skills we gain from these across to our piece. It would be nice if it were as simple as that; an alternative and often more expedient approach is to aim to solve problems from within the piece we are studying by formulating, more or less on the spot, simple contraptions that focus on the difficulty itself. I’m especially keen on creating such exercises based on the difficulty we are trying to solve, making these as short and simple as possible so we can look down at our hands as we practise. Let me give you an example, from the middle section of Rachmaninov’s G minor Prélude, op. 23 no. 5. The LH has to find a way of moving across to the F# on the fourth semiquaver (16th note) of the first bar. There is obviously no finger connection possible at this point; because of the speed of the passage the movement has to come from the arm, the hand staying as close as possible to the keyboard (there’s no time to come up too high). For me, the optimal motion is an arm shift combined with a rotation from the D, whereby the pinky side of the hand is lifted by the forearm as we play the thumb D. We feel the untwist in the arm as the pinky lands in the F#, the result of a rotation from right to left as we connect with the key. This is difficult and cumbersome to put […]

Q-Spots Series: Ibert’s The Little White Donkey

The ten pieces that make up Jacques Ibert’s collection of impressionistic piano pieces, entitled Histoires, sound as fresh to us now as the day they were written. Actually, they were composed over the course of a decade, between 1912 and 1922 when Ibert was based in Rome. Many of the pieces drew their inspiration from the sights of Spain, Italy and Tunisia as Ibert travelled around.  We are going to look at a small section from the second piece, Le petit âne blanc (The Little White Donkey). This delightful work is suitable for the intermediate player; it needs plenty of imagination to play it with the colour and vibrancy it requires. It is not hard to hear the trotting of the donkey in the left hand, or the gentle braying in the right hand that comes later. In the key of F sharp major, the piece might pose some challenges initially, but once the notes have been learned you will find that the music lies very well under the hand.  As part of my Q-spot series, I have selected two places from The Little White Donkey that will need your careful attention for the piece to flow well as a whole: Bars 20 – downbeat 25 Bars 25-29 In my full article on the Online Academy, I give detailed step-by-step practice guides for both these quarantine spots together with a video tutorial. Let’s have a look at an especially challenging moment from the second Q-spot, from bars 27 – 29. How many players have stumbled here, uncertain as to how to improve the passage? This short extract makes an excellent exercise in double note playing, where the intermediate player can learn the same practice techniques […]

Q-Spots Series: Bach Invention in D Minor

For my first piece in the Q-Spots Series I have chosen Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, and identified two Q-spots that very often cause players to falter (click here for an introduction to the series). If you are a piano teacher you will immediately know that I am referring to the places where one hand has a long trill, and the other hand a passage of even semiquavers (16th notes): Bar 18 – Downbeat of 23 Bar 29 – Downbeat of bar 35 The idea behind Q-spots is to identify and isolate awkward places where we stumble and fumble, and go through a systematic sequence of practice activities that helps us break the section down into stages. We practise each stage until our inner quality control inspector is happy to sign it off, before moving on to the next stage. We repeat these stages for a few days in a row, by which time we should find the passage is not only possible but actually feels easy. Let’s look at the first Q-spot in the Bach Invention and analyse the nature of the difficulty. There are two main problems here – coordinating the two hands together at the required speed, and managing the trill without tightening up. Part of the solution is to play a rotary trill (from the forearm) rather than lifting the fingers from the main knuckle; for the trill to fit together with the left hand we will need to organise it rhythmically. Probably the neatest way of doing so is to play a measured trill in demisemiquavers (32nd notes), beginning on the upper auxiliary (D) and stopping on the main note on the last demisemiquaver before the tie. Before we […]

New Series on the Quarantine Spots

We’ve probably all come up against difficulties in a piece where our fingers seem to baulk – we hesitate, stumble, or approximate the notes with a mañana attitude to fixing them. Our unconscious thoughts go something like: “All I need is a few days, it’ll sort itself out eventually”, or “I’ll wait for my teacher to correct it in the lesson”, and so on. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and unless we address these problem passages thoroughly they are likely to let us down in performance. The Problem We all know that in a performance we commit to playing from the beginning of a piece to the end, with no stops or corrections. However, unless we are practising a non-stop run-through of a finished piece, we will likely need to stop regularly in our practice. And not only to make corrections, but to go through certain practice procedures that make our end result technically strong and secure. The Solution: Quarantining The concept of quarantining is firstly to identify as precisely as possible where the problem spots in our piece are, and why they might be occurring. We mark these quarantine spots (or Q-spots for short) in on our score, perhaps using a square bracket, and begin our practice session by doing some proper work on these spots using the practice tools, as opposed to just playing them through a few times. We could even devote a separate practice session to the Q-spots from all of our pieces. Rather than rummaging through our scores, it is a good plan to take photos of the bars in question and insert them into a slideshow. That way, we can practise from a tablet and […]

The Practice Tools Workshop

This past Saturday, I embarked on a brand new venture – an interactive workshop on The Practice Tools, using technology to maximum advantage. Sponsored by Casio Music UK, we hired a large conference room at the Victoria Park Plaza Hotel in London, which was set up with 15 Casio CDP-S100 digital pianos – and a Grand Hybrid GP-500 on the stage. Delegates were easily able to get to this central location and arrived not only from the UK but also from Europe to take part in the day. We met at 9:30 for welcome tea and coffee and started with an introduction to Casio’s range of pianos by Chris Stanbury, and then moved on to our introductory session – a demonstration of how to use The Feedback Loop as the basis for all we do in piano practice.  There followed four sessions, aimed at the intermediate to advanced player as well as piano teachers. Each 60-minute session was divided up into three segments – a presentation from me on a particular topic, a breakout session where each delegate was able to plug their headphones (provided by Casio) into their own piano and try out the practice techniques I had just demonstrated, then a Q&A session where people could ask questions or give feedback. I provided practice worksheets for each topic, but the practice during the breakout session was not restricted to the repertoire extracts I had suggested – people brought their own music and practised what they wanted. There were many benefits to this format.  People got to try out very specific practice tools immediately after an explanation and demonstration, so that they could experiment with them while they were still fresh in the memory […]

The Practice Tools Lecture Series

I am very pleased to announce a new video lecture series on the practice tools available now on the Online Academy. The Practice Tools What are the practice tools? There are some instances where in a lesson a word of instruction can cause the playing to change immediately, but there are plenty of other occasions when we need to go through a process in our practice room to achieve a certain intended result – learning notes, finessing and polishing, and correcting sloppiness. This is rather like a course of medication, one pill will probably not make that much difference – it is the cumulative effect of the whole course that counts. Another analogy is that of a gardener. If I am planning a new garden, I will first need to have a vision of how I want the garden to look when it is finished. Then I will need to prepare the soil, which will probably involve a bit of spade work and some hard graft. Now, the real gardener will tell you that all this is part and parcel of it, taking pleasure in all the stages from start to finish. There is a certain amount of patience needed to delay gratification and not to skimp on the first stages. If I don’t fertilise my soil, aerate it, add worms to it or whatever else gardeners must do, I can’t expect my plants and flowers to blossom, grow and withstand the frosts and hardships of winter. So when I outline a specific practising activity, I also underscore the importance of doing this type of work daily with full concentration, resisting the overwhelming temptation to finish off the practice session by playing the piece at […]