Practising

On Technical Exercises

In the nineteenth century there was a widespread belief that hours a day spent practising finger exercises would lead to mastery of the instrument, and many method books were published, filled with exercises and studies. The prevailing opinion was that you needed to separate the study of technique from the study of music – by practising endless drill, you would be able to play the repertoire more easily. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. Hours spent on exercises and boring studies leads to playing that is fixated on mechanics, to the detriment of artistry or musical merit. It can also lead to a lack of coordination, pain and injury. Not only is this kind of mechanical practice largely a waste of time, it can actually do more harm than good. The word technique comes from the Greek word technikos, meaning “of, or pertaining to art; artistic, skilful”. This should highlight to us the close connection between the technical, and the musical or interpretative. Interpretation and technique are one and the same, since every sound that we strive to produce has to be achieved by physical means. Many modern piano pedagogues discourage their students from separating purely technical work from music for this very reason. And yet, we do need to understand how to meet the demands of the music we play. Is a thorough training in the mechanics or gymnastics of piano playing essential, or can we develop our technique solely through the music? Read about Samuil Feinberg’s ideas on what constitutes an exercise Although practising repetitive mechanical exercises is out of favour amongst many teachers at the moment, I believe that it is very possible, and sometimes preferable, to study a particular aspect of the […]

Take a Rest

When it comes to what ought to go on in a practice session, we would do well to recall the saying attributed to the famous pedagogue, Theodore Leschetizsky: “Think Ten Times and Play Once”. In his excellent (but now out of print) book, Practising the Piano, Leschetizky’s student, Frank Merrick, recounts some advice in one of his last lessons with the master. I advise you very often to stop and listen when you are practising and then you will find out a great deal for yourself. Frank Merrick: Practising the Piano Merrick suggests we should sing through a phrase (or musical unit) before we play it – in real time, not at fast-forward speed. If the music lends itself to actual singing, then so much the better; if you feel more comfortable imagining the phrase, that’s fine too. But sing or imagine it in as much detail as you can before you play it, so you have something tangible to aim for when you play. After you have played the phrase, stop for a moment and reflect. Did your playing match your intentions? If not, in what ways and where – precisely – did it fall short? This moment of reflection is a very important part of the practice session, and critical to the learning process. However, it is all too easy to skimp on this because we pianists tend to believe that piano practice is all about physical manipulation of the keyboard – that every second of our allotted time should be filled with sound.  According to new research, National Institutes of Health team members found that by taking a short ten-second break our brains may solidify the memories of new skills we just practised a few […]

Burgmüller’s Op. 100

Burgmüller’s charming set of 25 studies, the Easy and Progressive Études (Op 100) still manages to sound fresh after all these years, and continues to inspire intermediate pianists. Each étude is short and to the point, with a descriptive title to stimulate the imagination. The technique always serves a musical goal, and because they are so well written each is useful as a way to learn about harmony, as well as form and structure. In my Online Academy series on op. 100, I take each étude in turn. You will find a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough that highlights the learning outcomes, with advice on the technical aspects as well as how to practise. So far, we are up to no. 18 and look forward to completing the series within the next few weeks. A short while back I wrote a blog post featuring short excerpts about the first five études, in this post I’m going to look at the next few – Progrés, Le courant limpide, La gracieuse and La chasse. 6. Progrès We return to C major for this lively, cheerful piece entitled Progrès (Progress). With touches of laughter suggested by the staccato quavers, this study celebrates the pleasure in making progress, featuring scales in parallel tenths, a contrary motion scale, changes of touch from legato to staccato, rapid changes in hand position with jumps in both hands, and syncopated slurs. Some of the patterns we find in Progrès can be practised not only upwards as written, but also backwards – on a loop, repeating up and back until fluent and comfortable. In this snippet from my full-length video demonstration, I look at how to practise the semiquavers in a dotted rhythm (long-short, and short-long), a good exercise […]

The Floating Fermata

I first published The Floating Fermata in 2015, and was surprised by how much positive feedback I had on it. I decided to republish it now, with a few small tweaks. I hope it helps you in your day-to-day practice! ***   ***   *** So you’re learning a new piece and you’ve done as much slow and separate-hands work as you feel is penance enough – at least for today – and now you want to play the darned thing through up to speed and just enjoy. Sounds familiar? My first suggestion is go ahead and try that, see what happens. If you are consistently able to play accurately, fluently and comfortably then chances are you have indeed done enough groundwork. But if you find yourself stumbling, baulking, stiffening up or playing wrong notes, rhythms and fingerings then it would seem that the playing is not yet capable of being on autopilot and you still need the help of your brain! You need to dig the foundations still deeper and slow down while you process the information from the score. Call on your inner craftsman and take pleasure in the building process itself, knowing the playing will be stronger and more secure later on as a result. You will reap what you now sow. There are several practice tools I use as a bridge between the slow, painstaking work and the exhilaration of playing through at speed. I have written about these extensively in Volume 1 of my ebook series on The Practice Tools, but I would like to share one with you here that is extremely effective. I call it The Floating Fermata. The Floating Fermata When we listen to unprocessed playing, we […]

The Pitfalls of Mechanical Practice

I get quite a lot of inspiration for topics to write about on my blog from my students. During a lesson something might crop up that seems important, or certainly worth writing about. On two separate occasions this week people had been attempting to solve what they perceived as technical difficulties by practising passagework in a variety of different rhythms. Rhythm practice seems to be yet another of those divisive topics in the piano world. Some pianists swear by it and others dismiss it. My own teachers fell into both camps – two of them insisted on it, and two others told me it was not going to help and that I shouldn’t do it. As my readers will have figured out by now, I tend to prefer a middle path. When done mindfully, in the right doses and for the right reasons, my own experience shows me that rhythm practice can certainly be beneficial as a part of the practice routine. However, it is not a cure-all and can have negative consequences if overdone (tension being a significant potential downside). Someone brought the Schubert E flat Impromptu, and had been using the rhythmical variants I suggest in my own study edition. He said he was still struggling with the first bar, despite practising the rhythms daily. When I looked at what was going on the solution was extremely simple. The problem had to do with the pivot over the thumb F to the 3rd finger Eb, and the elbow was in the wrong position to negotiate this. To find the best position, we first played the thumb and the 3rd finger together and started the piece from this position (the elbow slightly raised and […]

Burgmüller’s Op 100 Studies on the Online Academy

One of the most popular series on the Online Academy is my exploration of Burgmüller’s set of studies, the Easy and Progressive Études, op 100. What makes these little pieces so special? Pitched at the elementary-intermediate level player, they fulfil all the requirements of what a study should be: Descriptive titles that inspire the imagination Technique that serves a musical goal Short and to the point Useful as a way to learn harmony, as well as form and structure The problem with many of the didactic études served up to young pianists through the centuries is just how dry, boring and repetitive they are. Instead of inspiring players to practise, they have deadened their spirits. I’ve noticed how many youngsters are drawn to Burgmüller’s op 100 – they still sound fresh, and are immediately engaging. In my series I take each étude in turn, giving a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough that highlights the learning outcomes and offers advice on the technical aspects as well as how we might practise. We’ve recorded the whole set, and are busy releasing them one by one each week. So far we have reached No. 11, and you can find details of the series by clicking here. The studies are progressive in their difficulty, ranging from approximately ABRSM Grade II at the start to approximately Grade V by the end. A good New Year’s resolution might be to learn the whole set over the course of the year – you will amass 25 studies you can draw on as part of your daily practice! Once you have learned them, you might choose three or four to practise for a week or so at a time before moving on […]

Done and Dusted?

I have noticed a lot of players seem to think that, once they have learned a piece they should be able to play it from then on in, whenever they desire. If only we could do some work on a piece, put the genie in the bottle and uncork it the next time we felt like playing it. Wouldn’t it be great if it worked like that? It is easy to hear when a student has been playing through something without attending to the ongoing maintenance necessary to keep it in good shape. I might take a duster to my piano one day and it looks great for a day or so, before the dust gradually returns. Even an unused room will gather dust, ask Miss Havisham (from Dickens’ Great Expectations). I liken performance, or playing through to spending, and practice to investing, or saving. This is especially true of old pieces we haven’t played in a while. So what does maintenance or revision practice look like? We go back to many of the practice tools we used to build the piece in the first place, when we first learned it. The great Russian pianist and teacher, Alexander Goldenweiser describes this vividly: Another grave problem occurs with pupils underestimating the importance of detailed study when they come to revise pieces that they have already played. Yet it is vital to remember that work done on a new piece one is just starting to play and on something one has played for a long time should be basically the same. The difference lies only in the amount of time involved, but the type of work should in each case be completely identical. When you play through something you […]

By |November 15th, 2018|Practising|2 Comments

Launching the 2018-2020 Trinity Syllabus

I am very happy to announce a brand new series featuring the current Trinity College London Piano Syllabus on the Online Academy. Having been commissioned by Trinity to write the teaching notes for the advanced grades, I was delighted to put together this series of articles and video demonstrations for a selection of pieces from the 2018 – 2020 piano examination syllabus, with several examples from each grade from Initial to 8. Within this series you will find plenty of tips for practice, overcoming technical problems as well as suggestions for piano teachers and guidance on matters relating to style and interpretation. The following are example excerpts from two video demonstrations from the series: Initial Grade – Canon by Henk Badings One of the pieces in the Initial grade is Canon by Henk Badings. There are so many different ways to get value out of this little piece, from call and response games and some singing in lessons to phrase shaping and developing equality between the hands. Grade 4 – Allegretto by Mozart Jumping to Grade 4, and Mozart’s Allegretto, we find a delightful minuet-style piece with a trio section in the minor, and many interesting compositional features that can be explained and demonstrated to the learner. It’s also interesting to know that Mozart wrote this piece on a trip to London when he was only 8 years old. In the video I demonstrate quarantine practice, and explore different fingering possibilities, as well as options for phrasing and expression. The series currently includes two articles which serve as guides to the foundation and intermediate grades, along with video demonstrations for five selected works from the initial grade through to grade 4. Please click on one of the […]

On Rhythm: How to Develop a Steady Pulse  

I decided to put together an occasional series on rhythm, in response to readers who say they experience rhythmical issues when they play. There are many factors that may contribute to this problem, and I am going to cover one point at a time. Welcome to the first post in this series, on the importance of setting and maintaining a steady beat. I can’t think of many activities we do at the piano that are not connected to a pulse, therefore establishing and maintaining the pulse should be the first priority in all we do. This demands special attention during our practice when we are stopping and restarting. At the elementary level it’s the job of the teacher to set the pulse in lessons by counting out aloud energetically one or two bars before every scale, before every piece, and before every time a passage is repeated. After a while, the pupil is invited to set their own pulse by counting out aloud before they play. Laborious? A bit, but well worth the effort. In this way the process becomes internalised, and happens as second nature. Clapping to the Metronome How good are you at maintaining a steady beat? In this metronome experiment, continue to clap the beats when the metronome suddenly drops out. Can you maintain the pulse? Find out here… And now for another exercise. Set a metronome to whatever speed you like, and clap so that your claps drown out the sound of the metronome. If you hear the metronome, the chances are that your clap is a bit before or after the beat. Clapping is just one way of responding to the pulse, but notice how in this Dalcroze Eurhythmics class […]

On Practice versus Playing Through

I am republishing this relatively recent post (from March, 2017) because I think it is crucial to keep reminding ourselves that playing through a piece is a different activity from actual practice, and that we need to regularly maintain a piece we want to keep in our repertoire using many of the same practice tools we used when we first learned it. ***   ***   *** Have you considered the differences between sitting down at the piano and playing through your pieces and the processes of practising? The first situation might feel rather like taking a pleasant drive in the countryside. If your car is in good shape (the battery charged and the tanks full of the various fluids car tanks are supposed to be full of), you won’t have to worry about anything. You will of course need to keep your eye on the road, but you’ll just be coasting along admiring the view and enjoying the time out. I find the distinction between cruising around the piano for fun and serious practice is something I need to point out, regularly. If you are the sort of player who wants to sit at the piano and play for pleasure, you will probably notice a certain frustration after a while that your pieces don’t seem to be getting any better, or that a piece you used to be able to play well is now actually getting worse. You may well discover that on one day your playing flows beautifully and it all feels easy, but on the next day it all falls apart – as though you didn’t know the piece at all. Why is this? I can always hear when someone has been rattling through their […]

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