Practising

It’s All in the Wrist

Our blog for this week features a guest post by renowned pedagogue, author and pianist William Westney. William is also our most recent addition to the Online Academy with his first contribution being a video lecture on re-thinking warming up. In this post, he shares a few thoughts arising from one of these videos. *** *** *** It’s a genuine honour and a thrill for me to join the stellar lineup of pianist and teachers here at the Online Academy. I had no trouble deciding on which topic might be first; the process of warming up body and mind together to create the conditions for a great practice – and how easily this can be done – has long been one of my favorite offerings to students. There’s one moment in video #1 that I’d like to comment on. While showing how beneficial it feels to us (as athletes) to stretch the joints well beyond the range of motion needed to play piano pieces, I refer to my wrists. At that point in the stretch they are sunk quite far down below the keyboard level (that’s the lovely therapeutic experience I like to call “wallowing”). I cheerfully interject, “Don’t worry – I would never play any actual piece of music from such a low position!” But I did wonder, while filming it, if some viewers might be appalled at what I was doing wrist-wise. Isn’t that position just plain wrong? Moments like this are so important, in a larger sense. We can hear about technique from experts – concepts that are true and good; but there’s a danger of our taking them too categorically, too much like holy writ, and this worries me a lot. […]

By |October 29th, 2020|Practising|0 Comments

Warm-Ups Revisited

We’re delighted to welcome internationally noted pedagogue, performer and author William Westney to the Practising the Piano Online Academy.  William will be posting videos on many practical topics, expanding the content of his bestselling book The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. William’s videos will cover well-being at the piano, problem-solving, technique, and the power of enjoyment. Common themes in his work are how to adopt the right mindset for effective practising and how practising that “feels great” sounds great.  In his first videos, William explores the subject of warming-up. Most pianists are aware that, like athletes, it is essential to warm-up before practising demanding music. By doing so, we avoid tension and injury, awakening and stretching our bodies to do their best and to feel good during practice. But what about warming up the mind to practise? Warm-ups are not just about doing scales and arpeggios. Successful practise requires the right mindset – alert, free of distractions and ready to focus. In this two-part video lecture, William re-thinks warming up as an integrated process for both body and mind. He provides an effortless approach – a relaxed, focused and therapeutic process that only takes a few minutes and has lasting benefits for healthy, productive practising. Starting with an introduction to the body-mind warm-up, the first video explains the underlying ideas and why this “re-thinking” of warming-up is needed. The second video demonstrates the approach and applies it to a specific piece of repertoire. Together they provide a simple and effective process that prepares body and mind for a highly rewarding practice session – focused in mind and comfortable in body. *** Warm-Ups Revisited is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy […]

By |October 27th, 2020|News, Practising|0 Comments

Approaching Rhythmic Challenges

Many musicians struggle with rhythm from time to time – we pianists are faced with many situations where one hand is required to play in one subdivision of the beat at the same time as the other hand has to play in another. Polyrhythms (2 against 3, 3 against 4, and so on) are commonplace in music from the 19th century onwards. To help solve problems like this we need to be able to set a steady pulse and internalise it as we play, pushing and pulling according to the natural ebb and flow that all music requires. This is vastly different from playing metronomically, since no performance of anything is going to conform to an unbending metronomic beat. While a certain amount of metronome practice can be beneficial if you know how to use the tool, too much of it can end up being detrimental. Swiss music educator, Émile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865 – 1950) wondered why conservatory students’ playing was not as rhythmical or coordinated as could be expected given the number of hours they spent in daily practice. He formulated a method known today as  Dalcroze Eurythmics. It has helped many people improve a weak sense of rhythm by showing them how to feel rhythm in their body in a whole variety of different ways. Through whole-body movement in space, we really feel rhythm physically in a natural way. We then experience the same rhythmic vitality and coordination through the smaller, more refined movements involved in piano playing. Muscles were made for movement, and rhythm is movement. It is impossible to conceive a rhythm without thinking of a body in motion. Émile Jacques-Dalcroze Recently I came across a book that will be of great assistance to instrumental teachers – Rhythm […]

By |September 24th, 2020|Practising|0 Comments

Tips for Improving Your Sight-Reading

Improving your sight-reading is not just about getting a good score in an examination. It enables you to derive more pleasure from your playing through discovering new music and broadening your repertoire. It also opens up more possibilities for enjoying making music with others. As with any skill, it requires practice and can be challenging to develop. The following are some tips to help make sight-reading less daunting and practising it more enjoyable! Use pieces you like – Instead of playing through numerous dry exercises, find pieces you want to play and treat your sight-reading as a journey of discovery. There are many collections of varying styles on sites like the Petrucci Music Library which are suitable for sight-reading. Examples at an intermediate to advanced level include Bach Chorales, Czerny Studies, Schumann’s Album for the Young and Bartok’s For Children. Keep your eyes on the score – Avoid looking at your hands and focus on the score. You can test your ability to do this with this diagnostic test and this simple, but effective device can also be useful for training your eyes. Read ahead – Our natural tendency is to look at the notes we are currently playing, but this leaves no time to prepare the next move. Reading ahead is one of the most important skills in sight-reading. A good place to start is to use natural resting places e.g. long chords, phrase endings, fermatas as opportunities to look ahead. You can also use this app which provides an interactive way to develop this skill. Keep going – Sight-reading is different to practising because it requires us to play a piece straight through, without stopping to correct errors. A more flexible attitude is required to keep […]

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 […]

A Lesson in Sight-Reading from Julia Child

This weeks’ guest blog post introduces the newly published second part of our advanced sight-reading curriculum by Ken Johansen, associate professor at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and Online Academy contributor. *** *** *** The first requirement of sight-reading is that we keep going and not stop to correct mistakes. This is fundamentally different from practising, where we stop to root out mistakes as soon as they occur. This requirement obliges us, first of all, to choose our sight-reading repertoire carefully, so that we are able to keep going without making too much of a hash of things. Secondly, it means that when mistakes do occur, as they inevitably will, we must be able to sail through them without fear or regret. What Julia Child said about cooking applies equally to sight-reading: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” A “what-the-hell attitude” in sight-reading doesn’t imply that we don’t care about what we’re doing, but that we give priority to our musical experience – our first encounter with an unknown piece of music – rather than to monitoring our success or failure in reading the score accurately. After all, in cooking it is our enjoyment of the food we’ve created, and what we’ve learned from making it, that matters most, not whether or not we’ve followed the recipe in all its details. Such an attitude requires flexibility, not only in the spirit with which we confront challenges, but in the musicianship with which we adapt to them. Just as experienced cooks know how to adapt when the soufflé has collapsed or the roast is undercooked, so experienced sight-readers find ways to […]

Tips for Learning New Pieces Faster

Do you wish that you could learn new pieces on the piano faster? Do you find that you spend hours learning a piece only to find that you don’t know it nearly as well as you hoped when you attempt to play it? Here are some of my top tips for how to learn new piano pieces more effectively: Know the score before – It helps to have some context before you begin. Do some background research, listen critically to a few recordings and do simple analysis (ask yourself questions about the form, and the character of the piece). Choose your fingering – Attempt to work out a good fingering for both hands together and write it in the score. You may find you need to adjust this as you start the learning process, so allow for any changes. However, once you’ve settled on the fingering make sure to stick with it each time you practise. Work on small sections at a time – Avoid overloading your working memory by breaking your piece down into small sections. Use mindful repetition to work on each section before moving on. A practice method I call “bar by bar plus 1” is a very effective tool for this (click here to read more about it)! Deconstruct and simplify – In addition to separate-hand practice, deconstruct the music by break it it up into separate strands and simplify it e.g. play only the bass notes, or first note of an arpeggiated pattern. Practise at the “speed of no mistakes” – Slow down difficult passages to a snail’s pace so you can play the notes, rhythms and fingerings perfectly. Do this several times, resisting the urge to play at speed […]

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 […]

Some Ideas for Mental Practice

Many of you will have read the fascinating story of Andrew Garrido’s piano journey. As an 11-year old boy keen for lessons which his family could not afford, he did not even have access to a piano to start with. Undeterred, Andrew made a paper keyboard which he stuck to his desk. By clicking notes on an online keyboard, he was able to remember the sounds and “play” them back on his paper one. Apart from a short series of lessons, he made significant progress all by himself – ending up firstly at the Purcell School and now on a scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Even though he now has access to pianos, Andrew states: “The irony is that I continue to do a lot of my practice away from the piano: what we call mental practice. It unlocks key areas of the mind that are less readily accessed by piano playing alone.” Mental practice is something I wish I had done more of when I was a student. I was acting on the mistaken belief that only time spent practising at the piano would make any difference to my playing. Had I known better, I could have spent time sitting on the train visualising the pieces I was studying; this would have created pathways though my brain cells as if I were actually playing the piece – all without moving a muscle. According to his memoirs, Artur Rubinstein learned César Franck’s Symphonic Variations on a train on his way to the concert. As there was obviously no piano on the train, he practised passages in his lap. Once we understand that effective piano practice does not necessarily involve making sounds, we might […]

Laying Solid Foundations in a New Piece

Have you had the experience of learning a new piece one day and coming back to it the next day to find it hasn’t stuck at all? 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! Fortunately, there are much better ways to go about learning a new piece such as using my Three S’s: Slowly, Separately and Sections to build solid foundations for consistent progress. In the following video, I demonstrate The Three S’s in action 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. Remember: “Practice makes permanent, and only perfect practice makes perfect!” 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 […]