Practising

Practising a Performance

In a recent stint of adjudication work, I was struck by those who were able to steer themselves confidently through a performance on an unfamiliar piano in front of an audience, and those who let the sudden spike in adrenaline at an erratic moment get the better of them. The result might have been a stumble, or a total derailment or playing that just felt anxious and on edge. Small slips and blemishes are a part of any performance. Our ability to recover from these (or rise above the voices in our head that can suddenly cause us to lose concentration or doubt ourselves when we play) comes down to a large extent on procedure in the practice room. Or, to put it another way, our training routine. If we always allow ourselves the luxury of stopping and correcting an error when it happens in our practice, or stop when we don’t like the sound of something, we soon establish pretty strong reflexes for stopping. It is extremely unhelpful to have to inhibit these reflexes when we are in front of an audience, an examiner or adjudicator. At that moment we become well aware that we must keep going. There are two fundamentally different types of practice that we do in our studio, by ourselves as part of our routine. Practice Mode 1 allows us to stop whenever we need. This could be when we notice a wrong note, or when we hear our pedalling isn’t quite working, or when a passage feels clumsy and out of control. We address this by using certain practice tools, experiment with different speeds, finessing our sound until we get it the way we want it. This might mean repeating […]

An Interview with Nicola Cantan

A few weeks ago I had a visit from Nicola Cantan of Colourful Keys to record an interview with me for her blog. We spent a very pleasant half hour or so chatting about teaching, practising and performing and I thought I would share the video with you here. You’ll notice it is audio only for the first few minutes (there was a technological glitch with Nicola’s camera) but the picture does appear after a while – so stick with it! There are several things Nicola and I discussed that I have written about in my blog, so if you would like to read more about practising then start clicking these links. Speed of No Mistakes  Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice  Quarantine  Part 1 of my ebook series Practising the Piano is all about practising – exactly what we should be doing in our practice time to get the very best results. If you have not already seen this, then do check out the free preview. Nicola Cantan is a piano teacher, author, blogger and creator of imaginative and engaging teaching resources. She loves getting piano students learning through laughter, and exploring the diverse world of music making; through improvisation, composition and games. Nicola’s Vibrant Music Teaching Library is helping teachers all over the world to include more games and off-bench activities in their lessons, so that their students giggle their way through music theory and make faster progress. Nicola also runs a popular blog, Colourful Keys, where she shares creative ideas and teaching strategies, and hosts regular training events for piano teachers. ***   ***   *** If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in the following resources: Practising the Piano eBook Series  There are surprisingly few books […]

Seeing the Forest

This week’s guest blog post features an introduction to the From the Ground Up series by its author, Ken Johansen, following its launch last week on the Online Academy. In his post, Ken describes the “from the ground up” approach to learning pieces and the rationale behind his project. I wholeheartedly recommend this approach for anyone who wants to learn new works in a less daunting and more enjoyable way! *** *** *** A page of piano music, taken at a glance, looks a bit like a forest, the black notes forming more or less dense thickets of trees and shrubbery against the white page. Seen from afar, this forest looks fairly uniform; it’s difficult at first to distinguish its content and boundaries, or to see the variety behind the uniformity. But we’ve heard that this forest is enchanted, and we want to explore it for ourselves, so we approach it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How do we enter this musical forest, which may sometimes appear dark and impenetrable? Some pianists choose to listen to a recording first, but that is a second-hand experience. We want to walk in the woods ourselves, not listen to someone else’s account of it. A few musicians spend some time just sitting with the score, listening to it inwardly, finding its phrase and section divisions, perhaps analysing the harmony. But most pianists are too impatient for this; they want to start playing right away. If they are good sight-readers and the piece is not too difficult, this can make for an easy and pleasant stroll. But if their reading ability is mediocre, or if they are learning a piece that is at the upper limit of their technical ability (which […]

Learning New Pieces From the Ground Up

One of the most common questions my readers ask is how they can learn new pieces more effectively. As it turns out, one of the most popular posts of all time at www.practisingthepiano.com is “But It Takes Me Ages To Learn A New Piece!”. Therefore, I’m very pleased to announce the launch of a new series of resources on the Online Academy this week which directly addresses how to go about learning new pieces more efficiently – it’s called From the Ground Up. Building on a similar approach and principles covered in my series Deconstructing the Score, From the Ground Up is a series devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively. Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Authored by Ken Johansen, co-founder of the Read Ahead sight-reading programme and professor at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, the series will feature popular works from throughout the repertoire, starting with two works by Schumann and JS Bach respectively. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up on the Online Academy or on one of the following links to view the first two editions: Schumann – Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (from Kinderszenen) Bach – Little Prelude in F (from the Notebook for Wilhelm Friedrich Bach) Beethoven – Sonatina in G Grieg – Arietta (Lyric Pieces, Op. 12, No. 1) Chopin – Nocturne in E-Flat (Op. 9, No. 2) NEW – Schumann […]

Learning Away from the Piano

One of the reasons modern aircraft are so safe is the number of backup systems they have on board in case one system fails. Apparently there is a backup to extend the landing gear if the primary hydraulic system fails – flaps and flight spoilers have backup systems too. But what happens to the poor pianist when disaster strikes? If we are to perform to our best abilities in turbulent weather, such as might be generated by our mind in an exam room or recital situation, surely we need backup systems too? Even a casual performance in front of just one person (who might even be in an adjoining room) can cause system failure. While we can never guarantee a performance is going to be trouble-free, we can build in enough safety features to prevent a little slip turning into a catastrophe. It’s not so much the amount of practice we do that makes us secure – although we should never skimp on preparation time or underestimate how long it will take us to fully assimilate a new piece – but the quality, breadth and depth of it. The intelligent pianist prepares for performance by focussing on five main areas: Background Research and Developing a Personal Narrative Researching the background of a work can only enhance our appreciation of the music. Knowledge of what was going on in the composer’s life at the time the work was written feeds the imagination and enriches our performance – and all it takes is a little research. Immersing ourself in the storyline or narrative we have allowed our imagination to conjure up, focussing on an image or scene (such as dancers dancing, a moonlit evening, a colour scheme) is so much […]

Can Sight-Reading be Taught?

The Online Academy’s collaboration with the Read Ahead team is a very happy one for me, since I can heartily endorse the innovative programme they have created to help pianists develop their sight-reading skills. Today’s post is a guest post by Ken Johansen and Travis Hardaway from Read Ahead, and I shall now pass you over to them. ***   ***   *** Most piano teachers agree that fluent sight-reading is a very important skill, one that ideally all students should develop. Fluent readers are more at ease at the piano, learn music more quickly, have broader musical horizons, make music more often with others, and receive more opportunities to perform. The question is, how do we help our students to develop this fluency? We can start, first of all, by teaching them the skills that make good sight-reading possible. In reality, sight-reading is not one skill, but a set of several inter-related skills that include: scanning the score intelligently before starting, maintaining a steady pulse, keeping our eyes on the score, hearing the music in our minds, reading in groups of notes, looking ahead as we play, and simplifying the music when necessary. With the exception of the last one, these are all skills that apply not only to sight-reading, but also to learning repertoire. If we bring these elements into play at every lesson, in every piece the student learns, we will be teaching him or her not only the piece, but also the musical skills needed for fluent sight-reading. Of course, it is not enough to work on these skills solely on repertoire pieces, and only during the weekly lesson. Students must sight-read unfamiliar pieces regularly, not only at lessons, but at […]

Practising Polyrhythms

Following a question on a Facebook page about coping with polyrhythms, I decided to republish this post from 2012. I hope it helps! I want to suggest some ways of solving a polyrhythm where one hand is playing in divisions of four while the other in divisions of three. I am going to leave out 2 against 3, as this is relatively straightforward – as long as the second note of the duplet comes precisely between the second and third note of the triplet, then bingo! I’ve decided to go with a common example that trips people up, the 4 against 3 in the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (last beat of the second bar): Fitting together the two hands slowly here relies first of all on knowing precisely where each note goes in one hand in relation to the other. In a 4 against 3 group, the only place where the hands coincide is the first note of the group. To work the placements out mathematically, on a piece of graph paper draw two lines and divide the top one in 4 and the lower one in 3. You will see that the second LH triplet comes between the second and third demisemiquaver of the RH but not half way (it actually comes a third of the way between). The third LH triplet comes just before the last demisemiquaver. Do this first by tapping your hands on your knees, using the words “What Atrocious Weather” or “Pass the Goddamn Butter” to help. If you repeat this enough times, you’ll get better and better at it, and you can transfer the activity from patella to keyboard. The main thing is to feel the rhythm in […]

The Floating Fermata

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 are aware of frequent stops and pauses while the player figures out what is supposed to be happening next. They are suffering from buffering, the playing sounds like a clip that hasn’t fully loaded. All might go well for a few bars and then there […]

Memory Tips: Analyse

We can trace the tradition of playing solo piano music from memory back to Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. Before that, it was inappropriate to play without a score in front of you. Chopin even got angry at the prospect of a student playing one of his pieces from memory, since, according to the traditions of the day, it would have looked like it was not from Chopin’s pen at all but being improvised or embellished by the performer. Indeed Liszt, when he played his own works, used the score to show to his audience these were not improvisations but composed pieces. Thanks to the many recordings freely available, today’s audiences are generally very familiar with the mainstream works. To add insult to injury, these recordings are often made under artificial conditions with retake after retake, each clip spliced together to make one “perfect” whole. This adds to the pressure in a live performance, since anything untoward is immediately noticeable. Pianist and writer Susan Tomes writes eloquently and persuasively about her own feelings and experiences on the subject of memorisation, and ends her article with this pertinent question: Must musicians waste so much of their time and emotional energy on memorisation? If we’ve prepared the music thoroughly, does playing it from memory really add an extra dimension that is worth all the pain? Pianist Gilbert Kalish has long played his entire solo repertoire using scores, even standard works. As a faculty member of the music department at Stony Brook University, Mr. Kalish helped change the degree requirements. For the past few decades, piano students have been able to play any work in their official recitals from memory or not. They needed to decide which resulted in the best, […]

On Practising and Performance

I have been writing this blog since March 2011, putting up weekly posts except over Christmas when I take a bit of time off. Before I sign off for the holidays, I would like to leave you with three old posts that I think describe the difference between the opposite states of practising and performing. If we can keep these differences in mind when we practise, we will reach our destination more quickly and efficiently. Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills I wrote this post in May, 2012 in response to a BBC TV programme on the English Civil War. It struck me that we need to call on our inner Roundhead when we practise (puritanical, serious-minded, hard-working and religious) and the devil-may-care, spontaneous, reckless and flashy Cavalier when we perform. If we take our Cavalier into the practice room, we wouldn’t get any work done; if we take our Roundhead onto the stage with us when we perform, we will bore the pants off our audience. To read this post,  click here. Practice v Performance There is a lovely quote from legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz which applies equally to us pianists, and indeed any other performer: Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn. This is really another way of saying the same thing – find a way of developing a Jekyll-and-Hyde mindset between your practice room and the concert stage or examination room. To read this post, click here. Going into the Zone There is a crucial stage in performance preparation when we need to get out of our comfort zone and begin to sense what it feels like to play a work or a programme in […]

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