Teaching

Snakes And Ladders

In life, we repeat certain ways of doing things until they become habits – until we become unconscious of them and do them without thinking (and without the need to think about them). It is said that good habits are hard to form and yet easy to break, while bad habits are easy to form and yet hard to break. How true! CONSCIOUSNESS If you want to break a habit, you first need to be conscious of it. I had a student who was unaware that when she wanted to play expressively, she raised her right shoulder. Not the left shoulder, which behaved quite normally, but only the right one. When I asked her if she was aware of this fact, she said she wasn’t. We discussed how her raised shoulder could possibly be of benefit, and we both agreed that this is not only a futile gesture but one that positively impedes looseness and freedom in the upper arm and shoulder – essential ingredients in skillful piano playing. I gave her an exercise to develop mobility in the shoulder, but for the first week I asked her to put a mirror on the music desk of her piano and just observe her posture, without trying to do anything to change it.  In each lesson thereafter, I would simply tap her right shoulder very lightly when the upward movement recurred and after a few weeks, she had reconditioned herself not to raise her shoulder at all. A particularly bad habit, and an extremely debilitating one for fluency in playing, is the tendency to stutter at the piano. By this I mean you reach a place in the score, land on something erroneous, jab at the […]

By |August 29th, 2012|Teaching|0 Comments

Eliminating Tension(2): Braced Conditions Of The Hand And Wrist

Yes, I know I was going to talk about forearm rotation this week, but inspiration took me elsewhere. I’ll get to that soon, I promise! This post deals with how to achieve braced conditions of the hand and wrist without the firmness and solidity we need in the periphery travelling back up the arm, translating into tension.  I think it is uncontroversial to say that the upper arm (the part from the elbow to the shoulder) needs to remain loose at all times, no matter what is going on beneath it, and that the shoulder has to remain free and NEVER hunched up in a shrug. If you were to carry a bowl of fruit from one place to another, you would naturally achieve this state of affairs, with no thought required. The trick is to reproduce this at the piano. The finger is the point of contact between us and the instrument, and varies in its role from active agent (with the arm there behind, supporting it) to passive conduit for arm energy. Sometimes the finger needs to be very firm indeed in order to support the energy or weight of the arm, and there are occasions when any give in the wrist would be fatal. So how do we achieve firmness in one part of our playing mechanism while retaining looseness and flexibility in another? For looseness in the arm, let’s begin with an exercise away from the piano: Hold the arm at shoulder height while standing comfortably. It’s best to do this one arm at a time. Let go of all the muscles that have been holding the arm up, so that it falls like dead weight back to your side. Don’t […]

Eliminating Tension (1)

There are many reasons for tension at the keyboard. Faulty training is an obvious one, inefficient use of the body another. Yet tension does not always have its origins in the body – if you had teachers who made you feel incompetent and useless because they focussed only on the negatives in lessons, and delivered instruction in an abusive or shaming way, then how can you hope to feel empowered, confident or good about your playing? You will likely carry that teacher around inside your head and everything you do will feel stiff and tight, like walking on egg shells. Nervousness, insecurity, anxiety and mental stress will translate directly into physical tension. This is why it is vital to keep a positive mental attitude around our practising and performing, and not to tolerate such antics from egocentric teachers. There are plenty of others who will support and encourage you in the process of building you up as a pianist and as a musician. I suggest you seek them out. INDEPENDENCE OF THE FINGERS In my experience, very few pianists even at the advanced level have a trained hand. Recently I had a conservatory student in his third year come from overseas for a short series of lessons. At our first meeting I asked him what he hoped to achieve from our work together. While rubbing along the outside of his arm, which was sore, he said he hoped to deal with the tension that was affecting his playing and asked if I could help him to relax more. From the rubbing movements, I diagnosed there could be an issue with the 5th finger and sure enough when I observed the playing, the pinky was in […]

Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills

Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on the BBC about how English history was forever changed by the civil war. The characteristics of the two opposing forces (the puritanical, serious-minded, hard-working and religious Roundheads, and the devil-may-care, spontaneous, reckless and flashy Cavaliers) ended up contributing to the make-up of the national psyche, and we have each got a bit of the Roundhead and a bit of the Cavalier in us. You may be wondering what this has to do with the subject of developing piano performance, but actually there is a lot we can draw from it. “Practise like a Roundhead, perform like a Cavalier” would be my best advice. To practise effectively demands time, energy and discipline, a seriousness of purpose and an almost religious attitude to the work. But if we take this attitude on to the stage with us, we are likely to bore the pants off our audience. We need a sense of daring-do, spontaneity, bravado and display in its place. Perhaps we can leave our trusty Roundhead in the green room, and adopt a cavalier attitude when we walk onstage? Youngsters generally have no fear about public performance. This tends to be something we learn later, if we learn it at all (there are those who seem undaunted, but they are few and far between). There was one first-year college student I had who came in with new pieces each week, learned and memorised. All his performances were fluent and confident until one week, during a studio class, he had his first major memory slip which he could not recover from, and only then did I need to give him the tools so he could memorise consciously.  As I […]

Using The Feedback Loop

Have you ever sat at the piano in your practice time, not feeling really sure about what you are supposed to be doing? Your mind wanders, you end up doodling or doing something half-heartedly and with no real purpose, then you get disillusioned and start looking at the clock? When I was a student at the RCM all those eons ago, a classmate confessed that he was never quite sure how he was supposed to practise. He started at the beginning of his piece hoping he would make a mistake so it would give him something to correct. He’d then correct it and continue until the next slip. And so on, until he got to the end. OUCH! If I might step in here and suggest a better way? This will work no matter what school of piano playing you come from – it is called the FEEDBACK LOOP. Using the feedback loop in day-to-day practising is a highly efficient way to maximise time and productivity. It forces the mind to concentrate on the activity at hand, and encourages critical listening and critical thinking. You will also discover and develop your inner teacher – it is probably the single most powerful tool we can draw on. BOX A The feedback loop is essentially a three-part process. The first part, represented by BOX A, involves a conscious decision as to WHAT you are going to practise, as well as HOW and WHY. Here are a few examples: I am going to play the first bar, ending on the down beat of bar 2. I will do this very slowly, listening for complete evenness and aiming for a feeling of full control over my fingers. I will […]

A Prima Vista: Some Thoughts on Sight Reading

Sight reading is included in every graded examination. Few seem to excel at it, and many actively dread it. Even the best players are likely to drop marks in this area, and despite the numerous publications available nowadays to assist the learner, exam candidates are often reluctant to practise this much-needed skill. Thinking about the long-term benefits of taking piano lessons in childhood, surely an ability to read at sight, and learn a piece reasonably fast are equally if not more important than spending a year on three pieces, cosmetically tweaking and refining them parrot-fashion in order to gain a nice mark (and kudos for the teacher)? I firmly believe we should be teaching musical intelligence and comprehension in addition to technical and interpretative skills. There is nothing that infuriates me more than discovering someone supposedly in the higher grades unable to accompany a simple ensemble piece at sight, or play a solo piece half way through the year when they have forgotten their previous exam pieces and yet aren’t quite ready with the new ones. Expert sight readers are usually expert musicians, who are able to process the information on the page in their short-term memory and reproduce it instantly. This skill has to do with musical comprehension – scanning the page for key pieces of information and, frankly, making educated guesses as to what might be going on in one hand, and snap decisions as to what to leave out. A note-perfect mechanical rendition of a piece of sight reading is often less impressive than one that may have some note errors and omissions and yet which conveys musical character and meaning. TRIAL BY FIRE Sight reading was a skill I developed as […]

An Obstacle Course

I have spoken before about the negative effects of playing pieces through prematurely, before the foundations have been laid. However, once the piece has been thoroughly learned, we will need to plan complete play-throughs. As we get closer to exams and recitals, I am more convinced than ever that devoting practice time to regular play-throughs is an essential part of the preparation. Playing a piece from beginning to end for the first time without stopping can be challenging and sometimes even demoralising for the perfectionists amongst you – you’ll want to stop and correct mistakes and you won’t be at all comfortable riding roughshod over passages you know you can play perfectly well when you play them in isolation. And yet how are we going to know how it feels to play a piece in its entirety until we do just that? The section after the double bar, completely manageable when played out of context, now feels quite different when placed therein. Those fast runs, normally comfortable, suddenly buckle for no apparent reason. Stamina, concentration, dynamic and tempo relationships, timings, etc., can only be fully developed in the context of the whole. Very often, the results of serious practising show up a week or two later, which is why I recommend being completely ready for a performance three weeks ahead, if at all possible. Certainly the daily play-throughs need to be done a month or so ahead, and as the date approaches, it will be better to back off a bit so you don’t get over anxious, stale or exhausted. Then it will be easier to take it in your stride, and maybe even enjoy the occasion! (Remember, there is such a thing as over practising.) As […]

A Supplement to Slow Practice

A few weeks ago, I gave some suggestions for practising Mozart’s Rondo alla turca and I would like to apply this principle to another piece, which really couldn’t be more contrasting in style and effect. I have just been working with a student who this week made a start on Tchaikovsky’s fabulous Dumka. He was struggling with this spot: The reason for the struggle was because he had not realised there would need to be an additional process after practising hands together slowly note for note, that no amount of slow practice alone is going to enable a reliable, let alone virtuosic performance of this extract. Don’t get me wrong – regular readers will know what a diehard fan of slow practising I am, but there are supplementary ways of working that do the job better at a certain stage in our learning of a piece. Why plod through something in this way for weeks on end when we might need a more energy-efficient and artistically satisfying way of doing it? I asked him to play the left hand melodic line (the tune at the top of the bass stave), or the theme in all its heroic, brassy glory. I wasn’t interested in a spelling-out of the notes, but a vivid, up-to-speed characterisation of the theme. We worked on this until the shapings and timings were just right, and the character could stand proud on the stage (albeit deprived of fellow cast members and scenery) and deliver his lines from memory (the register dictates that this is a “he”). Then we connected the theme to its lower bass notes, and found a way of making this physically comfortable by pivoting on the E flats in the first […]

Practising Fast

Common sense suggests that if we can play a fast piece faster than intended, it will be easier to manage at the proper tempo, since we will have gone the extra mile. We’ll have stretched our resources and sharpened up the reflexes, and this is indeed an excellent thing to do from time to time in our practice sessions. Short bursts rather than complete performances are fine, and it is often preferable to play lighter, like the singer who marks rather than sings out full voice. When we go back to the normal tempo, it all feels easier. I like the idea of practising at a variety of different speeds but not mechanically – aim to make the music meaningful in each tempo. This is great if you are learning an accompaniment or an ensemble work, where the flexibility gained from this endeavour can only assist in maximising valuable rehearsal time when you get together with the other player(s). I would like to put the cat among the pigeons here and state that I don’t believe there is any such thing as the ONE CORRECT TEMPO, even despite indications from the composer. If I am playing a work in a cathedral, for example, I will necessarily have to slow it down to accommodate the acoustical space. If I am playing on a small instrument in a heavily carpeted room, I will most likely go for a faster tempo. The tempo of a piece of music is chameleon-like, surely? If I have had one cup of coffee too many for breakfast, then my performance that evening will likely be faster, because my metabolism and heartbeat will be faster. Music is organic, and performance is inextricably linked […]

More Thoughts on Slow Practising

I am convinced it is not possible to say too much about slow practising or to overemphasise its importance. Here are one or two random thoughts on the subject, which supplement what I have previously written. Slow practising basically expands the time distance between one note and the next, allowing us plenty of time to prepare ahead (the hand position, the precise sound we want, etc.) as well as evaluate our results immediately after. As I am always saying, we need to aim to evaluate these results in as precise terms as possible, so that we can have a definite goal if we need to repeat. SLOW YET FAST So often in slow practice it is the tempo that is slow but everything else is fast – the key speed, the recovery at the bottom of the key (the lightning-fast physical response to the key bed when effort instantly ceases, and is released), movements across the keyboard, preparation of hand positions and large leaps, and so on. We can often only think about these things and make sure they have really happened when the tempo is slow. In a scale passage where the thumb needs to pass under the hand, we can prepare the movement fast, and immediately the thumb releases its first note. We might think of the next finger as operating the starting pistol, and the thumb the athlete on the block raring to go. (Of course if the interval is a large one, we wouldn’t want to cause tension in the hand by attempting to stretch too far, and there are many occasions in piano playing where thumb preparation is not a good thing.) HELPING YOUNGSTERS TO PRACTISE SLOWLY It may seem […]

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