Teaching

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 […]

Green Fingers

Over the past few weeks in my teaching, I have found myself repeating what I consider a truism about practising, so I thought it might be worth writing about. Not only will I get it off my chest, but I will also be able to direct students here, thereby freeing up lesson time for other activities. It is simply this: The various practice tools we use for learning a piece in the first place need to be repeated very regularly in the early stages of learning, and are often the same tools we need to use on an ongoing basis for maintenance and upkeep. Slow practice is a good example of this. There are some instances where a word of instruction can cause the playing to change immediately, but there are plenty of other occasions when we need to go into training to achieve a certain intended result. 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. I also think of the parallel with an activity like Olympic hammer throwing, where the act of throwing the hammer itself is over in a flash but the training regime is all-encompassing, involving other activities than just throwing the hammer. I know this not from any personal prowess in this direction, but because the PE teacher at my old school went on to achieve fame doing this and we all got a sense of what was involved. 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 thing to look when […]

By |November 20th, 2011|Teaching|0 Comments

Silent Practice: The Art of Inner Listening

Somewhat reluctantly, I have just sold on my Virgil Practice Clavier, having watched it gather dust and take up space for the past few years. For those of you too young to remember Joseph Cooper’s dummy keyboard on the BBC2 panel show “Face The Music”, a Virgil is a practice piano with adjustable sprung and weighted keys, and the only sounds it is capable of producing are clicks as the keys go down, and/or clicks as the keys come up (you can select the up-click, the down-click, both clicks or neither). If you turn the spring to its maximum, you get a key resistance that would challenge even Popeye on spinach day, or you can set it to an effortless “light” (and with all degrees in between). The clicks are supposed to indicate rhythmic accuracy, or (if you have both up and down clicks switched on) how precise your legato is (if the up-click and the next down-click coincide, then you will have made a textbook key connection). Panelists on the show would have to guess what piece was being played just from the rhythm of the clicks (the audience at home helped along by a soundtrack that would fade in after a while). Silent Practice No. 1 Due to force of circumstance, I once had to learn a substantial recital programme of music for cello and piano (including the Chopin Sonata) on one of these devices. I was staying somewhere with no piano, and this portable contraption could be moved into my room easily by two people. To my surprise, I found the work very congenial! I was able to hear in my head the sounds my fingers would have been making, and in some […]

On Double Notes (Part Two)

This post deals with the “how” of double notes. Because double notes appear to be very finger-based, making demands on the weaker fingers on the outside of the hand, they should be practised with care and certainly not for hours on end! Firstly, then,  some advice on INJURY PREVENTION: Avoid awkward hand positions and angles by aligning the hand with the forearm. Maintain flexibility in the wrist, especially laterally. Adjust the position of the elbow to enable fingers to pass over other fingers more easily. For example,  you are holding RH 4 and 2 and you need to ascend a step to 3 and 1. If the elbow is in leading mode, it will require more of an adjustment since the 3rd finger has to go over the 4th. For this reason the elbow will need to be closer to your torso in double note passages that move away from the body. Incorporate finger strokes into the arm whenever possible. This might involve only tiny movements (more on this later in the post). Practise softly and loosely before building in key speed. GENERAL PRINCIPLES Fingering – in a legato context, compromises often need to be made as breaks in the legato are inevitable. If you can’t join both parts, find a fingering solution that enables a join in one part. If the break is in the lower part of the RH, it will not be so noticeable. Look at the alternative scale fingerings in Part One of  Moszkowski’s “School of Double Notes” for ingenious fingering suggestions, which will inspire you to explore various unconventional fingering possibilities, fingerings you probably wouldn’t have thought of. In this extract from Beethoven op. 2 no. 3, I prefer the following fingering, which probably would […]

On Double Notes (Part One)

Technikos: “of, or pertaining to art, artistic, skilful” But there is no difference between interpretation and technique. Every dynamic and nuance must be produced simultaneously by a technical means (Walter Gieseking) The next few posts will be on practising exercises, and I decided to start with double notes. This week I will give some background, and next week some practical advice. I recommend doing some double notes every day, in the form of a scale or two, or an exercise, or indeed a study. It is the act of doing this that is more important than what you practise, and any book of exercises worth its salt will have some patterns of double notes. I favour exercises that transpose or use patterns of white and black keys – playing on just white keys is very limiting (how many pieces do you know, even elementary ones, that avoid black notes?). Playing double notes is, mechanically speaking, one of the most difficult activities at the piano, and one that requires superfine coordination. The pair of fingers need to sound dead together and, in order to do this in a controlled way, have to be played from the surface of the keyboard. The weaker outer fingers need to be as strong and agile as the others – stronger, actually, in the right hand since the top notes will need to be projected more.   “Nothing by finger without arm; nothing by arm without finger” (Leonid Nikolaev) I imagine a seesaw where one end represents “ARM” and the other “FINGER”. Because of the unhelpful assumption that we play the piano with our fingers, I am always trying to push activities of the finger as far as possible in the […]

Craftsmanship

This post is more philosophical than practical, but it has occurred to me as I have progressed with this blog over the past few weeks that the main underlying principle of successful piano practising can be summed up in one word: craftsmanship. With it, we have a clear frame for our work and can achieve solid results; without it, hours will be wasted with nothing tangible to show for our efforts. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, without craftsmanship you will not be channelling your energies efficiently. A serious full-time student of piano in tertiary education might practise anywhere from four to six hours a day. Let’s take the lower figure and give them Sunday off, that means twenty four practice hours to one lesson hour. With that ratio, they had better know how to work. My favourite analogy, as my students will tell you, is that of a Swiss watchmaker. I like the idea of the watchmaker as it seems the ultimate in precision engineering, and because in the finished product, you can’t see what has gone into it – this is much like constructing a piece of music at the piano. Yet if you ask the watchmaker how he does it, he won’t hum and haw or give vague answers, he will tell you categorically and exactly. This is not always the case with a pianist, however. You may argue that’s because playing the piano is an art and the stages from learning notes to performance cannot be quantified so precisely. No, they can’t. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to lay down some fundamental precepts of craftsmanship, which tool we might use for a particular job. I wonder whether the […]

A Ghost Story

There are certain places in the repertoire where I can predict that a student is going to hurry. They will usually tend to rob long notes of their value by rushing on to the next event. Perhaps our instincts tell us we should be busy making sound, playing notes rather than holding them? I surmise it has a lot to do with the nature of sound production at the piano: once we have made the sound, we need do nothing to prolong it except to hold the keys with our fingers, or hold it in the pedal. Wind and string instruments require a continuous and sustained effort of the breath or of the bow throughout the life of the long note, in other words movement. I would suggest that we pianists need also keep long notes alive – physically and in our imagination. I liken the arm in piano playing to the breath in wind playing or singing, and to the bow in string playing. If we don’t incorporate the articulations of the fingers into bigger, longer gestures of the arm we end up playing syllabically, robotically and thus without real expression. If we stop all movement as soon as we have played a long note or chord, we disconnect from our conductor (our body) and thus from the musical flow, that sense of arch that takes us from the first note of the piece to the last. There is nothing more disturbing than seeing a pianist flailing themselves over the keyboard with excessive movements that are so often irrelevant – a substitute for real listening, or built in for theatrical effect. This is not what I mean. A good example of very basic arm choreography is […]

Preparing the Canvas

With the advent of the summer holidays, a lot of piano students will be learning new pieces. On the proceeds of lessons, we piano teachers will be sunning ourselves in the Algarve and our students beavering away with little or no supervision until September. Do we simply chuck a couple of pieces at them and hope they deliver? Before we can come up with a plan, we need to distinguish between a piece that may be in the ear already and a piece that is totally unfamiliar. In the first instance, we can get straight to the keyboard and begin work, in the second, we will need to do some groundwork. Even though I have not played Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto myself, I have a very distinct aural map of the work, familiar with it through performances and recordings over the years, and from having taught it on several occasions. I already have a very clear understanding of the piece and how it should feel and sound and can justly claim that I know it. If I decided to learn it, more than half the battle would already have been won since I would just need to get the notes into my fingers (no small task in itself, I would add). If I were learning a new piece from scratch having no prior knowledge of it, I would need to dig some foundations before I approached the work at the keyboard. The obvious first solution to this would be to listen to a bunch of recordings (so instantly available to all of us nowadays) probably while following the score. In addition – or perhaps even beforehand – I would want to scrutinise the score and […]