Teaching

The Three S’s (Part One)

I couldn’t get far into this blog without talking about one of my mantras, “The Three S’s”. That (for me) stands for “SLOWLY, SEPARATELY, SECTIONS”, despite the array of alternative possibilities on google. This is a neat way of referring to nitty-gritty practising – the sort of thing we do to learn notes, develop reflexes and form habits, to revive old pieces, and to memorise. In a nutshell, the basis of craftsmanlike, disciplined work. The tripartite title lends itself to three separate blogposts, and as a follow-up to the last post on practising the Goldberg Variations, I would like to start with “SEPARATELY”. (“SLOWLY” to follow next week.) I am a great believer in practising hands separately, especially the left hand (the hand one does not always actively listen to). There is no better test of memory than playing the left hand (from memory, of course) from beginning to end. The same goes for the right hand. One thing I do with students, and this is not a comfortable process, is to get them to start with one hand. As soon as I clap my hands, they have to remove the hand they are playing and go directly to the other hand, without stopping. They won’t know when the changeover is going to happen, and as you can imagine, one clap might follow on very quickly from the last. Or not! This is a fantastic workout for the brain hemispheres and I guarantee regular doses of this will help to secure the memory in performance. Try playing one hand normally on the keyboard, but play the other hand on your knee or just above the fallboard of the piano. This will reveal much more than merely playing […]

Keeping Repertoire Alive

It seems such a shame to spend all those hours learning a piece only to forget it after the exam or the recital. A piece, once learned, is an asset for the pianist and will need just a little maintenance every now and again to keep it in the fingers, to keep it alive. Maybe we can think of old pieces like departing friends whom we have come to know well. We have hung out with them and yet now it is time for them to leave. Do we escort them to the door with a sense of good riddance, or might we feel sad they are going and pledge to keep in touch? It depends on the piece of course, and probably our experience of playing it. I think our examination culture has a lot to answer for here – so often our associations are negative or stressful ones. As a professional pianist there have certainly been pieces I have learned for a specific occasion only to shelve them afterwards, but actually not that many! If I have liked or loved a piece, I will want to continue my relationship with it. I have an old filing card system near the piano, a sort of geriatric Rolodex now rather outdated. One of these days I will get around to putting it onto my computer, but in truth I’m rather fond of it. Each card contains the name of a work and the composer, and any important details (year of composition, etc.). I write the date I started learning it, and then the date and details of each performance. This way, I keep a living record of my repertoire. Each week I remove a card from […]

Introduction

I am lucky. My pedigree as a pianist is an excellent one, and I have had teachers from the beginning who showed me very clearly how to practise, but not all students of the piano are so fortunate. Is practising an art, or is it a science? It’s both! It cannot be described as an absolute science, because what works for one person will not necessarily work for another, or for the same person at a different stage in the learning (or relearning) of a piece. But I do think it is helpful to make practising as scientific as possible by formulating concrete concepts and precepts while at the same time guarding against dogma. I think I must have vexed my teachers by asking “why?” when they told me what I had to do. I wasn’t being cheeky, I was just very curious as to how it all worked. I still am! I ran a university practising clinic for a time, which was a voluntary, informal drop-in class for pianists to discuss various ways we might solve problems in our daily work at the keyboard. The room was often packed to the rafters, and there was always much lively discussion and experimentation. Since I had to be extremely careful not to tread on my colleagues’ toes by giving technical instruction, I had to find a way of distinguishing between the technique of manipulating the keyboard (which varies from teacher to teacher, depending on what schooling they offer) and the technique of learning (which should apply to all of us, more or less). I don’t have to be quite so careful about this here, but I would want to stress that just as there are (most […]

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