Technique

On Technical Exercises

In the nineteenth century there was a widespread belief that hours a day spent practising finger exercises would lead to mastery of the instrument, and many method books were published, filled with exercises and studies. The prevailing opinion was that you needed to separate the study of technique from the study of music – by practising endless drill, you would be able to play the repertoire more easily. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. Hours spent on exercises and boring studies leads to playing that is fixated on mechanics, to the detriment of artistry or musical merit. It can also lead to a lack of coordination, pain and injury. Not only is this kind of mechanical practice largely a waste of time, it can actually do more harm than good. The word technique comes from the Greek word technikos, meaning “of, or pertaining to art; artistic, skilful”. This should highlight to us the close connection between the technical, and the musical or interpretative. Interpretation and technique are one and the same, since every sound that we strive to produce has to be achieved by physical means. Many modern piano pedagogues discourage their students from separating purely technical work from music for this very reason. And yet, we do need to understand how to meet the demands of the music we play. Is a thorough training in the mechanics or gymnastics of piano playing essential, or can we develop our technique solely through the music? Read about Samuil Feinberg’s ideas on what constitutes an exercise Although practising repetitive mechanical exercises is out of favour amongst many teachers at the moment, I believe that it is very possible, and sometimes preferable, to study a particular aspect of the […]

Perspectives on Technique

Like many of us, I have come from an eclectic background as a pianist. There are strong influences from the British School, with its emphasis on craftsmanship (especially in the practice room), the German school, with its focus on musical structure and clarity of thought, and not least the great modern Russian School (the Neuhaus line from Nina Svetlanova), with its rich traditions of pianism, artistry and attention to creating an incredible sound. Since one of my teachers studied in Paris with Marguerite Long and another with Artur Rubinstein, there will be some French and Central Europe in there too. I also undertook an in-depth study of what has become known as the Taubman Method from a student of Dorothy Taubman in New York, and I worked for a time with piano guru Peter Feuchtwanger in London on his various exercises. No description of my background would be complete without acknowledging the enormous debt I owe to Leon Fleisher, whose weekly classes for piano majors at Peabody during 1982 were among the highlights of my pianistic education. And of course my masterclass and subsequent lessons with Andras Schiff in the early 80s were hugely influential. My own approach to piano technique is therefore rich and varied with all these various influences, and I have found it possible to use the best parts of all of them. Consequently I do not subscribe to the view that there is one correct way to play the piano – rather many different and equally valid ways depending on the physiology, mind and aesthetics of the individual. In my video lecture series on technique on the Online Academy, I offer some very detailed instructions on how to achieve results at […]

Burgmüller’s Op. 100

Burgmüller’s charming set of 25 studies, the Easy and Progressive Études (Op 100) still manages to sound fresh after all these years, and continues to inspire intermediate pianists. Each étude is short and to the point, with a descriptive title to stimulate the imagination. The technique always serves a musical goal, and because they are so well written each is useful as a way to learn about harmony, as well as form and structure. In my Online Academy series on op. 100, I take each étude in turn. You will find a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough that highlights the learning outcomes, with advice on the technical aspects as well as how to practise. So far, we are up to no. 18 and look forward to completing the series within the next few weeks. A short while back I wrote a blog post featuring short excerpts about the first five études, in this post I’m going to look at the next few – Progrés, Le courant limpide, La gracieuse and La chasse. 6. Progrès We return to C major for this lively, cheerful piece entitled Progrès (Progress). With touches of laughter suggested by the staccato quavers, this study celebrates the pleasure in making progress, featuring scales in parallel tenths, a contrary motion scale, changes of touch from legato to staccato, rapid changes in hand position with jumps in both hands, and syncopated slurs. Some of the patterns we find in Progrès can be practised not only upwards as written, but also backwards – on a loop, repeating up and back until fluent and comfortable. In this snippet from my full-length video demonstration, I look at how to practise the semiquavers in a dotted rhythm (long-short, and short-long), a good exercise […]

What is an Exercise?

The subject of technical exercises is a thorny and controversial one. At one stage in the evolution of piano playing, it was mandatory to spend hours a day practising technical exercises and studies that were often extremely dry and unmusical. In the nineteenth century many method books were published, filled with them. Some teachers even instructed their students to read a book while doing all the copious repetitions, to ward off boredom!  The rationale behind all this was that such gymnastics would allow the pianist to cope better with the greater size of the pianos being manufactured, the increase in the touch weight of the keys and of course the increase in difficulty of the music composed for the instrument. Rather than find a new technique more suited to the heavier keyboard and the greater technical demands, players and teachers stuck with what they knew. Without realising it, they were flogging a dead horse. Unfortunately, endless drill often led to playing that was fixated on mechanics, to the detriment of artistry or musical merit, as well as the real risk of pain and injury. So not only is this kind of mindless mechanical practice largely a waste of time, it can actually do more harm than good. Although spending a lot of time practising repetitive mechanical exercises is out of favour amongst many teachers at the moment, it is very possible, and sometimes preferable, to study a particular aspect of playing by using carefully chosen exercises and studies that have enough musical interest to hold the attention. Exercises serve three main purposes: to warm us up, to build and maintain technical skills, and to help us tackle general difficulties or specific trouble spots in our pieces. […]

By |February 14th, 2019|Technique|0 Comments

Precision Measurement in Jumps

Today I present an excerpt from my walkthrough of Max Bruch’s delightful Moderato from the Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 12, No. 4 (currently on the ABRSM Grade 6 syllabus). In the video I illustrate three practice tools that will help gain control of the jumps. You may think my demonstration is a bit long-winded and laborious, but the idea is to show you principles of practice that you can apply to any jumps that cause difficulty – no matter the grade or level. In the Bruch piece, the jumps are in the left hand and it is important that the left hand be very comfortable with what it has to do, so that you can put your full attention on making the right hand sing expressively. For a link to the score, click here You will probably want to begin by playing and singing the right hand, to get a sense of the character of the melody. Next, look at the left hand and notice there are two components – a bass line in single notes (on the main beats, played with the pinky) and a harmonic filler (on the off beats). For the second step, play the melody line against the bass line (omitting the chords). Then, to help you relate one chord to the next, you might try playing the left hand chords without interrupting them with the bass notes to create a harmonic progression (just make sure you use the fingering you will end up using when you put everything together).  Now we are going to work at the left hand by itself, using the three practice tools: Quick Cover Play the bass note and hold it. Prepare yourself to move to the chord that follows […]

Do We Need Special Exercises for the Left Hand?

I am often asked about what to practise to make the left hand feel strong, and equal in technical ability to the right hand. Are special exercises necessary? In 2011, researchers in Germany published an article which showed a surprising fact: Whether the pianist identified as right- or left-handed, the performance of the right hand always displayed a higher degree of evenness between notes, and therefore a higher degree of motor control, than did the left hand. And the more practice time that a left-hander had accumulated, the better the performance of his or her right hand. Another statistic that came up is perhaps more understandable and obvious – we often listen more to the right hand, because in most music from 1750 onwards it assumes greater importance. The melodic interest tends to be more on the top, the left hand in a supporting role. Not that I’ve counted them up myself, but in Beethoven’s sonatas there are apparently 122,650 notes in the left hand and 133,064 in the right! If we really want to develop our left hand, perhaps we should always be working on contrapuntal music – especially fugues, where both hands are completely equal in terms of input. German Romantic composer, Hermann Berens published his Training of the Left Hand in 1870, at a time when mechanical exercises were especially lauded. I have noticed that many players seem to enjoy practising technical exercises and studies. As I always stress, it is how you do them that is important and if you follow a middle path and do them mindfully and in small doses, Berens’ left hand exercises can certainly be of some value.  But why not include one or two pieces of music written for […]

By |January 31st, 2019|Technique|2 Comments

The Principles of Scale Fingering

I have recently published a series of three articles for Pianist Magazine on fingering, and as always there is a video demonstration for each available on YouTube. In my first article, I outline some of the basic fingering principles as well as giving some suggestions for choosing a fingering. In the second article, I explore fingerings for scales, arpeggios and chords. The principles for scale fingerings in use today were first proposed by C.P.E. Bach in his treatise, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753). There are two main principles. Neither the thumb nor the 5th finger are used on black keys (the exceptions are the arpeggios of F sharp major and E flat minor) Each scale is made up of a short group (123) and a long group (1234) in alternation. There are some useful pointers: Long fingers (2nd, 3rd and 4th) usually play on black keys Short fingers (thumb and 5th) go on white keys The 4th finger appears only once in each octave* – if you are struggling to remember the fingering for a scale, just notice where the 4th fingers go and use these notes as anchors. *not counting situations when the 4th finger substitutes for the thumb (B major and minor LH bottom; F major and minor RH top) C Major Fingering We get great value from the C major fingering, since it applies to several other scales too. Once we have learned C major we can use the identical fingering for C, D, E, G and A majors and minors. That’s 10 scales in all! The diagram below shows the fingering for an ascending then descending scale over two octaves. It’s helpful to notice: 3rd fingers always come together […]

Playing Double Notes at the Advanced Level

When I was a student, I was struck by the two opposing camps that seemed to exist among my peers. There were those whose teachers expected them to be practising finger exercises and studies religiously each day for at least an hour, and others who were supposed to build up their technique almost exclusively from the repertoire they were learning. Whether you were assigned reams of Pischna, Dohnányi, Czerny and Clementi, or managed to escape this treadmill largely depended on which school of pianism you inherited, and where in the world you received your pianistic education. The concept of a thorough training in the mechanics or gymnastics of piano playing as a separate activity from real music became very popular at the time the conservatories were being founded and is still very much alive today – even though some newer systems of pedagogy challenge the fundamental concept. In the twentieth century, celebrated Juilliard teacher, Adele Marcus (herself a product of the great Russian tradition) required her students to spend ninety minutes daily working on technique, and had a strict regime they had to follow. While many well-known teachers advocate this today, many others do not. Does this system produce better pianists that those who build up technique from repertoire, inventing their own exercises from their pieces to help solve specific problems? Certainly a great pianist will always emerge from any school or tradition of piano playing. I am about to launch a substantial new collection of resources exploring areas of technique on the Online Academy, and this will involve looking at a selected number of exercises and studies. From this you may draw the conclusion that I am a great fan of studies and exercises, but […]

Feeling Comfortable in All Keys

Do you feel comfortable playing in all keys? Are you able to transpose technical exercises without notation? The ability to play by ear in every key is an important musicianly skill, one that cannot be developed soon enough. When we transpose technical exercises not only do we develop our aural awareness but also our keyboard geography as we experience the different black-white terrain under our fingers that each new key offers. This adds enormous value to the gains from any exercises we might be practising, and to our technical development in general. Most of the exercises we find in the various books of technique regimes give the full version of a particular exercise only for one or two keys (usually C major, and if we’re lucky Db) before trailing off with an unhelpful “etc”, or the instruction to “continue through all keys”. The ability to carry on without any further notation relies on two skills: An understanding of the structure behind the given note patterns found in the particular exercise Thorough knowledge of each key (major and minor) Knowledge of the basic chord shapes and qualities – many exercises use mainly major, minor, diminished and dominant 7th chords Pattern Recognition It is far better to memorise the exercises as soon as possible so all your attention can be focussed on the matter at hand. It is infinitely more beneficial that your eyes are directed at the keyboard and that your mind is focussed on the task (not being distracted by having to read from the printed page). The ability to memorise relies on pattern recognition, a skill that improves with practice. Let’s explore this a bit, using the infamous and all-too-familiar note pattern from the first exercise of […]

Intermediate Scales Manual Now on the Online Academy!

I have some good news for those of you practising your scales! I have just published the first part of my new scale manual aimed at intermediate players on the Online Academy.There are several scale manuals already available, but this manual is different in that it offers exercises and suggestions for practice, together with short, easy-to-use video demonstrations. It is my aim that these will be of practical help in the learning and practising process. Teachers will be able to assign specific exercises, and students will have a clearer focus in their day-to-day practice. Using the ABRSM Grade V syllabus as a guideline for this level I will be publishing the manual in stages, beginning with a practice worksheets for the group of scales built on C major fingering, and one example from some of the main groups for arpeggios. I will gradually add to these until the manual is complete. Why Scales? Scales and arpeggios have traditionally been examined as the technical requirements in piano exams from Grade 1 right through the conservatory level – and like it or not they are here to stay. The advanced pianist will have mastered all major and minor scales in single as well as double notes, plus an array of different types of arpeggios, in all inversions. The result will be an intimate kinesthetic knowledge of the keyboard (how a particular scale feels under the hand) and of all tonalities and key relationships, acquired and honed over the course of time. Whether we continue to practise scales in later life depends on the individual – the great virtuoso Shura Cherkassky apparently played scales and arpeggios in every key every day. In fact, many of the world’s greatest pianists wouldn’t […]

By |November 9th, 2017|Technique|0 Comments

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