Being Creative with Scales

Does scale playing scare you? Does the thought of practising scales for an exam intimidate you? Scales have a reputation for being among the least interesting activities we pianists face, but there is no reason scale practice should be dry and boring. Last week we launched a new module in the Online Academy’s technique library. The module includes detailed instructions on how to play and how to practise scales and arpeggios. You will find short videos, along with exercises and their demonstrations to assist you on your journey. Once we’ve learned all our scales and arpeggios and no longer need them for any exams, it’s up to us whether we continue to practise them or not. Some professional pianists of the highest calibre go through their scales daily as part of their warm-up routine, others see no value whatever in doing this. Readers of this blog will know that I rather like to use scales as vehicles for other things. For example, if you are struggling with a two against three polyrhythm in a piece, before you grapple with the passage itself practise first a scale in this polyrhythm (one hand will play three octaves, the other hand two). For good measure, switch this around too. The point here is that you already know your scales, so you will not have to read any notes or think about fingering. You will be able to look at the keyboard and focus on the particular difficulty you are trying to master. The first Arabesque of Debussy is a good example: We might also use scales to explore touch and articulation. A very good example of this came up in a recent lesson. My student was about to learn […]

Fundamentals of Scale and Arpeggio Playing

Scales and arpeggios are part of the requirements of all examination boards, and every pianist will encounter them. The importance of knowing scales and arpeggios in every key cannot be exaggerated, but many players struggle with them because of poor technique. How do we learn to play any scale at the drop of a hat? How do we play an even scale at a suitable tempo, with the correct fingering? How do we manage the thumb movements in an arpeggio accurately without bumping? How do we sit, how do we move across the keyboard without tension? I have addressed all these questions and others in my new module in the Online Academy’s technique library. With detailed instructions in the videos, along with printed exercises and their demonstrations, I hope this material will assist you on your journey to making friends with scales and arpeggios. Once we realise that all scales are made up of short (1, 2, 3) and long groups (1, 2, 3, 4) in alternation we are in a much better position to learn the fingerings. Not all scales begin at the start of a fingering group; to embed the fingerings, blocking practice is helpful. How do we solve the problem of the thumb in scale playing? There are several ingredients – a smooth arm with no drops in the elbow, mobility in the thumb itself, and freedom in the wrist. This video excerpt offers some suggestions for practice. Attention to whole-body choreography is especially important to feeling comfortable in arpeggio playing. This video demonstrates how we sit and how we move across the keyboard. *** Elementary Technique – Fundamentals of Scales & Arpeggios is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. […]

Thoughts on Piano Technique

After some initial trepidation regarding how to approach extending our resources on the complex subject of piano technique on the Online Academy, I am happy to say that we have just published the first module in a new collection, with others to follow in due course. Because there can be no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching technique, as it grows, our technique library will also contain content from other leading experts offering different angles on the subject. As such it will be a research-based, organic and consistently growing resource representing diverse viewpoints. I have several worthy books on piano technique on my shelves, some are clearer and more usable than others. However, as soon as an author starts writing about hand positions, arm movements, giving detailed instructions about what the fingers are supposed to be doing in a given situation, etc., they immediately run the risk of being misunderstood. Very often the excessive verbiage involved is hard to fully understand, even by the most educated of readers, and any images included can only tell part of the story.   In the modern age, many of these problems can be resolved by video demonstrations. Building text-light modules around a number of videos has been my default choice of format this new material. Some videos are longer with more description; others are very short indeed – with few words, if any, and filmed close up. The beauty of the short videos is they can easily be watched repeatedly, when you might want to check and recheck how a particular movement looks. My aim is to identify and use the best format to communicate the subject matter at hand.   My attitude to technique is based […]

By |February 20th, 2020|Technique|0 Comments

Technique Library & Resources Preview

Following our announcements last year regarding upcoming projects and content, we’ve been hard at work on a collection of modules on piano technique, the first of which is now available on the Online Academy – with others to follow thereafter. These initial modules will cover technical fundamentals, scales and arpeggios and a detailed exploration of forearm rotation. The first module explores the basics of piano technique, covering seating position, posture, whole-arm and legato touches. Using a combination of bite-sized annotated video demonstrations, musical examples and downloads, this module shows how to move in ways that are natural to the body and to achieve physical freedom for playing that feels and sounds good. It will be a good starting point for beginners and useful for piano teachers who teach beginners as well as those seeking a refresher or “health check” on the basics.    The next module will look at the basics of scale and arpeggio playing, featuring close-up video demonstrations of the movements involved. The following video example takes a break from the technical aspects and offers a practical keyboard theory lesson showing how we can go through the circle of fifths one key at a time, clockwise in the sharp direction or anti-clockwise in the flat direction by playing the scale as a chord (all eight notes together, one tetrachord per hand). The scale-chord gives us a bird’s-eye view of the scale and is an excellent way of seeing the pattern of black and white keys as a whole. Building on the first two modules is an extended video-based course on the principles of forearm rotation and its application, with many musical examples and text. This video excerpt shows a short example of how […]

By |February 13th, 2020|Technique|2 Comments

An Essential Guide to Healthy Piano Playing

Piano playing is a deeply satisfying artistic activity, but it can also be very demanding physically on our arms and hands. Just as elite athletes understand and care for their bodies, so should pianists think carefully about their approach to playing and practising. A healthy piano technique not only avoids injury – it also helps to achieve greater freedom of expression, a more beautiful sound and quicker progress. With the number of piano-related injuries on the rise and as a response to this growing problem, we have worked with leading expert in pianist injuries, Penelope Roskell to publish a new guide to preventing and recovering from injury for pianists and teachers. Combined with Penelope’s existing resources on Yoga, warm-ups and posture, the guide offers detailed information on each of the most common playing-related injuries with numerous video demonstrations of practical remedial exercises to aid recovery and prevent relapse. The information contained within this guide is based on Penelope’s many years of experience in working with pianists with injuries. Although it will be useful to any pianist, it is especially beneficial for those experiencing fatigue, tension or pain and piano teachers who want to know more about helping their students keep healthy. The guide covers the following topics: Healthy playing – Develop a healthy technique (and wise practise) methods for greater freedom of expression, improved sound quality and quicker progress General advice on healthy and wise practising Whole-body approach and sitting posture Warm-up sequence Preventing and recovering from injury – Learn how to look after your arms and hands to avoid problems in future and general advice on recovering from injury Common pianist injuries How to identify common injuries like RSI, carpal tunnel syndrome and tenosynovitis […]

By |January 16th, 2020|News, Technique|0 Comments

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|3 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 […]