On Trills and Twiddles

I am dusting off the Goldberg Variations for a couple of performances early next year, and I decided to consult my Kirkpatrick edition (Schirmer, 1938). When I have the best modern editions on my shelves, why would I choose to revisit such an old and surely outdated source? Well, there is much to gain from using an interpretive edition such as Kirkpatrick’s alongside a modern Urtext. The lengthy preface is divided into 9 chapters on the origin of the work, its form and the instrument. Then Kirkpatrick delves into the topics of ornamentation (general rules as well as each ornament treated individually), phrasing, fingering, tempo, dynamics and general interpretation. His scholarship has withstood the test of time and this edition still has much to offer. The score itself presents the canons in open score (a great plus point), and is mercifully free of fingerings and other editorial tamperings. Having not played the work for 5 years, I wanted to refresh my memory on the exact shapes of each ornament and I am always fascinated to discover how great performers realise them. Kirkpatrick decided to write each ornament out in full. While this is helpful to a certain extent it is also problematic. Certain ornaments that fulfil a rhythmic function in fast music might well be played in a clearly discernible rhythmic way; others need to sound more expressive and free. Kirkpatrick’s realisations of the ornaments in Variation 7, for example, will sound just fine if played metronomically according to his recipe. However, there is no way Kirkpatrick or anyone else can possibly notate the necessary freedoms in inflection in slower or more expressive music such as the Aria. The mordants in the first couple of bars feel more or less fine as they are […]

By |December 1st, 2016|Technique|2 Comments

Are Exercises A Waste of Time?

Originally published from 1922 – 1929, Alberto Jonás’ series of seven books entitled Master School of Modern Piano Playing and Virtuosity is a treatise on piano technique designed to embrace “all the technical, aesthetic and artistic features required for the highest pianistic virtuosity”. The series contains original exercises by Jonás himself (he was one of the most sought-after piano teachers in the USA in the early 20th century), as well as exercises he commissioned from some of the most important pianists of the day (Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, Alfred Cortot and Josef Lhevinne among them). This fascinating resource and historical document came to my attention only fairly recently, with the republication in 2011 of the first two volumes by Dover, with an introduction by Sara Davis Buechner (click here to purchase on Amazon). You can watch a video of Ms. Buechner talk about the first extension exercises here. But surely in the modern age such exercises should be consigned to the dustbins of pianistic history? A quaint reminder of how things used to be done, until we came to know better. Some authorities are very vocal about this. What disturbs me about the (often vicious) fighting that goes on in the pedagogical community is the scorn and venom that come up at the very mention of the word “extension exercise” or “finger exercise”. Normally civilised and well-mannered folk get on their high horse, thinking nothing of trampling on colleagues’ work with a kind of fundamentalist, religious fervour. How fascinating, then, to find an interview with Stephen Hough in Pianist Magazine recently (Issue 88), in which he discusses how he has made a return to practising exercises. “You can warm up by playing pieces, of course, but you might not have a real finger-by-finger warm-up so that your whole hand, by the time you come […]

By |September 15th, 2016|Technique|4 Comments

A Technical Problem?

My new teaching term began this week with a new student, a young lady preparing for an advanced ABRSM exam. She told me she was having technical problems with some of the minor scales beginning on black notes, and needed some help. When I asked her to play Eb harmonic minor, it was clear to me the problems she was experiencing were not technical in any mechanical sense but rooted in a lack of perception about the patterns of black and white notes that make up this particular scale. I asked her to play the scale in one hand using just one finger – something she struggled to do. After the shape and structure of the scale had become clear in her mind and she could play it fluently with one finger, I invited her to try the scale again with both hands together. She was most surprised to discover she could now play it easily. Clearly not a technical problem, then! I have noticed a tendency among pianists to address issues such as this by immediately going into elaborate technical detail, when this might not be the correct diagnosis at all. In order for the fingers to cooperate, they need to be given very clear commands from our brain as to exactly where they are supposed to go, and what they must do when they get there. If we are woolly-minded about the patterns in a piece of music or the type of sound (mood, character, etc.) we are after, how can we expect any kind of fluent or meaningful result? As the young lady left at the end of the lesson, she asked me the best way to practise her scales during the week. My answer was […]

By |September 8th, 2016|Technique|13 Comments

Improve Your Thumb Technique

Wouldn’t it be great if Nature had designed our hands with the fingers in reverse order? If the “strong” thumb were on the outside of the hand and the “weak” pinky on the inside, we would easily be able to project melody lines –  supporting them with effortless basses and a suitably light harmonic filling in the middle. But it is actually possible to make the pinky strong and the thumb light and flexible. I would like to share a few ideas on this subject today. I have included the video demonstration I made for Pianist Magazine at the end of the this post, so please don’t worry if the verbiage that follows is a little difficult to follow – all is revealed in the video! The thumb can be a great ally or an enemy – depending on how we use it. In brief, the thumb has two phalanges (proximal and distal) and eight muscles, acting in groups. It can move in several different ways – straight up and down, stretching out laterally (abduction), moving in towards the hand (adduction), as well as moving under the palm to the tips of the fingers (opposition). It can also make grasping and circular movements. When I move my thumb freely, I feel the movement at the base of the thumb, at the wrist. The thumb connects to the keyboard on the tip by the nail (rather than on its flat side), forming an arch with the 5th finger in chords and octaves. If you want to investigate the anatomy of the hand applied to piano playing, I can highly recommend Thomas Mark’s excellent book, What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body. If you’ve heard of the book and have been debating whether to get it, click on the link and go ahead and order (and no, […]

Nimble Chromatics

When it comes to fingerings, it helps to understand the principles behind certain fingering patterns we find in our scores, rather than just merely playing what we see. In this post I would like to discuss the best fingering for fast chromatic scales that we find in the repertoire, and chromatic minor 3rd scales using the sliding 2nd finger approach. Basic Chromatic Scale Fingering Here is the first chromatic scale fingering we learn; it is perfectly serviceable for beginner-intermediate levels. 3rd finger on black keys; thumb on white keys – except on the two adjacent pairs of white keys within the octave (E-F and B-C) where 2nd finger acts as a substitute thumb. Thus (RH up from C): 1-3-1-3-1-2-3-1-3-1-3-1-2 Advanced Chromatic Scale Fingering This fingering is much faster. Use a large group of consecutive fingers from 1-4 (or 4-1) whenever possible, except when to do so would position the thumb on a black key – in which case use a smaller group of consecutive fingers from 1-3. The 5th finger can be used at the end of a pattern, or when the scale changes direction. Thus (RH up from C): 1-2-3-4; 1-2-3; 1-2-3-4; 1-2 (etc). If you practise chromatic scales starting on any note, your hand will eventually get used to this fingering and you will find you can do it without thinking. I suggest practising hands together as soon as possible in symmetrical inversion (contrary motion). Using the symmetry of the keyboard, you can create an exact symmetrical version in one hand of any passage you are playing in the other, including scales. You match identical fingers and intervals and play the mirror image of the other hand simultaneously. Thus, when you play a black note with the […]