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Pedal in Bach: Yes or No?

The subject of pedal in the music of Bach always arouses keen debate. Ought pianists to steer clear of it and control everything by the fingers, or is it possible to use a bit of pedal? If I play Bach on a small piano in a furnished drawing room with a thick carpet, I might well need touches of pedal to help my sound. If I play the same work on a concert grand in a large church with a lot of acoustic reverberation, the building itself would add a certain amount of resonance without my having to do anything. There would be a lustrous halo around my sound, and I might not need to touch the pedal at all. If the acoustical resonance was excessive, I would probably find myself slowing down the tempo and sharpening up my articulation a bit too, to preserve clarity. Nothing is cast in stone, we always need to adapt depending on our surroundings. Some pianists (who should know better) state that the harpsichord does not have dampers. Of course it does, or finger pedalling would not be possible (more about this in a moment). It is true that none of Bach’s keyboard instruments had a sustaining device, but piano sound without pedal tends to be dry and boring. Short shallow dabs of pedal can add welcome colour and resonance, but of course this has to be done well or we risk ruining the music. This helpful video gives a basic overview of the harpsichord action. Finger Pedalling Foreign to many pianists, the technique of holding onto notes beyond their written duration is an integral part of harpsichord and fortepiano technique. Before you lurch for your pedal, consider whether you […]

Arpeggiation in Piano Playing

I first published this post in July of 2016. Here it is again with one or two updates – including a link to the Online Academy’s series on spread chords, and the recent video I made for Pianist Magazine. ***   ***   *** I once attended a piano recital where the pianist continually broke the hands, so that the right hand sounded slightly after the left. He did this consistently with all the repertoire on his programme regardless of its period, and after a very short time indeed this had become a major distraction to me. I found I was unable to enjoy the music or appreciate the playing, it was irritating in the extreme. However, there was a time in the history of piano playing where this sort of desynchronisation of the hands was actually part of style. If you were trained in Leipzig in the nineteenth century you would certainly have done this without giving it a second thought, as well as arpeggiating chords at the drop of a hat. Here is Carl Reinecke in a piano roll recorded in 1905 of the Larghetto from Mozart’s K537. How times change – this style of playing, while prevalent at the time, would simply not be acceptable nowadays. If this style were based on performance traditions from Mozart’s day, you might expect modern fortepianists to have picked up on it. This cleanly articulated performance by Malcolm Bilson shows otherwise; it is (mercifully) free of such excesses. Last week I wrote about how Beethoven himself spread the opening chord in his Fourth Piano Concerto. In the Baroque period, keyboard players routinely rolled chords for expressive purposes –  either slow or fast, downwards as well as upwards. There were signs to indicate this […]

Vandalising Mozart’s K. 331?

In 2014, an amazing discovery was made in the National Széchényi Library in Budapest – a four-page fragment of part of Mozart’s Sonata in A major, K. 331, in the composer’s own handwriting. As a result, new editions have been able to correct some small errors on the part of the first edition by Artaria (Vienna, 1784) that pianists have been playing wrongly for over two centuries. The story is an extremely exciting one – you can read all about it on the sonata’s very own website. Bärenreiter’s 2017 edition I wonder how many players who invest in elite Urtext editions actually bother to read the prefaces? The 2017 Bärenreiter edition not only informs us about the genesis of the work, but also provides an evaluation of the sources as well as helpful notes on performance practice by Mario Aschauer. These notes give information about the types of pianos Mozart would have played – very useful when it comes to making decisions about pedalling, touch and articulation – and the always-tricky subject of ornamentation. Staccato dots and strokes The notation for different lengths and qualities of staccato differs depending on the composer and the style period. According to the preface of the Bärenreiter edition, the staccato stroke was, for Mozart, interchangeable with the staccato dot.  A particular problem of Mozart philology is the reproduction of staccato marks [the staccato dot or the staccato stroke]. The first edition of K. 331 exclusively uses strokes, except for the combination with slurs (portato) where dots are used. Mozart’s autograph features dots and strokes, but above all numerous intermediate forms that cannot be easily identified. In addition, Mozart occasionally notates simultaneously dots and strokes in different voices…or in parallel passages, one time […]

Top Tips: Bar by Bar Practice

I would like to share a very helpful tip for when you need to begin somewhere other than the start of a section or phrase during practice.  You’ve identified the need for greater security, and are practising bar by bar. The rule is to play from the first note of a bar and stop on the first note of the next bar, resisting the temptation to carry on past this point. This is great for control, and also for memory work. It does take a fair amount of discipline and concentration though. Having played the bar, we stop, remove our hands from the keyboard and reflect on our results  Were the notes all correct? Did I play rhythmically, with flow, dynamics, organisation and shaping? Did it feel and sound good? If not, you’ll need to repeat the bar until your inner quality control inspector gives it the green light before moving on to the next bar. But let’s say you get to a bar that starts with a tied note – how do you accommodate that? If you leave that note out you create a problem, because you are not accounting for the finger whose job it is to be resting in that particular key at the precise moment you play the other notes. Playing the note where the tie originates is certainly an option, but my preference is to put the key down silently ahead of time so the finger is in its place the moment we start. In the third bar of this example from the D minor Fugue from Bach’s WTC (Book 1), first put down the Bb with your RH 5th finger silently (a useful skill in itself) and you’ll be ready […]

Why Perform? Resources for Pianists

I first published this post a few years ago, but I have recently been sent details of brand new piano meetup groups in the UK, and decided to republish this post with all the updates. Please let me know if you run a piano group and I will be happy to include your details. * * *   * * *   * * *  When we perform, we call on a different part of ourselves from when we practise or play alone, because these are completely different activities. The concert stage is no place for shrinking violets. In performance we need to project our ideas about the music – as well as our sound – outwards to the listener, and we must make sure we do this convincingly so they really get it! When we perform authoritatively we summon feelings of abandon, spontaneity, and creativity. These qualities are associated with right-brained activity, whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we constantly evaluate – repeating and refining our results until we are satisfied they are correct. These are more left-brained activities. We must be prepared to go with the punches – there’s no point worrying about the piano, or that you weren’t happy with how you played that opening phrase. In practice we go back and get it right, in performance we have to accept what comes out and just deal with it. Performance Mindset In performance, we need to leave our inner critic in the green room and go into another state of mind once we are on the stage, one where we are not engaged in thinking, but rather in being and doing. We probably all know an excellent pianist who is not able […]

Piano Pot-Pourri in France

Following on from the Piano Holiday at Saint Laurent I tutored last summer, this new Spring Course will include master classes, workshops, individual tuition, a student concert and opportunities to play duets. In addition, I will entertain you with a short lecture recital. There are still a few places remaining, so book now and enjoy a week of piano, French culture, Penny and Geoff’s wonderful cooking and the beautiful surroundings of Saint Laurent. Numbers will be restricted to 10 participants, with classes focussed on performance and practising skills. Participants should be of intermediate to advanced level, and will need to bring three pieces from the classical repertoire that they have prepared to a fluent level (memorisation is not required). The daily classes will be conducted in a pleasant, friendly, supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. Digital practice pianos will be available. Saint Laurent is the venue for this Piano Pot-Pourri. It is situated on 27 hectares (66 acres) of land, with breathtaking views of the countryside and the Pyrenees. The fully refurbished 600 sq metre farmhouse boasts 4 apartments and extensive common space. The apartments at Saint Laurent have kitchens. There is a performance area, which can accommodate up to 60 people, with a Kawai RX2 grand piano. There is also a small swimming pool. For full details, and to book your place, click here

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. […]

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 […]

More Videos on the Trinity College London Series

As part of the Online Academy’s series on Trinity College London’s current syllabus, I am happy to let you know that four more video walkthroughs have been added this week (with plenty more still to come). This week we are presenting Telemann’s Rigaudon (Grade 2), Ben Crosland’s The Clown and the Ballerina (Grade 3), Mozart’s Minuet in D, K. 355 (Grade 7), and C. P. E. Bach’s Allegro Assai (Grade 8). Telemann: Rigaudon (Grade 2) This video explores some possibilities for touch and articulation in this baroque work, and looks at some of the technical considerations for the elementary level. Specifically, how to develop touch varieties using five-finger positions that are easily played from memory, while looking at the hands. Having experienced these touch varieties in the exercise, we can more easily transfer the skills back to the piece. Click on the video to view the preview or click here to view the full video on the Online Academy. Ben Crosland: The Clown and The Ballerina (Grade 3) There is so much to enjoy in this beautifully written piece. Aside from capturing two contrasting characters most imaginatively, we are presented with one of the most basic pianistic problems – how to move from white key to black key positions by moving inwards and upwards. Click on the video to view the preview or click here to view the full video on the Online Academy. Mozart: Minuet in D, K. 355 (Grade 7) One of the most interesting stand-alone minuets from the Classical era, Mozart’s Minuet in D, K. 355 is surprising in its use of chromaticism. It is an ideal piece for the upper intermediate player’s repertoire, and I am very glad to see it on the […]

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