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Interpretation: Can it be Taught?

I am delighted to publish this guest post from Katrina Fox, a graduate of The Piano Teachers’ Course UK whom it was my pleasure to work with in my tutor group. More details about Katrina at the end of her article… *  *  * Interpretation: can it be taught? Should it be taught? How can someone be taught how to feel and think about a work of art? Defined by Wiktionary as “an act of explaining what is obscure”, interpretation involves making meaningful music from a bunch of notes on the page. My childhood teachers told me exactly how I should be playing, where I should express excitement or sadness, and as a good student I tried my best to meet their expectations. However, these efforts to force me to “play expressively” led to me expressing nothing at all – at least nothing personally authentic. I felt lost when approaching new music, unsure as to what I should think, or feel, or what I should be expressing. I often felt fraudulent as I saw “better” students playing with a seemingly deep connection to the music, and yet I couldn’t muster any. I began to wonder if I was just completely unmusical. So, should teachers address the issue of interpretation, beyond an explanation of the various dots and dashes and symbols on the page? Whilst a few pupils come along that seem to connect with the music instinctively and naturally play with expression and emotion, in my experience the majority need a helping hand. However, rather than imposing one’s own interpretative ideas on a pupil, there is a need to provide gentle and open-ended guidance so that pupils can develop their own, authentic musical voice. Notorious […]

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 […]

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

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 […]

The Piano Teachers’ Course UK Continuing Professional Development Days

I am one of the principal tutors on The Piano Teachers’ Course UK, and am delighted to announce a new venture that we’re starting this year, a series of seven days of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) lectures, workshops and teachers’ discussion forums discussing issues and sharing expertise. These are available to PTC Alumni and all interested pianists, piano teachers & students. There is no minimum requirement for these sessions. There will be two lecture workshop sessions each day, with an open Discussion Forum facilitated by a PTC Tutor during a long lunch break. Alternatively, instead of attending a Teachers’ Discussion Forum, you can book a private consultation and/or lesson with an available tutor. OR – book a massage with Jennie, our BAPAM registered practitioner, either after lunch or at the same time as a workshop session (not available in May). For full details, and how to book, click here

How to Begin a New Piece: Part 1

In 2015 I published a series of what turned out to be six posts on how to begin a new piece. At this time of the year, many people are starting a new academic year and embarking on a new programme of study, and judging from readers’ responses this series really helped them. I decided to republish them, and you’ll find links to the remaining posts series at the end of this post. Next week will see a return to new and original posts – do please let me know in the comments area below if there are any topics you would especially like me to cover. ***   ***   *** I have a pet theory that, if playing the piano were easy, everyone would be doing it. I mean – who wouldn’t want to create moments of beauty and meaning in their day by strolling over to a piano and playing a Bach Suite, a Chopin Nocturne or a Beethoven Sonata? The fact is playing the piano to a standard we can be proud of is very far from easy; it is a highly challenging and skilled activity requiring intelligence, sophisticated motor control – plus tons of hard work and dedication on an ongoing basis. The Process of Practice One of the biggest obstacles to reaching our goal is not appreciating the difference between the process of practising and the act of performing (or playing through). This dichotomy is often misunderstood even by conservatory piano students who assume they are practising when they hammer through their pieces, hacking at errors until they consider them vanquished. Hours can be wasted doing it this way, with no guarantee of successful results at the end of it all. We may be […]

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

I am very happy to announce a new publication for the Online Academy – a study edition of Debussy’s Prelude La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair). This is among Debussy’s best-loved works for the piano, and a piece many pianists choose to play. Despite its apparent simplicity, this short 39-bar piece is actually deceptively difficult to bring off. My enhanced study edition aims to give practical solutions to the numerous problems in pedalling the work poses, together with fingerings and exercises that will make some of the more awkward passages much easier to manage. The study score contains comprehensive footnotes with text and musical examples; there are also short video clips you can view by scanning the QR codes with your phone as you practise. The title La fille aux cheveux de lin came from Leconte de Lisle’s poem by the same name, included in the Chansons ecossaises (Scottish Songs) from 1852. In this, the eighth piece from the first book of Préludes composed around 1910, Debussy is painting a picture of an innocent and naive Scottish girl. He uses conventional diatonic harmony blended in with pentatonic scales, modal cadences as well as parallel chord movement. As in all the preludes, the title comes at the end of the piece, in brackets. It is as though Debussy wanted the listener to form their own impressions of the music first – unencumbered by any preconceptions. Debussy’s own style of playing was based on simplicity; it was unmannered and free of rhythmic distortions. French music of this period requires a style of playing that is in general much cooler and more objective than Germanic music, for example. We should guard against romanticising the piece by not adding extra rubato – Debussy marks […]

My Upcoming Piano Courses

I am pleased to be able to give you a rundown of the piano courses I shall be tutoring on during 2018, and there are quite a few. Hoping to see some of you there, whether in the UK or in France! Piano Holiday, Saint Laurent, France – July I shall be leading a brand new piano holiday in July in the beautiful surroundings of Saint Laurent, France. It will be tutored by myself, and hosted by Geoff and Penny Douglas. Saint Laurent 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 those not staying in the main venue, Le Bernet is 2km away. Perched on one of the slopes of the Volvestre, this former sheepfold awaits you at the end of a small path, and offers another breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside and the Pyrenees. This accommodation has a beautiful swimming pool, and includes a grand piano. This course will be centred around the piano, but our aim is to also enjoy what the local area has to offer – its cuisine and wine, as well as the beautiful countryside (there will be the opportunity for walking or resting as desired). 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 […]

Be Your Own Teacher

If you are a piano student taking regular lessons do you expect your teacher to do all the work, or do you take some initiative to solve problems yourself and to make your playing sound as good as you can? You will really accelerate your progress if you can get into the habit of listening to yourself critically, and what better way of doing it than recording yourself from time to time! You can of course record into a phone or tablet, or go with something fancier. If you have a digital piano, why not use the record and playback feature? I sometimes use my Casio grand hybrid for this purpose. What I like about it is it is so easy to use, and I get an honest and accurate playback of what I actually did, with no background noise, interference or distortion. What I hear back is what I delivered. It is helpful when you listen back to your recording to write down some reflections in bullet point form, remembering to include those things you were happy about as well as those things you notice need some improvement (it is all too easy to be self critical in a negative way). Unless you write it all down, you are likely to be overwhelmed and feel swamped. I prefer a simple practice checklist.  Recently I made a short series of videos for Casio and Pianist Magazine demonstrating some of the features of the grand hybrid piano. In the following video, I took an elementary piece (Petzold’s G major Minuet) in which I made a few deliberate mistakes (for the purposes of the demonstration). When I listened back, I reflected on what I had done by […]

Can Sight-Reading be Taught?

The Online Academy’s collaboration with the Read Ahead team is a very happy one for me, since I can heartily endorse the innovative programme they have created to help pianists develop their sight-reading skills. Today’s post is a guest post by Ken Johansen and Travis Hardaway from Read Ahead, and I shall now pass you over to them. ***   ***   *** Most piano teachers agree that fluent sight-reading is a very important skill, one that ideally all students should develop. Fluent readers are more at ease at the piano, learn music more quickly, have broader musical horizons, make music more often with others, and receive more opportunities to perform. The question is, how do we help our students to develop this fluency? We can start, first of all, by teaching them the skills that make good sight-reading possible. In reality, sight-reading is not one skill, but a set of several inter-related skills that include: scanning the score intelligently before starting, maintaining a steady pulse, keeping our eyes on the score, hearing the music in our minds, reading in groups of notes, looking ahead as we play, and simplifying the music when necessary. With the exception of the last one, these are all skills that apply not only to sight-reading, but also to learning repertoire. If we bring these elements into play at every lesson, in every piece the student learns, we will be teaching him or her not only the piece, but also the musical skills needed for fluent sight-reading. Of course, it is not enough to work on these skills solely on repertoire pieces, and only during the weekly lesson. Students must sight-read unfamiliar pieces regularly, not only at lessons, but at […]

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