Pedalling by Hand

I first published this article in 2016. Now that I have made a new video demonstrating the differences between the Couperin piece in his original notation versus what we see in the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook, I decided to republish. I hope this subject will be food for thought, leading to some experimentation with finger pedalling as an added means of creating resonance. ***   ***   *** Pianists have always felt that the music of J S Bach is accessible to them. The Early Music Movement (1970s wave) did put some pressure on those of us who presented Bach’s music to do so in particular ways that were perhaps more suitable to the instruments of his day than our mighty grand pianos, but fortunately the greatness of the music transcends the medium – harpsichord, piano, synthesiser, whatever. The perennial question of pedal always comes up when discussing Bach style on the piano. The argument goes that, because Bach’s instruments were not equipped with any sustaining mechanism, we should steer clear of our right pedal (for some players this means completely). “The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation. Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility, and one can only create an illusion of achieving it. To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well […]

Hands Separately Practice – Useful or Not?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could assimilate a new score by reading the piece through a few times, perhaps stopping to sort out some fingering here and there, and unravelling the odd problematic spot as you go. A few practices and you’ve got it. You’ll probably find you can learn like this with music that is well below your current standard, but if you’re approaching a more complex piece that is not so readable you’re going to need to break it down to learn it properly. If you are planning to play the piece from memory, it’s absolutely essential to learn it extremely thoroughly from the very start – a process that takes time, commitment and patience. I have come up with an easy-to-remember term for the most basic practice strategies we use when breaking a piece down – “The Three S’s” (slowly, separately and sections). We first work at the speed of no mistakes – slowly enough to give us ample thinking and planning time between one note and the next, avoiding to the best of our ability ingraining any wrong notes, faulty rhythms or fingerings we won’t end up using. We absorb the music by repeating and finessing small sections until our mind and ear have fully digested what is going on, and until the physical movements we use at the keyboard have become automated (meaning we don’t have to think consciously about which finger goes where). Because it is often simply not possible to play both hands together reliably and accurately at the start of the learning process, we practise each hand separately out of sheer necessity. Even though most piano teachers seem to advocate separate-hand practice, there are some who believe it is not helpful beyond the elementary level. […]

On Rhythm: Classical v Romantic

Have you considered there might be a different way of playing rhythmically depending on the style period? I’m not talking about rhythmic conventions (such as double dotting, rhythmic assimilation, etc.), but how we organise the relationships between long and short notes, where we might take time, and where to do so would disturb the music. Leon Fleisher explains this beautifully using the famous theme from the 18th Variation from Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. He plays it in two ways – one Romantic (the way this piece should of course be done), and the other Classical (to illustrate his point). This sort of rhythmic articulation and shaping is a million miles away from the tyranny of the metronomic beat. As I have discussed before, too much metronome practice will tend to kill natural rhythm – but as I eavesdrop in institutional practice room corridors I am struck by how many pianists are using it as the backbone of their daily practice. While there are some effective ways of using this tool, coinciding each beat of the music to a metronome click is a very good way of filling in practice time without necessarily achieving anything helpful at all. We’ve all experienced how occasional, focussed metronome practice can help stabilise a wayward pulse by drawing attention to those places where we might be rushing or dawdling, but we have to be very careful about this or we risk ending up flattening out the natural ebb and flow of the music until we sound like a robot. Consider the opening of Schubert’s first Moment Musical in C, op 94 no 1. Marked Moderato, this looks like it should be played pretty much in time, right? I sampled 5 random elite recordings from YouTube, and found that […]

Burgmüller’s Op 100 Studies on the Online Academy

One of the most popular series on the Online Academy is my exploration of Burgmüller’s set of studies, the Easy and Progressive Études, op 100. What makes these little pieces so special? Pitched at the elementary-intermediate level player, they fulfil all the requirements of what a study should be: Descriptive titles that inspire the imagination Technique that serves a musical goal Short and to the point Useful as a way to learn harmony, as well as form and structure The problem with many of the didactic études served up to young pianists through the centuries is just how dry, boring and repetitive they are. Instead of inspiring players to practise, they have deadened their spirits. I’ve noticed how many youngsters are drawn to Burgmüller’s op 100 – they still sound fresh, and are immediately engaging. In my series I take each étude in turn, giving a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough that highlights the learning outcomes and offers advice on the technical aspects as well as how we might practise. We’ve recorded the whole set, and are busy releasing them one by one each week. So far we have reached No. 11, and you can find details of the series by clicking here. The studies are progressive in their difficulty, ranging from approximately ABRSM Grade II at the start to approximately Grade V by the end. A good New Year’s resolution might be to learn the whole set over the course of the year – you will amass 25 studies you can draw on as part of your daily practice! Once you have learned them, you might choose three or four to practise for a week or so at a time before moving on […]

How Slow is Slow?

How much notice should we take of a composer’s metronome markings, and how do we decide the tempo of a work that contains neither a metronome mark nor a tempo or character description? Is it carte blanche? The Dolmetsch site has plenty of very helpful information on the various indications we find throughout musical history, particularly useful when we are dealing with baroque dances or dance-like pieces that would fall into a specific category. Did you realise that in 1703 France the menuet was a very merry dance, whereas in 1750 France it became noble and elegant, moderate rather than fast? Neither did I until I looked it up. But what about Bartók’s ultra-precise metronome markings and timings at the end of a work? Surely these are too fastidious and deliberate to ignore? Bartók’s student György Sándor explains all this in an interview with Bruce Duffie: GS: “Why did he [Bartók] write so precisely the metronome signs; why did he write so precisely the duration of the piece?”  That’s simply because in those days when he wrote his music, nobody knew a thing about his style; they didn’t know what to do with it at all!  So he had to write a lot of information.  But when he played those pieces which he marked so very carefully he played them completely differently! BD:  So he assumed that any performer who got under the skin of the music would then make it his own and take it beyond the printed page? GS:  Just like any other music!  Just like with any other music!  Very often he wrote down exact metronome markings, and he played those totally differently.  A very good example is the First Piano Concerto.  I happened to […]

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

Pedalling for Resonance

In the days before the piano was invented, harpsichordists did not have any sort of sustaining device and so created resonance using the technique of overholding (or finger pedalling). On a harpsichord (just like on a piano) holding onto a key with a finger ensures the damper associated with that key remains in the up position, allowing the string to resonate. Sometimes composers wrote finger pedalling out, other times they assumed the player would just do it anyway. Here is an example of the former, scrupulously notated by François Couperin in his Les Barricades Mystérieuses. A universal tendency I have noticed among piano students is the missed opportunity for resonance in a piece that requires pedal from the start. What is the point of putting the pedal down only after you have played the first chord, when putting it down beforehand opens up the instrument for maximum resonance immediately the hammers hit the strings? Take the opening of the Grieg Concerto. If the pedal is down before you play the opening chord, then the whole instrument resonates at the start of the sound. Try it for yourself – play the chord without the pedal and you will get a very dry result, since only four dampers will be raised (the RH notes in that particular chord are too high even to need dampers). If you pedal just after the chord, you will miss the full resonance. Instead of an explosive accent, you get a sort of hairpin crescendo. With the pedal down before, all the dampers are raised and the whole instrument can resonate. I have recently published a video walkthrough on the Rachmaninov Prelude in C# minor on the Online Academy, here is a short […]

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 […]

On Rhythm: How to Develop a Steady Pulse  

I decided to put together an occasional series on rhythm, in response to readers who say they experience rhythmical issues when they play. There are many factors that may contribute to this problem, and I am going to cover one point at a time. Welcome to the first post in this series, on the importance of setting and maintaining a steady beat. I can’t think of many activities we do at the piano that are not connected to a pulse, therefore establishing and maintaining the pulse should be the first priority in all we do. This demands special attention during our practice when we are stopping and restarting. At the elementary level it’s the job of the teacher to set the pulse in lessons by counting out aloud energetically one or two bars before every scale, before every piece, and before every time a passage is repeated. After a while, the pupil is invited to set their own pulse by counting out aloud before they play. Laborious? A bit, but well worth the effort. In this way the process becomes internalised, and happens as second nature. Clapping to the Metronome How good are you at maintaining a steady beat? In this metronome experiment, continue to clap the beats when the metronome suddenly drops out. Can you maintain the pulse? Find out here… And now for another exercise. Set a metronome to whatever speed you like, and clap so that your claps drown out the sound of the metronome. If you hear the metronome, the chances are that your clap is a bit before or after the beat. Clapping is just one way of responding to the pulse, but notice how in this Dalcroze Eurhythmics class […]

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 […]

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