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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 […]

On Practice versus Playing Through

I am republishing this relatively recent post (from March, 2017) because I think it is crucial to keep reminding ourselves that playing through a piece is a different activity from actual practice, and that we need to regularly maintain a piece we want to keep in our repertoire using many of the same practice tools we used when we first learned it. ***   ***   *** Have you considered the differences between sitting down at the piano and playing through your pieces and the processes of practising? The first situation might feel rather like taking a pleasant drive in the countryside. If your car is in good shape (the battery charged and the tanks full of the various fluids car tanks are supposed to be full of), you won’t have to worry about anything. You will of course need to keep your eye on the road, but you’ll just be coasting along admiring the view and enjoying the time out. I find the distinction between cruising around the piano for fun and serious practice is something I need to point out, regularly. If you are the sort of player who wants to sit at the piano and play for pleasure, you will probably notice a certain frustration after a while that your pieces don’t seem to be getting any better, or that a piece you used to be able to play well is now actually getting worse. You may well discover that on one day your playing flows beautifully and it all feels easy, but on the next day it all falls apart – as though you didn’t know the piece at all. Why is this? I can always hear when someone has been rattling through their […]

Top Tips for Choosing Fingering

If you are a serious student of the piano you will certainly want to use an Urtext edition where applicable. Some Urtext scores come with no fingering, but others contain fingerings that are by an editor. The fingerings might be excellent (they often are not, by the way), but because this is one level of the score that is not usually Urtext (namely from the composer) they do not have to be obeyed. What about fingerings that do come from the composers themselves – are we duty-bound to stick to these? Absolutely not! The composer’s hand was also unique, just like yours and mine. There can be no standardisation of fingering, no matter whether it is from the composer, an editor, or a teacher. The only correct fingering is the one that works for your hand. Fingering in any score is a suggestion only! Once a fingering has been selected, practising always with that fingering means that after a while the series of finger strokes will become automated – we will not have to think about which finger goes where because when we master a new motor skill, we go from active effort (thinking and concentrating) to automatic ability. If we haven’t taken the trouble to organise a good fingering or we practise with different fingerings each time, we make life difficult for ourselves – especially if we are preparing a memorised performance. Practice makes permanent, so whatever we engrave on our motor cortex is going to stick. This is why it is very difficult to correct embedded errors later – and this includes sloppy fingering. I have just written three articles on fingering for Pianist Magazine – the first two are already published, and the third (on redistribution) […]

Flexibility in Pulse

I heard Chopin’s beautiful Waltz in A minor in a class the other day. The basic feeling, tempo, balance between the hands and the pedalling were extremely good, and there were some lovely sounds. But I was struck by how straightjacketed the performance felt to me from a rhythmical perspective. When I asked if he had been using a metronome, he told me he had been practising on a digital piano with a waltz backing track. Doing this regularly had completely ironed out any sense of natural phrasing and timing, and the sort of gentle ebb-and-flow rubato this piece needs to bring it to life in performance. When I was a boy, fascinated with music and how it all worked, I once tried to synchronise the new metronome I was given for Christmas with an LP recording – just to check whether whoever was playing was doing so in time, since this was stressed as being very important by my teacher. I had a few LP vinyl records at that stage, but no matter which recording I used I was unable to get the metronome to line up with the beats from the record for more than a bar or so. Naturally I assumed it was my metronome that was faulty, and thought of asking for it to be fixed, or swapped for one that worked properly. I didn’t know at the time that no artistic performance of any piece of music could be bound to a fixed beat, rigidly applied. You’re probably thinking – sure, Romantic period music would obviously make no sense when played against a metronome but anything Baroque would synch up, wouldn’t it? Certainly so strict-looking a page of semiquavers as […]

Virtuosic Pedalling

Are you squeamish about using the soft pedal? Some players never venture there, because at some point their teacher has told them they need to be able to control soft playing by hand – and if they resort to the soft pedal they will soon come to use it as a crutch and will have no control of their sound. Those who fear their playing is disturbing others often seem to slam down the soft pedal at the start of a practice session and leave it there until they are done. They have set up such a strong reflex that their left foot just goes there automatically, no matter the piano or the situation. The effect is to muffle the sound and remove clarity and focus, a bit like someone apologetically covering their mouth as they speak. This is not good for general, habitual use at all but is a wonderful resource if it’s the sound you’re after for a particular effect. Have you stopped to consider that every single piano in the world comes equipped with a soft pedal, from the humblest upright to the mightiest concert grand? A muting device was even included on the earliest pianos (at that stage a hand stop), and in more recent developments from Fazioli we now have fourth pedal to the left of the others on the F308 model. The new pedal reduces the hammer-blow distance, thus reducing the volume without modifying the timbre (akin to the mechanics of the soft pedal on an upright piano). One might deduce from all of this that the soft pedal is here to stay – and is certainly there to be used. There is a fascinating new video just out from Frederic […]

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