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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 […]

On Demonstration

There are those teachers who demonstrate for their students all the time in piano lessons, and those others who don’t go near the instrument. I have studied with both types. Does a demonstration necessarily have to be a perfect model though, to be listened to reverentially and copied verbatim? Or might a teacher’s hands on the keyboard serve other purposes? To illustrate different ways of practising, or to give various suggestions as to how a phrase might be shaped, or indeed how not to do something? In his interview with Frederic Gaussin for iplaythepiano.com Yevgeny Kissin reminisces about his teacher, Alice Kantor. Mrs. Kantor never played herself during her lessons. She never voluntarily played piano, for me or her other students. In studio classes, she never demonstrated herself what she expected from us, simply because she didn’t want us to mimic her. Mrs. Kantor only used verbal cues. Her teaching was entirely passed on through speech. And everyone, every single student, kept their own demeanor, their particular manner. Regarding this last point, I knew – and I knew this even at the time – that this was not necessarily the case in other schools. For me the term “demonstration” does not capture what’s really going on, it feels way too pretentious. I like to think of what I do at the piano in a lesson as an extension of speech, a soundtrack over what I am saying. The Dangers of Copying Have you noticed how listening to a recording of a great artist playing a piece you are learning can immediately change your own playing? The danger of listening to recordings is that you can easily end up copying without developing your own authentic ideas about the […]

Eunice Norton on Schnabel and Matthay

It can be awe-inspiring to talk to someone who studied with a legendary musician about their personal memories, anecdotes and experiences of their lessons. I have a particular fascination with two great figures from the past who contributed so much to the legacy of piano playing – Tobias Matthay and Artur Schnabel. It was a great privilege to have participated in Leon Fleisher‘s weekly piano classes for piano majors at Peabody during my year there in 1982, and to have received so much of Schnabel‘s wisdom (Fleisher is connected via Schnabel to a tradition that descended directly from Beethoven himself, handed down through Carl Czerny and Theodor Leschetizky). A student of both Schnabel and Matthay was American pianist Eunice Norton (1908 – 2005). She studied as a child at the University of Minnesota with William Lindsay, who later introduced her to Dame Myra Hess. Hess was so impressed with the 15-year-old Norton’s playing that she arranged for her to study in London in 1923 with Hess’s own mentor, Tobias Matthay, with whom Norton would remain in association for 8 years. A glittering career then followed. A decade later she heard Schnabel’s performances of Beethoven’s sonatas and spent three successive seasons under his tutelage in Berlin and Italy, and later enjoyed many rewarding years of friendship and association with him. Fortunately, Eunice Norton has documented her experiences with both Matthay and Schnabel in a series of extended video lecture-demonstrations, and there is a substantial archive of her work available on this YouTube channel. Schnabel (Part 1 of 18) Matthay (Part 1 of 10) There is a little book I can highly recommend to anyone playing music from the mainstream classical period, and that is Schnabel’s Interpretation of Piano Music by Konrad […]

The Mysterious Ending of Mozart’s D minor Fantasy

Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor, K. 397, is one of his most popular and accessible works for the piano. It may surprise you to learn that Mozart left it unfinished (his manuscript stops on a dominant 7th chord in bar 97), and that the ending we all grew up with was probably finished by August Eberhard Müller. Scholars believe Mozart might have intended to write something else in conclusion, possibly a fugue, but mystery still surrounds his plans for the work. The idea of a fugue is a distinct possibility as there is a precedent, the Fantasy and Fugue in C minor, K. 394, written around the same time (1792). Here it is (with rolling score) played by Gianluca Cascioli in a performance that shows great attention to the composer’s articulation markings but without sounding at all dry or pedantic. If you are looking for an interesting alternative to a Bach Prelude and Fugue, you might want to consider this piece. Returning to the D minor Fantasy, many listeners are startled to hear what Mitsuko Uchida does at the point Mozart left off. Rather than finish with the traditional ending (we can’t be 100% sure it was by Müller, but we know it wasn’t by Mozart), she feels justified in coming up with her own ending. And fascinating it is too (listen from 5:50)! If you would like to delve further into the story of the D minor Fantasy, Ephraim Hackmey’s thesis is well worth reading. I have made my own walkthrough of the piece for the Online Academy, giving suggestions for pedalling, articulation and practice. Here is a short excerpt, focussing on the Adagio. Click here to view the complete video on the Online Academy (requires login or sign-up) […]

Practice Tips from Itzhak Perlman

There are many parallels between piano playing and string playing, and a lot we pianists can learn from violinists about phrasing, timing, tone and much more besides. One of the great violinists of our age is undoubtedly Itzhak Perlman, who has spoken a fair bit about practising. The violin, that is. But I think you’ll find you can apply the same ideas to your piano practice, and I am delighted to be able to share some of the maestro’s pearls of wisdom here today. As it happens these ideas, which come from experience and the great lineage he has come from, are almost identical to the ones I have inherited from my rich pianistic legacy. What’s the deal about practising? How long should one practise? Lots of people think the more you practise the better this is. Perlman advocates no more than 4 or 5 hours a day (and those are psychotherapist’s hours, 50 minutes with a 10 minute break). You won’t absorb anything after this, and you can cause yourself little physical problems if you persist. Think of a sponge, which can only absorb a certain amount of water. If you pour more water onto a saturated sponge the water will trickle off and become wasted. On Slow Practice Perlman stresses the need for slow practice, in small sections. Also, your practice has to be mindful, not mindless. Have an agenda, and know what you want to achieve. Don’t repeat anything without hearing what you’re doing, because whatever you practise you embed. It’s also important to have patience. If something sounds great on Monday, and it doesn not sound so good on Tuesday, don’t give up! It means that it’s not yet there. Keep […]

An Interview with Nicola Cantan

A few weeks ago I had a visit from Nicola Cantan of Colourful Keys to record an interview with me for her blog. We spent a very pleasant half hour or so chatting about teaching, practising and performing and I thought I would share the video with you here. You’ll notice it is audio only for the first few minutes (there was a technological glitch with Nicola’s camera) but the picture does appear after a while – so stick with it! There are several things Nicola and I discussed that I have written about in my blog, so if you would like to read more about practising then start clicking these links. Speed of No Mistakes  Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice  Quarantine  Part 1 of my ebook series Practising the Piano is all about practising – exactly what we should be doing in our practice time to get the very best results. If you have not already seen this, then do check out the free preview. Nicola Cantan is a piano teacher, author, blogger and creator of imaginative and engaging teaching resources. She loves getting piano students learning through laughter, and exploring the diverse world of music making; through improvisation, composition and games. Nicola’s Vibrant Music Teaching Library is helping teachers all over the world to include more games and off-bench activities in their lessons, so that their students giggle their way through music theory and make faster progress. Nicola also runs a popular blog, Colourful Keys, where she shares creative ideas and teaching strategies, and hosts regular training events for piano teachers. ***   ***   *** If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in the following resources: Practising the Piano eBook Series  There are surprisingly few books […]

Shifting Accents

I was brought up with a very craftsmanlike attitude to practising, and was shown concrete practice tools that I was supposed to implement between lessons. When I pass these on to my own students, I can always hear to what extent they have taken them on board. I understand the reluctance to fully embrace some of the work necessary to construct solid and permanent foundations for mastering a piece because it can take quite a bit of time and effort, and a leap of faith that the practice methods will actually yield tangible results later. And sometimes during this process we have to wait patiently before we get to enjoy the emotional and visceral impact of the music we are studying – at this stage, the satisfaction comes from the construction process itself. I find this seriously enjoyable, but I realise not everyone does. People study the piano for different reasons, and not everyone will want to follow a practice path that involves a fair bit of dedication, discipline and effort. But if you want to experience a level of skill and reliability in performance that goes way beyond the hit-and-miss results that come from repeatedly reading through a piece in the hope that it will improve, then read on. I was browsing through Book 1 of Alberto Jonas’ Master School of Piano Playing and Virtuosity and came across some preparatory exercises for the notorious finale of Chopin’s Bb minor Sonata. The idea is very simple, actually. You practise with shifting accents, moving the accent from its metrical place in the bar (where we would naturally feel the beats) one note across. Once you have heard and felt it this way, with complete technical control, you move it […]

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