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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 […]

New Piano Holiday in France

I am delighted to announce a brand new piano holiday this 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 (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. For full details and to register, please follow this link.     

Summer School for Pianists 2017

It is my privilege to have been invited back for the 6th consecutive year to the Summer School for Pianists, taking place at Wolverhampton University in Walsall this coming August, 12th-18th. If you are a pianist looking for a friendly, safe and supportive course then Walsall is for you. The six days are filled with classes, tutor piano recitals, student concerts and lecture-presentations by the tutors, with plenty of opportunities for socialising. If you don’t fancy participating, you may come as an observer – and there will be plenty to observe! Over the last 40 years, the Summer School for Pianists has established a central and unique position in the field. Combining a friendly atmosphere with musical expertise, the Summer School for Pianists has become an essential annual event for pianists of all levels. The superb facilities at the all-Steinway Performance Hub offer top-class concert instruments and plenty of practice rooms. The dates for this year are 12th – 18th August 2017, and our tutors are James Lisney, Christine Stevenson, Karl Lutchmayer, Ann Martin-Davis and myself. Some of the classes are already full, but there is a waiting list (people have been known to drop out for a variety of reasons) so it is worth applying. With freedom of movement between classes (you may drop in on any tutor’s classes whenever you wish), there’s always the opportunity hear what is going on in another tutor’s class, or to sign up for a private lesson with a tutor of your choice. For full details and how to apply, follow this link to the website

Exam Resources for Elementary Players

When I started this blog in 2011, I wanted to set out what I called The Practice Tools. These are universal principles for what we do when we practise, applicable to all ages and levels of ability no matter our pianistic heritage or technical approach. You could even think of these tools as techniques of learning. Even though I do not teach many beginners nowadays, I have taught plenty in the past – and continue to do so from time to time. Based on survey results and feedback I have had, there is a desire for more material in the Online Academy geared towards beginners and elementary level players and their teachers. I am happy to report my first offerings in this direction are coming soon! In this post, I offer a few suggestions regarding practice tools for elementary level players. Clapping and Counting Aloud Virtually everything we do at the piano is connected to a pulse. That includes scales, exercises, studies and what we do when we practise. In my work as a principal tutor on the Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK I notice that the trainee teachers do not help their pupil set the pulse before they play. It can be as simple as counting a bar or two, or clapping or snapping your fingers while speaking a few words rhythmically (…“can you hear the qua-ver beats?”). This should be done relentlessly before every activity until the pupil learns to do it for themselves. To make sure we are really feeling the rhythm, not just thinking it in our head, clapping and counting aloud is a great thing to do before we practise each phrase. Rhythmical errors can be fixed, or preempted, by clapping and counting aloud before […]

Raise the Bar Competition

It is with great pleasure that I announce the publication of a new series from Trinity College London for which I have written the teaching notes, called Raise the Bar. In the three volumes that comprise the series (from Initial to Grade 8), you will find collections of the most popular pieces from past Trinity grade exam syllabuses. There is a wide range of styles and genres included, and I have written a short teaching note for each. The series is designed to be used alongside exam preparation, and also for pleasure. Quick Studies I suggest another excellent use for the series. Players with weak reading skills often have good muscle memory, and can look away from the printed page quite early on in the note learning process. In itself, this is not a bad thing – at all! This is exactly what concert pianists aim to do, to get away from relying on reading the score at the keyboard as soon as possible. For younger or inexperienced pianists who take their eyes off the page before the notes have been properly learned, all sorts of mistakes creep in that may be really hard to eliminate later. A quick study not only forces the eye onto the page, it bolsters reading and musical comprehension skills. I suggest taking a piece a couple of levels below your playing ability and allotting a short period of time to learn and then play it. Teachers can assign three or four quick studies a term, perhaps giving the piece out the week before and spending a few moments in the next lesson hearing it (exploring one or two points that may arise). So, if you are a Grade 5 level player with weak reading skills, the […]

The Metronome: Friend or Foe?

Solving a problem at the piano may have nothing whatever to do with technique in the mechanical sense. To attempt to solve it by analysing physical movements, hand and arm positions and so on may well miss the point – entirely. Some weeks ago, a student came for a lesson on Mendelssohn’s Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, op. 14. He asked for some help on a passage he was struggling with – he just could not get it to sound and feel good no matter how much he practised it. It was the spot with the tenor melody, where the RH has the shimmering arpeggio patterns up and down above it: We had to start somewhere, so I asked him to back up a little to where the music slips into G major for this brief lyrical interlude (marked con anima, which to me means “with soul; with feeling”). After he played, it was clear that he had worked hard on the RH arpeggios (these were bang in time and were working well), but he had not focussed much attention on the single most important element of this passage, the melodic line itself. This is the Mona Lisa of this particular picture – everything else is subservient to the shaping, breathing and projection of this line and to find out how it works it first has to be sung. I’m no singer but I don’t mind having a go; I won’t make students sing during a piano lesson unless they are completely up for it, but I will suggest they go home and do so. Singing a melodic line expressively and to the best of our ability allows us to discover the high and low points of intensity, the forward and backward directions […]

Most Popular Posts of 2015

Today is the last day of 2015, and I want to wish all my readers a very happy and peaceful New Year. I thought I would sign off the year with a listing of the most popular posts in 2015 (as opposed to those actually posted in 2015!), which had over 25,000 unique page views between them:   The 20 Minute Practice Session (click here) “But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!” (click here) A Daisy Chain (click here)       How to Begin a New Piece: Part 1 (Part of a six post series) (click here)   Structuring Your Practice (click here) Pianissimo! (click here) Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice (click here) Freeing Up Space (click here) How to Begin a New Piece: Guest Post (part of a six post series) (click here) Flexibility in Interpretation (click here) New Year’s Eve is forever associated in my mind with Viennese music, and what better example for the piano than the Strauss/Schulz-Evler Concert Arabesques on The Beautiful Blue Danube, beautifully played here by Benjamin Grosvenor.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

It’s years since I last saw The Wizard of Oz. Remember the story? The Good Witch of the North tells the heroine, Dorothy, the only way she can get back home after the tornado is to go to the Emerald City and ask the Wizard for help. She has to follow the Yellow Brick Road to get there. Trouble is, there’s a place where the Yellow Brick Road divides into two, and Dorothy gets awfully confused which fork to take. Fortunately, there is a scarecrow on site who offers some counsel. There are musical equivalents of this confusing divide, where disaster may strike if we take the wrong turning. I once heard a young pianist do just this during her encore – Chopin’s E minor Waltz. After the introduction, this opening phrase recurs 7 times – if you play the repeat (please imagine a key signature of 1 sharp). It was terribly unfortunate that after the brief introduction the young lady went instead to the second version of this theme, which ends in a dramatic interrupted cadence that compels the player forwards into the coda. After you’ve gone here, there really is no turning back. Poor soul – instead of the piece lasting 2 or 3 minutes, it lasted just a few seconds! Our pieces are full of such forks in the road, and it really helps avert disaster if we can identify them and take certain steps in our practice to prepare ourselves. Let’s look at a passage from the Grieg Nocturne, when the A section returns. The phrase begins identically to the when it first appeared, but this time Grieg adds an extra bar to make a sequence – so he can extend the phrase and […]

A Daisy Chain

On a grass verge near my house, hundreds of wild daisies have come into flower. Walking past just now I remembered a school trip from my single-digit years when our class teacher showed us how to make a daisy chain by pinching a small thumbnail slit in the stem and threading another daisy through. Our class managed to decimate an entire meadow full of the things. “Daisy chain” by User Ecrips on en.wikipedia – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. I am sure you must be wondering what all this has to do with piano practice – don’t worry, I’m slowly coming to it… A very keen adult amateur pianist came to me for a consultation lesson the other day, and among other things she brought along Shostakovich’s Prelude in D flat (no. 15 from the op. 34 set of 24 Preludes) -.an eccentric, skittish sort of waltz currently on the ABRSM syllabus for Grade 7. Here is Shostakovich himself playing it: Despite having been playing this piece for quite some time, she told me she was frustrated that she was still too involved in the process of reading it. Her eyes were glued to the score as she negotiated the chromatic meanderings of Shostakovich’s zigzagging lines, and she couldn’t seem to trust herself to let go and enjoy the piece or appreciate its humour. As a busy professional, she admitted she had precious little time and energy for her piano practice yet despite having put some time in on this piece she was frustrated that it didn’t seem to be getting better. The Repeated Read-Through Method I could see she had been approaching her practice using the repeated read-through method. The logic behind this […]