Uncategorized

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 […]

Freeing Up Space

I have had quite a lot of feedback from last week’s post on the benefits of speaking aloud to ourself as we practise – it seems that many of us do it! Just after I hit the “publish” button I remembered two other uses for the voice in our practice. I could have simply added these to what I had already written but decided to make a separate post, since there was quite a bit more to say – here it is! I think we would all agree that playing the piano is a complex mental and motor activity, one that takes a lot of application, dedication and perseverance to master. I work with some students who are incredibly coordinated at the piano and experience very little technical difficulty. After careful guidance and detailed instruction, these fortunate players get it relatively quickly and easily. For others acquiring these skills is time-consuming and more of a process – much depends on how the individual is wired. If you find you still struggle with a passage even after careful practice, or if you just want to dig a bit deeper for greater understanding and security, there is a process you can use that I learned from Leon Fleisher – counting aloud. Counting Aloud Main Beats and Subdivisions I have mentioned before on this blog and elsewhere that one of the highlights of my musical education was Leon Fleisher’s weekly class for piano majors at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He mentioned on more than one occasion that we should practise counting out aloud. The effort and concentration needed to accomplish this extra task takes more brain power than we require for the playing alone, so that when we stop the counting we find […]

Thinking Aloud

The first time I listened to a recording of Glenn Gould it was late evening and I was alone in the house. I swore I could hear someone singing along from the kitchen. I even ventured there, fearing an intruder had fallen under the spell of the music and had joined in with it. After a few minutes of unease, I finally realised my stereo system was playing tricks on me – the singing was coming from the recording and the pianist himself was the culprit. I encourage my students to sing all the time, to feel the direction of a line and also where the high points, low points and breathing places are. When it comes to shaping a melodic line, I find the voice never lies (no matter how croaky or unappealing you think you sound). Try conducting, and even moving around the room too – use as much of yourself as possible before relegating the job to your hands. But by doing this will I accidentally sing when I perform? I believe most people have a built-in mechanism for switching this voice off when they are actually performing, because this is rather important. I shall assume this to be the case as I write my post today. Memorisation In addition to singing, I have found thinking aloud as I practise can be extremely beneficial. The idea came to me years ago when I was memorising a particularly complex work – there was a section that my brain couldn’t seem to grasp despite having done a thorough harmonic analysis and found plenty of memory cues. In frustration, I found myself slowing down the tempo and calling out the chord labels and memory cues just before I […]

The Summer School for Pianists

Over the past 40 years, the Summer School for Pianists has established a unique place amongst an ever-growing number of summer schools being held each year throughout the British Isles. It combines an atmosphere of friendliness with musical expertise, creating a most positive and rewarding week. Within the state-of-the art setting of the Performance Hub in Walsall, people of a very wide range of pianistic levels can meet and enjoy all that’s good about music-making, without any unhealthy competitiveness or feeling of inadequacy. Participants return year after year to this keenly anticipated annual event. A warm welcome, studies with leading experts, plenty of practice pianos at this All Steinway School, good food and accommodation, recitals by tutors and students, and a final gala dinner and barn dance make the week very special indeed. I count myself privileged to have been on the tutoring staff since 2012, and always enjoy the week enormously. Tutor Recitals There are five of us tutors – James Lisney, Christine Stevenson, Karl Lutchmayer, Lauretta Bloomer and myself. After the day’s classes there is an evening recital given by each of the tutors in turn. The tutor recitals this year will be particularly varied,with repertoire drawn from Couperin, Beethoven,Schubert, Brahms, Liszt, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Medtner, Sorabji, Godowsky, Debussy and Busoni. After the recitals we tend to gather in the bar for drinks and conversation – those who play jazz and light music often find their way to the grand piano in the corner there to entertain all of us further. Classes If you are worried about the classes being full of whizz-kids, let me allay your fears immediately! The classes are of mixed ability. All you have to do is to bring along three well-prepared […]

The Practice Tools Workshops

Piano playing and piano teaching can be lonely, solitary activities and it is all too easy to feel isolated and cut off from peers and colleagues. There is something very powerful about the energy of a group of people gathered together for a common purpose, which is why I am excited to announce the launch of a short series of two workshops in London in June and November of this year on The Practice Tools. If there is enough interest, I intend to run a longer series of workshops in London next year, and to bring them to other parts of the country. Because I want to give everyone the chance to ask questions and/or get up and try out some of the practice tools themselves, I am going to limit the numbers to 25 per class. For full details of the workshops, please follow this link (click here) The Practice Tools So what exactly are The Practice Tools? I once had a colleague who was a marvellous pianist, and expected a lot from her students. Quite right! If the student came in unprepared, she would literally throw the book at her and tell her to “GO PRACTISE!”. I ran into one of her poor students in the hallway one day, and asked him why he was looking so distressed. It turned out he was quite willing to put in the daily graft, but he didn’t know how to practise. When he sat in his practice room he had no clue what he was actually supposed to be doing so naturally he wasted an awful lot of time because his labour ended up being unproductive. This caused him frustration and led to a downward spiral […]

Five Tips for a Flatter Finger

I have just returned from a weekend’s tutoring on The Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK, where I am one of a small team of principal tutors responsible for delivering the nation’s flagship training course for piano teachers (either those starting out in the profession or experienced ones in need of a refresher). I always return from our residential weekends and one-day events inspired and energised. Included in my duties this weekend were two workshops on style and interpretation – one on Baroque repertoire, the other on Romantic. In the Baroque workshop we had a lovely Flemish-style harpsichord in addition to the regular Steinway D grand, and I was able to brush up on my rusty harpsichord skills to demonstrate how to play expressively on the Baroque instrument using articulation and overlapping touches. This brief reacquaintance with the harpsichord made me realise how much I miss playing it. Some of the class elected to play their piece on the harpsichord. I suggested to the person who brought Bach’s G minor Sinfonia she could play the downbeat in bar 2 more expressively by making the tiniest gap just before it (between the G and the F). Everyone’s face lit up when she found it worked. Never let anyone tell you the harpsichord is incapable of expression – it is the most noble and beautiful instrument, and when played well it will draw you right in. In the Romantic workshop (back on the piano, of course) I found myself wanting not only much more projection from melody lines, but also a warmer and rounder tone quality. Most of the time, we pianists aim to make our percussion instrument sing by artful illusion – replicating the timings, intonations and colourings of […]

Changing Our Mind

Piano performance is far from easy, and there will be setbacks as well as rewards along the way. Strong emotions such as excitement and disappointment are part of the story. For performance to be successful, our goals need to be realistic and achievable – and we need a detailed plan in place to realise them. Unwavering commitment is a prerequisite, as is intense concentration in the practice room. Some players are adrenaline junkies and relish being on the stage, but others are less confident. For them, how do we deal with the drop-off in quality from practice room to concert stage or examination room? Traditionally, we have been taught to over-practise and prepare ourselves to be 150% ready (knowing that 50% is going to fall away as soon as we walk onto the stage). I’ve said it time and time again, but I don’t mind saying it again – there is no substitute for solid, thorough and painstaking preparation.  But it is possible to over-practise, and when this happens we risk not only things getting stale but also a type of overuse where the playing starts to get ropey and ragged, as though it has gone passed its prime. Nobody has time to waste, so let’s aim to practise enough to get the job done but still keep the piece sounding and feeling fresh. Positive Self-Talk If we tend to over-prepare, might this be because we fundamentally doubt our abilities? Perhaps we don’t trust ourselves, or don’t believe that our work can ever be enough. These negative thoughts may be so habitual that we don’t even know we are thinking them, little realising that they are actually running (and ruining) the show from a distant hum […]

Fancy Footwork – Pedalling Resources

I have just written a series of three articles on pedalling for Pianist Magazine, the first of these (Issue 83) hit the newsstands this week and should be available internationally.  The videos that accompany the first article are on Pianist’s YouTube channel already, so I thought I would share them with you here and offer a few additional resources on the subject of pedalling. I had the idea of a designated camera locked onto a section of dampers for close-up shots of flutter and fractional pedalling. We called this the dampercam – I don’t think it has ever been done before! I was very pleased to be able to demonstrate these advanced techniques, and watching the footage (no pun intended) surprised me because I myself had never seen the dampers working in this way before. Pedalling Waltz Accompaniments Chopin’s pedal markings are examples of rhythmic (direct) pedalling, where the hands and foot are synchronised to go down and come up together. This may surprise you, but syncopated (legato) pedalling did not come into general use until Anton Rubinstein started doing it – in the second part of the 19th century! Liszt said the discovery of syncopated pedal was “the most important event in the history of piano playing”. Most pianists nowadays wouldn’t think to take Chopin’s pedal markings literally in all instances. I have just checked this out by listening to recordings of celebrated pianists playing the opening of the B minor Waltz, op 69 no. 2, and everyone pedals it slightly differently. Pedalling depends on personal choice and the resonance of particular pianos and performance spaces. It is often not possible to say precisely how we will pedal because it will vary. In the first video, […]

Pianissimo!

The first time I heard Vladimir Horowitz in recital his vast dynamic range and the incredible array of sounds and colours he managed to produce from the piano made a huge impression on me. When we perform, our playing will have far greater range and expressive power if we are able to control the instrument from the slightest whisper in pianissimo to the most sonorous and mighty fortissimo with all gradations in between (is your mezzo piano discernably different in character from your mezzo forte)? We’ll be able to do much more with the music if our sound reflects all the dynamic levels that composers demand from us (whether these are marked in the score or not) and from the sounds we hear in our imagination. Tone is hardest to control at either end of the dynamic spectrum, with really soft playing demanding the most control. Isn’t it ironic that listeners tend to equate virtuosity with loud and fast playing, whereas control of tone in pianisissmo is in many ways as demanding technically? It is actually not that hard to produce loud sounds on the piano – keeping the tone good is another matter. When things are not working as they should be, soft playing can end up sounding wispy, unfocussed and threadbare and the loudest playing noisy, monochrome and ugly. In this post, I would like to look at the ingredients of pianissimo playing because I highly recommend practising at this level of sound very regularly. Pianissimo I would like to dispel the myth that soft playing somehow equates to weakness. Unless I am creating a special impressionistic effect, a kind of intentional transparent mistiness, I will still need to send the key from top […]