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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 […]

At the Noodle Bar: Practice Tips for a Chord Stream

I have just featured the hauntingly beautiful B minor Intermezzo of Brahms (from the op 119 set) in a series of video demonstrations for Trinity College London on their new piano syllabus. This work appears in the Grade 8 list and will pose some challenges to the candidates who choose to master it, mostly to do with finding the right sound. It’s the change of texture in the second section in D major that I am interested in today (at the end of the first system after the double bar). I am struck by how Brahms lays out the RH chords by first presenting the middle notes, tying them over and then adding the outer notes. Apart from supplying rhythmic flow this way of breaking the chords encourages us not to voice too brightly to the top but to find a chocolatey warmth and richness for our sound from the middle notes. Staggering the chord layout is of course a great way to practise any chord stream. Practising chords from the inside out and from the outside in helps us achieve superlative tonal and technical control. I have been doing this for years and my students find it works wonders for them. I have chosen just one short example to take to the noodle bar today, a tricky LH chord stream from the Ravel Sonatine (bars 54 and 55). Online Academy’s Study Edition I have published a study edition of Ravel’s Sonatine, available through the Online Academy. It features video clips demonstrating various features of the work, together with footnotes, video walkthroughs and score examples with exercises. I hope you will it a valuable resource as you practise this piece. For details, follow this link ***   ***   *** […]

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

I am very happy to announce a new publication for the Online Academy – a study edition of Debussy’s Prelude La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair). This is among Debussy’s best-loved works for the piano, and a piece many pianists choose to play. Despite its apparent simplicity, this short 39-bar piece is actually deceptively difficult to bring off. My enhanced study edition aims to give practical solutions to the numerous problems in pedalling the work poses, together with fingerings and exercises that will make some of the more awkward passages much easier to manage. The study score contains comprehensive footnotes with text and musical examples; there are also short video clips you can view by scanning the QR codes with your phone as you practise. The title La fille aux cheveux de lin came from Leconte de Lisle’s poem by the same name, included in the Chansons ecossaises (Scottish Songs) from 1852. In this, the eighth piece from the first book of Préludes composed around 1910, Debussy is painting a picture of an innocent and naive Scottish girl. He uses conventional diatonic harmony blended in with pentatonic scales, modal cadences as well as parallel chord movement. As in all the preludes, the title comes at the end of the piece, in brackets. It is as though Debussy wanted the listener to form their own impressions of the music first – unencumbered by any preconceptions. Debussy’s own style of playing was based on simplicity; it was unmannered and free of rhythmic distortions. French music of this period requires a style of playing that is in general much cooler and more objective than Germanic music, for example. We should guard against romanticising the piece by not adding extra rubato – Debussy marks […]

My Upcoming Piano Courses

I am pleased to be able to give you a rundown of the piano courses I shall be tutoring on during 2018, and there are quite a few. Hoping to see some of you there, whether in the UK or in France! Piano Holiday, Saint Laurent, France – July I shall be leading a brand new piano holiday in 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 […]

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 […]

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