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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 […]

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 […]

Observing the Score

I remember playing those spot the difference puzzles when I was a kid – where you have to find a number of differences between two images that at first glance look the same. With a little perseverance and a canny eye, it is a satisfying pastime. Perhaps this is a good thing for encouraging an essential skill for musicians – the ability to really observe what is there in the score. I am thinking of those pieces where a passage comes back again, not identically but with small variations. Two such examples come immediately to mind – of diploma repertoire that I teach regularly, where students often go astray stumbling over the notes. The cause of the stumble is not necessarily a technical error, rather a lack of clarity and perception about the structure of the music and the changes from one similar spot to another. Is the solution to practise the places more until they finally fall into place, or to sit away from the piano with a score making notes about the differences? Brahms Intermezzo in A, op 118 no 2 In Brahms op 118 no 2 we find several examples of developing variation technique, where returning material is subject to change. The changes create contrast with what has gone before by embellishing a certain feature for emphasis, or providing a change of texture or mood. Look at the first version of this ending (bars 6-8), where Brahms arrives in the dominant key of E. Notice there is a separate note stem for the top line (RH stems up), implying the top line is perhaps a little more important: The next time we find this ending (bars 14-16), we discover this stem has been […]

Senza Pedale

I wonder how many of you have embarked on Dry January, perhaps as a New Year’s resolution? The idea is that by abstaining from alcohol for a month you reset your relationship with it by becoming conscious of what you have been doing habitually. Drinking, particularly in UK culture, is often a habit that can go unchecked – until you deliberately intercept it. What might this have to do with practising the piano? As I was experimenting with a pedalling solution for the Brahms A minor Intermezzo, op 76 no 7 for last week’s post, I started by trying to make the relevant passage sound as good as possible without any pedal at all – in other words, dry! I wanted my fingers to do as much of the work as possible before adding pedal afterwards. With a little effort I found I could get quite a long way towards making it sound good by hand, and when I finally added the pedal it was like the icing on the cake. Piano sound without the pedal can be terribly dry, like eating a bowl of cornflakes without the milk. But if we constantly rely on our foot to make our fingers sound good, we can get way too comfortable and complacent about what is actually going on under our hands. The right foot can make us sound amazing, but it also very good at masking finger sins. While we wouldn’t want to go for a whole month without the pedal, it is a great idea occasionally to practise deliberately without it – as a discipline. When we do this, we might somehow disable the pedal – I am not suggesting anything as drastic as unscrewing […]

Q&A: Pedal in Brahms Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7

Continuing with my occasional Q&A series, a reader wrote in with the following query about Brahms’ Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7, currently on the ABRSM Grade 8 syllabus. I am a teacher and I would be grateful if you could help me with a pedalling query regarding the above piece. It is a current Grade 8 List C option. In my experience, I have learnt that it is fine to pedal through rests in Romantic music. Evidence to support this appears in the introduction notes in another Brahms volume, Seven Fantasies Op.116 where the author says ‘pedalled passages often contain rests……though illogical, this convention is acceptable’ (Ferguson, 1985). However, the current ABRSM Teaching Notes seem to suggest that the pedal should be lifted for the quaver rests eg. in bars 9 and 11 (Grade 8, 2017-2018, p.41). I have tried this, and at the increased speed of minim 60, I find this fussy and awkward, potentially spoiling the line. Is it acceptable to pedal through and just do a quick change on the first note of the quaver groups for each change of harmony? I am also doing two light pedal changes in a row for the RH A quaver and C crotchet slur in bar 9 for example, to relieve any clashing of the G sharp to A semitone. I am lifting and stopping the LH in bars 10 and 12 for the rests in the bass clef. Pedalling is a very personal thing, and very much open to experimentation – even when marked in the score by the composer. Conventional pedal markings cannot take into account depth of pedal depression, or vibrating the pedal to clarify the texture. Pedal markings even […]

Happy New Year – and Plans for 2018

Many thanks to those who entered the Christmas competition. Two lucky winners who correctly identified each extract will each receive a signed hardback copy of Neil Rutman’s Stories, Images, and Magic from the Piano Literature. Congratulations! The answers were as follows: Mozart – Gigue in G, K574 Debussy – La plus que lente Schubert – Sonata in C minor, D958 (2nd movement) Schumann – ABEGG Variations (theme) Byrd – Pavane for the Earl of Salisbury Liszt – Sonetto 123 del Petrarca Beethoven – Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio, Op. 129 (‘Rage over a Lost Penny’) I’ll resume my regular posts from next week but in the interim, here’s a listing of some of the most popular blog posts and Online Academy content from 2017: 1.  “But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!“ 2.  Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice 3.  On Practice versus Playing Through 4.  Exercises for Trills 5.  Developing Sight Reading Skills And now onto the top five Online Academy series & articles: 1.  Burgmüller: 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, op. 100 2.  Scales & Arpeggios – Basic Introduction  – The Basics of Playing Scales 3.  Solfeggietto in C Minor   4.  ABRSM Grade 1 Scales & Broken Chords 5.  Anyone Can Improvise! Plans for 2018 There are several projects on the go at the moment. Those who have enjoyed my series on Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, op. 100 will be glad to know I’ll be continuing with this until we have all 25. Each study is presented with teaching notes and a video walkthrough. I will also be adding more scale and arpeggio groups to the intermediate scale manual, and embarking on some new things. Current projects under development include: […]

Happy Holidays!

This is my final post for 2017, and I hope I am just in time to wish you all very happy holidays, whether you celebrate Christmas or if you are enjoying a bit of down time at the end of the year. I thought I would share a few favourite pieces associated with the season – by Franz Liszt, George Crumb, Arnold Schoenberg and Adolf Schulz-Evler. Some of these might be unfamiliar to you, but one of the best-known piano works associated with Christmas is Liszt’s set of 12 pieces entitled Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) composed from 1873–76, with revisions in 1881. The suite exists in versions for solo piano as well as piano four-hands. Here is Gunnar Johansen in a recording from the 1970s. A piece I love to play is George Crumb’s magical A Little Suite for Christmas ‘AD 1979’, a piece using “extended techniques” involving reaching into the piano to pluck, strum and mute strings. The sounds that come out mimic the effect of harps, bells, and otherworldly resonances. Here is Andrew Brownell in a live recording, so you can get a good look at what the pianist has to do. Arnold Schoenberg was born Jewish but converted to Lutheranism in 1898. He composed some little chamber pieces for his family to play at home, including this beautiful little miniature for two violins, cello, harmonium and piano. The main tune is the German carol Es ist ein’ Ros’ ensptrungen, but listen out for ‘Silent Night’ in the strings. And finally a piece I associate with New Year’s Eve – Schulz-Evler’s transcription of Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz – ‘Concert Arabesques on The Beautiful Blue Danube‘, played here by Benjamin Grosvenor. Happy holidays, everyone!  

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