Simplifying the Score

When we begin work on a new piece, we might feel bewildered by all the information on the page. The score is dense with notes, fingerings, pedallings and other instructions and it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Where do we begin? Starting from the beginning and attempting to process everything at once can often be frustrating and overwhelming, and we feel we are not getting to grips with the piece at all. Making our own simplified versions of the score can be a very useful tool when starting on a new piece, and there are many ways to do it depending on the piece. Not only does it make the music easier to process and digest, it helps with memory too. Blocking Blocking is where we take a passage written in broken chord figuration and practise it as solid chords. For example, let’s look at this Prelude by Bach (the C minor, from Book 1 of the 48) The underlying harmonic progression gives a sense of how to shape the constant stream of semiquavers (16th notes). To discover the chorale (the harmonic framework), play the first two notes in each half bar together thus: In this video, I illustrate a few different examples of blocking, starting with the Bach Prelude (above) and ending with the opening of the slow movement of Mozart’s Sonata in F, K.332. Further reading & resources Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – click here for more information Skeleton Practice – click here to view my Online Academy series on using skeleton practice Annotated Study Edition – click here to purchase my annotated study edition for the Bach Prelude & Fugue featured in this article From the Ground Up […]

Q-Spots Series: Bach Invention in D Minor

For my first piece in the Q-Spots Series I have chosen Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, and identified two Q-spots that very often cause players to falter (click here for an introduction to the series). If you are a piano teacher you will immediately know that I am referring to the places where one hand has a long trill, and the other hand a passage of even semiquavers (16th notes): Bar 18 – Downbeat of 23 Bar 29 – Downbeat of bar 35 The idea behind Q-spots is to identify and isolate awkward places where we stumble and fumble, and go through a systematic sequence of practice activities that helps us break the section down into stages. We practise each stage until our inner quality control inspector is happy to sign it off, before moving on to the next stage. We repeat these stages for a few days in a row, by which time we should find the passage is not only possible but actually feels easy. Let’s look at the first Q-spot in the Bach Invention and analyse the nature of the difficulty. There are two main problems here – coordinating the two hands together at the required speed, and managing the trill without tightening up. Part of the solution is to play a rotary trill (from the forearm) rather than lifting the fingers from the main knuckle; for the trill to fit together with the left hand we will need to organise it rhythmically. Probably the neatest way of doing so is to play a measured trill in demisemiquavers (32nd notes), beginning on the upper auxiliary (D) and stopping on the main note on the last demisemiquaver before the tie. Before we […]

The Myth of Evenness

This week’s guest blog post features an article on evenness and rhythmic groupings by Ken Johansen with an example from his From the Ground Up edition for Bach’s Prelude in D Minor (BWV 935). *** *** *** For many pianists, playing evenly is a bit of an obsession. We spend long hours trying to make our scales, arpeggios and passage work perfectly smooth and equal. This ideal is embodied in the famous jeu perlé, in which each note is like a pearl on a necklace – separate and identical, though united on the same string. But do we really want every note to be identical? Clearly, we don’t want unintended irregularities of tone or timing, such as bumps on the thumb in scales and arpeggios. Music, however, absolutely requires constant expressive, intended inflections of tone and rhythm. A string of equal notes doesn’t make a musical line. To modify Socrates’s famous saying, the uninflected line isn’t worth hearing. Nowhere is the need for expressive inflection more important, or its absence more noticeable, than in the music of Bach. The continuous sixteenth-note (semiquaver) motion of much of his music seems to invite the kind of uninflected, mechanical playing that used to be called “typewriter” playing. At the same time, the beauty of Bach’s writing can inspire playing of great rhythmic subtlety and vitality. For Bach designs motives and melodies to have a built-in momentum and rhythmic drive. He does this in the subtlest of ways using the simplest of means – namely, the intervals and melodic changes of direction he chooses. This subtlety is on full display in the Prelude in D minor, BWV 935, currently set in the Trinity College London piano examination syllabus, Grade […]

Bach Partita in B Flat Video Walkthroughs

Even though they were among the last keyboard suites Bach wrote, the six Partitas, BWV 825–830, appeared from 1726 to 1730 as Clavier-Übung I, the first of Bach’s works to be published under his direction.  The format follows the typical recipe for a suite, the mandatory allemande–courante–sarabande–gigue framework expanded by the addition of an opening movement, and then the galanteries (chosen by Bach from a pool of optional extra dances) towards the end of each suite.  The Partita in B flat, the first of the set, is the lightest and most intimate, and to my mind the most charming. The gigue even ends in mid air! The ABRSM has set the Menuets I and II for Grade 6. They make a beautiful contrasting pair of dances – the first sprightly and elegant, the second more solid and sustained.  Menuet I Make sure to add your own dynamics (probably between a range from forte to piano) as well as articulations (a range of touches including legato, staccato, tenuto, leggiero, slurs and short phrasings, etc.). If you look into the score you will discover most of this is implied by the structure of the music – its shapes, designs, modulations, and patterns. Remember there is no one right way of playing this music, but many possibilities. Menuet II Menuet II is only 16 bars in length, and thicker in texture than Menuet I. This texture implies a stronger dynamic, more legato cantabile – a more solid approach in general. If you play the repeats (not required in the exam) you might play them softer and more reflectively; experiment too with the left pedal (una corda) on one of the repeats. The soft pedal can be effective in baroque music if used very occasionally on a repeat – not necessarily to change the […]

Seeing the Forest

This week’s guest blog post features an introduction to the From the Ground Up series by its author, Ken Johansen, following its launch last week on the Online Academy. In his post, Ken describes the “from the ground up” approach to learning pieces and the rationale behind his project. I wholeheartedly recommend this approach for anyone who wants to learn new works in a less daunting and more enjoyable way! *** *** *** A page of piano music, taken at a glance, looks a bit like a forest, the black notes forming more or less dense thickets of trees and shrubbery against the white page. Seen from afar, this forest looks fairly uniform; it’s difficult at first to distinguish its content and boundaries, or to see the variety behind the uniformity. But we’ve heard that this forest is enchanted, and we want to explore it for ourselves, so we approach it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How do we enter this musical forest, which may sometimes appear dark and impenetrable? Some pianists choose to listen to a recording first, but that is a second-hand experience. We want to walk in the woods ourselves, not listen to someone else’s account of it. A few musicians spend some time just sitting with the score, listening to it inwardly, finding its phrase and section divisions, perhaps analysing the harmony. But most pianists are too impatient for this; they want to start playing right away. If they are good sight-readers and the piece is not too difficult, this can make for an easy and pleasant stroll. But if their reading ability is mediocre, or if they are learning a piece that is at the upper limit of their technical ability (which […]

Learning New Pieces From the Ground Up

One of the most common questions my readers ask is how they can learn new pieces more effectively. As it turns out, one of the most popular posts of all time at is “But It Takes Me Ages To Learn A New Piece!”. Therefore, I’m very pleased to announce the launch of a new series of resources on the Online Academy this week which directly addresses how to go about learning new pieces more efficiently – it’s called From the Ground Up. Building on a similar approach and principles covered in my series Deconstructing the Score, From the Ground Up is a series devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively. Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Authored by Ken Johansen, co-founder of the Read Ahead sight-reading programme and professor at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, the series will feature popular works from throughout the repertoire, starting with two works by Schumann and JS Bach respectively. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up on the Online Academy or on one of the following links to view the first two editions: Schumann – Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (from Kinderszenen) Bach – Little Prelude in F (from the Notebook for Wilhelm Friedrich Bach) Beethoven – Sonatina in G Grieg – Arietta (Lyric Pieces, Op. 12, No. 1) Chopin – Nocturne in E-Flat (Op. 9, No. 2) Schumann […]

Going into the Zone

There is a stage in the preparation of a recital programme when it is a very smart idea to play the whole thing through in its entirety in front of someone else before the big day. This person could be your teacher, a trusted colleague or indeed anyone who will sit and listen. You could opt for safe circle feedback (see last week’s post) or for a more balanced critique, or no feedback at all. Before you do this, you’ll need to have scheduled into your practice time several regularly-paced run-throughs for yourself. Record some of these in order to hear the sounds that are actually coming out of the piano (rather than those sounds you imagine or wish you were making – there is often a difference!). I have written about this process fully in a previous post, so rather than go into it again I would redirect you here. No matter how well you know the music or how carefully you have practised, the first time you play for someone else you might notice all sorts of things happening you could never have planned for – that memory lapse here, that moment of uncertainty there. Hopefully you will recover and manage to proceed, and there is a lot to be learned and gained from these dings and skirmishes. I think of this as a test flight, the first of several before your performance can be certified as “airworthy”, or concert-ready. The Downside of Careful Practice Instead of errors as such, in a run-through in front of someone else we may feel a certain cautiousness or woodenness as we try to control everything we are doing. The process of practising entails making absolutely sure of every single note […]

Resources for Studying Bach

Quite a lot of my students bring the works of JS Bach to lessons, which is always a delight. I often find myself directing them to various different sources to enhance their study of this music, so I thought I would put a few of these together for ease of reference. I hope you will find these resources useful and interesting. I am also hoping you will send me your links, which I will add to this post. Since Bach’s music is contrapuntal, even in the simplest works, we need to know how to listen to, balance, blend and articulate two or more independent lines simultaneously. If we have been brought up on a path from the Anna Magdalene Notebook to the Little Preludes and the Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias, we will be able to tackle the Preludes and Fugues from the ’48’, not to mention the suites. Before that, listen to what Rosalyn Tureck brought to some of the baby pieces (click here) Resources for ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier” Anatomy of a fugue (click here) How to analyse a fugue (click here) Ebenezer Prout’s analyses (click here) Siglind Bruhn’s homepage (with analyses) (click here) Cecil Gray’s analyses (not at all dry, poetic and rather lovely actually!) (click here) Yo Tomita’s website (click here) Performing Bach’s fugues on the piano (David Korevaar) (click here) Dr. Philip Goeth’s website, containing much material of interest (click here) Recordings Anyone can trawl YouTube and find recordings easily. Here are just three (of very many) worthy of attention. András Schiff’s recording of Book 1 (click here) Samuil Feinberg‘s recording of Book 2 (click here) Gustav Leonhardt’s recording of Book 1 (harpsichord) (click here) Here are my suggestions for fugue practice […]

Making Scales Sound and Feel Good

Some years ago I was invited to give a class on scales and arpeggios for a piano teachers’ association. There was one advancing student who was really struggling with them – everything was faulty and she could barely manage to get through. I only had a brief time with her, and I decided not to spend too long trying to correct the technical faults because they were just too numerous. Besides, I knew her teacher had already shown her what needed to be done. I asked her if she knew Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and she said she did. I then invited her to imagine the piano entry in the first movement and, when she was ready, to play a scale of C minor in that style. To everyone’s surprise (including her own), she played the scale flawlessly. Instead of trying to remember what her elbows and her thumbs ought to be doing, she had an artistic goal in mind before she played – a definite mood and character. This is what enabled her to forget about the “how” and instead focus her mind on achieving her musical intention. This is how it is when we play real music; we can’t be thinking about the means in performance. Scales are not music of course, but we can still imbue them with character and imagination.   Styles When playing a scale, rather than simply thinking of the note patterns of that particular scale, have a style or character in mind. Here are some examples useful at a more advanced level (there are loads more you can come up with). Take a moment or two before you play to get in character: E major in the style of […]

The History of Piano Technique (Part 2)

One of the things that really gets my goat is the totally erroneous statement that the harpsichord is incapable of expression. Many famous and influential pianists who should know better regularly fall into this trap. We need to remember that the harpsichord from the High Baroque was a fully developed and mature instrument, perfect for the music written for it. In order to play expressively on the harpsichord, it is necessary to have a highly developed sense of touch. Harpsichord players make a slight articulation before a note to give it an accent, or they might delay it or hold onto it a little longer. In an expressively slurred pair of notes, the player overlaps the two notes by holding onto the first until just after playing the second note – this overlap masks the attack of the second note, thus making it sound softer. You really can create the impression of strong-weak in a slur, especially if you let go of the second note early. Sensitive under- and overlapping of notes combined with skilful timings cause the playing to sound musical and expressive. This is but illusion, I hear you say! I suggest that making an actual honest-to-goodness crescendo in a melodic line on the piano also relies on illusion, since the individual tones begin to decay the moment they have been sounded. We achieve a crescendo by artfully blending the end of one sound into the beginning of the next. Pianists spend most of our lives attempting to make a percussion instrument sing. As a youngster, I was fascinated by the hybrid harpsichords made by Pleyel, Goble and others, with their array of pedals. Here is the inimitable and great Wanda Landowska playing Bach […]