A Helping Hand

When I was in my teens I had the good fortune to participate in Christopher Elton’s masterclasses at Downe House summer school. One of the things he got me to do was to play the left hand part with two hands, to make an arrangement that was technically far easier to manage so that I would be able to recreate the sounds the composer envisaged with reduced technical difficulty. I could use the two-handed version as a crib, an aural role model for the one hand to aspire to. I heartily recommend this way of practising! Play the two-handed version in alternation with the one-handed (intended) version, aiming to make the single hand sound as good, if not better, than the hands together. The two hands teach the one hand how it’s done. There are a few more applications of this way of practising, especially good for memorising. Take the music written in the bass stave, for example, and make an arrangement using two hands. There will be more than one way of achieving this, and it will be good practice to exhaust all the possibilities.  I stress the bass stave only because it is often hidden from active listening by the right hand which is above it not only in terms of pitch but also in musical importance, but of course do this with the contents of both staves. There aren’t any hard and fast rules to this really – try to retain the integrity of a line by playing it in one hand if possible but even this is not necessary. Have a close look at a score and you will very often find that the notation is “stems up, stems down” – the composer, […]

The Trouble With Ornaments (Part One)

The year was 1978 and I had been assigned the G major French Suite of J. S. Bach by my piano professor at the RCM. I duly went off to the Kensington Music Shop (which is still there by South Kensington tube station) to buy the Henle Urtext edition, and then found a practice room to explore. Uncertain as to the exact meaning of the ornament signs that littered the pages, I decided I ought to listen to a few recordings from the College’s record library only to discover that each performer did them differently. So what was a poor undergraduate to do? In those days, I assumed that anyone good enough to issue a commercial recording of anything had to know what they were doing, so I was bemused and confused by what I had heard. It struck me that perhaps all of these different versions of the ornaments were OK, and I could just do whatever took my fancy. Somehow this didn’t seem quite right, surely there had to be some sort of difference between the squiggle with the line through it and the one without it. Since it was going to be a whole week until my next lesson, and I wanted to take at least the first two or three movements along, I thought I had better ask around. Accosting members of staff in the hallways, one eminent professor of piano told me one thing, while another said he thought it should go like this (there ensued a whistling session) and I was left none the wiser. This was beginning to really trouble me! My studies of Shakespeare and the bible at school had impressed upon me that quibbling over textual […]