Beethoven

Practice Makes Permanent

We all know that “practice makes permanent” and that if we try to learn a piece by constant repetition via repeated complete up-to-speed readings, we are going to regret it eventually. What we gain in instant gratification we lose in the ability to ever really get a grip on the piece, because a mistake, an unhelpful fingering or any other sort of sloppiness repeated often enough to become ingrained, is like one of those stubborn stains that refuses to come out – ever! The attitude seems to be: “Yes, I know it is wrong, but I’ll fix it later”, and this might seem reasonable if you are an amateur who, after a long day at the office, wants to come back home and relax at the piano. Yet I would offer an alternative. How can something be all that satisfying when you know, in your heart of hearts, that you are compromising not only the music but also yourself? The deepest form of satisfaction comes, surely, from a job well done, from seeing an investment mature (I always think of practising as investing, and playing as spending). I contend that there is an ENORMOUS amount of satisfaction to be had from playing a piece, or (preferably) a section of a piece through at a quarter of the speed. And I do mean a quarter, not just a bit slower. Provided you know how the piece is supposed to sound, you’ll find an ultra-slow practice tempo gives you exponentially increased control of everything, and if done regularly you will hear and feel fantastic results. This is also a bit like a meditation, and even if you have been using your brain during the working day, you […]

Practising Fast

Common sense suggests that if we can play a fast piece faster than intended, it will be easier to manage at the proper tempo, since we will have gone the extra mile. We’ll have stretched our resources and sharpened up the reflexes, and this is indeed an excellent thing to do from time to time in our practice sessions. Short bursts rather than complete performances are fine, and it is often preferable to play lighter, like the singer who marks rather than sings out full voice. When we go back to the normal tempo, it all feels easier. I like the idea of practising at a variety of different speeds but not mechanically – aim to make the music meaningful in each tempo. This is great if you are learning an accompaniment or an ensemble work, where the flexibility gained from this endeavour can only assist in maximising valuable rehearsal time when you get together with the other player(s). I would like to put the cat among the pigeons here and state that I don’t believe there is any such thing as the ONE CORRECT TEMPO, even despite indications from the composer. If I am playing a work in a cathedral, for example, I will necessarily have to slow it down to accommodate the acoustical space. If I am playing on a small instrument in a heavily carpeted room, I will most likely go for a faster tempo. The tempo of a piece of music is chameleon-like, surely? If I have had one cup of coffee too many for breakfast, then my performance that evening will likely be faster, because my metabolism and heartbeat will be faster. Music is organic, and performance is inextricably linked […]

The Baroque Urtext Score (3): Articulation

Articulation in music is understood to mean the way notes are connected or grouped – this involves accentuation and, to some extent, rhythmic inflection. While François Couperin was an obsessive control freak in this regard, it was only from Beethoven onwards that composers routinely marked articulations into the score. Open a score of Beethoven and you will see at a glance how he wanted the music to be articulated. You will find a few dots and slurs in Bach’s keyboard music, but for the most part we have to make our own decisions. How? On what basis do we decide? I don’t think this can be done cosmetically, by which I mean I don’t think we can add slurs and staccatos willy-nilly  (“Oh, I haven’t had a staccato for a while, better stick one in on this note”). The articulation should enhance phrasing, help project rhythm and show the design features of the thematic material. The long legato line is a 19th century concept – 18th century phrasing was based more on the articulation of shorter units, at the discretion of the player. Long legato lines are just as out of place (and boring) as long staccato ones, and the still-prevalent idea that quavers in baroque music should be detached is just not correct. Now for some examples. The first is the subject from Bach’s B flat major Invention, for which I have given three possible articulations (scribbled, somewhat clumsily, one on top of the other). There will be other possibilities, but these were the first that occurred to me: I would say it is important to stick with the same articulation in the second half of the bar as you use for the first half, because the second half is an inversion of the […]

The Baroque Urtext Score: A User’s Guide (Part The First)

PART ONE: GENERAL Further to last week’s post about taking ownership, I thought I might say a few words about this in relation to Urtext scores – of  Bach in particular. Personally, I wouldn’t want to play Bach in a romantic way, but I can appreciate, respect and even enjoy performances in this style, where the pianist is totally committed to it. You only have to listen to iconoclastic Bach players such as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck and Andras Schiff to hear that there are very many different approaches, all of them valid. It’s about taking ownership and believing in what you are doing. But may we take the absence of performance directions in a score of Bach as carte blanche to do what we want, or are there rules? If so, where do we find them? While some of the answers are indeed implied by clues in the score and others by performance tradition, a lot of the choices are indeed at the discretion of the performer. As I write in an article on my other website: The ultimate intention of all notational details is to reduce the performer’s choice  From the time of Beethoven onwards, the performer’s choices are much more restricted because the composer’s instructions as to speed, character, articulation and dynamics are usually extremely explicit. So how do we decide what to do with an Urtext edition of Bach where all we see are the notes? What sort of articulations and phrasings ought we to use, how do we decide the dynamics, the tempo and general character? How comforting it must have been for our pianistic forebears to open the Czerny, Selva or Busoni editions (amongst many others) and find answers to all these […]

By |October 23rd, 2011|Practising|1 Comment

Taking Ownership

Some years ago, Dame Fanny Waterman gave a masterclass for the BBC (Beethoven Sonata, op. 2 no. 2 , I think it was) and had made some suggestions to the student who then proceeded to play it back, respectfully verbatim. Dame Fanny likened this to loaning the student a dress for a party, but that to prevent it from looking borrowed or passed on, the student would need to add a brooch, a belt or some other accessory to make it her own. The lesson, of course, being that aping someone else’s playing or ideas won’t end up sounding authentic no matter how well you do it. The first stage of taking ownership of a piece of music is to process all the information from the composer’s score. This is the explicit instruction (notes, rhythm, tempo modifiers, articulations, character descriptions, dynamic markings, etc.) as well as the implicit. Examples of the latter might be the implication of più forte when the composer doubles in octaves a bass line previously written in single notes, or diminuendo when the texture thins out. It may take a while to understand the meaning behind all this so that we come up with our own understanding of the composer’s message, but digest it we must. (Implicit directions are much more significant in baroque music, say, when the composer’s score is devoid of much else, but that’s probably a subject for another post.) I am sure we have all heard performances where all the notes were there, all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, but you weren’t moved or stirred. There is nothing worse than a safe, boring, non-committal, grey, correct performance and obeying the composer’s instructions is only the first step – […]

Inventing Exercises

One thing I can say for certain is that we are all different. When it comes down to rituals in practising, there is nothing more personal than what we do to warm up. I have some colleagues who feel driven to go through their lengthy warm-up regime before they will touch a note of music, others who (provided they are in shape from regular playing), are comfortable going straight into their practising just by starting with something slow and gentle to get back to where they were, muscularly, the day before. I want to distinguish between exercises that might warm up muscles and those which build technique in the first place – I find there is confusion about this because they can overlap. And just because a pianist has a fully developed technique, this does not mean they will not face technical problems, or have to figure out specific technical challenges in certain pieces. Not at all. In my teaching, I use specific exercises for specific skills. I assign these sparingly and only when needed, expecting top concentration in the practising thereof. The last thing I want is for a student to squander valuable practice time on reams of exercises for the sake of it. One thing I do very much believe in is inventing exercises from a specific piece. You make up exercises based on passages to make them harder or even more challenging than the original, so that when you to back to playing the original, it feels easier. Here are some examples. The second subject of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, op. 13 begins with a passage where the RH has to hop from treble to bass registers while the LH provides a rhythmic accompaniment. […]

By |September 17th, 2011|Practising|2 Comments

On Double Notes (Part Two)

This post deals with the “how” of double notes. Because double notes appear to be very finger-based, making demands on the weaker fingers on the outside of the hand, they should be practised with care and certainly not for hours on end! Firstly, then,  some advice on INJURY PREVENTION: Avoid awkward hand positions and angles by aligning the hand with the forearm. Maintain flexibility in the wrist, especially laterally. Adjust the position of the elbow to enable fingers to pass over other fingers more easily. For example,  you are holding RH 4 and 2 and you need to ascend a step to 3 and 1. If the elbow is in leading mode, it will require more of an adjustment since the 3rd finger has to go over the 4th. For this reason the elbow will need to be closer to your torso in double note passages that move away from the body. Incorporate finger strokes into the arm whenever possible. This might involve only tiny movements (more on this later in the post). Practise softly and loosely before building in key speed. GENERAL PRINCIPLES Fingering – in a legato context, compromises often need to be made as breaks in the legato are inevitable. If you can’t join both parts, find a fingering solution that enables a join in one part. If the break is in the lower part of the RH, it will not be so noticeable. Look at the alternative scale fingerings in Part One of  Moszkowski’s “School of Double Notes” for ingenious fingering suggestions, which will inspire you to explore various unconventional fingering possibilities, fingerings you probably wouldn’t have thought of. In this extract from Beethoven op. 2 no. 3, I prefer the following fingering, which probably would […]

A Ghost Story

There are certain places in the repertoire where I can predict that a student is going to hurry. They will usually tend to rob long notes of their value by rushing on to the next event. Perhaps our instincts tell us we should be busy making sound, playing notes rather than holding them? I surmise it has a lot to do with the nature of sound production at the piano: once we have made the sound, we need do nothing to prolong it except to hold the keys with our fingers, or hold it in the pedal. Wind and string instruments require a continuous and sustained effort of the breath or of the bow throughout the life of the long note, in other words movement. I would suggest that we pianists need also keep long notes alive – physically and in our imagination. I liken the arm in piano playing to the breath in wind playing or singing, and to the bow in string playing. If we don’t incorporate the articulations of the fingers into bigger, longer gestures of the arm we end up playing syllabically, robotically and thus without real expression. If we stop all movement as soon as we have played a long note or chord, we disconnect from our conductor (our body) and thus from the musical flow, that sense of arch that takes us from the first note of the piece to the last. There is nothing more disturbing than seeing a pianist flailing themselves over the keyboard with excessive movements that are so often irrelevant – a substitute for real listening, or built in for theatrical effect. This is not what I mean. A good example of very basic arm choreography is […]

Practising Chords (Part Four): Odds and Ends

Unless anyone cares to contact me with further suggestions, this will be the last of my posts on chords. It’s a selection of a few unrelated odds and ends which I might add to if I think of more! TO KEEP LOOSE AND FLEXIBLE In a progression of chords, it is very useful to practise losing the hand position completely between each chord. Do this by drawing the fingertips together so they touch lightly, or by making a loose fist. This might go against the grain, especially if you are worried you won’t find the next chord position in time. On face value it would seem more logical to try and preserve an open hand position, yet the reverse is true: the looser you are, the more flexible you remain and the quicker you are able to move. In actual performance, we are not able to close up like this or to completely relax, of course, but there will a residue of this intention – enough to make all the difference. FIRM HAND There are occasions when you want to retain the grip in the hand in chord playing, when to relax it would be inefficient, counterproductive or downright impossible. The opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C, op. 2 no. 3 is a good example. Whether you play this from a springy wrist, or using a jackhammer motion of the forearm (or – better – a blend of the two), the hand needs to retain the position: The repeated chords in the slow movement of Schumann’s F sharp minor Sonata will need a firm hand and wrist, plus the feeling of contact with the key beds (releasing the keys each time only […]

The Three S’s (Part One)

I couldn’t get far into this blog without talking about one of my mantras, “The Three S’s”. That (for me) stands for “SLOWLY, SEPARATELY, SECTIONS”, despite the array of alternative possibilities on google. This is a neat way of referring to nitty-gritty practising – the sort of thing we do to learn notes, develop reflexes and form habits, to revive old pieces, and to memorise. In a nutshell, the basis of craftsmanlike, disciplined work. The tripartite title lends itself to three separate blogposts, and as a follow-up to the last post on practising the Goldberg Variations, I would like to start with “SEPARATELY”. (“SLOWLY” to follow next week.) I am a great believer in practising hands separately, especially the left hand (the hand one does not always actively listen to). There is no better test of memory than playing the left hand (from memory, of course) from beginning to end. The same goes for the right hand. One thing I do with students, and this is not a comfortable process, is to get them to start with one hand. As soon as I clap my hands, they have to remove the hand they are playing and go directly to the other hand, without stopping. They won’t know when the changeover is going to happen, and as you can imagine, one clap might follow on very quickly from the last. Or not! This is a fantastic workout for the brain hemispheres and I guarantee regular doses of this will help to secure the memory in performance. Try playing one hand normally on the keyboard, but play the other hand on your knee or just above the fallboard of the piano. This will reveal much more than merely playing […]