Q&A: How Can We Use Rotation in a Scale?

Q. You speak about forearm rotation in your eBook and in your YouTube video on scales and arpeggios, but I think of rotation as a large movement for things like tremolos and trills. Can you explain how to use it in scales? A. Great question, I’m very glad you have raised it. Until I studied the theory of forearm rotation with Julian Martin (who was working with Dorothy Taubman at the time), I had also only thought of rotation as a large movement  – something you could really see and really feel. I had two eureka moments close to the beginning of my investigations into all this, one was during a large leap when I was told to “untwist” during the journey from one position to the next (this made the leap feel fast, extremely free and reliable) and the other was in the broken diminished 7th in the Adagio espressivo section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 109: I was struggling to get enough power in this place, especially because I needed to hold onto the notes of the chord as I was spreading it. Even when I incorporated the finger strokes into one slower movement of the arm, the fingers were still doing an awful lot of the work. There was undue effort and a moment of tension. When I was able to experience the rotary movements, it suddenly became effortless and strong – as though I had flipped a switch to a new power source. The tiny backflips of the forearm are absolutely possible at high speed, and even though they are virtually imperceptible to someone watching I could definitely feel them. The difference in sensation between the rotary version and the […]

There’s a Hole in my Bucket

Imagine a situation where you have to fetch water using a bucket. The problem is your bucket has a few holes in it, and on the journey from the well to your bathtub most of the water leaks away. You’ve got two choices – either make dozens of journeys before the tub is filled, or fix the bucket! Now imagine you are preparing a recital or examination programme, and there are holes in that. That part of your fugue where you know you haven’t organised a good enough fingering, those few bars on the third page of your Schumann that always seem to trip you up, and you’ve never quite sorted out the coda in the first movement of your Beethoven sonata. Of course, you will finally start practising your scales soon, it’s just that there never seems to be enough time to practise the pieces… How tempting it is, having become aware of these issues, to carry on playing with thoughts like: “Oh darn, that keeps happening. Still, let’s hope it will correct itself tomorrow”. This is rather like trying to enjoy a bicycle ride in the countryside aware you have a slow puncture or your saddle is loose. The Pareto Principle The Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 Rule, is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who had a eureka moment when he made two unrelated observations. He noticed that during 1906, 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pea pods! This principle is widely used in the fields of business- and time management, and is very useful to know about in relation to practising […]

Solving a Problem in Beethoven’s op. 79

The other day, a student brought in a problem with Beethoven’s Sonata in G, op. 79 – the cross rhythms in the last movement. In several places, one hand is playing in 3s and the other in 2s, thus: With any passage like this, it is tempting to try to solve it with lots of slow practice but as Hans von Bülow says in a footnote to his edition: Every attempt to divide mathematically the triplets of the accompaniment with the couplet rhythm of the theme will prove futile. A diligent practice with each hand separately will alone lead to the requisite independence. The key is in the word “mathematical”. Rhythm can’t be mathematical, it has to be felt physically –  experienced through the body.  Sure, we can divide up the beats on paper and see where one note goes in relation to the others but this gives us a distorted and mechanical view of the passage that in my experience won’t translate well into performance. My solution to passages like this is to practise alternating one hand with the other, having established an absolute and unerring sense of pulse. We maintain this pulse at all costs, feeling it in our body as though we were conducting and not letting it sag for a moment. With this process, using the metronome is not a bad idea. I prefer to leave a bar’s rest between each repetition or new variant, being strict about keeping the beat going during this measured silence. Having alternated one hand with the other, here is a possible plan: This ends with both hands playing together, but it is bound to take several attempts before the hands synchronise correctly. Rather than playing the hands […]

The Monkey And The Typewriter

If you gave an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, would they eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? This favourite question of barstool philosophers seems relevant to us pianists when it comes to why we do what we do as we practise. Eavesdropping outside practice rooms (as I have been known to do), it seems that after countless repetitions an interpretation, or a solution to a problem, is supposed to emerge fully formed out of thin air. If I hack away at it for long enough, I’m bound to get there eventually… This week I was directed to a short video clip of Leon Fleisher. He is coaching a group of students, and quotes from his teacher, Artur Schnabel: “Hear before you play. If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident, and everything is built then on an accident.” Leon Fleisher, Carnegie Hall YouTube Channel Liszt had a similar maxim: Think Ten Times, Play Once. The problem with embracing this in our practising is the mistaken belief that unless we are moving our fingers, training muscles and making sounds, we are not really practising. In reality, thinking ten times and playing once would mean pausing regularly in our practising, awakening our imagination, inwardly hearing how we want the phrase to sound, rehearsing this in our mind until it is vivid, and only then playing. Extremely challenging, enough to try the patience of a saint, surely? As a student, I recall lessons where my teacher would talk about a passage in my piece with such incredible insight, making the character and the meaning so vivid and real to me that the penny dropped and I would replay with […]

By |September 5th, 2012|Performing|4 Comments

More On Octave Displacements

Annoyingly, last week’s post on eliminating tension (which was to be the first of two or three on the subject) has itself been eliminated. It disappeared into the ether when my web host was down. While I attempt to retrieve it, I will make a small detour and complete a post I started a while back on skipping the octave. The subject matter is not unrelated. ***   ***   *** I am a great believer in the attitude of a closed hand as default, any stretches happening at the last second when the hand opens and then immediately closes again. This is based on the abiding principle that a stretched out hand is prone to tension, and that tension leads directly to lack of mobility. In my teaching, I occasionally make use of an octave displacement of an individual note (or perhaps a group of notes) in a line or a passage. I do this when the note involves what might be perceived as a stretch, whereas an actual stretching out of the hand is either unnecessary, unfeasible or downright impossible. It doesn’t stop pianists trying though, even if they are not aware of this. By placing the note in question an octave higher or lower, it is obvious that any attempt to reach it by the finger is futile. Thus, we retain our closed-handedness and (depending on circumstances) either use the note before as a springboard to landing on the note in question, or we use forearm rotation, getting there quickly and loosely that way. When we to back and play the written note, we will have solved a technical problem. Since I used an example from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata in a previous post, here […]

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 – […]