Beethoven

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 […]