Chopin

Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind

This week’s guest blog post features an article on using mental practise techniques when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken uses an example from his From the Ground Up edition featuring Chopin’s Waltz in E minor (Op. Posth.) to illustrate how to use a rhythmic context to achieve evenness in passage work. *** *** *** Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind We pianists tend to think of technique as a purely physical matter, a sort of gymnastics for the hands and arms. We imagine that if we develop the right muscles and make the right movements, the music will somehow come out right. But the way we move at the keyboard is deeply influenced by the way we think the music inwardly. It is therefore possible to make technical changes and improvements simply by hearing and thinking the music differently. In this way, a clearly imagined musical goal calls forth the technical means of achieving that goal. One of the technical challenges we work on most is evenness in passage work. We spend countless hours learning to play smooth, even scales, without unwanted accents at the changes of hand position. We work on the smooth passing of the thumb, the correct hand positions and arm angles, and so on, as indeed we must. But all this work will be in vain if we do not first hear inwardly what a smooth, flowing scale should sound like. This inward hearing is really a matter of rhythmic imagination. If we imagine a scale to be a series of equal, uniform notes, without nuance or direction, it will come out that way. If instead we give the scale a rhythmic context (two notes per beat, for example), then […]

Making the Well-Known Our Own

This week’s guest blog post features an article on how to approach interpretation of well-known works by Ken Johansen, author of the From the Ground Up series. In this post, Ken shares his thoughts on preparing a new edition for his series featuring Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 (please see further information at the end of this post) and provides some suggestions as to how one can develop a personal interpretation of popular works. *** *** *** Making the Well-Known Our Own Thoughts on Learning Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Why do certain piano pieces become so well known? A catchy title seems to help, whether given by the composer or not. One thinks immediately of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. In addition, these popular pieces combine high musical quality, compelling emotional content, and technical approachability. And of course, the more they are performed and recorded, the more other people hear them and want to play them, making them still more popular. Playing a popular piece of music brings a certain pleasure, like visiting a monument we’ve seen countless pictures of (the Eiffel Tower, the Little Mermaid). We already have an emotional connection to the piece, and our aural familiarity with it gives us easier access to it. But familiarity also poses challenges. It’s difficult to explore a score with fresh eyes and ears when we’ve already heard others play it countless times. Rather than searching for our own understanding of the music, we may subconsciously be trying to recreate a recording we admire. These thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing an edition of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 for my series, From the Ground Up. […]

Chopin’s Fioritura

When I was a boy, I was given a volume of the Chopin Nocturnes long before I was able to play them. I vividly remember staring at a page containing what looked like hundreds of tiny notes, stumped by how on earth you were supposed to play them. That image has stayed with me, as has the wonder of hearing this music for the first time from an old LP record of Moura Lympany that my first piano teacher put on for me on occasion. Now I know a little more, and I am able to share a recent video I made for Pianist Magazine on solving some of the problems these little notes pose (known as fioritura, sometimes spelled fioratura – from the Italian word “flower”). My article for Pianist appears in the most recent issue (Issue 91) and the accompanying video is now live on YouTube. For more on fioritura, follow this link to my blog post Making Friends with Fiddly Fioritura I will be taking a rest from writing this blog for a few weeks. Wishing all my readers a happy summer break, and looking forward to being back with you in September. ***   ***   *** If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in the following resources: Practising the Piano eBook Series (New Revised Editions!) There are surprisingly few books that deal with the art of practising. This multimedia eBook series contains hundreds of videos, audio clips, music examples and downloadable worksheets to show you exactly what need to do in order to get the most out of your practice time. Click here for more information. To celebrate the launch of revised editions of the series, we’re offering a further 20% off all […]

The Floating Fermata

So you’re learning a new piece and you’ve done as much slow and separate-hands work as you feel is penance enough – at least for today – and now you want to play the darned thing through up to speed and just enjoy. Sounds familiar? My first suggestion is go ahead and try that, see what happens. If you are consistently able to play accurately, fluently and comfortably then chances are you have indeed done enough groundwork. But if you find yourself stumbling, baulking, stiffening up or playing wrong notes, rhythms and fingerings then it would seem that the playing is not yet capable of being on autopilot and you still need the help of your brain! You need to dig the foundations still deeper and slow down while you process the information from the score. Call on your inner craftsman and take pleasure in the building process itself, knowing the playing will be stronger and more secure later on as a result. You will reap what you now sow. There are several practice tools I use as a bridge between the slow, painstaking work and the exhilaration of playing through at speed. I have written about these extensively in Volume 1 of my ebook series on The Practice Tools, but I would like to share one with you here that is extremely effective. I call it The Floating Fermata. The Floating Fermata When we listen to unprocessed playing, we are aware of frequent stops and pauses while the player figures out what is supposed to be happening next. They are suffering from buffering, the playing sounds like a clip that hasn’t fully loaded. All might go well for a few bars and then there […]

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 […]

A Practical Theory Lesson

Most of us were probably brought up on the middle C approach to learning the piano, and the first scale we ever learned was C major. We probably got tangled up with the fingering, since there are no black notes there to help us. Chopin taught the B major scale (RH) and D flat major scale (LH) before C major, not only because the fingerings are self-evident, but also because the hand positions are more natural and therefore these scales are the most comfortable. The long fingers (2, 3 and 4) are more suited to the black keys and the short fingers (1 and 5) to the white keys. It is useless to start learning scales on the piano with C major, the easiest to read, and the most difficult for the hand, as it has no pivot. Begin with the one that places the hand at ease with the longer fingers on the black keys, like B major for instance. (Chopin, quoted by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger) If we begin with B major in the RH and D flat major in the LH, there is virtually no chance of confusion with the fingerings. There are only two white notes in those scales and the thumb takes both of them – there is nowhere else for it to go! While adult minds will want to know the theory behind the construction of the major scale, there is absolutely no need to teach this to a child beginner for them to be able to play their scales. This would be as ludicrous as teaching the rules of grammar to a child who is just learning to speak. We can save theory until later and start teaching the scales using […]

Tackling a Programme

I had an interesting question from a reader in Australia, so this week I thought I would address the issue of how to learn a programme consisting of multiple pieces. Do keep your questions coming in, I will do my best to answer them. Q. I want to learn to play, say, two sonatas, or six difficult pieces, or (if have just started to play) three small “easy” pieces. How should I learn them? Say the sonatas have three movements each. Should I learn one movement at a time until I have it under my belt, and then go to the next, do the same, and afterwards go and learn the third? Once completed, do I then start the next sonata and learn it in the same way, or would it be more (or less) productive to start learning all six movements at the same time? A. The question is an excellent one as it shows how necessary it is to bring planning, organisation and time management skills into the practice room. Assuming I want to have all these pieces peak together, let’s work backwards from the end point. For example, if my recital or exam date is March 1st, I will need to aim to be fully prepared two weeks before that. Prior to that, I’ll need to arrange three run-throughs in front of different people (teacher, trusted friends, piano meet-up group, festival, etc.). The stages of our work will look approximately like this: Day of exam or recital. The week or so before: under-tempo run-throughs combined with spot practice and general maintenance (including some slow practice and using the memory tools). Marking (going over lightly) the programme, some visualisation, relaxation techniques if needed. Have […]

By |February 28th, 2014|Performing|8 Comments

Some Historic Pianos

As I wind up my short tribute to the pianos of yesteryear, I want to mention two particular pianos that stand out in my memory. Last week, I wrote about my experience playing Chopin’s music on the very Broadwood that Chopin himself selected to play when he was in London. This week, I recall a more recent concert of music for four hands by Schumann with my former student, Daniel Grimwood on a very lovely Erard built in 1851 (we played the early Polonaises and Bilder aus Osten, op. 66). There was a beautiful clarity in the sound, and (unlike our homogenised modern piano) a noticeably different tonal quality in each register. This made problems of balance much easier to solve. Here is Daniel talking about his award-winning recording of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage made on this instrument (he has also recorded the Chopin Preludes on it). Another instrument that stands out in my memory is the Horowitz Steinway. In the late 80’s I had the opportunity to try out Vladimir Horowitz’s own personal Steinway, at Steinway Hall in New York City.  In the early 1940’s, Steinway & Sons presented Horowitz and his wife Wanda with a Steinway Model D, Serial #279503. Known simply as CD503, this is the piano Horowitz kept in his New York townhouse. He used it in many recitals and recordings in the 70’s and 80’s, and he famously demanded that the piano be his exclusive touring instrument during the last four years of his life, including for his triumphant return to the former Soviet Union for performances in Moscow and Leningrad in 1986. Horowitz had the piano set up to suit his own playing style and concept of sound, and when I played it it was […]

Tied Up

I was at Steinway Hall here in London yesterday making another series of video demonstrations for Pianist Magazine. One of the demonstrations was on how to manage trills. If we investigate the mechanics of a trill, we find it is two repeated notes in rapid alternation with each other. Releasing the key each time fully up to the top would cause the trill to become slower and more obtrusive, so managing trills is dependent on managing repeated notes. Keeping both fingers in contact with the escapement (at the bottom of the key) makes for a faster and lighter trill, and even powerful rotary trills can happen inside the keys in this way. I put a homemade video up on YouTube about this some time ago – apologies for the poor quality. Taking this a stage further, we can apply the idea of not releasing the key fully in repeated notes by actually practising them as tied notes. In other words, instead of playing the note twice (or however many times the note is repeated), we change finger at the bottom of the key in the manner of a finger substitution. After doing this a few times, experience the repetitions by lifting the key only a fraction each time, only as much as necessary. (I should add that this is not possible on most upright pianos because of their design, but manufacturers are onto this. I recently played a wonderful Steingraeber upright with an escapement that felt like a grand.) Try it with Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K.141. As for fingering, you might use 432131, or even 313131 and have it feel like a rotary trill (instead of trilling between adjacent notes, we can “trill” […]

By |September 13th, 2013|Practising|6 Comments

A Tool for Memory Work: Tracking

Memorising a piece takes plenty of time and energy, and requires a strategy more sophisticated than simply closing the score after several weeks of reading it. Some memory work is like buying insurance – you hope you’ll never actually need it! While some pianists memorise easily, others struggle with it and never really feel confident. We’ve all been in that horrible situation where for the life of us we can’t remember what comes next, even though we know we know the piece inside out and backwards. I have written in depth about memorisation – have a look at The Analytic Memory and Tools for Memorisation. Here is a tool for when you have done a certain amount of groundwork memorising a piece, but you want something extra to strengthen and test your memory – I call it tracking. You can use it for any piece, long or short and I guarantee it will work a treat. Mark the Score If you don’t want to mark up your original score, make a copy for the purposes of this exercise. Divide the piece up into meaningful units that you’re going to number like tracks on a CD. The tracks can be as long or as short as you want, but the unit you choose should at least be a phrase. You might prefer a longer section, but here short is good! I have divided up Chopin’s Nocturne in B, op. 32, no. 1 into 12 tracks in all. The score will end up looking something like this (I am showing page 1 only): Practice Suggestions With the marked score away from the piano (preferably over the other side of the room but certainly out of sight), here are some suggestions for […]

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