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 […]

Chopin’s First Ballade – a Practice Suggestion

Chopin’s evergreen First Ballade has never been more popular, thanks in part to Alan Rusbridger’s book about his personal quest with the piece, Play It Again. It is a piece that most aspiring young pianists yearn to play (often before they are ready for it) and you’ll hear it coming out of conservatory practice room doors the world over. Given the exposure of the piece, it is easy to forget that it presents formidable challenges for all who choose to play it, amateur and professional alike. I thought I would offer some occasional suggestions for practice, starting with a small section that seems to trip a lot of players up. Let’s look at the section beginning in bar 138, a waltz if ever there was one (compare this with Chopin’s Waltz in A flat, op. 34, no. 1): I am sure many players give a lot of attention to the RH here, and yet without a beautifully crafted LH this passage is doomed to fall off the rails. The filigree passagework of the RH is only going to work if the LH can provide a buoyant, rhythmical underpinning – think of the RH as the dancer and the LH as the orchestra. Make sure you can play the LH by itself fluently, up to speed and beautifully shaped. Listen to the second slurred crotchet, making sure it is softer than the first; enjoy the dissonance between the A flat and the A natural in the second beat. Of the many editions available in The Petrucci Library, only a few include LH fingering for this passage and in his excellent study edition (available in Petrucci in French), Alfred Cortot gives but one practice suggestion here. Cortot’s perverse fingering for […]

The Pot-Bellied Monster

Heinrich Neuhaus spoke of the pot-bellied monster, a fault in piano playing where the harmony swallows both bass and melody. I find myself discussing the layering of sound all the time with my students, the ability to do this skillfully is such a crucial aspect of fine piano playing. If we want to build a hierarchical sound where we can sense foreground, background and middle ground it is not just the volume that counts, but also the texture – the type of touch we use within a given dynamic level. In this example from Schubert’s G flat Impromptu, it is not hard to see that the harmonic middle needs to be played more softly than the top melody, but the rippling quavers also need to be extremely even tonally and yet rhythmically structured. An impressionistic wash won’t do here: Whenever we see fortissimo, it is as though there were an unspoken command that we’ve got to try and play everything on the page as loudly as possible. Let’s now look at the climax of Rachmaninov’s beautiful Elegie that someone brought to their lesson today: The three-layered structure is clear here, with the main melodic line in the RH, the bass A (that needs to last all the way through the two bars in one long, deep pedal) and the middle part. Now, this middle part supplies not only the harmonic filling but also forward momentum and a certain turbulence but it should not be on the same tonal level as the top or bottom. Experiment with omitting the middle part completely and you will discover that you can already achieve an ample triple fortissimo without it, especially if you have wrung out the maximum amount of good quality […]

Inventing Exercises from Pieces

There are pieces that contain passages of technical difficulty that require special attention, a type of practising over and above the routine use of the other practice tools. This could  also apply to whole pieces, of course – concert studies being a good example. We might need to find creative ways to solve these problems by getting into the habit of making our own exercises based on the material from the piece. These exercises might explore different facets of the difficulty by creating extended or slightly varied versions. This tends to make the passage harder or even more challenging than the original, so that when we go back to the original, we understand it better and it just feels easier. Meeting the demands of a technical challenge is a bit like capturing a wild animal. If we approach it from one direction, it will run off in another. Therefore, we need a multi-pronged strategy involving very many different approaches to practising. Inventing exercises can be challenging at first, but once we get into the habit it is amazing how creative we can become at dreaming these up as we practise. My scores are littered with my own exercises, and I return to these when I go back to a particular piece, sometimes coming up with a different or better solution. If you explore any one of the study editions of Alfred Cortot, you will find many ideas for such practice exercises. For me, it was Cortot who primed the pump. Here is Chopin’s set of Etudes, op. 10 in the Cortot edition, made available by Walter Cosand.   In Debussy’s First Arabesque, there is an awkward passage that usually confuses the hand, the few bars just before […]

On Attitude & Gesture

Some years ago, I had the privilege of sitting in on some lessons taught by a colleague who specialised in teaching talented youngsters. Because she also had a background in dance, she managed to bring to each lesson some of the qualities of a classical ballet class where every gesture counted and no sloppiness of any kind was permitted, ever. The lesson began when the child walked into the room. Formalised greetings were exchanged, and there was a tangible sense of occasion in each lesson which bordered on the ceremonial. There was certainly a feeling of  specialness and magic about it all. Nothing was routine about the lesson, everything was focussed on the meaningfulness of every sound and gesture, and the beauty of what was being engaged in – music as art and self-expression. I am certain this attitude of mindfulness and respect in the learning environment has a knock-on effect in the day-to-day practising of the student. Young pianists brought up in such a way learn to love and respect music – doodling at the piano or hacking away at a passage during practice would be as foreign as a slouched seating position. GESTURE Gesture is defined as the movement of part of the body, especially the hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning. We all know that gesture is vital to piano playing – our gestures at the keyboard are translated immediately into sound. If we use smooth and flowing movements, we get a smooth and flowing sound. An actor friend uses the gestures and body language associated with a particular state of mind or emotion to get into character, to evoke a particular emotion and then to communicate this. Lang […]

By |November 17th, 2012|Performing|5 Comments

The Fantasie-Impromptu: Some Ideas (Part Three)

Further to my first two posts, a reader has written in asking how to avoid the problem of fatigue in the RH in the forte passages from bar 13, and at the beginning of the coda. As with all piano playing, we have to use the right tool for the job, and because of Chopin’s patterns, it has to be forearm rotation. I would like to propose a way of practising these RH patterns whereby the fingers themselves are mere extensions of a rotating arm, like the blades of a propeller. We do not use the finger as an isolated unit, the finger is swung into position on the right key at the right moment by the forearm. However – and this is a very big however – the finger is not passive! The tip of the finger remains constantly active, alert and responsive. Rotary movements of the forearm are quicker and faster than digital movements, and WAY more economical. This is because these motions are natural to the way our body moves, and isolated finger movements are not. Clearly I can’t give an effective piano lesson in writing, so I will assume the reader who is capable of playing this piece will have developed forearm rotation to some extent. Here are a few pointers to bear in mind when practising this, and other passages using rotation: The elbow itself is more or less stationary The arm moves on the horizontal plane (from side to side), and not on the vertical (up and down) The firmer the finger, the louder the sound In the following exercise (RH alone), you will notice that each pair of notes is transformed into a sextuplet with an accent on every third […]

The Fantasie-Impromptu: Some Ideas (Part Two)

This is my second post on Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu. In the first, I proposed two different ways of choreographing the LH, the arm steering the hand in both. I also discussed practising the RH first of all slowly and firmly, and then in a bunch of different rhythmic groupings, and then using accents. I am going to do one more post next week, where I’ll talk about individual spots in the piece. This week, my suggestions are more general. I would like to suggest two other ways of practising the RH, which are in many ways much more effective: Finger Staccatissimo If we can reproduce at a slow tempo the exact length of time each semiquaver in the RH lasts at full speed, we will find this is extremely short! Now, if we retain this shortness and practise each note staccatissimo, we will be able to practise slowly and fast simultaneously. The tempo is slow, yet the key speed and the way we react to each note extremely fast. Think of each note as a grain of rice that we unclump from a piece of sushi and lay out with plenty of space in between.  We feel staccatissimo as a plucking or scratching motion in which the active finger tip moves towards the palm of the hand. This motion is generated by and confined to the tip of the finger – the wrist and arm remaining quiet. Start off by placing the finger on the key, and pull the finger quickly into the palm of the hand. Make sure the arm does not pull back, that the motion is only in the finger. Make sure to be in contact with the key before you pluck. Making […]

The Fantasie-Impromptu: Some Ideas (Part One)

I have had several requests to talk about the Fantasie-Impromptu of Chopin. It’s one of those evergreen pieces that everyone wants to play! There is so much to say on practising this piece, so rather than cram it into one long post, I’m going to spread it out over two. Our first job is to prepare each hand separately, and I’m going to begin with the LH. Left Hand Arpeggiated patterns like this cannot be played with any level of skill without the full participation of the arm. There are two ways of choreographing, and I will outline both of these: The Spinning Arm. The LH describes an ellipse that moves clockwise, the thumb brushing off its keys, and the pinky coming up and round. Thus the upper part of the ellipse takes in the ascending note patterns, and the lower part the descending ones. For ease of movement, bring the thumb into the palm of the hand as you play each descending pattern, so that there is no stretching and no tension. A common mistake is to bring the arm up before the pinky has played – think of bringing the arm up and round AS the pinky plays, the fifth finger acting as a lever that lifts the arm. The point here is that the arm is in constant motion, bringing the fingers to their respective keys without the need for the fingers to reach or stretch. Even in those places where a physical legato is not possible (the big jump from bar 7 into bar 8, for example), there is still a connection – in the arm! When we disengage the hand from the keyboard at that instant (the last quaver in […]