Chopin

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

I once had to do up someone else’s tie and found the only way I could do it was to stand behind and pretend I was putting it on myself. I had simply forgotten which bit went over where, how the loop was formed, and so on. If you asked me how it was done, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, I could only show you. This is because the series of actions had long ago become unconscious and was now a muscular habit, a reflex. Playing the piano is a bit like this, except it is infinitely more complex! Let’s say a passage from a piece you have been playing for years suddenly goes awry for no apparent reason – perhaps the memory is giving you problems – one solution is to play it cross-handed. The left hand plays the right hand part, and vice versa. Do this extremely slowly, and maybe even arhythmically. Playing this way gives you a completely new experience of the passage, because you are using a totally different series of muscles. You have to think about each and every note, and its relationship to its neighbours – there’s no relying on motor memory. If you can do this, then you know the passage deeply – inside out, back to front and sideways. More to the point, you know you know it! Use this sparingly – it is certainly worth experimenting with, if you can bear it. SYMMETRICAL INVERSION There is another practice technique, whereby you create an exact symmetrical version in one hand of a passage you are playing in the other. You match identical fingers and intervals and play the mirror image of the other hand simultaneously. Virtuosos such […]

The Analytic Memory

I have had several requests for an article on memorisation. Since I already wrote one last year for Pianist Magazine, entitled Mind Over Memory, I thought I would include it here. This is Part One, dealing with the most neglected aspect of memory, using one’s brain. Next week, I will give specific tools for memorisation. ***   ***   *** Mind Over Memory (Part One) What NOT to do: Learn the piece with the score until eventually you find you can play it without! While this method may work if you are playing in cosy situations (such as for yourself, a trusted teacher or a few friends), it will often let you down in a recital or exam when you are nervous because the stakes are higher. Why? Firstly, muscular memory tends to be easy come, easy go. Under the stress of performance, muscles tighten and the mind plays tricks that can cause memory cues to break down, sometimes irretrievably and always to the detriment of self confidence. Secondly, we must take steps to memorise actively, and not merely hope we remember. Given that the way we encode the information (practising) is vastly different from the way we decode it (performing), there is a considerable margin for error, and terror! I liken this to the tightrope artist who risks nothing when the rope is close to the ground, but everything when it is several meters up in the air. We have all found that as soon as we remove ourselves from our comfortable and familiar surroundings things can feel so totally different, as though we did not know the piece at all. To the student who complains that they can play it perfectly well at […]

Leaps of Faith: On Practising Waltzes

Waltzes demand a fair amount of left hand agility from the pianist – all that hopping back and forth can be quite dizzying. A pre-requisite for mobility across the keyboard is physical ease and looseness, we simply won’t be able to manage waltz accompaniments if we are in any way tense. Take something as difficult as the following excerpt from Schulz-Evler’s fabulous Arabesques on “An der schönen blauen Donau”. Let nerves get the better of you in performance and this lovely waltz suddenly takes on atonal properties – we have “Grande valse catastrophique”. As is always the case, painstaking and thorough practice will equip us with the skills we need to negotiate the leaps in the left hand. Two processes that are invaluable are what I term Quick Cover and Springboarding. QUICK COVER Play the first chord and hold it. Like a cat ready to pounce, prepare yourself to move to the next chord. When you are ready, in your own good time, use an ultra-fast (yet free and loose) motion of the arm to move like lightning to the surface of the keys of the next chord. DON’T PLAY IT YET! Before playing, check to see that you arrived directly and dead centre of the keys, that no finger is in the cracks between the keys, no finger hanging half over the edge of a black key. What you are after here is a spot-on millimeter-accurate measurement of the distance involved both across the keyboard and within the hand. If you were 100% accurate, and you got there fast, then go ahead and play the chord. Now sit on this chord, and prepare for the next quick movement. Notice the tempo of the music is DEAD […]

By |February 25th, 2012|Practising|6 Comments

On Passagework

There are innumerable examples in the piano repertoire of what is commonly known as “passagework”, a string of fast notes that lasts either a few bars, a whole section, or an entire piece. The function of this passagework may be decoratively melodic (rather like the singer’s coloratura), but is most often associated with bravura display. Even though I don’t really like the term, let’s stick with it as we all know what we mean by it. It is hardest to bring off at either extreme of the dynamic spectrum, loud or soft, but I think the difficulties are compounded by the sameness of the rhythmic value. If the passage were interspersed with slower or faster note values, this would act as terrain in an otherwise flatter landscape. Extended passages played fast and loud, or fast and soft, demand considerable control. I think immediately of two opposite examples from Chopin, the finale of the Funeral March Sonata (fast and soft, the difficulties compounded a hundredfold because both hands are in unison for the entire movement): and the Prelude in B flat minor (the right hand would be hard enough, but Chopin adds insult to injury with the left hand leaps): As a guiding principle, the finger plays from the surface of the key and releases to the surface (and not a squilimeter higher). The exception to this is martellato or when the passage (or elements of it) is controlled by forearm rotation. While the end result is that the fingers should be extremely close to the keys – in contact with the key surface – the practising dictates that we might regularly and deliberately use a raised finger. In the central nervous system, reciprocal relations exist between […]

By |November 27th, 2011|Practising|3 Comments

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 – […]

A Make-Up Removal Tip

Someone once said to me “As long as you are trying to do something, you are not actually doing it”, and this resonated with me. When we first start working on a new piece, there is certainly an element of striving. We desperately want our fingers to obey our vision of  how we feel the music should go, to reproduce the ideal we have in our imagination. I would even go so far as to call this a yearning, and this is what spurs us on. But, if we have put in the slog, there has to come a time when we must let go of the reins and allow the music to take flight. OK, given that we are constantly striving for perfection, a piece will probably always feel like work in progress, but there has to be some mechanism where  in performance we let go of effort, and trust ourselves. For some this is much easier said than done. How often do we walk onto the concert platform feeling totally satisfied that we have put in enough practice hours, that we have covered all our bases (or should that be basses)? My first year of overseas study was at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, and what happy memories I have of that short time! I made many lifelong friends and started to get to know a culture that was very different from the one I grew up in. My formal lessons were with the wonderful pianist Ann Schein, one of Artur Rubinstein’s very few protégés (I have quite a few of the maestro’s special – and rather cheaty! – fingerings for Chopin). I will never forget a recital she gave where we […]

The Study Editions of Alfred Cortot

I first heard Alfred Cortot when I was a boy. The magic of his recording of Chopin’s Étude op. 25 no. 1 made an indelible impression on me – it made me almost gasp. It wasn’t just the incredible beauty of his sound but also the flexibility of his timings – especially the way he stretched the melody line, and the personal stamp he brought to it. It makes me hopping mad when people go on about the numerous wrong notes in his recordings. Would that they could begin to hold a candle to playing of such genius, flawed as the results sometimes were. But these surface blemishes (which would not pass the censors nowadays, admittedly) detract from the playing not one iota – besides, he admitted he hardly had time to practise, busy as he was with his teaching, conducting, administrative duties and touring. In my student days, a teacher lent me Cortot’s edition of Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata, a work I had been studying for a while. After just one week of practising the exercises, my playing of the piece improved dramatically. I rushed out to buy his edition of the Sonatas, and both books of the Études, published by Salabert (and ferociously expensive they were too). I still use them all the time, not just for the exercises Cortot designs, but also for his fanciful and poetic running commentaries which illuminate the music wonderfully. The only drawback is that the score has been sloppily edited (I’m not sure who was at fault there) with quite a number of wrong notes, so it is not advisable to use these editions as the sole source, rather as a supplement to a more reliable Urtext edition (I […]

By |September 26th, 2011|General tips|5 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 […]

A Helping Hand

When I was in my teens I had the good fortune to participate in Christopher Elton’s masterclasses at Downe House summer school. One of the things he got me to do was to play the left hand part with two hands, to make an arrangement that was technically far easier to manage so that I would be able to recreate the sounds the composer envisaged with reduced technical difficulty. I could use the two-handed version as a crib, an aural role model for the one hand to aspire to. I heartily recommend this way of practising! Play the two-handed version in alternation with the one-handed (intended) version, aiming to make the single hand sound as good, if not better, than the hands together. The two hands teach the one hand how it’s done. There are a few more applications of this way of practising, especially good for memorising. Take the music written in the bass stave, for example, and make an arrangement using two hands. There will be more than one way of achieving this, and it will be good practice to exhaust all the possibilities.  I stress the bass stave only because it is often hidden from active listening by the right hand which is above it not only in terms of pitch but also in musical importance, but of course do this with the contents of both staves. There aren’t any hard and fast rules to this really – try to retain the integrity of a line by playing it in one hand if possible but even this is not necessary. Have a close look at a score and you will very often find that the notation is “stems up, stems down” – the composer, […]