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 […]

Painting the Forth Bridge: Learning the Goldberg Variations

My first experience with this incredible work of art was hearing Andras Schiff play it at Dartington, as the preface to his inspiring week of teaching in the summer of 1982 – masterclasses that remain as vivid as yesterday. Eighty minutes of music and a peerless performance that touched every part of me, so that when I left the Great Hall, the trees and the lawn were different, everything had changed. This experience had quite literally changed my life. The Sirens were calling immediately, and I knew I had to learn and to play this magnum opus, so when the week of classes was over, I duly began. But postgraduate studies in the USA were imminent, and it would be twelve years before I would first dare play the piece. I would like to describe the labour pains that I went through before my first performance in Chichester Cathedral. Since then I have played the work many times over the course of over a decade, on four different continents, and I am booked to play it again next year in Singapore and Australia. Having returned from my postgraduate years in New York in 1990, I settled into a life in London where I was teaching specialist young pianists at the Purcell School three days a week, teaching also at St. Paul’s Girls’ School and the Centre for Young Musicians, a fair amount of private work and playing a LOT of chamber music and other professional engagements in London, Europe and the USA. I should add that I commuted to New York once a month for teaching purposes but when I think of it now, I shudder at the prospect. (I made use of the flying time […]

Some Thoughts On Legato

We have all played the game of Stone, Paper, Scissors. On a count of three, each player forms the hand into one of three gestures which they throw at each other. The idea is that stone blunts scissors, scissors cut paper and paper covers stone, and so on. You can ask a pianist to throw from their hand an interval of your choice, with no reference to a keyboard and the result will be accurate and immediate. If the guage in the hand is then matched up to the keyboard (no cheating here!), the measurement will invariably be spot-on. Try this out on someone – any realistic interval between any pair of fingers. This shows that our hand is capable of ultra-precise measurements of distance, which we do by feel rather than by eye. Of course it takes a bit of experience, but even intermediate players will be able to do this. Some errors in piano playing can be traced back to a faulty sense of measurement. The most obvious example of this is skips, where eye-hand coordination is responsible for measuring either a large distance, or a fast one, or both. (I plan to do a whole post on this soon.) Less obvious, perhaps, are errors in passages where the hand is constantly moving from one position to another and where the internal measurements in the hand need to be very reliable. PRACTISING STACCATO PASSAGES LEGATO There are two main pitfalls in managing staccato passages. Even though a passage is intended by the composer to be articulated staccato, this does not usually mean that each note is not still part of a longer, implied line. Aurally, we still need to hear the intervals, and physically, […]