Don’t Play!

We tend to think of sitting at the piano and practising totally in terms of making sounds. If we’re not moving our fingers up and down, we’re not really practising, right? Following on from last week’s post on performing, I mentioned in passing the need to focus our full attention before we start to play, and to blank out the audience as much as possible. This is true whether we are performing for a teacher, an examiner or an audience – or even just for ourselves. We always need to take a few moments to prepare ourselves, to frame our performance with meaningful silence. I have found many people in such a hurry to play that they omit this crucial step. So what goes on during this time of silence, exactly? We need to conjure up the sounds, atmosphere and the feeling of the music we are about to engage with. We might hear the opening in our inner ear, imagining the tempo and the energy of the piece. We might find our tempo from some place other than the start – perhaps a bar or two later in the piece where the tempo feels inevitably right. When I play Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, I find my tempo not from the theme itself but from the first variation. I imagine the semiquaver movement in the first variation, and when I play the theme I have a better sense of how I want it to move. The theme is a slightly more static version of the tempo, by the time I reach Variation 1 the semiquavers give the music a forward flow. I keep my hands in my lap until the last moment, approaching the keyboard in […]

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 […]

Managing Leaps: Selective Landing

I use a three-part process for measuring distances at the keyboard, to make sure all jumps are precise, secure and foolproof. We build in the precise measurements in our practising so that when we play, we don’t have to give them any thought. The secret at that stage is to let go, keep loose and allow the music to unfold. I’ll talk more about Quick Cover and Springboarding in future posts, today I would like to say a little about Selective Landing. Selective Landing When we have to move from one position and land on a chord, we might select those notes of the chord we wish to land on first, and then fill in the remainder afterwards. This is a particularly useful process when we wish to see (and feel) how an especially awkward chord is built up, or simply to negotiate a new hand position. We can effectively play the chord in stages. Note that you do not have to do this rhythmically, although you may! Let’s take a very short example from Schumann’s Fürchtenmachen from Kinderszenen, op. 15, as this has been known to cause a stumble or two. I am speaking of the last two bars of this extract: Having practised the LH alone using the Quick Cover and Springboarding techniques, we might want to put it hands together in ways like this. Here are but three of several possibilities: 1. 2. 3. You might also want to practise landing on the middle note of the chord each time, dropping in the outer two afterwards. There are various other permutations, and my advice is to have fun with it and see how many different ways you can find. If you struggle with this spot, […]

More On Octave Displacements

Annoyingly, last week’s post on eliminating tension (which was to be the first of two or three on the subject) has itself been eliminated. It disappeared into the ether when my web host was down. While I attempt to retrieve it, I will make a small detour and complete a post I started a while back on skipping the octave. The subject matter is not unrelated. ***   ***   *** I am a great believer in the attitude of a closed hand as default, any stretches happening at the last second when the hand opens and then immediately closes again. This is based on the abiding principle that a stretched out hand is prone to tension, and that tension leads directly to lack of mobility. In my teaching, I occasionally make use of an octave displacement of an individual note (or perhaps a group of notes) in a line or a passage. I do this when the note involves what might be perceived as a stretch, whereas an actual stretching out of the hand is either unnecessary, unfeasible or downright impossible. It doesn’t stop pianists trying though, even if they are not aware of this. By placing the note in question an octave higher or lower, it is obvious that any attempt to reach it by the finger is futile. Thus, we retain our closed-handedness and (depending on circumstances) either use the note before as a springboard to landing on the note in question, or we use forearm rotation, getting there quickly and loosely that way. When we to back and play the written note, we will have solved a technical problem. Since I used an example from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata in a previous post, here […]

Five-a-Side Team Events: Some Thoughts on Chord Playing

In my youth I was fortunate enough to have some lessons with Philip Fowke, the first one was on Rachmaninov’s rather overplayed Prelude in C sharp minor. I recall the lesson vividly. He showed me a way of practising the chords in the outer sections whereby, with the chord held down, you select a given finger, pair of fingers or group of fingers to lift back up and repeat. It is a good plan to exhaust all the permutations here. I practised in this way assiduously for the next week and noticed a dramatic improvement in my control of the chordal passages, my ability to voice them in the softer section and to play very fully and yet roundly in the fff section. In a nutshell, this way of practising chords helps them to fit like a glove! For the sake of convenience in my own teaching, I have given this a neat label – I call it “tapping”. It is fashionable to rail against what is known as “mechanical practice” and yet tapping, while it is concerned with the mechanics of what the playing mechanism has to deliver at the keyboard, needs to be done mindfully in order to be of any value. We need to concentrate on the finger combinations we are using so that we can go through these systematically. We also need to make sure the holding fingers remain at rest at the bottoms of their keys without pressing, and to check in with our arm to make sure there is no tension building up. For me, mechanical practice is that sort of mindless, repetitive drill pianists used to be encouraged to do in the old days, while reading a newspaper, […]

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

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 […]

Practising Chords (Part Three): The Difficult Chord

I am sure we can all identify a particular chord in a piece that causes us to stumble or fumble (and, under our breath, mumble). This could be because the chord is an awkward or unfamiliar shape for the hand, or because the way the chord is spelled is hard to read. We end up needing more thinking and preparing time than the music allows. The solution is to get it into the head as well as into the hand. The first thing to do is to analyse the chord, either theoretically or in simpler terms such as its shape, intervallic structure and patterns of black and white keys. Here is an isolated chord from Robert Muczynski’s highly effective Toccata, op. 15: There are two obvious ways of seeing this chord. Mentally changing the D flat in the LH to a C sharp, you can understand the shape as an augmented chord of A with two extra notes – a B flat in the LH and an E in the RH. Notice that the extra notes form a minor second, or a semitone with their neighbours. Alternatively, you can see it bitonally, as a chord of A major with an added minor sixth on top of a triad of B flat minor constructed on a bass A. Having understood the chord in whichever way is meaningful to you, here are some suggestions for practice: Play the three A’s, then fill in the rest of the chord Play the semitones (the A/B flat [LH] together with the E/F [RH]) then fill in the rest of the chord Play the LH B flat and the RH E then drop in the A augmented (and vice versa) Play the white […]

Practising Chords (Part Two): An Extract from Rachmaninov

In this post, I aim to give a thorough approach to practising an extract, the return of the “A” section from Rachmaninov’s famous warhorse, the Prelude in C sharp minor, op. 3 no. 2. I have chosen this because it is a good example of a reasonably extended stream of full fortississimo chords (interspersed with some double octaves) that uses the full range of the keyboard. It calls for a certain amount of stamina as well as an ability to measure distances accurately. The passage in question occupies four staves, two for the RH and two for the LH: Firstly, the right tool for the job is a strong grip in the hand to support the transfer of weight from the shoulders and upper body through the keys. The fingers will be in touch with the keyboard before the release of weight – certainly not landing from any sort of height, as this would produce bad sound, extraneous noise and there would be next to no control of right notes, let alone of voicing. Have the hands on the surface of the keys before playing, feeling the appropriate (strong) grip in the hand. Grip does not equal tension, at all. If you were transferring a fledging back to its nest, you would need a very different sort of grip in your hand from the one involved in carrying a tray of lasagne to the table (each of these braced conditions happening naturally and spontaneously with no need whatever for conscious thought). The best way is to imagine that with one thrust generated from the torso you are aiming to shove the piano through the wall ahead. It will be a short yet powerful burst of energy […]

Voicing Chords

A chord is officially two or more notes played simultaneously, but there are probably as many species of chords as there are of spiders. There is so much to say about practising chords that this is part one of a multi-part series of posts (not sure how many yet) on the subject. Except for percussive tone clusters, a chord on the piano is rarely intended as an amorphous blob of sound. It is a living organism where each finger involved contributes to the hierarchy of tonal priorities, so that the melody finger will be stronger than the filler (or harmony) notes. If both hands are involved, there will be this sense of top (melody) as well as bottom (bass), with harmony notes in between, graded by the ear of the individual player so that no two pianists will reproduce exactly the same tonal balance. I have often joked that piano playing would be easier if our hands were attached the other way round, so that strong thumbs (instead of puny pinkies) were on the outsides of the hands, and would be responsible for top melodies and foundation basses (the latter so often neglected). I am going to quote again from Heinrich Neuhaus’ The Art of Piano Playing (if there were one definitive book on piano playing, it would surely be this one). It is very appropriate here to remember that Anton Rubinstein called the two fifth fingers “conductors” leading the music. The limits of sound (both upper and lower) are to music what the frame is to a picture, the slightest blurr  [sic] (which is particularly frequent at the lower limit) in the bass results in a diffuse, shapeless picture; the musical composition then turns (as […]

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