Trinity Syllabus – More Videos!

As part of the Online Academy’s series on Trinity College London’s current syllabus, I am happy to announce that three more video walkthroughs have been added – with plenty more to come. This week we are presenting one new piece from each of grades 5, 6, 7, and 8, beginning with the Moderato from Diabelli’s rather charming Sonatina in F, op. 168 no. 1 (Grade 5). Grade 5 (alternative) – Diabelli: Moderato (from Sonatina in F, op 168 no 1) Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) was an Austrian music publisher, editor and composer. Today he is most familiar as the composer of the waltz on which Beethoven wrote his set of 33 Diabelli Variations, but he also wrote a number of sets of sonatinas that are certainly worth playing, and which make very good teaching pieces. The first movement of the  F major sonatina is a model of sonata form in miniature, and an ideal piece for the intermediate player to learn about form and structure. In this video walkthrough, I demonstrate the art of finger pedalling in the left hand Alberti patterns to create resonance by hand (instead of by foot, which would cloud the texture too much). I also show how to use deconstruction techniques in a tricky left hand passage to improve control and coordination. To watch the full video walkthrough, click here Grade 6 – Max Reger: Versöhnung (Reconciliation) Max Reger’s Versöhnung (Reconciliation) demands from the player a vivid imagination, and the ability to tell a story in sound. This delightful late Romantic piece describes a character asking someone to be their friend again after a disagreement – pleading, commiserating and even dancing to win back their affection. In the video walkthrough, I show how to project a melody […]

Zen In The Art Of Plate Spinning

I am sure we have all seen that circus act where the showman puts a few plates on some poles, sets them spinning and then adds more plates to more poles. He keeps on doing this until there is a bewildering array. He needs to keep returning to the original plates before they run out of spin, and the excitement of the act is wondering how he can possibly keep all this going with no breakages with just one pair of hands. Preparing a programme for recital or examination poses similar logistical problems. How do we ensure that all components of our programme peak together on the day, and how do we plan our day-to-day practising so we give enough attention to everything and neglect nothing? This takes some planning, as well as some know-how. Routine I’m a great believer in making lists, or rotas, but flexible ones that take into account the realities of life and also that leave room for spontaneity. Rigid schedules are impractical and demotivating, since they are impossible to stick to. However you plan your work, you will absolutely need to get into a routine. A regular routine helps us to frame our work so that the act of practising becomes a habit. Sure, this takes discipline, but nothing worth achieving is possible without steely determination and self-discipline. Therefore, it is extremely helpful to set aside a regular time during the day for practice. This gives us direction and impetus. Since no two people are the same, it is impossible to come up with an exact formula for the length of time needed, or the best format to organise our work. Some people work best in the morning, others later in the […]

There’s a Hole in my Bucket

Imagine a situation where you have to fetch water using a bucket. The problem is your bucket has a few holes in it, and on the journey from the well to your bathtub most of the water leaks away. You’ve got two choices – either make dozens of journeys before the tub is filled, or fix the bucket! Now imagine you are preparing a recital or examination programme, and there are holes in that. That part of your fugue where you know you haven’t organised a good enough fingering, those few bars on the third page of your Schumann that always seem to trip you up, and you’ve never quite sorted out the coda in the first movement of your Beethoven sonata. Of course, you will finally start practising your scales soon, it’s just that there never seems to be enough time to practise the pieces… How tempting it is, having become aware of these issues, to carry on playing with thoughts like: “Oh darn, that keeps happening. Still, let’s hope it will correct itself tomorrow”. This is rather like trying to enjoy a bicycle ride in the countryside aware you have a slow puncture or your saddle is loose. The Pareto Principle The Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 Rule, is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who had a eureka moment when he made two unrelated observations. He noticed that during 1906, 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pea pods! This principle is widely used in the fields of business- and time management, and is very useful to know about in relation to practising […]

Managing Arpeggios

Scales and arpeggios are an important part of the developing pianist’s technical regime, especially for those who go through graded examinations. Having looked at scale playing in recent posts, I thought I would explore arpeggios a little. Arpeggio playing relies on similar technical skills to scale playing, only an arpeggio is more demanding for two main reasons: A scale is built up of eight notes per octave (counting the key note twice), the arpeggio four (for major or minor). Thus, arm and whole-body movements are twice as fast in an arpeggio. The greater distance the thumb has to cover compounds the difficulty – in a scale the distance from one thumb note to the next is a fourth or a fifth, in an arpeggio it is a whole octave. Unless the correct technical conditions are met precisely, an arpeggio is likely to be accident-prone and to feel awkward and precarious – like walking on ice. The Arm Looking at a beautifully controlled and choreographed arpeggio, we notice a smoothness and fluidity in the way both arms move across the keyboard, seamlessly connected together and describing a gentle curve. If the arpeggio is played continuously as though on a loop, the curve turns into a figure of eight (or the infinity symbol), all angles rounded out. My general advice for arpeggios is to hold the elbows slightly higher than in scale playing. There will be a bit more space under the arms, as though a current of air from beneath were lifting the arms up slightly so that they appear to float. The golden rule is never drop the elbow down onto the thumb!  The Thumb There are three main approaches to the thumb in arpeggio playing, all […]

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 […]

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

Scale Generator

I am busy writing Part 3 of my eBook series, Practising the Piano, a volume on scales and arpeggios. After outlining the basic skills needed, I look at both scales and arpeggios from the point of view of elementary, intermediate and advanced level players. There are lots of demonstrations on the main technical points as well as exercises, suggestions for practice, and ideas to keep scale playing interesting and vibrant. This should be available for purchase very soon. One of the interactive tools we are developing for the publication is a “scales generator” which randomly selects scales to play from a prescribed list.  I am very excited to be able to introduce a demo version of it to you now in advance! At present it is still in the beta testing stage, so we would value your comments and suggestions. Any feedback you have is helpful so we can improve this. At present only ABRSM Grades 1 and 5 are available, but we will be including all the grades from 1 to 8. To test out the generator, please click here. Please leave your comments, suggestions and feedback at the bottom of this page. Thank you in advance!    

By |February 25th, 2014|News|9 Comments

“But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!”

One of the saddest things about our exam culture is spending the best part of a year on three pieces and a bunch of scales, polishing every little detail until perfect. A couple of weeks after the exam, the student has nothing to play because they have forgotten their old pieces and won’t be ready with the new ones for a while yet. This structure means they often have very poor reading skills and are ill-equipped as practical musicians. It is hard to fathom is that a supposedly advanced piano student with years of lessons behind them would not be able to get up and play Happy Birthday by ear at a party, or to read at sight simple accompaniments when called upon to do so. A very distinguished colleague who taught high-level conservatory students would only ever hear a piece once or twice. Even first year students had to bring something new each week, and while the pressure was often quite intense every single one of them developed the skills to assimilate music very quickly. They had to! Apart from playing extremely well, the best of them became excellent sight readers capable of working out complex scores within a few days. They were flexible and marketable pianists with a large repertoire, just what you want from a conservatory education. Quick Studies Not every one of our students would be able to handle this sort of pressure of course, and don’t get me wrong – spending weeks and months polishing and refining certain pieces is absolutely imperative! There is no way we can develop pianistic excellence and finesse without this. To redress the balance between the type of painstaking and time-consuming practise involved in perfecting a piece and the […]

Playing by Ear

I had an email from a reader asking how he could learn to play by ear, so here are some random thoughts on the subject. When we play by ear we play an existing piece heard before, without using the notes. Mozart is reported to have learned Allegri’s Miserere from one hearing, after which he wrote it out from memory. I am sure there are other similar stories from prodigious musical figures throughout history, but mere mortals can certainly develop the skills to improve our ear and at the same time our understanding of keyboard geography, musical structure and harmony. Ear training (or aural training as we tend to call it in the UK) is absolutely vital for any musician and, like harmony and theory, shouldn’t be thought of as a separate subject in the context of the weekly lesson. All these areas of music can be integrated into the lesson and during our practice. Examination boards include tests in aural and sight reading for a very good reason – to aid and abet in the process of forming an all-round musician. The more theory you know, the more you appreciate how music is built. You will also be able to decode the information from the printed page more quickly and with deeper understanding, and as a result of this you will have the skills to read at sight, to learn pieces more quickly, efficiently and thoroughly and (not least) to memorise. I find it sad that many young pianists’ experience of piano playing is restricted to sitting one grade exam after the other, sticking with three pieces and a bunch of scales for the best part of a year. Playing by ear, reading at sight, […]

Keep Calm and Carry On Practising

When I was on the selection committee for the 11th Unisa International Piano Competition, we listened to two solid days of audio recordings, one after the other. Our selection of those pianists who would go forward into the competition was made purely by listening – we weren’t given their names, ages or any other information about the entrants, they had to make their impression on us solely by the sounds they made. There are viral performance on YouTube of young pianists playing their exam pieces. Judging by the number of hits and likes they receive, they are (all) destined to be the next Horowitz. I wonder if the wow factor has anything to do with the antics they have been taught to do, such as swaying around and flailing their bodies across the keyboard? This may look impressive to the layman, but I would invite you to experience such a performance in two ways. Mute the sound and just watch. Now for the acid test, replay the clip but turn the screen off and just listen. Doing this experiment, I have been struck by the disparity between the way the playing has been packaged to look and the actual quality in terms of skill – musical comprehension and technique. There’s something of a gulf here. In my adjudication work I notice constantly how excessive physical mannerisms detract from the quality of the playing. It is often the most musically intense who seem to need to do this. In their desire to be expressive, their bodies contort as a substitute for the real thing – having a sound in their head and calling on the body to produce the sound in the most natural and economical […]

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