examinations

“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 […]

Eat Your Greens!

It seems to me that a thorough knowledge of scales and arpeggios is an absolute necessity for all serious students of the piano. Western music is built on the major/minor tonal system, and to attempt to study the instrument without scales (or basic theory) would be as nonsensical as learning language without the alphabet or bothering with basic grammar. Of course scale playing serves a technical end, but I don’t think we can consider scales as mere warm-ups when the pinky gets used only once per scale, or in some cases not at all. I will often use scales as a vehicle for teaching something else. It might be to develop touches (one hand plays using one particular touch, and the other hand with another) or to abstract an issue from the complexities of the piece. Just yesterday, a student who brought along Debussy’s evergreen Clair de lune was struggling to feel the changes from the default triplet subdivisions of the main beat to the duplet ones. We used the scale of D flat major to help him feel the changes from “tri-po-let” to “du-plet”, with both hands playing in unison, and also with the LH playing in dotted crotchets: Practising scales two against three is also a great way to develop this necessary skill (when the LH plays in 3s, remember to start two octaves apart, to avoid the inevitable collision): If scales are the ABC of music, what about aural, sight reading and theory? All examination boards include tests in each of these areas 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 […]

By |December 14th, 2012|Practising|4 Comments

Q&A: Exam Preparation

A reader sent in the following question, to which I hope I have given an adequate response. Please feel free to leave comments and let’s start a discussion on the subject! ***   ***   *** Q. One subject I have always had conflicting feelings about is the preparation before an exam or performance – how do you handle the last week before the performance? The last morning before the performance? Do kids play ALL of their repertoire, or just the challenging parts? Or just warm up all morning with scales? It seems to be something that is an individual thing, but it is not something I can speak with much confidence about to my students. A. Thank you very much for the question, which I feel is an extremely good one. You are quite right when you say this is an individual thing, since no two people are alike. Therefore, I would not want to give a one-size-fits-all formula, but I think there is some general advice I can offer. From my experience, I believe we should all aim to be fully ready two to three weeks before the exam or concert, with everything. Last-minute panic learning is, for most of us, disastrous but then again there are those who seem to thrive on the adrenaline! I gave some of my best playing when I had to stand in for a colleague at very short notice, probably because I didn’t have time to get nervous, or maybe if things didn’t go according to plan I would have a very good reason. This only goes to show that, assuming we know what we are doing and have put in the work at some stage, a […]

A Prima Vista: Some Thoughts on Sight Reading

Sight reading is included in every graded examination. Few seem to excel at it, and many actively dread it. Even the best players are likely to drop marks in this area, and despite the numerous publications available nowadays to assist the learner, exam candidates are often reluctant to practise this much-needed skill. Thinking about the long-term benefits of taking piano lessons in childhood, surely an ability to read at sight, and learn a piece reasonably fast are equally if not more important than spending a year on three pieces, cosmetically tweaking and refining them parrot-fashion in order to gain a nice mark (and kudos for the teacher)? I firmly believe we should be teaching musical intelligence and comprehension in addition to technical and interpretative skills. There is nothing that infuriates me more than discovering someone supposedly in the higher grades unable to accompany a simple ensemble piece at sight, or play a solo piece half way through the year when they have forgotten their previous exam pieces and yet aren’t quite ready with the new ones. Expert sight readers are usually expert musicians, who are able to process the information on the page in their short-term memory and reproduce it instantly. This skill has to do with musical comprehension – scanning the page for key pieces of information and, frankly, making educated guesses as to what might be going on in one hand, and snap decisions as to what to leave out. A note-perfect mechanical rendition of a piece of sight reading is often less impressive than one that may have some note errors and omissions and yet which conveys musical character and meaning. TRIAL BY FIRE Sight reading was a skill I developed as […]

Keeping Repertoire Alive

It seems such a shame to spend all those hours learning a piece only to forget it after the exam or the recital. A piece, once learned, is an asset for the pianist and will need just a little maintenance every now and again to keep it in the fingers, to keep it alive. Maybe we can think of old pieces like departing friends whom we have come to know well. We have hung out with them and yet now it is time for them to leave. Do we escort them to the door with a sense of good riddance, or might we feel sad they are going and pledge to keep in touch? It depends on the piece of course, and probably our experience of playing it. I think our examination culture has a lot to answer for here – so often our associations are negative or stressful ones. As a professional pianist there have certainly been pieces I have learned for a specific occasion only to shelve them afterwards, but actually not that many! If I have liked or loved a piece, I will want to continue my relationship with it. I have an old filing card system near the piano, a sort of geriatric Rolodex now rather outdated. One of these days I will get around to putting it onto my computer, but in truth I’m rather fond of it. Each card contains the name of a work and the composer, and any important details (year of composition, etc.). I write the date I started learning it, and then the date and details of each performance. This way, I keep a living record of my repertoire. Each week I remove a card from […]