fingering

Top Tips for Choosing Fingering

If you are a serious student of the piano you will certainly want to use an Urtext edition where applicable. Some Urtext scores come with no fingering, but others contain fingerings that are by an editor. The fingerings might be excellent (they often are not, by the way), but because this is one level of the score that is not usually Urtext (namely from the composer) they do not have to be obeyed. What about fingerings that do come from the composers themselves – are we duty-bound to stick to these? Absolutely not! The composer’s hand was also unique, just like yours and mine. There can be no standardisation of fingering, no matter whether it is from the composer, an editor, or a teacher. The only correct fingering is the one that works for your hand. Fingering in any score is a suggestion only! Once a fingering has been selected, practising always with that fingering means that after a while the series of finger strokes will become automated – we will not have to think about which finger goes where because when we master a new motor skill, we go from active effort (thinking and concentrating) to automatic ability. If we haven’t taken the trouble to organise a good fingering or we practise with different fingerings each time, we make life difficult for ourselves – especially if we are preparing a memorised performance. Practice makes permanent, so whatever we engrave on our motor cortex is going to stick. This is why it is very difficult to correct embedded errors later – and this includes sloppy fingering. I have just written three articles on fingering for Pianist Magazine – the first two are already published, and the third (on redistribution) […]

Spring Cleaning a Repertoire Piece

Do you have a favourite piece you just love to play, but end up feeling disappointed that you’re just not doing the piece (or yourself) justice each time you drag it off the shelf? If you learned it thoroughly from the start, remember with anything we play we can’t just put a cork in the bottle and expect the genie to emerge fit and healthy after the passage of time. Some of the great pianists have described the process of relearning, restudying or resurrecting works that they may not have played for a while but there is no pianist worth his or her salt who does not labour in the practice room. Shura Cherkassky described his practising thus: I practise by the clock, for me this is the only way. Four hours a day. If I wasn’t absolutely rigid about the whole thing I’d go to pieces. You need iron discipline – sheer will power. So many great talents disappear about a short while because they get conceited and don’t work properly anymore. You have to work all the time. (From an interview with Stephen Hough, 1991) I would like to propose a challenge. Take a piece you would really like to get on top of, but have never felt totally comfortable with – probably something you have never really done the basic groundwork with. Decide on a timeframe that is meaningful and realistic to you and set aside a certain amount of time daily to attend to this task. It might be a week, it might be a month. You are about to undertake a commitment to a process, the end result of which will be palpable and well worth the effort. Before embarking on this, […]

By |February 14th, 2014|Practising|7 Comments

Top Ten Tips to Maximise Your Practice

At the start of the New Year, everyone is making resolutions. I have noticed that these usually have to do with self discipline – not eating or drinking so much and exercising more seem to top the list. Piano practice, in order to be effective, must be disciplined. If there is no thought or organisation behind our work, it will be hard to find the impetus to make a regular commitment. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics just round the corner, I think of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to each day in their training regimes. We pianists have to train also – countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! It seems timely to republish one of my most popular blog posts, so here are a few tips (in no particular order) that will help you get the most out of your practice time. A Teacher. Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a restarter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons. Commitment. Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. “Little and often” will help you achieve FAR more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to […]

Take a Rest

Following on from last week’s post on the floating fermata, I would like to share another practice idea involving the planning of deliberate stops. Instead of an arbitrary length of time at the stop, it can be very helpful to insert a rest of determinate length. The benefit here is that we can think in units, an impulse that spans a measured number of beats. During the rest, we can plan ahead and refocus our mind and muscles before restarting. It is rather difficult to inhibit our natural tendency to want to play on, especially as we are being very exact about the stops. This process gives us enhanced technical control of the passage and will help us to avoid rushing in the finished product. It is also an excellent way to secure the memory (if the practice is done from memory!). I have chosen as my example the two-voice fugue from the first movement of Bach’s Partita in C minor precisely because it is 62 bars of uninterrupted music where the terrain does not change and where there is no let-up. Here is a snippet from bar 13: Good fingering is an absolute as far as I’m concerned, one that has been worked out, written in the score and adhered to every time we practise. Regular separate-hand practice is also obvious and indispensable, not only when we are learning the notes but to be returned to regularly thereafter. Assuming we are now ready to bring the playing up to speed, we might experiment imagining a change of time signature from 3/4 to 4/4 and practise with moveable rests, thus: Here are some variations on this theme: Vary the length of the rest – it […]

Marking the Score

The other day I opened up a working score of the Frank Bridge Sonata I inherited from one of my teachers, Peter Wallfisch, and was struck by all the markings he had added. Some of these make obvious sense, performance directions such as “rall”, “late” and “canto”. Another word – “spell” – presumably means either that each note needed a certain clarity or that there was some magical atmosphere he wanted to create. There are copious fingerings, as well as more arcane squiggles in at least three different colour crayons that he obviously needed for personal reasons but which make little sense to the casual observer. I had to smile, as I suddenly remembered a word Peter had written in the last movement of my score of the Chopin op. 35 Sonata. It was totally illegible to me for many years. Each time I played the sonata I would stare at this word trying to decipher the scrawl, but I could never make out what it was. And then one day – eureka, I finally saw it. “Hallucinatory” was what he had written! My last teacher, Nina Svetlanova, almost never wrote anything in my score. A student of Neuhaus, she had inherited an opposite tradition. If something was important enough it would resonate deeply within you and no markings were necessary. Fingering For me, working out a fingering that suits my hand is absolutely essential.  I am a stickler for fingering as I know that with regular repetition, the muscular movements become reflex. This bypasses the need for conscious thought about what note or what finger comes next, freeing the mind to focus on the musical intent. Fingerings that appear in editions are generic, designed to suit […]

Firm Foundations

A late, esteemed colleague who had amazing sight reading skills once told me he never read through more than once a new piece he was about to learn. It was just too risky for him – on a second reading he would already have been forming habits that would hinder him in the finished version, when it eventually rolled off the other end of the production line. This might be sloppy fingering, sketching (rather than etching) accompanimental figuration, or even learned-in wrong notes. Yes, practice makes permanent and habits are formed alarmingly quickly. Let’s make sure they are good habits rather than bad ones. A mañana attitude to proper learning of a piece, while giving us a limited amount of instant pleasure is actually the shoddiest possible of foundations if we have any aspirations to perform it at any point in the future. If we allow ourselves repeated buskings where we guess at those passages we don’t have the patience to work out thoroughly, or gloss over others where our random fingering is clearly not working, we can expect a shoddy end result – no matter how much time we put in later. By then it is often too late, and we can expect to reap what we have sown, no matter how lofty our vision of the music or how talented we are. Just think how much time, energy and money has been spent today propping up The Leaning Tower of Pisa compared with how much it cost to erect it in the first place! Good practice habits not only enable us to feel good about our work and about our playing, they allow a structure to emerge from rock, enabling it to withstand the forces of […]

Contrapuntal Playing: The Art Of Disentanglement

On my shelves, I have several copies of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, ranging from modern Urtexts to some dodgy editions by luminaries of yesteryear, with fancy performance directions, dynamics and phrasings, and even corrections to the text. It can be interesting to try out some of the performing solutions offered by these various editors, many of the ideas are good ones. Even though I always prefer the Urtext, I am fond of my old Tovey edition in particular – it is familiar, not loaded with graffiti, and Tovey’s observations and commentaries always shed light. I remember to this day my frustration with the first fugue I ever studied, as I struggled to manage the counterpoint – one finger needed to stay down while others lifted up around it but my hands would not cooperate. This would have been easier had I practised some preliminary exercises in finger independence – I suggest the first few from Dohnanyi’s Essential Finger Exercises to prepare the hand for contrapuntal playing. I have since devised my own little contraptions, where the one hand has to deal with a cross rhythm in two voices, played legato. I am particular that keys are released very precisely in each voice, with no overhang and with no gaps. After some dexterity has been achieved, we play these exercises using two dynamic levels, and then using different touches within the hand. Playing a number of the Two- and Three-Part Inventions (Sinfonias) of Bach prepares us beautifully for fugal playing, since these pieces teach us to think and listen in lines. Strands Separately – Not Hands  I’m a stickler for practising fugues one voice at a time, and in all possible combinations and permutations of voices, not […]

Top Ten Tips to Maximise your Practising

I have had a lot of requests for this article, which first appeared in Pianist Magazine last year. Here it is! With the Olympics very much in the news at the moment, I think of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to each day in their training regimes. We pianists have to train also – countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! Here are a few tips, in no particular order, that will help you get the most out of your practice time. A Teacher. Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a restarter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons. Commitment. Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. “Little and often” will help you achieve FAR more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to put a little time in at the beginning of the day, and again later – whatever works for you. Organisation. Divide up what you have to do into compartments, such as scales and technical work, pieces, sight reading, etc. You may find it helpful to keep a practice diary, and a scale chart is also a good idea. Concentration […]

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 […]

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