further reading

The Myth of Perfection

The Myth of Perfection was first published in February of 2014. I’ve decided to republish as part of this summer holiday series of posts from the past, in the hope that it will give a little perspective on the subject. ***   ***   *** Many of us are caught in the trap of perfectionism, and yet attaining flawlessness is so anti-human. Music played perfectly would actually be boring and predictable – what makes performance interesting is the human element, and what makes it electrifying is the element of risk when the performer is pushing the boundaries of what is possible or imaginable (and might even teeter over the edge here and there). Here’s what Beethoven had so say about this! To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable. No live performance can ever truly be note-perfect, and no single interpretation can ever be the one true realisation of the musical possibilities of particular piece. It’s precisely this difference between the ideal and the reality where the humanity of musical performance lies, and the wrong notes in Alfred Cortot’s recordings matter not one iota to the communication of the music’s beauty. I would even go as far as to say it what makes me love his recordings all the more – they show greatness and fallibility at the same time. The problem is that audiences raised on a steady diet of today’s recordings (often a collection of the best takes spliced together) only recognise the perfection possible in that scenario, and are unprepared for live performances. Perfectionism has been defined in psychology as: A personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical […]

Resources for Studying Bach

Quite a lot of my students bring the works of JS Bach to lessons, which is always a delight. I often find myself directing them to various different sources to enhance their study of this music, so I thought I would put a few of these together for ease of reference. I hope you will find these resources useful and interesting. I am also hoping you will send me your links, which I will add to this post. Since Bach’s music is contrapuntal, even in the simplest works, we need to know how to listen to, balance, blend and articulate two or more independent lines simultaneously. If we have been brought up on a path from the Anna Magdalene Notebook to the Little Preludes and the Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias, we will be able to tackle the Preludes and Fugues from the ’48’, not to mention the suites. Before that, listen to what Rosalyn Tureck brought to some of the baby pieces (click here) Resources for ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier” Anatomy of a fugue (click here) How to analyse a fugue (click here) Ebenezer Prout’s analyses (click here) Siglind Bruhn’s homepage (with analyses) (click here) Cecil Gray’s analyses (not at all dry, poetic and rather lovely actually!) (click here) Yo Tomita’s website (click here) Performing Bach’s fugues on the piano (David Korevaar) (click here) Dr. Philip Goeth’s website, containing much material of interest (click here) Recordings Anyone can trawl YouTube and find recordings easily. Here are just three (of very many) worthy of attention. András Schiff’s recording of Book 1 (click here) Samuil Feinberg‘s recording of Book 2 (click here) Gustav Leonhardt’s recording of Book 1 (harpsichord) (click here) Here are my suggestions for fugue practice […]

South London Concert Series

On Friday evening I was delighted to attend the launch of an exciting new venture, the South London Concert Series at the 1901 Arts Club. The brainchild of the indefatigable duo, Lorraine Liyanage and Frances Wilson, this series developed out of the London Piano Meetup Group, which they co-host. Lorraine and Frances are both passionate advocates of amateur pianism, and wanted to give adult amateur pianists the opportunity to perform in a formal concert setting on a concert instrument (a Steinway C).   What makes this series different and original is the idea to give young and emerging professional artists exposure and support as they embark on a performing career by placing professionals and amateurs in the same concert. The first guest recitalist was Helen Burford, a Brighton-based pianist with a keen interest in contemporary British and American repertoire and an unerring ability to create exciting programmes with unusual musical juxtapositions. Helen’s beautifully presented programme began with Chick Corea’s Three Piano Improvisations followed by Incarnation II by Japanese composer Somei Satoh, a single Scarlatti sonata, Martin Butler’s Rumba Machine, ending with David Rakowski’s Etude: A Gliss is Just a Gliss. The excellent supporting players were Mark Zarb-Adami, Emma Heseltine, Susan Pickerill and Daniel Roberts. The concert was short (about an hour) and the music varied and unusual – what made this really special was the format, repertoire and the most lovely, intimate venue a stone’s throw from Waterloo station. Afterwards, there was the opportunity to meet the performers and socialise with other music lovers over a glass of bubbly in the upstairs bar and sitting room. The first SLCS concert of 2014 with Emmanuel Vass is already sold out. Further concerts take place in March, May, July and September. Full details of upcoming events are on the SLCS […]

By |December 1st, 2013|News|2 Comments

The Pot-Bellied Monster

Heinrich Neuhaus spoke of the pot-bellied monster, a fault in piano playing where the harmony swallows both bass and melody. I find myself discussing the layering of sound all the time with my students, the ability to do this skillfully is such a crucial aspect of fine piano playing. If we want to build a hierarchical sound where we can sense foreground, background and middle ground it is not just the volume that counts, but also the texture – the type of touch we use within a given dynamic level. In this example from Schubert’s G flat Impromptu, it is not hard to see that the harmonic middle needs to be played more softly than the top melody, but the rippling quavers also need to be extremely even tonally and yet rhythmically structured. An impressionistic wash won’t do here: Whenever we see fortissimo, it is as though there were an unspoken command that we’ve got to try and play everything on the page as loudly as possible. Let’s now look at the climax of Rachmaninov’s beautiful Elegie that someone brought to their lesson today: The three-layered structure is clear here, with the main melodic line in the RH, the bass A (that needs to last all the way through the two bars in one long, deep pedal) and the middle part. Now, this middle part supplies not only the harmonic filling but also forward momentum and a certain turbulence but it should not be on the same tonal level as the top or bottom. Experiment with omitting the middle part completely and you will discover that you can already achieve an ample triple fortissimo without it, especially if you have wrung out the maximum amount of good quality […]

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

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 […]

The Monkey And The Typewriter

If you gave an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, would they eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? This favourite question of barstool philosophers seems relevant to us pianists when it comes to why we do what we do as we practise. Eavesdropping outside practice rooms (as I have been known to do), it seems that after countless repetitions an interpretation, or a solution to a problem, is supposed to emerge fully formed out of thin air. If I hack away at it for long enough, I’m bound to get there eventually… This week I was directed to a short video clip of Leon Fleisher. He is coaching a group of students, and quotes from his teacher, Artur Schnabel: “Hear before you play. If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident, and everything is built then on an accident.” Leon Fleisher, Carnegie Hall YouTube Channel Liszt had a similar maxim: Think Ten Times, Play Once. The problem with embracing this in our practising is the mistaken belief that unless we are moving our fingers, training muscles and making sounds, we are not really practising. In reality, thinking ten times and playing once would mean pausing regularly in our practising, awakening our imagination, inwardly hearing how we want the phrase to sound, rehearsing this in our mind until it is vivid, and only then playing. Extremely challenging, enough to try the patience of a saint, surely? As a student, I recall lessons where my teacher would talk about a passage in my piece with such incredible insight, making the character and the meaning so vivid and real to me that the penny dropped and I would replay with […]

By |September 5th, 2012|Performing|4 Comments

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 […]

Some Useful Books

It’s that festive time of year, and you may want to do a little book shopping. Here is a selection of books on piano playing that are at the top of my list, presented here in no particular order. I have, inevitably, missed out many others – perhaps I can save those for another post! The Art of Piano Playing – Heinrich Neuhaus If you like the idea of tracing your pianistic lineage (which I don’t actually), Neuhaus is my “grandfather” via my final teacher, Nina Svetlanova who studied with him for many years. This book is arguably the best single book on piano playing, which it discusses in every aspect from the physical to the philosophical. It is a mine of information and anecdote, and no serious pianist should be without it on their bookshelf. *** The Art of Piano Playing – George Kochevitsky I discovered this book as a postgraduate student and again I would recommend it to everyone (especially piano teachers) as it discusses areas not covered in most books on the subject. Kochevitsky delves into the history of piano playing from the finger school to the anatomic-physiological school to more modern schools where the mind plays a vital part. There is a lot of invaluable scientific information on the central nervous system and the role of neurophysiology. The book is short, easy to read and contains illustrations and a very full bibliography. *** Pianists at Play – Dean Elder This inspiring book is a collection of interviews, master lessons and technical regimes culled from issues of Clavier Magazine over the years. It features such luminaries as Artur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Casadesus, Serkin, Lili Kraus, Bachauer, and many other great pianists and […]

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.

Close