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The History of Piano Technique: Studies and Exercises

There has been much feedback and lively debate on last week’s post about Czerny and his legacy of studies and exercises. It seems some piano teachers firmly believe in assigning them, whereas others are dead against them. Some take the middle path and may use them (and studies by other composers) when necessary. When discussing this controversial subject, I feel there are certain things that need to be clarified. Let’s first of all distinguish between an exercise and and a study, since these two are certainly not the same thing: Exercise Often short – a contraption for practising and mastering a specific mechanical or technical goal Not usually very complex, with just one basic pattern (usually repeated several times) Easy to memorise No pretensions toward artistic merit Study A more extended composition with elements of musical form and structure  For practising and mastering a specific mechanical or technical goal May be satisfying for the player, not usually so for the listener! Concert Study  The artistic content is of sufficient quality that it can stand alone as a piece of music The listener can appreciate it as a work of art without the need to know anything of the demands it makes on the player One thing that strikes me a vital in all discussion on this subject, that should be emblazoned above the door on all practice rooms: HOW we do a study or exercise matters more than WHAT we do When I studied Peter Feuchtwanger’s exercises with him back in the early 90s, I quickly came to appreciate this truth. The exercises themselves would look simplistic on paper and actually cannot really be taught from the printed page. Proper realisation of them relies on demonstration […]

A Tool for Memory Work: Tracking

Memorising a piece takes plenty of time and energy, and requires a strategy more sophisticated than simply closing the score after several weeks of reading it. Some memory work is like buying insurance – you hope you’ll never actually need it! While some pianists memorise easily, others struggle with it and never really feel confident. We’ve all been in that horrible situation where for the life of us we can’t remember what comes next, even though we know we know the piece inside out and backwards. I have written in depth about memorisation – have a look at The Analytic Memory and Tools for Memorisation. Here is a tool for when you have done a certain amount of groundwork memorising a piece, but you want something extra to strengthen and test your memory – I call it tracking. You can use it for any piece, long or short and I guarantee it will work a treat. Mark the Score If you don’t want to mark up your original score, make a copy for the purposes of this exercise. Divide the piece up into meaningful units that you’re going to number like tracks on a CD. The tracks can be as long or as short as you want, but the unit you choose should at least be a phrase. You might prefer a longer section, but here short is good! I have divided up Chopin’s Nocturne in B, op. 32, no. 1 into 12 tracks in all. The score will end up looking something like this (I am showing page 1 only): Practice Suggestions With the marked score away from the piano (preferably over the other side of the room but certainly out of sight), here are some suggestions for […]

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, […]

Transposing the Difficult Spot

Vocal accompanists and repetiteurs need to develop the skills to transpose virtually at sight in order to accommodate the different voice types and the vocal ranges of the singers they work with, but transposition is also a valuable practice tool for the solo pianist. We can use transposition to build and test the aural and analytic memory for those pieces we need to memorise, and we can also use it for refining motor control and coordination in difficult passages. I explore both these areas thoroughly in Chapter 7 from Volume 3 of my ebook series, but I wanted to give an example of the benefits of transposing from a lesson I gave this week on Bach’s Italian Concerto. Having taught this piece dozens of times over the years, it comes as no surprise that I might have to help a student with the following bars (I have added my own performance suggestions, please excuse the absence of treble and bass clefs): This snippet occurs in three different guises in the first movement – the first time ending on the tonic, the second time on the dominant and the last time on the subdominant. Apart from a tied RH thumb and a modified LH in the last example, the notes and fingerings are the same. The RH seems to trip people up until its contents have been digested and the fingers organised, so how do we do this? Since Bach has been meticulous in showing the parts, we can at least do him the service of practising it thus. I especially like omitting the thumb and practising the upper two parts alone but playing the other combinations is valuable too. If we really want to take […]

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

The Analytic Memory

I have had several requests for an article on memorisation. Since I already wrote one last year for Pianist Magazine, entitled Mind Over Memory, I thought I would include it here. This is Part One, dealing with the most neglected aspect of memory, using one’s brain. Next week, I will give specific tools for memorisation. ***   ***   *** Mind Over Memory (Part One) What NOT to do: Learn the piece with the score until eventually you find you can play it without! While this method may work if you are playing in cosy situations (such as for yourself, a trusted teacher or a few friends), it will often let you down in a recital or exam when you are nervous because the stakes are higher. Why? Firstly, muscular memory tends to be easy come, easy go. Under the stress of performance, muscles tighten and the mind plays tricks that can cause memory cues to break down, sometimes irretrievably and always to the detriment of self confidence. Secondly, we must take steps to memorise actively, and not merely hope we remember. Given that the way we encode the information (practising) is vastly different from the way we decode it (performing), there is a considerable margin for error, and terror! I liken this to the tightrope artist who risks nothing when the rope is close to the ground, but everything when it is several meters up in the air. We have all found that as soon as we remove ourselves from our comfortable and familiar surroundings things can feel so totally different, as though we did not know the piece at all. To the student who complains that they can play it perfectly well at […]

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, […]

An Energy Saving Tip

The other day the bulb in my piano lamp blew. It was the only light I had on in the room, and because it was dark outside and I was too lazy to get up and turn the main lights on, I decided to carry on practising for a while in the pitch black. This showed me how much we all rely on the visual not only for obvious things like jumps but the eye is involved in so much of what we do, often unnecessarily and distractingly so. Years ago I recall a moment where, in recital, I closed my eyes. This was quite unpremeditated and unconscious, and yet there was a stray thought that went through my mind as I did it that this was a bit of a risky thing to do. I think I probably wanted to eliminate all other distractions and be left with just the sound so I could feel it and shape it, and live it. I certainly remember feeling very connected to the music at the time. While I am not suggesting you follow my example in public (I doubt I will repeat this myself), I do think practising in the dark, or with eyes closed, is a very good practice tool. The obvious benefit is an immediate sharpening of our senses of hearing and touch, and if we can manage jumps with our eyes closed, think how much easier they will be when we open them again. In some ways, switching off the lights is better because chances are you will doubtless cheat if you simply close your eyes! Another benefit is that you will also be making a small saving on your energy bill. Some […]

More on Passagework

Last week’s post on passagework dealt with a fair amount of mechanics. Here, I would like to outline a process which strengthens everything – the ear, the memory and the muscles (more accurately, the reflex arc) and provides some variety in the practising routine. Let us take this section from Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca (the last movement of the Sonata in A, K.331). I am choosing this example because it is very simply constructed – the right hand spinning patterns made from turns and scale passages over a left hand chord progression, oom-cha-cha-cha style. Assuming we have already done a certain amount of the mechanical work I discussed last week, and plan to return to this regularly, we can include other forms of practising. The process I am suggesting involves playing the LH intact and complete at all times, impeccably shaped and articulated, and up to speed. Thus, there will be a feeling of a bass line (the first note in each bar), lightness in the repeated chords and a sense of the harmonic direction (the relative intensity level of each chord in the progression). Once we have built the LH to our satisfaction, we then add pre-selected parts of the RH. We might start with the upbeat to every other bar, stopping on the first beat of the next bar: Then either add a few more notes to this: …or do something different, thus: There is one thing to be aware of, and that is the finger you will be starting on each time. This might not be written in the score, either by the editor or by you, because it would be obvious in the context. However, if you are deliberately interrupting the […]

Silent Practice: The Art of Inner Listening

Somewhat reluctantly, I have just sold on my Virgil Practice Clavier, having watched it gather dust and take up space for the past few years. For those of you too young to remember Joseph Cooper’s dummy keyboard on the BBC2 panel show “Face The Music”, a Virgil is a practice piano with adjustable sprung and weighted keys, and the only sounds it is capable of producing are clicks as the keys go down, and/or clicks as the keys come up (you can select the up-click, the down-click, both clicks or neither). If you turn the spring to its maximum, you get a key resistance that would challenge even Popeye on spinach day, or you can set it to an effortless “light” (and with all degrees in between). The clicks are supposed to indicate rhythmic accuracy, or (if you have both up and down clicks switched on) how precise your legato is (if the up-click and the next down-click coincide, then you will have made a textbook key connection). Panelists on the show would have to guess what piece was being played just from the rhythm of the clicks (the audience at home helped along by a soundtrack that would fade in after a while). SILENT PRACTICE NO. 1 Due to force of circumstance, I once had to learn a substantial recital programme of music for cello and piano (including the Chopin Sonata) on one of these devices. I was staying somewhere with no piano, and this portable contraption could be moved into my room easily by two people. To my surprise, I found the work very congenial! I was able to hear in my head the sounds my fingers would have been making, and in some […]

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