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Overpracticers Hanonymous

It is not so much what we practise, but how; it is the quality rather than the quantity that matters. We need a specific aim when practising an exercise, a piece, a phrase or anything else come to that – we simply can’t afford to go onto autopilot, think of what we’re going to have for dinner and hope the fingers will somehow do it all by themselves. The daily ablution of dull finger exercises (in C major) seems to encourage this, however. The three books that make up The Virtuoso Pianist by Charles-Louis Hanon have been a mainstay with piano students since they were first published in 1872. It is interesting to note that Hanon had up until then been active as an organist and, through his own publishing house, had published various works, mostly method books. He was not known as a pianist. Because of its success in the Exposition Universelle (Paris’ third World’s Fair) in 1878, as well as through his acute business acumen, Hanon managed to get The Virtuoso Pianist accepted into various conservatories, and it was quickly adopted by piano students. And they are still at it! I wouldn’t want you to think I am dead against these exercises. While they certainly do have their uses if done intelligently, they are so often done mindlessly, and lend themselves to this treatment. This is one of their pitfalls. The instruction to crank up the metronome with each repetition already implies a lot of extra time, as does having to play through a whole book in one sitting. Time that might be better spent on music? For those aspiring to serious pianist status, knowing they have to practise for x number of hours per day, Hanon is a gift! It […]

By |September 11th, 2011|Practising|4 Comments

Practising Softly

One of the most skillful and useful ways to practise is softly, especially loud passages. Let me start with an anecdote. In the early 80s I had the great good fortune to have a few lessons with Andras Schiff at the start of my postgraduate studies in New York. I remember one occasion when I arrived at the building and, having been admitted by the doorman, made my way to the apartment. As I walked down the corridor, I heard Andras Schiff practising, but extremely softly. Fascinated by what I was hearing, I was in no hurry to press the buzzer. Assuming this had something to do with neighbours and decibel levels, I was surprised to learn that he always practised softly, saving fortes and fortissimos for the concert stage. My teacher at the time, Nina Svetlanova, was always telling us the same thing; this seemed to be a theme of her teaching, it would be mentioned at each lesson. The way we produce sound at the piano is to depress keys (a vertical activity) whereas music tends to move in horizontal lines. While the distance the key has to travel from top to bottom remains the same whether we are playing soft or loud, fast or slow, the energy used to play forte or fortissimo is greater, as is the key speed (the speed at which the key descends) and the recovery time at the key bed (for a skilled pianist, we are talking about tiny fractions of a second). Physical problems in loud playing come from an excess use of force, and a slow recovery. This translates into tension, which gets carried from one event to the next. The sound gets rougher and rougher, […]

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