Practising on Tour

I have been away for the past three weeks on a concert and teaching tour of Singapore and Australia, the focus of my work there was three performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I thought it might be of interest – and hopefully of use – to talk about how I prepared this magnum opus for performance having not played it at all in about a decade, and how I approached the practice time I had while on the tour itself. Quite early on in the life of this blog I devoted a whole post to how I set about learning the Goldberg Variations in the first place, very much an obsession and a labour of love. Sometime last year, I was engaged by the Kawai Series at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane to play the Goldberg this Easter; a piece eminently suitable in its grandeur and magnificence for such a Festival (especially given Bach’s own strong religious views). I played the Shigeru Kawai, the model EX concert grand, and wonderful it was too! From this engagement, I was also invited to play at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore, and on the Team of Pianists’ series in Melbourne. In addition to my performances, I gave masterclasses and taught a fair number of individual lessons as well as giving a lecture for the Piano Pedagogy programme at the Queensland Con. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these experiences. I started to resurrect the Goldberg Variations just before Christmas, figuring that I would need four months to get the piece back into my fingers and into my head. This would also allow enough time for what I can only describe as the Olympian training component – regular […]

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 […]

Preparing the Canvas

With the advent of the summer holidays, a lot of piano students will be learning new pieces. On the proceeds of lessons, we piano teachers will be sunning ourselves in the Algarve and our students beavering away with little or no supervision until September. Do we simply chuck a couple of pieces at them and hope they deliver? Before we can come up with a plan, we need to distinguish between a piece that may be in the ear already and a piece that is totally unfamiliar. In the first instance, we can get straight to the keyboard and begin work, in the second, we will need to do some groundwork. Even though I have not played Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto myself, I have a very distinct aural map of the work, familiar with it through performances and recordings over the years, and from having taught it on several occasions. I already have a very clear understanding of the piece and how it should feel and sound and can justly claim that I know it. If I decided to learn it, more than half the battle would already have been won since I would just need to get the notes into my fingers (no small task in itself, I would add). If I were learning a new piece from scratch having no prior knowledge of it, I would need to dig some foundations before I approached the work at the keyboard. The obvious first solution to this would be to listen to a bunch of recordings (so instantly available to all of us nowadays) probably while following the score. In addition – or perhaps even beforehand – I would want to scrutinise the score and […]

The Three S’s (Part Three)

And so to the last installment of “The Three S’s” – “Sections”. I realise I am in danger of repeating myself here – much of what is contained in this post has been mentioned in previous ones – but for the sake of completeness, a little recapitulation isn’t a bad thing. We practise in sections as a way of processing and digesting information easily, much as we eat a meal in bite-size chunks. While the association of meal times and repeating is (in most cultures) considered ill-mannered, at the piano we will need to repeat our small sections in order to correct, refine, polish and – not least – to form a habit that can be automatic and which bypasses the need for conscious control. Nobody formed a habit by doing something just once, no matter how well. All it takes to form a habit is repetition, but as I have already pointed out, we need to make sure that what we are repeating is as good as it possibly can be, since every part of what we are repeating will be ingrained. There was one time I was practising a passage and (quite contrary to my own instructions about total concentration) I suddenly remembered there was someone I had forgotten to call. For the next half hour that person shared the stage with Beethoven, after which I got up from the piano and dealt with it. Lo and behold, the next day the instant I came to that place in the piece, that person popped into my head again. I am sure this must be related to NLP in some way. Since we are likely to bring with us onto the stage whatever thoughts […]

The Three S’s (Part One)

I couldn’t get far into this blog without talking about one of my mantras, “The Three S’s”. That (for me) stands for “SLOWLY, SEPARATELY, SECTIONS”, despite the array of alternative possibilities on google. This is a neat way of referring to nitty-gritty practising – the sort of thing we do to learn notes, develop reflexes and form habits, to revive old pieces, and to memorise. In a nutshell, the basis of craftsmanlike, disciplined work. The tripartite title lends itself to three separate blogposts, and as a follow-up to the last post on practising the Goldberg Variations, I would like to start with “SEPARATELY”. (“SLOWLY” to follow next week.) I am a great believer in practising hands separately, especially the left hand (the hand one does not always actively listen to). There is no better test of memory than playing the left hand (from memory, of course) from beginning to end. The same goes for the right hand. One thing I do with students, and this is not a comfortable process, is to get them to start with one hand. As soon as I clap my hands, they have to remove the hand they are playing and go directly to the other hand, without stopping. They won’t know when the changeover is going to happen, and as you can imagine, one clap might follow on very quickly from the last. Or not! This is a fantastic workout for the brain hemispheres and I guarantee regular doses of this will help to secure the memory in performance. Try playing one hand normally on the keyboard, but play the other hand on your knee or just above the fallboard of the piano. This will reveal much more than merely playing […]

Painting the Forth Bridge: Learning the Goldberg Variations

My first experience with this incredible work of art was hearing Andras Schiff play it at Dartington, as the preface to his inspiring week of teaching in the summer of 1982 – masterclasses that remain as vivid as yesterday. Eighty minutes of music and a peerless performance that touched every part of me, so that when I left the Great Hall, the trees and the lawn were different, everything had changed. This experience had quite literally changed my life. The Sirens were calling immediately, and I knew I had to learn and to play this magnum opus, so when the week of classes was over, I duly began. But postgraduate studies in the USA were imminent, and it would be twelve years before I would first dare play the piece. I would like to describe the labour pains that I went through before my first performance in Chichester Cathedral. Since then I have played the work many times over the course of over a decade, on four different continents, and I am booked to play it again next year in Singapore and Australia. Having returned from my postgraduate years in New York in 1990, I settled into a life in London where I was teaching specialist young pianists at the Purcell School three days a week, teaching also at St. Paul’s Girls’ School and the Centre for Young Musicians, a fair amount of private work and playing a LOT of chamber music and other professional engagements in London, Europe and the USA. I should add that I commuted to New York once a month for teaching purposes but when I think of it now, I shudder at the prospect. (I made use of the flying time […]