Mozart

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, […]

On Touch, Articulation and Phrasing

This week my third video demonstration on touch went live on Pianist Magazine‘s YouTube channel. When I was given the original commission for three articles for the magazine, I knew I wanted to write firstly on legato and staccato touches, and secondly on those grey area non-legato touches, but I wasn’t sure at that stage how to round off the series. It struck me that there was a lot of confusion about how to articulate the music of Bach, in particular, and I’m constantly frustrated by how pianists can misunderstand the short slurs we find from Mozart onwards, right up to Brahms. So, I thought I would pull this all together and give some suggestions for articulation. Three main points come out of all of this for me: In the absence of any markings from the composer, articulation is decided based not on whimsy or for cosmetic reasons, but rather on the structure of the musical material. There is usually a variety of possible articulations of a given subject, theme or motive. When playing Bach, some pianists have the mistaken sense that the music is to be curated rather than enjoyed and fully lived. Here is the video: ***   ***   ***   ***   *** I am launching the first two volumes of Practising The Piano ebook series! It is presently in “beta” mode which means that while the publications are fully functional and the content is of a high quality, there are still a few small issues that we are ironing out.  Furthermore, I would also like to obtain further feedback and suggestions during this beta phase in order to refine the final versions.  As a concession I am offering the publications at a […]

Trimming Down For The Holidays

A family in my street has gone to absolutely no trouble with their Christmas tree whatever. It has virtually nothing on it, except for a few red ribbons and the tiniest string of plain white lights – not the usual dog’s dinner of glitter, baubles, beads, and candy canes. From its vantage point in the bay window of their living room, it looks stunning. The beauty of the natural shape of the tree is plain for all to see, showing that it needs hardly anything to enhance it at the end of its journey from forest to plant pot. Don’t get me wrong, I like the gaudiness of the tree in the picture above as much as I like the over-ornamented music of the French rococo (when I’m in the mood for it), but sometimes less is more. If a stick figure equivalent of a Christmas tree can be drawn with a few symmetrical zigzags, how about Heinrich Schenker‘s graph of Bach’s C major Prelude (from Book 1)? From this, we can see a representation of the notation pared down to its very barest essentials, enough to give us the highest of aerial overviews: BUILDING A HULL Drawing up such a graph takes quite a bit of doing, and is probably outside of the scope of most practical musicians. I mean, we should be practising, right? However, I think we can take the general idea of coming up with a simplified version of a piece of music by first building a hull.  I mean doing this at the piano, we don’t need to write it down. Definition of hull (noun) the main body of a ship or other vessel, including the bottom, sides, and deck but not […]

Feeling an Interpretation

I would like to throw out some ideas that might help develop an interpretation during practising, always keeping in mind that the process of practising should move us ever nearer to our ideal of what the music means and how it should sound. Digital or muscular practice is inextricably linked with developing what Heinrich Neuhaus calls the “artistic image”, namely the message of the music as we see it. In a word, our interpretation! As a student, I noticed that my technical ability with a piece was in direct proportion to the sharpness of my artistic image, and conversely if I wasn’t sure about the tempo, character, moods and so on, then I seemed to struggle physically with it. I recall a class on scales I gave many years ago (not my idea – I was invited!) where a girl was really having difficulties. All the classic mistakes were present, and in the short time I had with her, I wondered how to make best use of this opportunity. I asked her if she knew Beethoven’s Third Concerto, and she said she did. I then asked her to imagine the beginning of it and then to play a scale of C minor in the style of this concerto when she had this clearly in her mind. I’ll never forget the reaction on her face (and in the room) when she played the scale in this way. She was no longer self conscious of what she was supposed to be doing with her thumbs, or where the elbows were meant to be. Rather she had a sound and a feeling in her head, and this was strong enough to command her physical apparatus to produce this. Now, […]

A Supplement to Slow Practice

A few weeks ago, I gave some suggestions for practising Mozart’s Rondo alla turca and I would like to apply this principle to another piece, which really couldn’t be more contrasting in style and effect. I have just been working with a student who this week made a start on Tchaikovsky’s fabulous Dumka. He was struggling with this spot: The reason for the struggle was because he had not realised there would need to be an additional process after practising hands together slowly note for note, that no amount of slow practice alone is going to enable a reliable, let alone virtuosic performance of this extract. Don’t get me wrong – regular readers will know what a diehard fan of slow practising I am, but there are supplementary ways of working that do the job better at a certain stage in our learning of a piece. Why plod through something in this way for weeks on end when we might need a more energy-efficient and artistically satisfying way of doing it? I asked him to play the left hand melodic line (the tune at the top of the bass stave), or the theme in all its heroic, brassy glory. I wasn’t interested in a spelling-out of the notes, but a vivid, up-to-speed characterisation of the theme. We worked on this until the shapings and timings were just right, and the character could stand proud on the stage (albeit deprived of fellow cast members and scenery) and deliver his lines from memory (the register dictates that this is a “he”). Then we connected the theme to its lower bass notes, and found a way of making this physically comfortable by pivoting on the E flats in the first […]

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 […]

A Ghost Story

There are certain places in the repertoire where I can predict that a student is going to hurry. They will usually tend to rob long notes of their value by rushing on to the next event. Perhaps our instincts tell us we should be busy making sound, playing notes rather than holding them? I surmise it has a lot to do with the nature of sound production at the piano: once we have made the sound, we need do nothing to prolong it except to hold the keys with our fingers, or hold it in the pedal. Wind and string instruments require a continuous and sustained effort of the breath or of the bow throughout the life of the long note, in other words movement. I would suggest that we pianists need also keep long notes alive – physically and in our imagination. I liken the arm in piano playing to the breath in wind playing or singing, and to the bow in string playing. If we don’t incorporate the articulations of the fingers into bigger, longer gestures of the arm we end up playing syllabically, robotically and thus without real expression. If we stop all movement as soon as we have played a long note or chord, we disconnect from our conductor (our body) and thus from the musical flow, that sense of arch that takes us from the first note of the piece to the last. There is nothing more disturbing than seeing a pianist flailing themselves over the keyboard with excessive movements that are so often irrelevant – a substitute for real listening, or built in for theatrical effect. This is not what I mean. A good example of very basic arm choreography is […]

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 […]