Nina Svetlanova

No Stopping!

I recently gave a consultation lesson to a diploma candidate, who told me at the end it was the most illuminating lesson he had ever had. I couldn’t think why, so I asked him. He said he had never played his pieces through from beginning to end without stopping. Apparently, his teacher stopped him every time there was a mistake, or something that needed to be corrected, improved or tweaked. It used to take ages to get through a piece this way, and what made matters worse was he took this approach home into his practice. Every time something didn’t go according to plan (real or imagined) there was this Pavlovian response to take his hands off the keyboard. All I did was to allow him to replicate the conditions of his diploma (or indeed any performance) by committing to a start-to-finish, come-what-may, warts-and-all performance. Hardly rocket science. I explained that if he doesn’t practise performing for himself and then in front of others he will never know what it feels like. Effectively, he won’t ever have practised his exam. Practising is a complex and often indefinable art. On the one hand if we don’t stop to attend to repeated uncontrolled or inexpressive playing, won’t we be ingraining it all? On the other hand stopping, especially in the same old places we’re not happy with, sets up unhelpful reflexes that can be hard to eliminate later. The Solution With new pieces in Stage 1 of the learning process, I advocate controlled stops (this is a subject for another post). With pieces that are ready to play through, we make a decision before we start practising whether we are going to stop. If we decide we will stop, […]

Focus in Practice

As a teacher, my chief aim is to assist my students in playing more freely and expressively. A big part of that process is helping them unlock their unique musical personality and equipping them with a solid technical foundation. There has been much discussion of late in the piano networks on technical matters, so I thought I would do my bit to put some of this into perspective. I feel very fortunate to have had wonderful training as a pianist, fairly eclectic as I went along and culminating with intensive and long-term study with a representative of the very best of the modern Russian School. Someone asked me the other day what makes one school of piano playing better than another, and in what ways are they different? Interesting question! The piano is by now a fully evolved instrument, and the traditions of playing and teaching it are well established. Certain ways of manipulating the keyboard have been passed down because they seem to work across the board, while others have been thrown out as inefficient or injurious. There will always be differences between the national schools of playing – the French School is known for its fastidiousness to fine detail and its focus on the fingers, while the Russian School for its full, projected sound, its physical athleticism and ability to focus talent from a very young age. And yet there is really no such thing as “The Russian School”, since there are several lineages involved even here. Yesterday I gave a day’s workshop on piano technique for Evoco in Belfast, under the auspices of the inspirational Sharon Mark-Teggart. Towards the end there was a Q&A session, and one diploma candidate asked whether it was […]

Some Favourite Pianists: Part Two

I have just returned from an exciting week of playing and teaching at the Summer School for Pianists in Walsall, where I heard some wonderful piano playing from my colleagues and from my class! I so much enjoyed working and socialising with all the great people there, and look forward to next year. My next class is going to be over a weekend in October, held in the idyllic setting of Jackdaws. I gather there are only four places left on the course, so if you are free over the weekend of October 10th you might want to consider coming along. Continuing my short summer thread of favourite pianists, I turn now to the two Russian titans who certainly held the rank of demigod during my youth – Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter. I heard them both several times in concert and, when I couldn’t get a ticket, over the radio. Years later when I came to New York to study with Nina Svetlanova, I heard personal stories, memories and anecdotes about her many years of study with the same teacher as Richter and Gilels (and a whole host of other top pianists), Heinrich Neuhaus. There are several lectures and lessons of Neuhaus on Youtube, but unfortunately they are in Russian! I wish someone would subtitle them so the rest of the world could share in his wisdom and inspiration. Here is Heinrich Neuhaus playing Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K511. One of the most beautiful and exciting performances I heard of Emil Gilels was a recording of his Carnegie Hall recital from 1969, I still have it on cassette tape. His “Moonlight” Sonata stands out in my memory for its incredible layering of sound in the first movement, insinuating […]

Marking the Score

The other day I opened up a working score of the Frank Bridge Sonata I inherited from one of my teachers, Peter Wallfisch, and was struck by all the markings he had added. Some of these make obvious sense, performance directions such as “rall”, “late” and “canto”. Another word – “spell” – presumably means either that each note needed a certain clarity or that there was some magical atmosphere he wanted to create. There are copious fingerings, as well as more arcane squiggles in at least three different colour crayons that he obviously needed for personal reasons but which make little sense to the casual observer. I had to smile, as I suddenly remembered a word Peter had written in the last movement of my score of the Chopin op. 35 Sonata. It was totally illegible to me for many years. Each time I played the sonata I would stare at this word trying to decipher the scrawl, but I could never make out what it was. And then one day – eureka, I finally saw it. “Hallucinatory” was what he had written! My last teacher, Nina Svetlanova, almost never wrote anything in my score. A student of Neuhaus, she had inherited an opposite tradition. If something was important enough it would resonate deeply within you and no markings were necessary. Fingering For me, working out a fingering that suits my hand is absolutely essential.  I am a stickler for fingering as I know that with regular repetition, the muscular movements become reflex. This bypasses the need for conscious thought about what note or what finger comes next, freeing the mind to focus on the musical intent. Fingerings that appear in editions are generic, designed to suit […]

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