Introducing Our YouTube Video Channel

Over the past few months we’ve been making a number of our videos from the Online Academy available on our YouTube channel. This channel now features a growing collection of over forty full length videos, excerpts and previews. The following example is one of the most popular videos on the channel so far which uses Bruch’s Moderato from Sechs Klavierstücke (Op. 12, No. 4 – ABRSM Grade 6) to demonstrate an approach to mastering the challenges presented by jumps: Other videos provide walk throughs of works featured on exam syllabi e.g. No. 2 from Mendelssohn’s Kinderstücke (Op. 72) and Byrd’s Coranto. Pedalling is also a popular theme with examples including a demonstration of finger pedalling using Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses, an introduction to fractional pedalling and suggestions for how to pedal Chopin’s sombre Prélude in B minor. Please click here to view our channel and subscribe for updates regarding new videos. You may also be interested in subscribing to our email mailing list to receive updates regarding blog posts, new content and special offers. ***   ***   *** Practising the Piano eBook Series  There are surprisingly few books that deal with the art of practising. This multimedia eBook series contains hundreds of videos, audio clips, music examples and downloadable worksheets to show you exactly what need to do in order to get the most out of your practice time. Click here for more information. Practising the Piano Online Academy Building on my blog posts and eBook series, the Online Academy takes my work to the next level with a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses and resources combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, it will transform the way you approach playing or […]

By |August 22nd, 2019|General|0 Comments

Look, No Feet!

People think in terms of pianists’ fingers – not their feet – but a direct line of communication from our ear to our right foot is an absolute necessity and there’s no doubt that fancy footwork is an integral part of our technique. I once witnessed a masterclass given by an expert in contemporary music where the sostenuto (middle) pedal was in constant use, and occasionally controlled by a left foot that was operating the left (una corda) pedal at the same time. When the right foot wasn’t busy with the right (sustaining) pedal it too took turns on the middle pedal. In my previous post on pedalling, The Dance of the Dampers, I discussed partial pedalling and the imprecise nature of pedal marks we usually find in the score. How can we possibly notate pedalling when it will vary from player to player, from piano to piano and from one room or performance space to another? Many composers and editors of piano music have felt it necessary or helpful to add pedal markings, but I would not recommend slavish adherence to these. One of the most confusing and irritating pedal notations is the abbreviation “Ped” with a star mark * indicating the release. The placement of the * mark is very often so imprecise as to be plainly wrong – lifting at the * and then waiting for the next “Ped” to put it down again would leave a gap. While this sort of disjointed pedalling was more common in the nineteenth century, we don’t tend to do much of it nowadays. I doubt that the composer actually meant this most of the time anyway and I advise players to use their discretion when figuring […]

John Broadwood and the Evolution of the Piano

When I was a student I was ignorant about early pianos, dismissing the sound as honky-tonk. This was until I attended lectures by my harpsichord teacher-to-be, Ruth Dyson, who opened my mind and my ears to the charms of instruments considered neither inferior nor lacking by the composers, players or audiences of the time. Now I have come to appreciate what historical instruments can offer by way of sound possibilities, and listening to them (played well!) is endlessly fascinating. Listen to Malcolm Bilson speak about articulation in Mozart on an early piano versus our modern instrument. Bilson points out that even in his sketchiest manuscripts, Mozart always included articulation marks – to Mozart, music was like speech and needed to be inflected properly. As a young professional pianist, I had the good fortune to play Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata, op. 35, on the Broadwood piano Chopin himself used when he was in London (now in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands). It took me a while to adjust to the feel of the keyboard and the different level of resonance between this piano and those I was used to. To my surprise, I found I could follow Chopin’s pedal marks at the opening of the Sonata without affecting the clarity. On our modern machines, it is necessary to adjust the pedal either by fluttering it or by having it only partially down, because the resonance is so much greater. Remember this when trying to make sense of pedal markings from music written for earlier pianos!   Here is Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Chopin on this very instrument: The piano firm of John Broadwood and Sons, Ltd. has been around almost as long as the piano itself. Founded in […]

The Dance of the Dampers

The subtleties of the right pedal are extremely hard to pin down. I can show a student what I am doing with my hands, fingers and arm to produce a particular sound, but when it comes to pedalling I so often find myself asking them to look not at my right foot but rather to stand up and take a peek inside the workings of the instrument and watch the dampers as I play. Instead of a cut and dried “up” then “down” in the manner of marching soldiers, the dampers might often only barely lift away from the strings. The pedal is neither up nor down, my foot (controlled directly by my ear) making incredibly fine adjustments to temper the resonance from a mere tickle to full throttle. This sort of pedalling is impossible to write in the score, there are just too many variables. “Pedalling cannot be written down. It varies from one instrument to another, from one room, or one hall, to another.” Claude Debussy Back in the 80s I had a few lessons with Theodore Lettvin, who wrote somewhere in my score of the Chopin Scherzi “1/10,000 of a pedal”. This concept of foot added to the particular scale pattern a fine mist of resonance like water droplets sprayed from an atomiser. Not enough to drench the thing, but enough to moisten it so it could reflect the light. Nobody listening to my playing would detect the presence of my right foot (in this case the very edge of my big toenail), but would somehow notice its absence. To experience the effect, play a full chord with the pedal fully down and release your hands into the air. As you lift the […]

On Touch (Part Two)

My second article on touch has just been published by Pianist Magazine. When I was first commissioned to write a series of three articles on touch, dealing with legato and staccato in the first one was relatively straightforward. However, the subsequent article on non-legato touches was rather more challenging and I found myself getting lost in semantics, particularly over the distinction between portato and portamento.  You Say “Portato“… These two terms are often confused with each other, but only by pianists! Portamento means to glide between two pitches (similar to a glissando, but with all the intermediate pitches). This is the domain of singers, string and (sometimes) wind players and is clearly not possible on the piano. Pianists do sometimes use the term portamento when they might more accurately call it portato, the literal meaning of which is “carried” (implying the notes should be sustained, lengthened, and drawn out). Again, this means to play halfway between staccato and legato, and is indicated by staccato dots under a slur, or by staccato dots under tenuto markings. You might think of this touch as a sticky staccato which is both non-staccato and non-legato, best realised by separate arm strokes for each note, through a loose and flexible wrist. The use of the wrist to add drag to the release of each key is very appropriate with this touch. Depending on the context, the notes may be played legato (but using separate arm strokes) or the notes may be slightly separated. This notation also has connotations of playing the notes freely, with rubato, or even rather slowly and drawn out, and the effect of portato in a melodic line is to communicate serious and expressive emotions. The Pedal And Staccato A vital thing to remember about […]

By |November 29th, 2012|Performing|6 Comments

The Fantasie-Impromptu: Some Ideas (Part Three)

Further to my first two posts, a reader has written in asking how to avoid the problem of fatigue in the RH in the forte passages from bar 13, and at the beginning of the coda. As with all piano playing, we have to use the right tool for the job, and because of Chopin’s patterns, it has to be forearm rotation. I would like to propose a way of practising these RH patterns whereby the fingers themselves are mere extensions of a rotating arm, like the blades of a propeller. We do not use the finger as an isolated unit, the finger is swung into position on the right key at the right moment by the forearm. However – and this is a very big however – the finger is not passive! The tip of the finger remains constantly active, alert and responsive. Rotary movements of the forearm are quicker and faster than digital movements, and WAY more economical. This is because these motions are natural to the way our body moves, and isolated finger movements are not. Clearly I can’t give an effective piano lesson in writing, so I will assume the reader who is capable of playing this piece will have developed forearm rotation to some extent. Here are a few pointers to bear in mind when practising this, and other passages using rotation: The elbow itself is more or less stationary The arm moves on the horizontal plane (from side to side), and not on the vertical (up and down) The firmer the finger, the louder the sound In the following exercise (RH alone), you will notice that each pair of notes is transformed into a sextuplet with an accent on every third […]

On Touch (Part One)

I was recently asked by Pianist Magazine to write a series of three articles on touch, which turned out to be more challenging than I had anticipated. The second article on non-legato touches was especially difficult, since these various touches overlap (no pun intended), and any attempt to classify them risks ending up confusing rather than clarifying. The first article, just published, is on legato and staccato. In this, I talk about four different types of staccato and three different types of legato – our plain vanilla default touch, legatissimo for cantabile melody lines and ‘finger pedalling’ where notes are deliberately held down and overlapped. I want to distinguish between finger pedalling as a specific touch and the bad habit of neglecting to pick up the finger after its written note value. Beginner and elementary pianists are constantly being told (quite correctly so) by their teachers to pick up their fingers. Holding fingers down beyond the written note value at this stage is bad technique and produces unwanted blurs and smudges. However, at the advanced level an overlapping touch (finger pedalling) is indispensable. Let’s say we have an Alberti bass (or broken chord pattern) with a melody above it. It sounds dry and clattery, but pedalling blurs the melody and adds too much resonance. The best way of adding resonance is to use finger pedalling. Instead of releasing the notes of the Alberti bass in a conventional legato touch, we hold onto them, creating a harmonic effect. This enables us to play broken harmonies without dryness, and yet to play the melodic line above without the smudging that would happen if we used the sustaining pedal. Actually, we are still able to use the sustaining […]

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 […]

The Baroque Urtext Score (2): Dynamics

I would like to suggest some guidelines for using dynamics in the music of Bach (and others) at the piano. The only absolute rule, in my book, is to play expressively! When all is said and done, we are making a transcription from 18th century instruments – and 18th century ears – to 21st century ones, and I sincerely doubt that the 18th century musician felt restricted, that the answers were to be found in some dusty book. Texture The subject of dynamics in Bach playing relates to choices about the louds and softs in a score where the composer has not explicitly instructed these by way of performance directions (such as f and p, crescendo and diminuendo). We have to determine the dynamic level (and the tempo) from the general character of the music, taking into account the texture. Thick textures are strong, thin textures lighter. The opening of the C minor Partita has an implied dynamic level of forte. We would reach this conclusion even if we did not appreciate it was a French Overture (with all its associated grandeur), because of the big, thick chords and springy dotted rhythms. It would be hard to play it otherwise. Within the overall dynamic of forte, there is an implied crescendo to the second beat in bar 2, because of the structure of the phrase. Harmonically, this is the moment of greatest tension; melodically, it is the highest point (this is reinforced by the tonic pedal C in the bass). Then, allow the tension to release at the cadence on the third beat using a small hairpin diminuendo: The second section, now in two voices, is obviously intended to be softer and more melodic: The final fugue […]

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