pianist magazine

Arpeggiation in Piano Playing

I first published this post in July of 2016. Here it is again with one or two updates – including a link to the Online Academy’s series on spread chords, and the recent video I made for Pianist Magazine. ***   ***   *** I once attended a piano recital where the pianist continually broke the hands, so that the right hand sounded slightly after the left. He did this consistently with all the repertoire on his programme regardless of its period, and after a very short time indeed this had become a major distraction to me. I found I was unable to enjoy the music or appreciate the playing, it was irritating in the extreme. However, there was a time in the history of piano playing where this sort of desynchronisation of the hands was actually part of style. If you were trained in Leipzig in the nineteenth century you would certainly have done this without giving it a second thought, as well as arpeggiating chords at the drop of a hat. Here is Carl Reinecke in a piano roll recorded in 1905 of the Larghetto from Mozart’s K537. How times change – this style of playing, while prevalent at the time, would simply not be acceptable nowadays. If this style were based on performance traditions from Mozart’s day, you might expect modern fortepianists to have picked up on it. This cleanly articulated performance by Malcolm Bilson shows otherwise; it is (mercifully) free of such excesses. Last week I wrote about how Beethoven himself spread the opening chord in his Fourth Piano Concerto. In the Baroque period, keyboard players routinely rolled chords for expressive purposes –  either slow or fast, downwards as well as upwards. There were signs to indicate this […]

Pedalling by Hand

I first published this article in 2016. Now that I have made a new video demonstrating the differences between the Couperin piece in his original notation versus what we see in the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook, I decided to republish. I hope this subject will be food for thought, leading to some experimentation with finger pedalling as an added means of creating resonance. ***   ***   *** Pianists have always felt that the music of J S Bach is accessible to them. The Early Music Movement (1970s wave) did put some pressure on those of us who presented Bach’s music to do so in particular ways that were perhaps more suitable to the instruments of his day than our mighty grand pianos, but fortunately the greatness of the music transcends the medium – harpsichord, piano, synthesiser, whatever. The perennial question of pedal always comes up when discussing Bach style on the piano. The argument goes that, because Bach’s instruments were not equipped with any sustaining mechanism, we should steer clear of our right pedal (for some players this means completely). “The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation. Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility, and one can only create an illusion of achieving it. To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well […]

By |January 17th, 2019|Pedalling|1 Comment

On Wrist Control

I often think it must be very confusing for the pianist seeking guidance on piano technique from the internet, only to find conflicting information from various authorities. Nothing is more contentious than the wrist, it seems. As you may have discovered, some pianists and teachers of repute insist on using a full range of motion via the wrist (more about this later) while some others advocate never breaking at the wrist. According to my own pianistic legacy from the wonderful training I was privileged to receive, and based on many years of subsequent experience, I can say there is place in piano playing for both a firm (but never tense) wrist, and for one that is soft, springy and malleable – depending on the situation. When discussing piano technique, it would be very convenient if we could isolate the various muscles, levers, bones and joints that make up the mechanics of playing and investigate them one by one. The problem with this is it’s just not how piano playing works! Sure, we might deliberately concentrate on what the fingers are doing in a given situation, or switch off certain muscles while engaging others, or stabilise one joint or lever while activating another to sense what’s going on in our body, and so on. But this is not always helpful, because when we play we tend to create a blend of activity in which all the components of our playing mechanism collaborate, and we do this subconsciously based on how we have practised, and the sounds we hear in our imagination as we adapt to the performance space and the particular piano we are playing. Do you recall the well-known spiritual song by James Johnson, Dem Bones? […]

Are Exercises A Waste of Time?

Originally published from 1922 – 1929, Alberto Jonás’ series of seven books entitled Master School of Modern Piano Playing and Virtuosity is a treatise on piano technique designed to embrace “all the technical, aesthetic and artistic features required for the highest pianistic virtuosity”. The series contains original exercises by Jonás himself (he was one of the most sought-after piano teachers in the USA in the early 20th century), as well as exercises he commissioned from some of the most important pianists of the day (Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, Alfred Cortot and Josef Lhevinne among them). This fascinating resource and historical document came to my attention only fairly recently, with the republication in 2011 of the first two volumes by Dover, with an introduction by Sara Davis Buechner (click here to purchase on Amazon). You can watch a video of Ms. Buechner talk about the first extension exercises here. But surely in the modern age such exercises should be consigned to the dustbins of pianistic history? A quaint reminder of how things used to be done, until we came to know better. Some authorities are very vocal about this. What disturbs me about the (often vicious) fighting that goes on in the pedagogical community is the scorn and venom that come up at the very mention of the word “extension exercise” or “finger exercise”. Normally civilised and well-mannered folk get on their high horse, thinking nothing of trampling on colleagues’ work with a kind of fundamentalist, religious fervour. How fascinating, then, to find an interview with Stephen Hough in Pianist Magazine recently (Issue 88), in which he discusses how he has made a return to practising exercises. “You can warm up by playing pieces, of course, but you might not have a real finger-by-finger warm-up so that your whole hand, by the time you come […]

By |September 15th, 2016|Technique|4 Comments

Chopin’s Fioritura

When I was a boy, I was given a volume of the Chopin Nocturnes long before I was able to play them. I vividly remember staring at a page containing what looked like hundreds of tiny notes, stumped by how on earth you were supposed to play them. That image has stayed with me, as has the wonder of hearing this music for the first time from an old LP record of Moura Lympany that my first piano teacher put on for me on occasion. Now I know a little more, and I am able to share a recent video I made for Pianist Magazine on solving some of the problems these little notes pose (known as fioritura, sometimes spelled fioratura – from the Italian word “flower”). My article for Pianist appears in the most recent issue (Issue 91) and the accompanying video is now live on YouTube. For more on fioritura, follow this link to my blog post Making Friends with Fiddly Fioritura I will be taking a rest from writing this blog for a few weeks. Wishing all my readers a happy summer break, and looking forward to being back with you in September.

Improve Your Thumb Technique

Wouldn’t it be great if Nature had designed our hands with the fingers in reverse order? If the “strong” thumb were on the outside of the hand and the “weak” pinky on the inside, we would easily be able to project melody lines –  supporting them with effortless basses and a suitably light harmonic filling in the middle. But it is actually possible to make the pinky strong and the thumb light and flexible. I would like to share a few ideas on this subject today. I have included the video demonstration I made for Pianist Magazine at the end of the this post, so please don’t worry if the verbiage that follows is a little difficult to follow – all is revealed in the video! The thumb can be a great ally or an enemy – depending on how we use it. In brief, the thumb has two phalanges (proximal and distal) and eight muscles, acting in groups. It can move in several different ways – straight up and down, stretching out laterally (abduction), moving in towards the hand (adduction), as well as moving under the palm to the tips of the fingers (opposition). It can also make grasping and circular movements. When I move my thumb freely, I feel the movement at the base of the thumb, at the wrist. The thumb connects to the keyboard on the tip by the nail (rather than on its flat side), forming an arch with the 5th finger in chords and octaves. If you want to investigate the anatomy of the hand applied to piano playing, I can highly recommend Thomas Mark’s excellent book, What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body. If you’ve heard of the book and have been debating whether to get it, click on the link and go ahead and order (and no, […]

Scared Stiff

In piano playing, there is something comforting about hard facts – given that so much of what we do is subjective and not always so easy to pin down. Players in one camp object to the way players in another camp do things, and we only have to look at the world in general to see that hostility will ensue when fundamentalist thinking is involved. One hard fact should be apparent, that there is no one correct way to play the piano!  One of the great piano teachers, Theodor Leschetizky, claimed he had no technical method as such. His approach was a deep knowledge of the score, right down to the minutest detail, from which he helped the student find a technical solution. Because of his place in history, Leschetizky insisted on a thorough technical training via scales, chords, double notes and studies (mainly by his teacher, Carl Czerny) and he produced many notable and successful pianists. To suggest his students succeeded despite this regime of studies and exercises strikes me as arrogant in the extreme. I think we can all agree that one of the greatest impediments to fine and natural piano playing is tension. Much has been written about tension, especially on how to deal with the physical manifestations of it at the keyboard. I am very interested in helping pianists move more freely at the piano and do so all the time, but no amount of technical work will completely solve the problem if the tension originates in the mind. One place where tension might manifest is during leaps and jumps, and may very well start with a thought: This leap is dangerous and difficult, and I might land on the wrong notes and mess it all up! If […]

By |November 26th, 2015|General|7 Comments

How to Begin a New Piece: Part 6

Here is the final part of this series on beginning a new piece. Like last week’s offering, it’s mostly going to be a list of resources from this blog and from my ebook series featuring those practice tools that, from my experience, are seriously helpful as we begin the learning process. Actually, not only as we begin but also afterwards – I return to them constantly to keep the playing fresh and in tip top condition. Quarantine Quarantining is the process of identifying mistakes that always seem to trip us up and isolating them from the rest of the piece. Quarantine becomes a designated practice activity distinct from work on that particular piece, since it embraces troublespots from other pieces too. We work on our quarantine spots before, during and after routine practice – also at odd moments throughout the day which wouldn’t normally count as practice time. We can include especially problematic sections of pieces we’re about to study, to get a bit of a head start on them. I have a student who has just started learning the G minor Ballade and asked me how best to approach it. Since he already knows the music extremely well (who doesn’t?), I suggested starting work on the LH of the “big tune”: Also the LH of the E flat waltz section In addition to these, I also advised deconstructing the coda. He put in a couple of weeks serious practice on these 3 spots before starting at the beginning. For more details on quarantining, follow this link to Part 1 of my ebook series. The 20-Minute Practice Session It doesn’t have to be 20 minutes, of course, and there’s no need to be a slave to this […]

Five Tips for a Flatter Finger

I have just returned from a weekend’s tutoring on The Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK, where I am one of a small team of principal tutors responsible for delivering the nation’s flagship training course for piano teachers (either those starting out in the profession or experienced ones in need of a refresher). I always return from our residential weekends and one-day events inspired and energised. Included in my duties this weekend were two workshops on style and interpretation – one on Baroque repertoire, the other on Romantic. In the Baroque workshop we had a lovely Flemish-style harpsichord in addition to the regular Steinway D grand, and I was able to brush up on my rusty harpsichord skills to demonstrate how to play expressively on the Baroque instrument using articulation and overlapping touches. This brief reacquaintance with the harpsichord made me realise how much I miss playing it. Some of the class elected to play their piece on the harpsichord. I suggested to the person who brought Bach’s G minor Sinfonia she could play the downbeat in bar 2 more expressively by making the tiniest gap just before it (between the G and the F). Everyone’s face lit up when she found it worked. Never let anyone tell you the harpsichord is incapable of expression – it is the most noble and beautiful instrument, and when played well it will draw you right in. In the Romantic workshop (back on the piano, of course) I found myself wanting not only much more projection from melody lines, but also a warmer and rounder tone quality. Most of the time, we pianists aim to make our percussion instrument sing by artful illusion – replicating the timings, intonations and colourings of […]

Fancy Footwork – Pedalling Resources

I have just written a series of three articles on pedalling for Pianist Magazine, the first of these (Issue 83) hit the newsstands this week and should be available internationally.  The videos that accompany the first article are on Pianist’s YouTube channel already, so I thought I would share them with you here and offer a few additional resources on the subject of pedalling. I had the idea of a designated camera locked onto a section of dampers for close-up shots of flutter and fractional pedalling. We called this the dampercam – I don’t think it has ever been done before! I was very pleased to be able to demonstrate these advanced techniques, and watching the footage (no pun intended) surprised me because I myself had never seen the dampers working in this way before. Pedalling Waltz Accompaniments Chopin’s pedal markings are examples of rhythmic (direct) pedalling, where the hands and foot are synchronised to go down and come up together. This may surprise you, but syncopated (legato) pedalling did not come into general use until Anton Rubinstein started doing it – in the second part of the 19th century! Liszt said the discovery of syncopated pedal was “the most important event in the history of piano playing”. Most pianists nowadays wouldn’t think to take Chopin’s pedal markings literally in all instances. I have just checked this out by listening to recordings of celebrated pianists playing the opening of the B minor Waltz, op 69 no. 2, and everyone pedals it slightly differently. Pedalling depends on personal choice and the resonance of particular pianos and performance spaces. It is often not possible to say precisely how we will pedal because it will vary. In the first video, […]