pianist magazine

Q&A: How Can We Use Rotation in a Scale?

Q. You speak about forearm rotation in your eBook and in your YouTube video on scales and arpeggios, but I think of rotation as a large movement for things like tremolos and trills. Can you explain how to use it in scales? A. Great question, I’m very glad you have raised it. Until I studied the theory of forearm rotation with Julian Martin (who was working with Dorothy Taubman at the time), I had also only thought of rotation as a large movement  – something you could really see and really feel. I had two eureka moments close to the beginning of my investigations into all this, one was during a large leap when I was told to “untwist” during the journey from one position to the next (this made the leap feel fast, extremely free and reliable) and the other was in the broken diminished 7th in the Adagio espressivo section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 109: I was struggling to get enough power in this place, especially because I needed to hold onto the notes of the chord as I was spreading it. Even when I incorporated the finger strokes into one slower movement of the arm, the fingers were still doing an awful lot of the work. There was undue effort and a moment of tension. When I was able to experience the rotary movements, it suddenly became effortless and strong – as though I had flipped a switch to a new power source. The tiny backflips of the forearm are absolutely possible at high speed, and even though they are virtually imperceptible to someone watching I could definitely feel them. The difference in sensation between the rotary version and the […]

Managing Arpeggios

Scales and arpeggios are an important part of the developing pianist’s technical regime, especially for those who go through graded examinations. Having looked at scale playing in recent posts, I thought I would explore arpeggios a little. Arpeggio playing relies on similar technical skills to scale playing, only an arpeggio is more demanding for two main reasons: A scale is built up of eight notes per octave (counting the key note twice), the arpeggio four (for major or minor). Thus, arm and whole-body movements are twice as fast in an arpeggio. The greater distance the thumb has to cover compounds the difficulty – in a scale the distance from one thumb note to the next is a fourth or a fifth, in an arpeggio it is a whole octave. Unless the correct technical conditions are met precisely, an arpeggio is likely to be accident-prone and to feel awkward and precarious – like walking on ice. The Arm Looking at a beautifully controlled and choreographed arpeggio, we notice a smoothness and fluidity in the way both arms move across the keyboard, seamlessly connected together and describing a gentle curve. If the arpeggio is played continuously as though on a loop, the curve turns into a figure of eight (or the infinity symbol), all angles rounded out. My general advice for arpeggios is to hold the elbows slightly higher than in scale playing. There will be a bit more space under the arms, as though a current of air from beneath were lifting the arms up slightly so that they appear to float. The golden rule is never drop the elbow down onto the thumb!  The Thumb There are three main approaches to the thumb in arpeggio playing, all […]

Chess or Checkers?

I have written extensively about the subject of slow practice on this blog and elsewhere. Since slow practice is such a cornerstone of our practice routine I don’t apologise for making a few comments about it again now! Here is Angela Hewitt talking about slow practice. I totally concur that when we practise slowly we can do so with rhythmic integrity, musical expression, good sound and attention to pedalling and texture. This is important! If we think about slow practice as something dull, mechanical and unmusical we risk playing in this way. I’m afraid I cannot agree with Ms. Hewitt’s sentiment that nobody likes doing it! I get the same sort of satisfaction practising slowly as any dedicated craftsman would get from the process of making something beautiful, rather than just the end result. I actually love practising slowly, controlling every finger and every sound I make. Don’t you? It feels to me like a type of meditation, a discipline where I delay the gratification that comes from playing through a piece and make a serious investment in the quality, security and polish of my playing. I think of it as something other than playing actually, a totally different type of activity. In Issue 74 of Pianist Magazine, there is an interview with Steven Osborne. I really like what he has to say about slow practice: The thing that’s helped me learn things faster has actually been practising slowly, and very intently, trying to get it to feel good and taking time before speeding up. Two important things come out of this – doing the slow practice for long enough and having it feel good. I often think of slow practice as digging foundations for a building. The more […]

By |October 11th, 2013|Teaching|6 Comments

A Beautiful Process for Scales

I was back at Steinway Hall in London recently, recording a new series of video demonstrations for Pianist Magazine. The first is on scales and arpeggios, and now that it has come out I am able add it at the end of this post. In this video, I demonstrate how the wrist, thumb and forearm accommodate the shifts in position in a scale or an arpeggio, using examples from the repertoire. So often I see players drop the arm down onto the thumb, forgetting that the arm needs to glide behind the hand smoothly. Apart from lumps and bumps, this will often cause a derailment. I wish there had been time to demonstrate a beautiful process my friend and colleague, the late and much missed Nehama Patkin used to do with scales for her intermediate students. Fortunately, I can give it to you here. This is useful hands separately as well as together, and it is actually very good to do it with the metronome. This is my take on what Nehama did (she suggested playing the scale as fast as possible as the final part, even if it comes out scrappily): Play the scale one octave ascending and descending, very slowly and firmly with a full, rich tone – let’s say we play each note as a crotchet, MM = 60 (or wherever suits you). Raise each finger slightly before grasping each key firmly, making sure to switch off effort at the bottom of each key. This will be at a level of forte. Next, without stopping, play two octaves in quavers. Keep the same pulse from the one-octave scale (the scale will now be twice as fast). Physically, instead of planting each finger into […]

By |September 27th, 2013|Practising|18 Comments

Tied Up

I was at Steinway Hall here in London yesterday making another series of video demonstrations for Pianist Magazine. One of the demonstrations was on how to manage trills. If we investigate the mechanics of a trill, we find it is two repeated notes in rapid alternation with each other. Releasing the key each time fully up to the top would cause the trill to become slower and more obtrusive, so managing trills is dependent on managing repeated notes. Keeping both fingers in contact with the escapement (at the bottom of the key) makes for a faster and lighter trill, and even powerful rotary trills can happen inside the keys in this way. I put a homemade video up on YouTube about this some time ago – apologies for the poor quality. Taking this a stage further, we can apply the idea of not releasing the key fully in repeated notes by actually practising them as tied notes. In other words, instead of playing the note twice (or however many times the note is repeated), we change finger at the bottom of the key in the manner of a finger substitution. After doing this a few times, experience the repetitions by lifting the key only a fraction each time, only as much as necessary. (I should add that this is not possible on most upright pianos because of their design, but manufacturers are onto this. I recently played a wonderful Steingraeber upright with an escapement that felt like a grand.) Try it with Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K.141. As for fingering, you might use 432131, or even 313131 and have it feel like a rotary trill (instead of trilling between adjacent notes, we can “trill” […]

By |September 13th, 2013|Practising|6 Comments

Double Trouble

This week, the latest issue of Pianist Magazine arrived through the post with my article Confidence with Double Notes inside. Those of you who have seen the magazine will have noticed the indent Watch Graham Online, with the link to the video tutorial on the website (I have embedded the video later in this post). I have to be very careful when I write about technique, as there are two distinct problems. The first problem is the multitude of different approaches, depending on what particular pianistic lineage you come from. Even though there will be many inefficient or even downright bad ways to play the piano, there is no one right way. The second problem is how to explain all this in writing clearly enough so as not to confuse. This is why a video demonstration is a very good idea, since the text can be backed up by seeing how it is done. All we pianists know that playing an extended double note passage, especially when it’s fast, is one of the most difficult things to pull off. It requires a high level of finger independence and superfine coordination, which doesn’t usually come easily. Double notes make demands of the weaker fingers on the outside of the hand, and can be dangerous if done incorrectly. This is why I stress wrist flexibility and correct alignment in my article and in my demonstration as being of paramount importance in all double-note playing. A locked or misaligned wrist is almost certain to injure you after a while. Exercises in double notes should come with a health warning for over-zealous students hoping that an hour a day of those Moszkowski exercises will turn them into a supervirtuoso. As with everything else, […]

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 […]

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

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 […]

Snapping The Shutter

Last week at Steinway Hall in London, I made a series of three new video demonstrations for Pianist Magazine. At the end of the filming, we stopped to take some still photographs and it was then I realised how much photography was like practising the piano! Out of the 30 or so snaps we took, we managed to narrow down the field quite easily to 4 that were worth keeping – the rest of them would end up being deleted. I may have grimaced at the wrong moment, or the composition of subject and background somehow missed the mark, or maybe the light wasn’t quite right. There would be something that, either on first glance or on closer examination, made me decide to keep a particular version of the portrait, or relegate it to the bin. There would be others that, after some editing, could actually make it – if not into the pantheon then certainly a scrapbook, as a memento of the event. Usually the good ones just stood out, they had an air of rightness about them. In one particular image, which was otherwise great, the cup of tea that I put on the floor had made an unwelcome appearance in the lower left hand corner, but this could be removed with some judicious cropping. A minute or so editing on iPhoto had rescued this image. So how is this like practising? In practising, we need to repeat something many times before we can arrive at the result we feel represents how the music should go, when it sounds good, feels good and it just grabs us. The majority of repetitions inevitably end up on the cutting room floor. From overhearing pianists practising I notice […]

By |September 27th, 2012|Practising|2 Comments