piano pedagogy

Zen In The Art Of Plate Spinning

I am sure we have all seen that circus act where the showman puts a few plates on some poles, sets them spinning and then adds more plates to more poles. He keeps on doing this until there is a bewildering array. He needs to keep returning to the original plates before they run out of spin, and the excitement of the act is wondering how he can possibly keep all this going with no breakages with just one pair of hands. Preparing a programme for recital or examination poses similar logistical problems. How do we ensure that all components of our programme peak together on the day, and how do we plan our day-to-day practising so we give enough attention to everything and neglect nothing? This takes some planning, as well as some know-how. Routine I’m a great believer in making lists, or rotas, but flexible ones that take into account the realities of life and also that leave room for spontaneity. Rigid schedules are impractical and demotivating, since they are impossible to stick to. However you plan your work, you will absolutely need to get into a routine. A regular routine helps us to frame our work so that the act of practising becomes a habit. Sure, this takes discipline, but nothing worth achieving is possible without steely determination and self-discipline. Therefore, it is extremely helpful to set aside a regular time during the day for practice. This gives us direction and impetus. Since no two people are the same, it is impossible to come up with an exact formula for the length of time needed, or the best format to organise our work. Some people work best in the morning, others later in the […]

Thinking Aloud

The first time I listened to a recording of Glenn Gould it was late evening and I was alone in the house. I swore I could hear someone singing along from the kitchen. I even ventured there, fearing an intruder had fallen under the spell of the music and had joined in with it. After a few minutes of unease, I finally realised my stereo system was playing tricks on me – the singing was coming from the recording and the pianist himself was the culprit. I encourage my students to sing all the time, to feel the direction of a line and also where the high points, low points and breathing places are. When it comes to shaping a melodic line, I find the voice never lies (no matter how croaky or unappealing you think you sound). Try conducting, and even moving around the room too – use as much of yourself as possible before relegating the job to your hands. But by doing this will I accidentally sing when I perform? I believe most people have a built-in mechanism for switching this voice off when they are actually performing, because this is rather important. I shall assume this to be the case as I write my post today. Memorisation In addition to singing, I have found thinking aloud as I practise can be extremely beneficial. The idea came to me years ago when I was memorising a particularly complex work – there was a section that my brain couldn’t seem to grasp despite having done a thorough harmonic analysis and found plenty of memory cues. In frustration, I found myself slowing down the tempo and calling out the chord labels and memory cues just before I […]

Slaying the Dragon

Piano playing can never be an exact science. We will not always be able to say with absolute precision or certainty how we arrived at a particular result in our playing. We may think we know, but in the end it will be a variety of different – and possibly even contradictory – means that bring about a result. Despite fastidious practising, human error and the sheer elusiveness of the act of performance will always play a part. And this is precisely what audiences like, the buzz of the live performance! There is the possibility of something wonderful, inspirational and spontaneous happening, as much as the performer falling flat on his face. The placebo effect can also enter into this – if you firmly believe you need to do a, b and c to achieve x, then perhaps you do! I am reminded of one of the all-time greats, Shura Cherkassky, who simply couldn’t play unless he went through certain rituals, such as always stepping onto the stage with his right foot first, then counting up to twenty-something before he started. The results were always fascinating. You can hear the audience actually laughing out loud during one of five encores (Shostakovich’s Polka from the Age of Gold) from a Wigmore Hall recital. Then there was the time during a recital in Carnegie Hall in the 1980s when I lifted my eyes to the ceiling realising I was never going to hear piano playing greater than this. Cherkassky was once asked (by a colleague of mine in an interview situation) how he practised on the day of a concert. The response was he played extremely slowly with his eyes closed, aiming to land each finger dead centre […]

Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills

Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on the BBC about how English history was forever changed by the civil war. The characteristics of the two opposing forces (the puritanical, serious-minded, hard-working and religious Roundheads, and the devil-may-care, spontaneous, reckless and flashy Cavaliers) ended up contributing to the make-up of the national psyche, and we have each got a bit of the Roundhead and a bit of the Cavalier in us. You may be wondering what this has to do with the subject of developing piano performance, but actually there is a lot we can draw from it. “Practise like a Roundhead, perform like a Cavalier” would be my best advice. To practise effectively demands time, energy and discipline, a seriousness of purpose and an almost religious attitude to the work. But if we take this attitude on to the stage with us, we are likely to bore the pants off our audience. We need a sense of daring-do, spontaneity, bravado and display in its place. Perhaps we can leave our trusty Roundhead in the green room, and adopt a cavalier attitude when we walk onstage? Youngsters generally have no fear about public performance. This tends to be something we learn later, if we learn it at all (there are those who seem undaunted, but they are few and far between). There was one first-year college student I had who came in with new pieces each week, learned and memorised. All his performances were fluent and confident until one week, during a studio class, he had his first major memory slip which he could not recover from, and only then did I need to give him the tools so he could memorise consciously.  As I […]

Using The Feedback Loop

Have you ever sat at the piano in your practice time, not feeling really sure about what you are supposed to be doing? Your mind wanders, you end up doodling or doing something half-heartedly and with no real purpose, then you get disillusioned and start looking at the clock? When I was a student at the RCM all those eons ago, a classmate confessed that he was never quite sure how he was supposed to practise. He started at the beginning of his piece hoping he would make a mistake so it would give him something to correct. He’d then correct it and continue until the next slip. And so on, until he got to the end. OUCH! If I might step in here and suggest a better way? This will work no matter what school of piano playing you come from – it is called the FEEDBACK LOOP. Using the feedback loop in day-to-day practising is a highly efficient way to maximise time and productivity. It forces the mind to concentrate on the activity at hand, and encourages critical listening and critical thinking. You will also discover and develop your inner teacher – it is probably the single most powerful tool we can draw on. BOX A The feedback loop is essentially a three-part process. The first part, represented by BOX A, involves a conscious decision as to WHAT you are going to practise, as well as HOW and WHY. Here are a few examples: I am going to play the first bar, ending on the down beat of bar 2. I will do this very slowly, listening for complete evenness and aiming for a feeling of full control over my fingers. I will […]

Five-a-Side Team Events: Some Thoughts on Chord Playing

In my youth I was fortunate enough to have some lessons with Philip Fowke, the first one was on Rachmaninov’s rather overplayed Prelude in C sharp minor. I recall the lesson vividly. He showed me a way of practising the chords in the outer sections whereby, with the chord held down, you select a given finger, pair of fingers or group of fingers to lift back up and repeat. It is a good plan to exhaust all the permutations here. I practised in this way assiduously for the next week and noticed a dramatic improvement in my control of the chordal passages, my ability to voice them in the softer section and to play very fully and yet roundly in the fff section. In a nutshell, this way of practising chords helps them to fit like a glove! For the sake of convenience in my own teaching, I have given this a neat label – I call it “tapping”. It is fashionable to rail against what is known as “mechanical practice” and yet tapping, while it is concerned with the mechanics of what the playing mechanism has to deliver at the keyboard, needs to be done mindfully in order to be of any value. We need to concentrate on the finger combinations we are using so that we can go through these systematically. We also need to make sure the holding fingers remain at rest at the bottoms of their keys without pressing, and to check in with our arm to make sure there is no tension building up. For me, mechanical practice is that sort of mindless, repetitive drill pianists used to be encouraged to do in the old days, while reading a newspaper, […]

Once Upon a Time…

We have all heard student performances where the beginning was good – secure, well-known, confident – then after a page or two we notice a decline as skill levels start to dip. Thereafter, there is a gradual diminuendo of accomplishment for the rest of the piece, which often ends in a whimper. This happens, of course, because the pianist tends always to start practising from the beginning. My suggestion not to do this is hardly going to come as a blinding flash of revelation to anyone – it’s just plain good sense – but I have noticed people are reluctant to divide their pieces up into manageable, logical sections for the purposes of practising. I mentioned in a previous post how the great teacher Rosina Lhevinne would hear last movements before first movements, and codas before introductions. This is an excellent way of supporting students in not starting from the beginning. When giving an assignment, I give sections from the beginning, middle and end to be learned simultaneously. Unless the piece is short, or unless you are playing a run-through or have decided to play it through at half speed for the purposes of general maintenance, you’re not likely to get through every section of the piece in any given practice session. I think of an analogy with the farmer who might select one, or two or three of his fields to work in on a particular day. He may choose to work in a particular field for two or three days in a row, spending the bulk of the day there, but perhaps visit one or two others for a particular reason (which might not take that much time). He may be allowing another to lie fallow for […]

Leaps of Faith: On Practising Waltzes

Waltzes demand a fair amount of left hand agility from the pianist – all that hopping back and forth can be quite dizzying. A pre-requisite for mobility across the keyboard is physical ease and looseness, we simply won’t be able to manage waltz accompaniments if we are in any way tense. Take something as difficult as the following excerpt from Schulz-Evler’s fabulous Arabesques on “An der schönen blauen Donau”. Let nerves get the better of you in performance and this lovely waltz suddenly takes on atonal properties – we have “Grande valse catastrophique”. As is always the case, painstaking and thorough practice will equip us with the skills we need to negotiate the leaps in the left hand. Two processes that are invaluable are what I term Quick Cover and Springboarding. QUICK COVER Play the first chord and hold it. Like a cat ready to pounce, prepare yourself to move to the next chord. When you are ready, in your own good time, use an ultra-fast (yet free and loose) motion of the arm to move like lightning to the surface of the keys of the next chord. DON’T PLAY IT YET! Before playing, check to see that you arrived directly and dead centre of the keys, that no finger is in the cracks between the keys, no finger hanging half over the edge of a black key. What you are after here is a spot-on millimeter-accurate measurement of the distance involved both across the keyboard and within the hand. If you were 100% accurate, and you got there fast, then go ahead and play the chord. Now sit on this chord, and prepare for the next quick movement. Notice the tempo of the music is DEAD […]

By |February 25th, 2012|Practising|6 Comments

More Thoughts on Slow Practising

I am convinced it is not possible to say too much about slow practising or to overemphasise its importance. Here are one or two random thoughts on the subject, which supplement what I have previously written. Slow practising basically expands the time distance between one note and the next, allowing us plenty of time to prepare ahead (the hand position, the precise sound we want, etc.) as well as evaluate our results immediately after. As I am always saying, we need to aim to evaluate these results in as precise terms as possible, so that we can have a definite goal if we need to repeat. SLOW YET FAST So often in slow practice it is the tempo that is slow but everything else is fast – the key speed, the recovery at the bottom of the key (the lightning-fast physical response to the key bed when effort instantly ceases, and is released), movements across the keyboard, preparation of hand positions and large leaps, and so on. We can often only think about these things and make sure they have really happened when the tempo is slow. In a scale passage where the thumb needs to pass under the hand, we can prepare the movement fast, and immediately the thumb releases its first note. We might think of the next finger as operating the starting pistol, and the thumb the athlete on the block raring to go. (Of course if the interval is a large one, we wouldn’t want to cause tension in the hand by attempting to stretch too far, and there are many occasions in piano playing where thumb preparation is not a good thing.) HELPING YOUNGSTERS TO PRACTISE SLOWLY It may seem […]

Practice v Performance

A colleague put this quotation up on his Facebook wall this week, and while these golden words are from one of the greatest violinists of the last century, they apply absolutely to us pianists. Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn. (Jascha Heifetz) I am convinced we use different parts of our brains for practising and for performance, they are two quite different activities. In performance we need a feeling of abandon and spontaneity, of creativity and going with the punches (more of what is known as right-brained activity), whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we are constantly evaluating, repeating and refining our results (left-brained activity). In performance, we need to leave our inner critic in the green room and go into another, “thoughtless” state of mind once we are on the stage. We probably all know an excellent pianist who is not able to make the transition from the one state of mind to the other, and while they may play wonderfully, they can’t put themselves through the torment of public performance. Letting go of our critic is easier for some than others, and the ability to do this (allied with natural talent and a capacity for hard work, obviously) is what makes a good performer. Some relish the act of showmanship – performance with all its theatre – but others shrink from it, seemingly unable to get out of their own way. When I was a student, I experienced two opposite states of mind in a lesson, the careful practiser and the carefree performer. Anxious to show my professor how much I had practised that week and how well I had […]

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