practice tools

Seeing the Forest

This week’s guest blog post features an introduction to the From the Ground Up series by its author, Ken Johansen, following its launch last week on the Online Academy. In his post, Ken describes the “from the ground up” approach to learning pieces and the rationale behind his project. I wholeheartedly recommend this approach for anyone who wants to learn new works in a less daunting and more enjoyable way! *** *** *** A page of piano music, taken at a glance, looks a bit like a forest, the black notes forming more or less dense thickets of trees and shrubbery against the white page. Seen from afar, this forest looks fairly uniform; it’s difficult at first to distinguish its content and boundaries, or to see the variety behind the uniformity. But we’ve heard that this forest is enchanted, and we want to explore it for ourselves, so we approach it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How do we enter this musical forest, which may sometimes appear dark and impenetrable? Some pianists choose to listen to a recording first, but that is a second-hand experience. We want to walk in the woods ourselves, not listen to someone else’s account of it. A few musicians spend some time just sitting with the score, listening to it inwardly, finding its phrase and section divisions, perhaps analysing the harmony. But most pianists are too impatient for this; they want to start playing right away. If they are good sight-readers and the piece is not too difficult, this can make for an easy and pleasant stroll. But if their reading ability is mediocre, or if they are learning a piece that is at the upper limit of their technical ability (which […]

Learning New Pieces From the Ground Up

One of the most common questions my readers ask is how they can learn new pieces more effectively. As it turns out, one of the most popular posts of all time at is “But It Takes Me Ages To Learn A New Piece!”. Therefore, I’m very pleased to announce the launch of a new series of resources on the Online Academy this week which directly addresses how to go about learning new pieces more efficiently – it’s called From the Ground Up. Building on a similar approach and principles covered in my series Deconstructing the Score, From the Ground Up is a series devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively. Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Authored by Ken Johansen, co-founder of the Read Ahead sight-reading programme and professor at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, the series will feature popular works from throughout the repertoire, starting with two works by Schumann and JS Bach respectively. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up on the Online Academy or on one of the following links to view the first two editions: Schumann – Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (from Kinderszenen) Bach – Little Prelude in F (from the Notebook for Wilhelm Friedrich Bach) Beethoven – Sonatina in G Grieg – Arietta (Lyric Pieces, Op. 12, No. 1) Chopin – Nocturne in E-Flat (Op. 9, No. 2) NEW – Schumann […]

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 […]

There’s a Hole in my Bucket

Imagine a situation where you have to fetch water using a bucket. The problem is your bucket has a few holes in it, and on the journey from the well to your bathtub most of the water leaks away. You’ve got two choices – either make dozens of journeys before the tub is filled, or fix the bucket! Now imagine you are preparing a recital or examination programme, and there are holes in that. That part of your fugue where you know you haven’t organised a good enough fingering, those few bars on the third page of your Schumann that always seem to trip you up, and you’ve never quite sorted out the coda in the first movement of your Beethoven sonata. Of course, you will finally start practising your scales soon, it’s just that there never seems to be enough time to practise the pieces… How tempting it is, having become aware of these issues, to carry on playing with thoughts like: “Oh darn, that keeps happening. Still, let’s hope it will correct itself tomorrow”. This is rather like trying to enjoy a bicycle ride in the countryside aware you have a slow puncture or your saddle is loose. The Pareto Principle The Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 Rule, is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who had a eureka moment when he made two unrelated observations. He noticed that during 1906, 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pea pods! This principle is widely used in the fields of business- and time management, and is very useful to know about in relation to practising […]

A Scale Plan

So you know you have to practise your scales but you’re not really that keen, and you find your mind is constantly wandering. You need some sort of plan, and you need a definite way of doing things – or you’ll just aimlessly doodle up and down the scale a few times. Let’s assume you’re advanced enough to be playing your scales 4 octaves, and that you now them all well enough to be able to immediately call up a mental image of how the scale looks and feels on the keyboard. If I suggested E major, you need to be able to see in a flash the pattern the four black keys make with the four white ones (counting the key note twice) and to recall its tactile memory and possibly the sound world (or key colour). If you are still struggling with the notes, I would not suggest following this plan. Practising scales in a variety of different rhythms is a tried and tested method and is not going to be a new concept to any of you. However, when you practise in a rhythm, it is really important to be as precise as possible and to keep the pulse rock steady. If you are playing a dotted rhythm, make sure it really is dotted (and not triplety) by overcompensating and doing it double dotted. When you invert “l-o-n-g/short” to “short/l-o-n-g”, you’ll get much more value out of it if you keep the accent on the first note (i.e. on the “short”) rather than let it happen on the long note (where it will want to go). I have published a series of rhythm charts (including some syncopated ones) in Part 3 of Practising […]

Tackling a Programme

I had an interesting question from a reader in Australia, so this week I thought I would address the issue of how to learn a programme consisting of multiple pieces. Do keep your questions coming in, I will do my best to answer them. Q. I want to learn to play, say, two sonatas, or six difficult pieces, or (if have just started to play) three small “easy” pieces. How should I learn them? Say the sonatas have three movements each. Should I learn one movement at a time until I have it under my belt, and then go to the next, do the same, and afterwards go and learn the third? Once completed, do I then start the next sonata and learn it in the same way, or would it be more (or less) productive to start learning all six movements at the same time? A. The question is an excellent one as it shows how necessary it is to bring planning, organisation and time management skills into the practice room. Assuming I want to have all these pieces peak together, let’s work backwards from the end point. For example, if my recital or exam date is March 1st, I will need to aim to be fully prepared two weeks before that. Prior to that, I’ll need to arrange three run-throughs in front of different people (teacher, trusted friends, piano meet-up group, festival, etc.). The stages of our work will look approximately like this: Day of exam or recital. The week or so before: under-tempo run-throughs combined with spot practice and general maintenance (including some slow practice and using the memory tools). Marking (going over lightly) the programme, some visualisation, relaxation techniques if needed. Have […]

By |February 28th, 2014|Performing|8 Comments

Scale Generator

I am busy writing Part 3 of my eBook series, Practising the Piano, a volume on scales and arpeggios. After outlining the basic skills needed, I look at both scales and arpeggios from the point of view of elementary, intermediate and advanced level players. There are lots of demonstrations on the main technical points as well as exercises, suggestions for practice, and ideas to keep scale playing interesting and vibrant. This should be available for purchase very soon. One of the interactive tools we are developing for the publication is a “scales generator” which randomly selects scales to play from a prescribed list.  I am very excited to be able to introduce a demo version of it to you now in advance! At present it is still in the beta testing stage, so we would value your comments and suggestions. Any feedback you have is helpful so we can improve this. At present only ABRSM Grades 1 and 5 are available, but we will be including all the grades from 1 to 8. To test out the generator, please click here. Please leave your comments, suggestions and feedback at the bottom of this page. Thank you in advance!    

By |February 25th, 2014|News|9 Comments

Top Ten Tips to Maximise Your Practice

At the start of the New Year, everyone is making resolutions. I have noticed that these usually have to do with self discipline – not eating or drinking so much and exercising more seem to top the list. Piano practice, in order to be effective, must be disciplined. If there is no thought or organisation behind our work, it will be hard to find the impetus to make a regular commitment. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics just round the corner, I think of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to each day in their training regimes. We pianists have to train also – countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! It seems timely to republish one of my most popular blog posts, so here are a few tips (in no particular order) that will help you get the most out of your practice time. A Teacher. Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a restarter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons. Commitment. Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. “Little and often” will help you achieve FAR more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to […]

Five Fingers

My piano chum, Leon Whitesell, has a brand new Facebook group called Piano Playing Questions. In a recent post, Leon referred to the five-finger exercise formulae of famous Russian teacher, Vasily Safonov (who was the teacher of Scriabin, Medtner, Josef and Rosina Lhévinne, amongst many others). This reminded me that somewhere on my shelves I had a copy of Safonov’s “New Formula for the Piano Teacher and Piano Student”, and after a bit of digging around I managed to find it. I assume it must be long out of print, but I have found the German edition on Petrucci and can link to the pdf here. I was particularly interested in what Safonov recommended for five-finger positions. Using a basic position from G up to D and then down to G again, he suggested changing the fingerings from 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 to various other combinations, thus: Having outlined the fingerings and referenced them with upper and lower case letters, he goes on to supply a formula for combining the fingers when practising hands together. This is well worth exploring:   While you’re about it, I like Leon’s suggestion carry this idea further by using additional fingerings, such as: 2-3-4-5-1-5-4-3-2 3-4-5-1-2-1-5-4-3 4-5-1-2-3-2-1-5-4 5-1-2-3-4-3-2-1-5 Practising in a whole variety of different rhythms enhances control. Experiment also with using different touches, and also different five-finger positions than diatonic major (minor, chromatic and whole-tone positions are also very useful). It strikes me that these alternative fingerings can also be applied to some of the Hanon exercises, certainly the first one. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I like to practise Peter Feuchtwanger’s five-finger exercise, played with reverse fingerings. Instead of 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 in a RH ascending/descending pattern, he uses 5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5. This necessitates the […]

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

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