practice tools

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

Looping – How to Manage Repetition Rhythmically

Piano playing requires extremely sophisticated motor skills and superfine coordination. While we acquire these skills for a new piece or if we are polishing up an old one, a certain amount of repetition is inevitable. As we repeat, we refine and ingrain. When we need to repeat something, it strikes me as preferable to know why we are repeating it. Am I repeating it because it was good and I want to make it a habit, or was there something wrong that needs to be corrected? If the latter, what was not right about the first repetition that I need to do it again? Not just a vague response like “there were some wrong notes” but something more probing, along the lines of “my LH misjudged the leap at the beginning of the bar and that threw me out”, or “I sensed tension in my forearm and noticed the semiquavers became uneven”. I can hear some of you thinking that’s all very well, but young players don’t have the diagnostic skills to figure these things out by themselves during practice. I sometimes ask a younger student to give me a lesson, meaning we reverse roles and I mirror back to them what they did. I admit that sometimes I might exaggerate my point slightly, but I am amazed that most of the time they are able to hear and tell me what wasn’t right. It is absolutely possible to teach them to listen with elephant ears and to teach them by asking questions. The Feedback Loop When we use the feedback loop during practice, we deliberately stop and think before correcting a mistake. “Think ten times and play once” was Liszt’s command, and it remains a […]

By |September 6th, 2013|Teaching|6 Comments

A Tool for Memory Work: Tracking

Memorising a piece takes plenty of time and energy, and requires a strategy more sophisticated than simply closing the score after several weeks of reading it. Some memory work is like buying insurance – you hope you’ll never actually need it! While some pianists memorise easily, others struggle with it and never really feel confident. We’ve all been in that horrible situation where for the life of us we can’t remember what comes next, even though we know we know the piece inside out and backwards. I have written in depth about memorisation – have a look at The Analytic Memory and Tools for Memorisation. Here is a tool for when you have done a certain amount of groundwork memorising a piece, but you want something extra to strengthen and test your memory – I call it tracking. You can use it for any piece, long or short and I guarantee it will work a treat. Mark the Score If you don’t want to mark up your original score, make a copy for the purposes of this exercise. Divide the piece up into meaningful units that you’re going to number like tracks on a CD. The tracks can be as long or as short as you want, but the unit you choose should at least be a phrase. You might prefer a longer section, but here short is good! I have divided up Chopin’s Nocturne in B, op. 32, no. 1 into 12 tracks in all. The score will end up looking something like this (I am showing page 1 only): Practice Suggestions With the marked score away from the piano (preferably over the other side of the room but certainly out of sight), here are some suggestions for […]

“Sorry, I haven’t done as much practice as I would like this week…”

How often we piano teachers hear this comment! “Sorry, I haven’t done as much practice as I would like this week.” It has to rank with the exclamation “But I can play it perfectly well at home” as one of the perennials. I always smile inside when I hear this, because it is intended well and actually we’ve all been there. Learning a piece is a process, rather like an investment. It might take several weeks where you don’t feel much progress then suddenly something changes and it feels like the penny has dropped. It is easy to get frustrated and demotivated during the gestation period. I always remind students that not every lesson has to be a performance – during this stage there is much more value in chipping away at the piece together, side by side, rather than attempting to play it through. Wouldn’t it be great if our results at the piano were in direct proportion to the amount of time spent? If practising were an exact science and we were machines, perhaps we could guarantee the perfect performance. I wonder how often any of us can walk onto the concert platform or into the examination room feeling totally confident that we have done enough practice, that we have covered all our bases. There is always that nagging feeling we could have done more – all we need is a few more days and we’d be fine. Time always seems to be at a premium. There are so many demands on our time, and there never seem to be enough hours in the day to fit in as much practice as we want. I can say this, though, without any doubt: if we […]

Transposing the Difficult Spot

Vocal accompanists and repetiteurs need to develop the skills to transpose virtually at sight in order to accommodate the different voice types and the vocal ranges of the singers they work with, but transposition is also a valuable practice tool for the solo pianist. We can use transposition to build and test the aural and analytic memory for those pieces we need to memorise, and we can also use it for refining motor control and coordination in difficult passages. I explore both these areas thoroughly in Chapter 7 from Volume 3 of my ebook series, but I wanted to give an example of the benefits of transposing from a lesson I gave this week on Bach’s Italian Concerto. Having taught this piece dozens of times over the years, it comes as no surprise that I might have to help a student with the following bars (I have added my own performance suggestions, please excuse the absence of treble and bass clefs): This snippet occurs in three different guises in the first movement – the first time ending on the tonic, the second time on the dominant and the last time on the subdominant. Apart from a tied RH thumb and a modified LH in the last example, the notes and fingerings are the same. The RH seems to trip people up until its contents have been digested and the fingers organised, so how do we do this? Since Bach has been meticulous in showing the parts, we can at least do him the service of practising it thus. I especially like omitting the thumb and practising the upper two parts alone but playing the other combinations is valuable too. If we really want to take […]

The Practice Tools – Volume 3

I would like to thank you for your support with my ebook series – I am very pleased with the uptake and have had lots of great feedback. It is good to know that the publication is assisting you in your practice! The beta launch period is now over, we have done some minor edits and updates to the publications, and all existing customers will be upgraded automatically to the new versions. The full version of Part 1 is now available at £9.99 for all three volumes. Volume 3 will be available for £2.99 until May 31 as a special offer to existing customers. Please note that you do not need a PayPal account to purchase the publications, simply click on “buy as guest” to use your debit or credit card to make a purchase via the secure gateway. For further information on how the publications work and what devices are supported, please see the FAQ on the Informance website.

Getting Students to Use the Practice Tools: Separately

The brain is made up of two hemispheres, right and left. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, and vice versa. There is a bridge between the two hemispheres, a thick bundle of cables called the corpus callosum, which connects the left with the right and enables communication between the two. Scientists have discovered the corpus callosum is actually larger and more developed in musicians, and that playing a musical instrument improves skill in other areas of life, such as maths. When we play one hand of a piece of music written for two hands, we are obviously only getting half the story. While the whole is bound to be greater than the sum of its parts (eventually), we will need to start off by attending to the parts by learning each hand separately. By practising one hand by itself, we enable the hemisphere of the brain that controls it to absorb fully the movements that hand has to make. The more we consciously practise these movements, the more skillful we become as our brain processes the sensory information. The absolute necessity to know each hand by itself seems so obvious and so basic, doesn’t it? Yet in my adjudicating work I can always hear when someone has not done this or who has done it briefly and half-heartedly – the end result is sloppy, inaccurate and unreliable. So often, successful piano practice comes down to delaying gratification (the satisfaction we get from the complete sound picture and the visceral enjoyment of playing) and instead digging foundations deep enough so that our playing really can be rock solid. How frustrating and dispiriting to be able to play something rather well one day […]

By |February 16th, 2013|Teaching|0 Comments

Getting Students to Use the Practice Tools (2)

Last week, I discussed how we might encourage our younger students to use the practice tools by incorporating elements of practice into the lesson, so that each week we devote a part of the lesson to checking and supervising what we want to be happening at home. I guess this would be the equivalent of an apprentice in an atelier who polishes and displays the tools of his craft for the master to inspect. There would be enormous pride not only in the product, but the very tools themselves and the proper use of them. We all know that tonal control is a hallmark of excellent piano playing. By this, I mean a full dynamic range as well as a sense of balance between the hands and (later) within the hand. There is no reason why we can’t introduce this concept, and also the skills involved, from the very beginning. Youngsters love a challenge if it is presented playfully, demonstrated well and they can see the value in it. The elementary player often struggles to do one thing in one hand and a different thing in the other hand, such as projecting a RH melody line and playing the accompaniment in the LH softer. Before we can expect them to do this, we need to help them develop the necessary independence between the hands. Games are a good starting point – you can get them to pat their head with one hand while rubbing their stomach with the other, or draw a circle and a square simultaneously. At the piano, we might use a basic five-finger position. I prefer Chopin’s whole-tone position (E-F#-G#-A#-B#) but any position will do. Both hands play in similar motion up […]

By |February 10th, 2013|Teaching|1 Comment

Getting Students To Use The Practice Tools

Following the launch of my ebook series last week, I had an email from a reader who tells me she is enjoying reading about the practice tools. She is excited to start using them herself, but is a bit dubious that she is going to get her students to practise like this. This seems like an excellent point, and one I thought I would address here today. I’ll start by sharing a personal story about my gardening skills – or rather total lack of them. I once had a property with a beautiful garden, designed and laid out by its previous owner with great love and attention to detail. Along with the house came a shed full of garden implements – shears, secateurs, and other gizmos – everything you would ever need. One bright Sunday morning, I decided to do a spot of gardening and got all these things out from the shed. I stood there scratching my head, uncertain as to what needed to be lopped from where, where I needed to dig, what was a weed – it all looked fine to me. So, I promptly put the tools back in the shed and called in the professionals, who looked after the plot beautifully from then on. This showed me there’s no point having tools unless you know how to use them, when to use them, and for what. Probably the single most important and most basic practice tool is the feedback loop. It helps us diagnose what’s good or bad, weak or strong so we can attempt to correct or improve it. This applies universally from beginners to advanced to professionals. It is perfectly possible to get a beginner to use the […]

By |February 3rd, 2013|Teaching|4 Comments