Practising The Piano eBook Series

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 […]

The History of Piano Technique (Part 2)

One of the things that really gets my goat is the totally erroneous statement that the harpsichord is incapable of expression. Many famous and influential pianists who should know better regularly fall into this trap. We need to remember that the harpsichord from the High Baroque was a fully developed and mature instrument, perfect for the music written for it. In order to play expressively on the harpsichord, it is necessary to have a highly developed sense of touch. Harpsichord players make a slight articulation before a note to give it an accent, or they might delay it or hold onto it a little longer. In an expressively slurred pair of notes, the player overlaps the two notes by holding onto the first until just after playing the second note – this overlap masks the attack of the second note, thus making it sound softer. You really can create the impression of strong-weak in a slur, especially if you let go of the second note early. Sensitive under- and overlapping of notes combined with skilful timings cause the playing to sound musical and expressive. This is but illusion, I hear you say! I suggest that making an actual honest-to-goodness crescendo in a melodic line on the piano also relies on illusion, since the individual tones begin to decay the moment they have been sounded. We achieve a crescendo by artfully blending the end of one sound into the beginning of the next. Pianists spend most of our lives attempting to make a percussion instrument sing. As a youngster, I was fascinated by the hybrid harpsichords made by Pleyel, Goble and others, with their array of pedals. Here is the inimitable and great Wanda Landowska playing Bach […]

The History of Piano Technique (Part 1)

Writing about the history of piano technique for my new eBook I recalled vividly my harpsichord studies with Ruth Dyson at the RCM, and her insistence that the fingers play from the surface of the keyboard, not striking from above. In addition, no involvement of the arm was either desirable or necessary. During the 300 year history of the piano we have seen two main technical approaches – what we might call the Finger School and, later, the Arm School.   Since the early pianos were similar in touch and action to the harpsichord, it was appropriate to approach them in the traditionally accepted way – using individuated finger strokes with no active participation of the arm. As the piano and the music written for it evolved, so the size of the instrument increased. The range and touch weight of the keyboard also increased, making greater technical demands of the player. Pianists responded by doggedly sticking to what they knew, believing (erroneously, as it turned out) that all that was necessary was to make the fingers stronger. The futility of this eventually became apparent and a new school of playing based on anatomic principles and the use of arm weight, transplanted the Finger School. The pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, with the idea that the arm should now take over from the fingers. Rather than work like little pistons, the fingers should instead remain fixed for the weight of the arm to be transmitted through them. Thus during this phase active fingerwork tended to get neglected, and players forgot that no matter what was going on in the arm the finger still had to put down the key! In the modern age, new schools […]

My new eBook on Technique

When I started work on Part 2 of Practising the Piano, I had only a rough outline of the content I wanted to cover. I soon found that the project was expanding in all sorts of directions. It has been an exciting journey putting it all into writing, and one that I am happy to share with you. While writing articles on technique for Pianist Magazine over the years, I learnt how to put my ideas into words succinctly, but there is still the strong possibility that someone might misconstrue the written word. Fortunately, the technology behind the eBooks enables me to include video demonstration of anything I have just described in words. Because the reader can watch the video over and over, there is a greater chance they will understand what I mean. This is why I included over 100 videos in Part 2, the camera perched as close as possible to the keyboard – warts and all! A colleague once said to me that he did not teach technique; each student must work it out for themselves in their practice room. I couldn’t agree with him less. There are so many detours and dead ends a piano student can take when left to their own devices in this way. They can get seriously side-tracked, the worst-case scenario being debilitating injury. Why have them reinvent the wheel? Why not pass down methodology that is proven to work? Piano playing is a highly sophisticated activity and, while some people do seem born to it, for most of us success is achieved through sheer hard work – blood, sweat and tears. It is true that there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to […]

By |November 15th, 2013|eBooks, News|1 Comment

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 […]

Back Up!

In an effort to assist students with their learning, I will often ask for the beginning and the end of the piece in a lesson. Or perhaps even work on the last movement a bit before embarking on the first (I have written about this in a previous post so I won’t repeat myself here). If I didn’t do this the beginnings would always tend to be better than the endings, because they have received more time, attention and repetition. I would like to offer a couple of thoughts for backwards practice that I think will help to shift problems as well as provide a bit of variety in the practice routine. Practising Backwards – Phrase by Phrase I was very happy to hear Simone Dinnerstein talk about this type of practice in a radio interview she gave on Performance Today (listen from 6:40, although the whole interview is interesting). I have been doing this for years, and can attest to its enormous value. The purpose of this is to strengthen memory by training us to break the habit of knowing the music only in sequence. If we know a piece only in relation to the phrase or section that has come before it, we are at serious risk of a breakdown if we lose our place in performance. Practising like this means we know our piece literally backwards as well as forwards! Play the last phrase (or section) of a the piece. Go back to the phrase (or section) before that, and now play the two phrases in sequence. Repeat this process until you reach the beginning. Our natural tendency to start at the beginning means we are often more comfortable with beginnings than endings. An added bonus of this […]

“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 […]

Zigzag Practice

The intermediate piano student who has enjoyed playing CPE Bach’s Solfeggietto in C minor will have learned how to convince the listener that the semiquavers passed back and forth between the two hands in fact make one seamless line. This should sound as though it were played with one all-encompassing hand. Mastering the piece depends on being able to release the one hand at the precise moment the other hand takes over, as well as matching up the tone so there is no bump. This little piece is excellent training for this important skill and relies on careful listening as much as coordination of the hands. There are certain situations in our pieces that lend themselves to a type of practice I call zigzag practice. The thematic material wends its way from right to left, inviting us to explore the music in the way the composer conceived it. One such piece is JS Bach’s Fantasie in C minor: Apart from his interest in numerology, Bach loves including cruciform shapes into his music and it is worthwhile practising it like this. Here are two ways I suggest:   There are other instances when the interest passes back and forth in a similar but perhaps less obvious way, such as in this short example from Haydn’s B minor Sonata. Here, it is not so much a question of doing anything more than noticing the conversation between the hands and underlining this. We might practise this passage omitting every other note in the semiquaver passages (the repeated note) and listen to the parallel tenths that come out. We might also practise holding down the repeated note, so we anchor the thumbs on their respective keys. Needless to say […]

The Pot-Bellied Monster

Heinrich Neuhaus spoke of the pot-bellied monster, a fault in piano playing where the harmony swallows both bass and melody. I find myself discussing the layering of sound all the time with my students, the ability to do this skillfully is such a crucial aspect of fine piano playing. If we want to build a hierarchical sound where we can sense foreground, background and middle ground it is not just the volume that counts, but also the texture – the type of touch we use within a given dynamic level. In this example from Schubert’s G flat Impromptu, it is not hard to see that the harmonic middle needs to be played more softly than the top melody, but the rippling quavers also need to be extremely even tonally and yet rhythmically structured. An impressionistic wash won’t do here: Whenever we see fortissimo, it is as though there were an unspoken command that we’ve got to try and play everything on the page as loudly as possible. Let’s now look at the climax of Rachmaninov’s beautiful Elegie that someone brought to their lesson today: The three-layered structure is clear here, with the main melodic line in the RH, the bass A (that needs to last all the way through the two bars in one long, deep pedal) and the middle part. Now, this middle part supplies not only the harmonic filling but also forward momentum and a certain turbulence but it should not be on the same tonal level as the top or bottom. Experiment with omitting the middle part completely and you will discover that you can already achieve an ample triple fortissimo without it, especially if you have wrung out the maximum amount of good quality […]

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 […]

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