Practising The Piano eBook Series

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 […]

Keep Calm and Carry On Practising

When I was on the selection committee for the 11th Unisa International Piano Competition, we listened to two solid days of audio recordings, one after the other. Our selection of those pianists who would go forward into the competition was made purely by listening – we weren’t given their names, ages or any other information about the entrants, they had to make their impression on us solely by the sounds they made. There are viral performance on YouTube of young pianists playing their exam pieces. Judging by the number of hits and likes they receive, they are (all) destined to be the next Horowitz. I wonder if the wow factor has anything to do with the antics they have been taught to do, such as swaying around and flailing their bodies across the keyboard? This may look impressive to the layman, but I would invite you to experience such a performance in two ways. Mute the sound and just watch. Now for the acid test, replay the clip but turn the screen off and just listen. Doing this experiment, I have been struck by the disparity between the way the playing has been packaged to look and the actual quality in terms of skill – musical comprehension and technique. There’s something of a gulf here. In my adjudication work I notice constantly how excessive physical mannerisms detract from the quality of the playing. It is often the most musically intense who seem to need to do this. In their desire to be expressive, their bodies contort as a substitute for the real thing – having a sound in their head and calling on the body to produce the sound in the most natural and economical […]

Managing Leaps: Selective Landing

I use a three-part process for measuring distances at the keyboard, to make sure all jumps are precise, secure and foolproof. We build in the precise measurements in our practising so that when we play, we don’t have to give them any thought. The secret at that stage is to let go, keep loose and allow the music to unfold. I’ll talk more about Quick Cover and Springboarding in future posts, today I would like to say a little about Selective Landing. Selective Landing When we have to move from one position and land on a chord, we might select those notes of the chord we wish to land on first, and then fill in the remainder afterwards. This is a particularly useful process when we wish to see (and feel) how an especially awkward chord is built up, or simply to negotiate a new hand position. We can effectively play the chord in stages. Note that you do not have to do this rhythmically, although you may! Let’s take a very short example from Schumann’s Fürchtenmachen from Kinderszenen, op. 15, as this has been known to cause a stumble or two. I am speaking of the last two bars of this extract: Having practised the LH alone using the Quick Cover and Springboarding techniques, we might want to put it hands together in ways like this. Here are but three of several possibilities: 1. 2. 3. You might also want to practise landing on the middle note of the chord each time, dropping in the outer two afterwards. There are various other permutations, and my advice is to have fun with it and see how many different ways you can find. If you struggle with this spot, […]

Spot the Difference

I used to like those spot-the-difference cartoons that appeared in the comics I read as a lad. At first glance, both images look the same but you have to look closer until you find a specified number of differences between the two. Whenever I teach Brahms’ Intermezzo in A from the op. 118 set, I find it strange that pianists rarely seem to notice the differences between these two parallel passages (and another towards the end). What might Brahms have meant by them? How many differences can you spot, and what changes will you need to make to voicings, timings and pedallings to reveal these beauties to the listener?   ***   ***   ***  ***   *** If you are interested to know more about practising, please click on the buttons below to preview or purchase one or both of the publications in my new ebook series.  Alternatively you can find out more about the series by clicking here. Volume 1 Buy a beta version of Volume 1 now for a special introductory price (Full launch price of £4.99 applies from 31 March) or click on the button below for a free preview. Volume 2 Buy a beta version of Volume 2 now for a special introductory price (Full launch price of £4.99 applies from 31 March) or click on the button below for a free preview. Special offer bundle – Volume 1 & 2 Bundle Take advantage of our beta launch bundle and buy Practising The Piano Volumes 1 and 2 for a further 20% off the individual launch prices (Currently £2.50 per volume, full price of £4.99 per volume applies from 31 March).    

But I Can Play It Perfectly Well At Home!

Of all the comments students make in lessons, the assertion that they can play it perfectly well at home has to be among the most common. I would guess that this is probably universal, and even though I don’t think the statement is a lie I am not sure I always buy it. I think what they mean is there was nobody at home to judge, or that stopping somewhere in the piece, making a sly correction and restarting were either not noticed even by the players themselves or if they were, these errors had no obvious consequences. Surely the whole point is the (vast) difference between playing in the comforts of your living room, and the stresses and strains of performance where other people are listening. What felt easy and natural when we were alone suddenly becomes treacherous and untrustworthy when in the presence of others. And it doesn’t seem to matter much whether the audience is knowledgable about music or not. There is a virtual reality game called Walk the Plank. In reality you simply walk across a plank placed flat on the floor, in virtual reality you walk the plank over a vast cityscape. The experience is made to feel real by the headset that provides the experience of reality – even though the mind knows you are perfectly safe and at ground level, the brain and body is tricked and terror ensues. When we perform, we need to be responding on many different levels – emotionally, physically, even viscerally. We need to get into character and fully live the music on stage, there is room for spontaneity and magic here! Heaven forbid that when onstage, we are thinking about what notes […]

By |February 23rd, 2013|Teaching|7 Comments

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