A Bar at a Time

When I was going through the early grades myself as a lad, my teacher would instruct me to learn my new pieces bar by bar, and with each hand separately. I’m not sure how much I obeyed her when I was home alone though! I really do believe that if we teachers expect our students to practise in a particular way, we need to hear that practice in lessons – or there is little incentive for them to do it. It doesn’t have to take much lesson time – hearing just a bar or two, with words of encouragement and suggestions for improvement (if necessary) is all that is required to help them along in the learning process. I am very happy to announce that we’ll be adding further works to our  Online Academy articles and worksheets on the new ABRSM syllabus, beginning with a selection of pieces from the early grades. The format is somewhat similar to the other study editions I have previously published, featuring text, musical examples and short embedded video demonstrations (as well as video walkthroughs) designed to help teachers and players in the learning process. Naturally, there are detailed practice suggestions suitable for the grade. Bar by Bar – Plus One One of the practice suggestions I use in my worksheets is working in small sections, and a bar is a neat unit. Here’s how it works. In Bar by Bar Plus One we work one bar at a time. If we do this by stopping on the first beat of the next bar, the note(s) we end on will be the same note(s) we start on when we move on to the next bar. When we form good habits at […]

“I Haven’t Done As Much Practice As I Wanted This Week”

“I haven’t done as much practice as I would have liked this week” seems to be a very popular statement at the beginning of a piano lesson. Before one note has been played self doubt, anxiety and guilt are already in the room, and impending disaster is sure to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I try to calm the situation by reassuring the student that even seasoned concert artists at the top of their game might sit in the green room before a performance with similar doubts, feeling they could have done more if they had only had a bit more time. And how many exam candidates stew in the waiting room thinking: “If only I had a couple more weeks, or if only I had done this and that, I would be fully prepared”? There is always more we can do, yet we need to trust that what we have done is enough, for now – provided we have not been lazy or negligent in the process of preparation. A lesson does not always have to be a performance! Unless the lesson is in the run-up to an exam, diploma or recital (when a non-stop complete performance is necessary) work in progress is extremely welcome in my studio. I would rather help people to get things right from the beginning of the learning and practice process than go through the arduous task of unpicking and correcting careless errors or learned-in problems. Detailed work involves the opposite of playing through from beginning to end, and in a lesson it should be possible to focus on this – offering a model of what should happen in the daily practice. What do you want from your piano playing? In a recent lesson, […]

Getting it Right

There is a hypothetical test to find out how accurately a pianist responds to the expressive details in a piece of music. Someone with an acute ear sits with a special copy of the score – one that has had all the dynamics, articulations and other marks of expression removed. As the pianist plays, the listener has to fill in all this information from what they hear by dictation – distinguishing between a forte and a mezzo forte, a tenuto and another type of accent, noting precisely where a diminuendo begins, and so on. When you’ve been practising a piece for a while (especially from memory), it is easy to let the focus slip here and there. What about those syncopated accents after the double bar – are you really making them clear and meaningful, or do they now exist only in your imagination? Is it possible that you’ve forgotten about them altogether?  How can we be absolutely sure that how we imagine we are playing is actually what comes across to the listener, and that what we are doing matches the composer’s text? Before I go on, I would like to distinguish between honest mistakes or omissions and careless ones. I have written about this in a recent blog post – follow this link to The Speed of No Mistakes. It is careless mistakes that I speak of below. Not executing the expressive details is one thing, but suppose the next level down on our downward spiral to impending mediocrity is to turn a blind eye to slips and stumbles as they happen in our practice. I am not only thinking of notes and rhythm but also other parameters such as fingering, pedalling, etc.: I smudged that passage but it’ll be OK tomorrow, it’s not really that difficult. I think I may have paused for a moment before […]

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 […]