Practising Polyrhythms

Following a question on a Facebook page about coping with polyrhythms, I decided to republish this post from 2012. I hope it helps! I want to suggest some ways of solving a polyrhythm where one hand is playing in divisions of four while the other in divisions of three. I am going to leave out 2 against 3, as this is relatively straightforward – as long as the second note of the duplet comes precisely between the second and third note of the triplet, then bingo! I’ve decided to go with a common example that trips people up, the 4 against 3 in the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (last beat of the second bar): Fitting together the two hands slowly here relies first of all on knowing precisely where each note goes in one hand in relation to the other. In a 4 against 3 group, the only place where the hands coincide is the first note of the group. To work the placements out mathematically, on a piece of graph paper draw two lines and divide the top one in 4 and the lower one in 3. You will see that the second LH triplet comes between the second and third demisemiquaver of the RH but not half way (it actually comes a third of the way between). The third LH triplet comes just before the last demisemiquaver. Do this first by tapping your hands on your knees, using the words “What Atrocious Weather” or “Pass the Goddamn Butter” to help. If you repeat this enough times, you’ll get better and better at it, and you can transfer the activity from patella to keyboard. The main thing is to feel the rhythm in […]

Making Friends with Fiddly Fiorature

Over the past couple of weeks I have had a few requests for advice on how to handle the flurries of little notes we find in the music of Chopin. I am republishing a post I wrote back in 2013 – I hope it helps! When you’ve been teaching the piano for as long as I have, there are certain problems that are universal. It might be a particular spot in a particular piece that will always need to be brought up, or it might be a concept – such as how to manage the fioratura in the music of Chopin. Before we go any further, let me explain what this term means. Taken from “fior”, which means “flower” in Italian, fioratura refers to the flowery, embellished vocal line within an aria. Chopin was a diehard fan of the bel canto tradition, and we find its influence throughout his music. Some of these passages look extremely scary, for example the coda of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne: The first thing to realise here is that Chopin did not intend the notation of his fiorature to be mathematically precise. The whole point is for them to sound free, improvisatory and personal. In my lessons with Ann Schein on Chopin’s Second Concerto, I was instructed to start the fiorature fast and take time at the end of the groups. Since Ann was one of only two students of Artur Rubinstein – no slouch when it came to the interpretation of Chopin – this has always been good enough for me. Because the notation is free, I feel we should retain a sense of freedom and even whimsy about how we play our fiorature, being unconstrained by the mathematics […]

An Arpeggio Practice Plan

If you’re preparing your scales and arpeggios for an exam, or if you want to include some as part of your warm-up routine or technical regime, it is a good idea to be creative about how you’re going to tackle them day by day. Recently, I gave a practice plan for scales so I thought I would also give you a possible way to organise your arpeggio practice. Assuming you already know your arpeggios in all the inversions, and have overcome the basic technical difficulties, use this plan as a springboard for further creative ideas. Arpeggio Bouquet This is a useful process for self-testing, and it also helps develop mental flexibility and concentration. From a given note, generate as many different arpeggios as possible that use that note, and play all on one continuous loop without stops (the last note of each arpeggio becomes the first note of the next). For example, if we choose the note C, our loop will consist of the following different arpeggios (aim to change only one note at a time where possible, this won’t work as neatly as you go through the dominant 7ths). I suggest changing the note each day. Keep an eagle eye on fingerings: C major, root position C minor, root position A flat major, first inversion F minor, second inversion F major, second inversion A minor, first inversion Dominant 7th, key of F, root position Dominant 7th, key of D flat, first inversion Dominant 7th, key of B flat, second inversion Dominant 7th, key of G, third inversion Diminished 7th on C   Be creative with how you do this – you might vary the dynamics between one arpeggio and the next, play some half or […]

Our Inner Conductor

In some Romantic music it may be appropriate to change tempo slightly when the musical idea changes, even if this is not specified in the score. This is just one of many personal freedoms that is part of Romantic style. However, in a Classical sonata we need to be able to contain the various different musical ideas in a movement more or less within one basic tempo – contrast within a unified tempo is what helps everything hang together. Quality of Beat I am no conductor, but when I wave my arms around in a lesson I feel that the energy of the beats varies from one section of the music to another, even though the tempo may stay exactly the same. The beat may have a strong, explosive attack which I show with a snap of the wrist. If this needs to happen at the piano or pianissimo level, I might make the movements quite small and high up. If the beats blend into one another smoothly, I might show this with more circular motions or even a figure of eight. The tempo stays the same but the energy and quality of the beat can change markedly within that tempo. This is often what happens in a Classical sonata first movement – the first subject may be extrovert and the second subject more expressive and intimate. As players respond to the different musical material, they often seem to change tempo without even realising. This is obviously an issue that needs our attention. Our Inner Conductor Of course we can use the metronome to stabilise the beat as we practise, this is such a tried and tested way of doing things that I am not going to dwell […]

Solving a Problem in Beethoven’s op. 79

The other day, a student brought in a problem with Beethoven’s Sonata in G, op. 79 – the cross rhythms in the last movement. In several places, one hand is playing in 3s and the other in 2s, thus: With any passage like this, it is tempting to try to solve it with lots of slow practice but as Hans von Bülow says in a footnote to his edition: Every attempt to divide mathematically the triplets of the accompaniment with the couplet rhythm of the theme will prove futile. A diligent practice with each hand separately will alone lead to the requisite independence. The key is in the word “mathematical”. Rhythm can’t be mathematical, it has to be felt physically –  experienced through the body.  Sure, we can divide up the beats on paper and see where one note goes in relation to the others but this gives us a distorted and mechanical view of the passage that in my experience won’t translate well into performance. My solution to passages like this is to practise alternating one hand with the other, having established an absolute and unerring sense of pulse. We maintain this pulse at all costs, feeling it in our body as though we were conducting and not letting it sag for a moment. With this process, using the metronome is not a bad idea. I prefer to leave a bar’s rest between each repetition or new variant, being strict about keeping the beat going during this measured silence. Having alternated one hand with the other, here is a possible plan: This ends with both hands playing together, but it is bound to take several attempts before the hands synchronise correctly. Rather than playing the hands […]

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

Chopin’s First Ballade – a Practice Suggestion

Chopin’s evergreen First Ballade has never been more popular, thanks in part to Alan Rusbridger’s book about his personal quest with the piece, Play It Again. It is a piece that most aspiring young pianists yearn to play (often before they are ready for it) and you’ll hear it coming out of conservatory practice room doors the world over. Given the exposure of the piece, it is easy to forget that it presents formidable challenges for all who choose to play it, amateur and professional alike. I thought I would offer some occasional suggestions for practice, starting with a small section that seems to trip a lot of players up. Let’s look at the section beginning in bar 138, a waltz if ever there was one (compare this with Chopin’s Waltz in A flat, op. 34, no. 1): I am sure many players give a lot of attention to the RH here, and yet without a beautifully crafted LH this passage is doomed to fall off the rails. The filigree passagework of the RH is only going to work if the LH can provide a buoyant, rhythmical underpinning – think of the RH as the dancer and the LH as the orchestra. Make sure you can play the LH by itself fluently, up to speed and beautifully shaped. Listen to the second slurred crotchet, making sure it is softer than the first; enjoy the dissonance between the A flat and the A natural in the second beat. Of the many editions available in The Petrucci Library, only a few include LH fingering for this passage and in his excellent study edition (available in Petrucci in French), Alfred Cortot gives but one practice suggestion here. Cortot’s perverse fingering for […]

More on Rhythm

I have been working on a new chapter on the uses and abuses of the metronome for Volume 3 of my ebook series, due to be published after Easter. For those who may love practising with a metronome, it feels important to offer some alternatives so you’re not left high and dry. Before I get to these, I need to discuss beat quality. Beat Quality All the metronome can really do is parcel up the music into equal capsules of time, one identical to the other, but music doesn’t work like this. It is easy to hear when someone has been practising with the metronome, listening to them play is the equivalent of viewing a movie frame by frame. The bigger gestures, such as phrase direction, natural ebb and flow and any subtleties of expressive timing go by the board and are obliterated. A point that is often missed here is that each beat of the bar has a different quality according to its metric placement in the bar. Eighteenth century theorists speak of “good and bad notes” but in Dalcrozian speak, the first beat of the bar (the downbeat, otherwise known as the crusis) is felt as a release of energy. The last beat (anacrusis) is a preparation of energy for the release, and is not really a weak beat as traditional teaching misleadingly describes it. The metacrusis is anything occuring between the crusis and anacrusis (the second beat in 3/4, the second and third beats in 4/4), the reaction to the crusis or the ripple effect. Getting back to the anacrusis, if I am lifting something up against gravity to prepare to put it down, this can hardly be described as “weak”. Depending on the […]

Playing Rhythmically

When I was a postgraduate student at the Manhattan School of Music in New York back in the 1980s, I decided to make up some credits for my master’s degree by taking courses in Dalcroze Eurythmics. Fortunately for me the teacher of these courses, Dr. Robert Abramson, was one of the world’s leading exponents on the subject and I learned an enormous amount about how rhythm works. Rhythm does not exist in the head, but in the body – we have to feel it physically. Playing a musical instrument rhythmically is a totally separate thing from playing by merely spelling out the counts. If music is dead in time, it is just that – dead! I once had an advanced student with a fundamental rhythmic flaw. Barely a bar would go by without some glaring rhythmic inaccuracy, and yet when I got her to count it out, it was clear she had a complete intellectual understanding of the mathematics of the meter. What was missing was the physical aspect, how the rhythm actually felt. The solution? No amount of metronome practice over the years had helped her one iota to play rhythmically. One term in a Dalcroze Eurythmics class did wonders to complete the circuitry and this made a huge difference to her playing. The whole body interprets musical rhythm enabling the large movements to become internalised. This rhythmic sense can then be executed by smaller parts of the body (namely our playing mechanism).   “Muscles were made for movement, and rhythm is movement. It is impossible to conceive a rhythm without thinking of a body in motion.” Emile Jacques-Dalcroze   Perhaps we can compare counting out with reading a recipe from a book and rhythm with actually […]

Firm Foundations

A late, esteemed colleague who had amazing sight reading skills once told me he never read through more than once a new piece he was about to learn. It was just too risky for him – on a second reading he would already have been forming habits that would hinder him in the finished version, when it eventually rolled off the other end of the production line. This might be sloppy fingering, sketching (rather than etching) accompanimental figuration, or even learned-in wrong notes. Yes, practice makes permanent and habits are formed alarmingly quickly. Let’s make sure they are good habits rather than bad ones. A mañana attitude to proper learning of a piece, while giving us a limited amount of instant pleasure is actually the shoddiest possible of foundations if we have any aspirations to perform it at any point in the future. If we allow ourselves repeated buskings where we guess at those passages we don’t have the patience to work out thoroughly, or gloss over others where our random fingering is clearly not working, we can expect a shoddy end result – no matter how much time we put in later. By then it is often too late, and we can expect to reap what we have sown, no matter how lofty our vision of the music or how talented we are. Just think how much time, energy and money has been spent today propping up The Leaning Tower of Pisa compared with how much it cost to erect it in the first place! Good practice habits not only enable us to feel good about our work and about our playing, they allow a structure to emerge from rock, enabling it to withstand the forces of […]

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