Schumann

Seeing the Forest

This week’s guest blog post features an introduction to the From the Ground Up series by its author, Ken Johansen, following its launch last week on the Online Academy. In his post, Ken describes the “from the ground up” approach to learning pieces and the rationale behind his project. I wholeheartedly recommend this approach for anyone who wants to learn new works in a less daunting and more enjoyable way! *** *** *** A page of piano music, taken at a glance, looks a bit like a forest, the black notes forming more or less dense thickets of trees and shrubbery against the white page. Seen from afar, this forest looks fairly uniform; it’s difficult at first to distinguish its content and boundaries, or to see the variety behind the uniformity. But we’ve heard that this forest is enchanted, and we want to explore it for ourselves, so we approach it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How do we enter this musical forest, which may sometimes appear dark and impenetrable? Some pianists choose to listen to a recording first, but that is a second-hand experience. We want to walk in the woods ourselves, not listen to someone else’s account of it. A few musicians spend some time just sitting with the score, listening to it inwardly, finding its phrase and section divisions, perhaps analysing the harmony. But most pianists are too impatient for this; they want to start playing right away. If they are good sight-readers and the piece is not too difficult, this can make for an easy and pleasant stroll. But if their reading ability is mediocre, or if they are learning a piece that is at the upper limit of their technical ability (which […]

Learning New Pieces From the Ground Up

One of the most common questions my readers ask is how they can learn new pieces more effectively. As it turns out, one of the most popular posts of all time at www.practisingthepiano.com is “But It Takes Me Ages To Learn A New Piece!”. Therefore, I’m very pleased to announce the launch of a new series of resources on the Online Academy this week which directly addresses how to go about learning new pieces more efficiently – it’s called From the Ground Up. Building on a similar approach and principles covered in my series Deconstructing the Score, From the Ground Up is a series devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively. Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Authored by Ken Johansen, co-founder of the Read Ahead sight-reading programme and professor at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, the series will feature popular works from throughout the repertoire, starting with two works by Schumann and JS Bach respectively. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up on the Online Academy or on one of the following links to view the first two editions: Schumann – Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (from Kinderszenen) Bach – Little Prelude in F (from the Notebook for Wilhelm Friedrich Bach) Beethoven – Sonatina in G Grieg – Arietta (Lyric Pieces, Op. 12, No. 1) Chopin – Nocturne in E-Flat (Op. 9, No. 2) NEW – Schumann […]

Look, No Feet!

People think in terms of pianists’ fingers – not their feet – but a direct line of communication from our ear to our right foot is an absolute necessity and there’s no doubt that fancy footwork is an integral part of our technique. I once witnessed a masterclass given by an expert in contemporary music where the sostenuto (middle) pedal was in constant use, and occasionally controlled by a left foot that was operating the left (una corda) pedal at the same time. When the right foot wasn’t busy with the right (sustaining) pedal it too took turns on the middle pedal. In my previous post on pedalling, The Dance of the Dampers, I discussed partial pedalling and the imprecise nature of pedal marks we usually find in the score. How can we possibly notate pedalling when it will vary from player to player, from piano to piano and from one room or performance space to another? Many composers and editors of piano music have felt it necessary or helpful to add pedal markings, but I would not recommend slavish adherence to these. One of the most confusing and irritating pedal notations is the abbreviation “Ped” with a star mark * indicating the release. The placement of the * mark is very often so imprecise as to be plainly wrong – lifting at the * and then waiting for the next “Ped” to put it down again would leave a gap. While this sort of disjointed pedalling was more common in the nineteenth century, we don’t tend to do much of it nowadays. I doubt that the composer actually meant this most of the time anyway and I advise players to use their discretion when figuring […]

There’s a Hole in my Bucket

Imagine a situation where you have to fetch water using a bucket. The problem is your bucket has a few holes in it, and on the journey from the well to your bathtub most of the water leaks away. You’ve got two choices – either make dozens of journeys before the tub is filled, or fix the bucket! Now imagine you are preparing a recital or examination programme, and there are holes in that. That part of your fugue where you know you haven’t organised a good enough fingering, those few bars on the third page of your Schumann that always seem to trip you up, and you’ve never quite sorted out the coda in the first movement of your Beethoven sonata. Of course, you will finally start practising your scales soon, it’s just that there never seems to be enough time to practise the pieces… How tempting it is, having become aware of these issues, to carry on playing with thoughts like: “Oh darn, that keeps happening. Still, let’s hope it will correct itself tomorrow”. This is rather like trying to enjoy a bicycle ride in the countryside aware you have a slow puncture or your saddle is loose. The Pareto Principle The Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 Rule, is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who had a eureka moment when he made two unrelated observations. He noticed that during 1906, 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pea pods! This principle is widely used in the fields of business- and time management, and is very useful to know about in relation to practising […]

Some Historic Pianos

As I wind up my short tribute to the pianos of yesteryear, I want to mention two particular pianos that stand out in my memory. Last week, I wrote about my experience playing Chopin’s music on the very Broadwood that Chopin himself selected to play when he was in London. This week, I recall a more recent concert of music for four hands by Schumann with my former student, Daniel Grimwood on a very lovely Erard built in 1851 (we played the early Polonaises and Bilder aus Osten, op. 66). There was a beautiful clarity in the sound, and (unlike our homogenised modern piano) a noticeably different tonal quality in each register. This made problems of balance much easier to solve. Here is Daniel talking about his award-winning recording of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage made on this instrument (he has also recorded the Chopin Preludes on it). Another instrument that stands out in my memory is the Horowitz Steinway. In the late 80’s I had the opportunity to try out Vladimir Horowitz’s own personal Steinway, at Steinway Hall in New York City.  In the early 1940’s, Steinway & Sons presented Horowitz and his wife Wanda with a Steinway Model D, Serial #279503. Known simply as CD503, this is the piano Horowitz kept in his New York townhouse. He used it in many recitals and recordings in the 70’s and 80’s, and he famously demanded that the piano be his exclusive touring instrument during the last four years of his life, including for his triumphant return to the former Soviet Union for performances in Moscow and Leningrad in 1986. Horowitz had the piano set up to suit his own playing style and concept of sound, and when I played it it was […]

Playing by Ear

I had an email from a reader asking how he could learn to play by ear, so here are some random thoughts on the subject. When we play by ear we play an existing piece heard before, without using the notes. Mozart is reported to have learned Allegri’s Miserere from one hearing, after which he wrote it out from memory. I am sure there are other similar stories from prodigious musical figures throughout history, but mere mortals can certainly develop the skills to improve our ear and at the same time our understanding of keyboard geography, musical structure and harmony. Ear training (or aural training as we tend to call it in the UK) is absolutely vital for any musician and, like harmony and theory, shouldn’t be thought of as a separate subject in the context of the weekly lesson. All these areas of music can be integrated into the lesson and during our practice. Examination boards include tests in aural and sight reading for a very good reason – to aid and abet in the process of forming an all-round musician. The more theory you know, the more you appreciate how music is built. You will also be able to decode the information from the printed page more quickly and with deeper understanding, and as a result of this you will have the skills to read at sight, to learn pieces more quickly, efficiently and thoroughly and (not least) to memorise. I find it sad that many young pianists’ experience of piano playing is restricted to sitting one grade exam after the other, sticking with three pieces and a bunch of scales for the best part of a year. Playing by ear, reading at sight, […]

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, […]

Inventing Exercises

One thing I can say for certain is that we are all different. When it comes down to rituals in practising, there is nothing more personal than what we do to warm up. I have some colleagues who feel driven to go through their lengthy warm-up regime before they will touch a note of music, others who (provided they are in shape from regular playing), are comfortable going straight into their practising just by starting with something slow and gentle to get back to where they were, muscularly, the day before. I want to distinguish between exercises that might warm up muscles and those which build technique in the first place – I find there is confusion about this because they can overlap. And just because a pianist has a fully developed technique, this does not mean they will not face technical problems, or have to figure out specific technical challenges in certain pieces. Not at all. In my teaching, I use specific exercises for specific skills. I assign these sparingly and only when needed, expecting top concentration in the practising thereof. The last thing I want is for a student to squander valuable practice time on reams of exercises for the sake of it. One thing I do very much believe in is inventing exercises from a specific piece. You make up exercises based on passages to make them harder or even more challenging than the original, so that when you to back to playing the original, it feels easier. Here are some examples. The second subject of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, op. 13 begins with a passage where the RH has to hop from treble to bass registers while the LH provides a rhythmic accompaniment. […]

By |September 17th, 2011|Practising|2 Comments

Practising Chords (Part Four): Odds and Ends

Unless anyone cares to contact me with further suggestions, this will be the last of my posts on chords. It’s a selection of a few unrelated odds and ends which I might add to if I think of more! TO KEEP LOOSE AND FLEXIBLE In a progression of chords, it is very useful to practise losing the hand position completely between each chord. Do this by drawing the fingertips together so they touch lightly, or by making a loose fist. This might go against the grain, especially if you are worried you won’t find the next chord position in time. On face value it would seem more logical to try and preserve an open hand position, yet the reverse is true: the looser you are, the more flexible you remain and the quicker you are able to move. In actual performance, we are not able to close up like this or to completely relax, of course, but there will a residue of this intention – enough to make all the difference. FIRM HAND There are occasions when you want to retain the grip in the hand in chord playing, when to relax it would be inefficient, counterproductive or downright impossible. The opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C, op. 2 no. 3 is a good example. Whether you play this from a springy wrist, or using a jackhammer motion of the forearm (or – better – a blend of the two), the hand needs to retain the position: The repeated chords in the slow movement of Schumann’s F sharp minor Sonata will need a firm hand and wrist, plus the feeling of contact with the key beds (releasing the keys each time only […]

Voicing Chords

A chord is officially two or more notes played simultaneously, but there are probably as many species of chords as there are of spiders. There is so much to say about practising chords that this is part one of a multi-part series of posts (not sure how many yet) on the subject. Except for percussive tone clusters, a chord on the piano is rarely intended as an amorphous blob of sound. It is a living organism where each finger involved contributes to the hierarchy of tonal priorities, so that the melody finger will be stronger than the filler (or harmony) notes. If both hands are involved, there will be this sense of top (melody) as well as bottom (bass), with harmony notes in between, graded by the ear of the individual player so that no two pianists will reproduce exactly the same tonal balance. I have often joked that piano playing would be easier if our hands were attached the other way round, so that strong thumbs (instead of puny pinkies) were on the outsides of the hands, and would be responsible for top melodies and foundation basses (the latter so often neglected). I am going to quote again from Heinrich Neuhaus’ The Art of Piano Playing (if there were one definitive book on piano playing, it would surely be this one). It is very appropriate here to remember that Anton Rubinstein called the two fifth fingers “conductors” leading the music. The limits of sound (both upper and lower) are to music what the frame is to a picture, the slightest blurr  [sic] (which is particularly frequent at the lower limit) in the bass results in a diffuse, shapeless picture; the musical composition then turns (as […]

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