teaching

Performing in a Safe Circle

Many pianists relish performing and do it all the time, others end up performing as a part of their activities. It may have been a passion for music and a desire for self expression that led them into the profession in the first place and not necessarily a desire for performance itself. Performance skills come with experience, and yet many fine musicians are not really cut out for it. Many amateur players are not content just to sit at home and play for their own pleasure, they need to perform and to share their music with others in order to grow and develop. For both professionals and amateurs alike, the act of performance may be fraught with challenges and problems. There is no doubt that for a performance to be convincing, the performer must be convinced by what they are doing. And if the performer is nervous and allows those nerves to show too much, the listener is going to feel apprehensive and won’t enjoy the performance nearly as much as if the player can manage to let go. One of the blog posts I am most proud of  is Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills, in which I describe the different mindsets between practising and performing, and show how a devil-may-care attitude is a disaster in the former but a necessity in the latter! Inner Judges Some players find it very difficult to let go of nerves, and this may be for a variety of reasons – physical and/or psychological. Our inner judges can be real people who have (or had in the past) influence over us. This might be a parent, grandparent, teacher – anyone whose opinion we allowed to affect us.  Imagine a situation […]

A Practical Theory Lesson

Most of us were probably brought up on the middle C approach to learning the piano, and the first scale we ever learned was C major. We probably got tangled up with the fingering, since there are no black notes there to help us. Chopin taught the B major scale (RH) and D flat major scale (LH) before C major, not only because the fingerings are self-evident, but also because the hand positions are more natural and therefore these scales are the most comfortable. The long fingers (2, 3 and 4) are more suited to the black keys and the short fingers (1 and 5) to the white keys. It is useless to start learning scales on the piano with C major, the easiest to read, and the most difficult for the hand, as it has no pivot. Begin with the one that places the hand at ease with the longer fingers on the black keys, like B major for instance. (Chopin, quoted by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger) If we begin with B major in the RH and D flat major in the LH, there is virtually no chance of confusion with the fingerings. There are only two white notes in those scales and the thumb takes both of them – there is nowhere else for it to go! While adult minds will want to know the theory behind the construction of the major scale, there is absolutely no need to teach this to a child beginner for them to be able to play their scales. This would be as ludicrous as teaching the rules of grammar to a child who is just learning to speak. We can save theory until later and start teaching the scales using […]

Efficient Practising for Busy People

This is the follow-up to last week’s post, in which I outlined the first few stages for cleaning up a piece beset by errors, stumbles, approximations and other anomalies that might have crept into the playing either as a result of overplaying, or faulty (or incomplete) learning in the first place. Actually, the process I describe is good for initial note-learning as well – it’s just a thorough method for inputting the correct information into our brains, ears and fingers in as deep and permanent a way as possible. We build our house on bedrock and not on shifting sands. Routine Maintenance Let me clarify what I mean by overplaying. While I am fascinated by all the neurological research I read in other blogs, I am not a scientist and my findings come mostly from my wonderful training and from my own experience as a pianist and teacher. One thing I know for certain is that playing a piece over and over again usually leads to sloppiness,  imprecision (as motor skills lose finesse), ennui and a certain staleness. The clue to keeping everything in tip-top condition is the use of routine maintenance procedures in the practice room. This includes slow practice (for fast pieces), fast practice (for slow pieces), working with each hand alone, practising in sections and many other practice tools I have given before. I include quarantining those areas of the piece that cause you trouble – isolate these spots and work on them daily, before during and after your scheduled practice. Don’t think that just because you have learned a piece, you can now put the cork in the bottle and avail yourself of the contents whenever you feel like it. A car enthusiast […]

By |February 21st, 2014|Practising|7 Comments

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 […]

Top Ten Tips to Maximise Your Practice

At the start of the New Year, everyone is making resolutions. I have noticed that these usually have to do with self discipline – not eating or drinking so much and exercising more seem to top the list. Piano practice, in order to be effective, must be disciplined. If there is no thought or organisation behind our work, it will be hard to find the impetus to make a regular commitment. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics just round the corner, I think of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to each day in their training regimes. We pianists have to train also – countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! It seems timely to republish one of my most popular blog posts, so here are a few tips (in no particular order) that will help you get the most out of your practice time. A Teacher. Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a restarter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons. Commitment. Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. “Little and often” will help you achieve FAR more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to […]

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

The Adult Amateur

Some adults play the piano for pleasure, it is a thread that goes through their lives from childhood to old age and what a wonderful joy, solace, outlet for self expression and source of inspiration this is (actually, this list could go on and on). Others start when they retire, and I have seen some beautiful results from people who are suddenly able to devote time and energy to this new discipline. As we all know, playing the piano can be a lonely activity and yet for many adults getting up and playing in front of others is a daunting prospect. Fingers can turn to jelly as weeks of careful preparation appear to come to naught under the effects of a powerful drug secreted by our own body – adrenalin. When we are confronted with a threatening situation the nervous system releases adrenalin into the blood stream, and this produces most of the symptoms associated with stage fright: shallow and quick breathing, increased heart rate, trembling, and nervousness.  While these responses may be appropriate if we were facing a valid threat to survival, none of these effects helps with piano performance at optimal levels. At the end of our performance (if we make it that far!), we may be left feeling disappointed, dejected and even humiliated. It can be a terrifying experience to submit oneself to this experience and while it is true that performing is not for everyone there are things that we can do to improve the situation.   Unfortunately, the nervous system doesn’t distinguish between real threats and perceived threats. If the mind perceives the threat as large enough, even though a rational analysis would say otherwise, our system starts pumping the adrenalin. Adrenalin affects professional […]

The Other End of the Telescope

A respected colleague teaching at the College level used to challenge his new students in their first lesson with him by getting them to play almost impossibly slowly with the metronome. He would find the fastest note value in their piece, which was to be equal to one click of the metronome set to 60. Let’s say the fastest note value was a semiquaver (sixteenth note), this means a crotchet (quarter note) would have to be held for four seconds, and a minim (half note) for eight seconds! I’m not sure if this ploy was to stress the value of extremely slow practice speeds or whether it was an act of deliberate cruelty, but I’m sure the experience was a challenging and none-too-pleasant one for the student. Slow practice helps us to see every atom and molecule that make up the big picture. It is like looking at a painting close up – we zoom in on one area of the canvas and see every brush stroke, every little nuance. In doing so we inevitably lose sight of the bigger gestures and thus the sweep, direction and overall meaning of the music. But since we know we can simply increase our speed to our ideal tempo after a bout of slow practice we are happy to submit ourselves to this discipline, knowing it is good for brain and finger. I have written much about the various different types of slow practice we can use and I think it is fairly safe to say that all of us use a certain amount of slow practice in our work at the piano, especially for fast pieces. This is hardly revolutionary. What is hardly discussed at all, as […]

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 […]

Some Thoughts on Mental Tension

When we think of tension in piano playing, we correctly label this as negative – it is a thing that hampers us and our objective should be to locate its source and then eliminate it. This tension might be physical or mental, or perhaps a bit of both! Inadequate or inefficient technique, or incorrect use of the body manifests in physical tension. Mental tension (such as stage fright, exam nerves, etc.) may have its origins in the mind but it soon becomes very apparent in our breathing and the tightening of our arm muscles, the wrist and our shoulders. If we are particularly apprehensive, our legs may also tighten up and this affects our whole system. Adrenaline gets pumped into the body and this alters the way our muscles feel and the way we respond physically to what we perceive as stress and danger. When muscles tense up our ability to move freely across the keyboard is compromised, often severely. This leads to all kinds of clumsy and uncoordinated errors until eventually we can no longer play. Poisonous Pedagogy Unfortunately, many teachers (including some with excellent reputations at the top of the profession) teach by shaming the student, making them feel inadequate and inferior. Once worn down and confidence eroded, the idea is to rebuild them in the image of the teacher. This sets up unhealthy dependency and a host of psychological problems. I am not suggesting this is deliberate cruelty on the part of the teacher, because this behaviour is usually unconscious. The teacher is simply passing on like a hot potato the way they themselves were taught. Despite the quality of the information we might get from such a teacher, nobody needs to be subjected to this […]

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