teaching

Q&A: Exam Preparation

A reader sent in the following question, to which I hope I have given an adequate response. Please feel free to leave comments and let’s start a discussion on the subject! ***   ***   *** Q. One subject I have always had conflicting feelings about is the preparation before an exam or performance – how do you handle the last week before the performance? The last morning before the performance? Do kids play ALL of their repertoire, or just the challenging parts? Or just warm up all morning with scales? It seems to be something that is an individual thing, but it is not something I can speak with much confidence about to my students. A. Thank you very much for the question, which I feel is an extremely good one. You are quite right when you say this is an individual thing, since no two people are alike. Therefore, I would not want to give a one-size-fits-all formula, but I think there is some general advice I can offer. From my experience, I believe we should all aim to be fully ready two to three weeks before the exam or concert, with everything. Last-minute panic learning is, for most of us, disastrous but then again there are those who seem to thrive on the adrenaline! I gave some of my best playing when I had to stand in for a colleague at very short notice, probably because I didn’t have time to get nervous, or maybe if things didn’t go according to plan I would have a very good reason. This only goes to show that, assuming we know what we are doing and have put in the work at some stage, a […]

Snakes And Ladders

In life, we repeat certain ways of doing things until they become habits – until we become unconscious of them and do them without thinking (and without the need to think about them). It is said that good habits are hard to form and yet easy to break, while bad habits are easy to form and yet hard to break. How true! CONSCIOUSNESS If you want to break a habit, you first need to be conscious of it. I had a student who was unaware that when she wanted to play expressively, she raised her right shoulder. Not the left shoulder, which behaved quite normally, but only the right one. When I asked her if she was aware of this fact, she said she wasn’t. We discussed how her raised shoulder could possibly be of benefit, and we both agreed that this is not only a futile gesture but one that positively impedes looseness and freedom in the upper arm and shoulder – essential ingredients in skillful piano playing. I gave her an exercise to develop mobility in the shoulder, but for the first week I asked her to put a mirror on the music desk of her piano and just observe her posture, without trying to do anything to change it.  In each lesson thereafter, I would simply tap her right shoulder very lightly when the upward movement recurred and after a few weeks, she had reconditioned herself not to raise her shoulder at all. A particularly bad habit, and an extremely debilitating one for fluency in playing, is the tendency to stutter at the piano. By this I mean you reach a place in the score, land on something erroneous, jab at the […]

By |August 29th, 2012|Teaching|0 Comments

Eliminating Tension (1)

There are many reasons for tension at the keyboard. Faulty training is an obvious one, inefficient use of the body another. Yet tension does not always have its origins in the body – if you had teachers who made you feel incompetent and useless because they focussed only on the negatives in lessons, and delivered instruction in an abusive or shaming way, then how can you hope to feel empowered, confident or good about your playing? You will likely carry that teacher around inside your head and everything you do will feel stiff and tight, like walking on egg shells. Nervousness, insecurity, anxiety and mental stress will translate directly into physical tension. This is why it is vital to keep a positive mental attitude around our practising and performing, and not to tolerate such antics from egocentric teachers. There are plenty of others who will support and encourage you in the process of building you up as a pianist and as a musician. I suggest you seek them out. INDEPENDENCE OF THE FINGERS In my experience, very few pianists even at the advanced level have a trained hand. Recently I had a conservatory student in his third year come from overseas for a short series of lessons. At our first meeting I asked him what he hoped to achieve from our work together. While rubbing along the outside of his arm, which was sore, he said he hoped to deal with the tension that was affecting his playing and asked if I could help him to relax more. From the rubbing movements, I diagnosed there could be an issue with the 5th finger and sure enough when I observed the playing, the pinky was in […]

More On Octave Displacements

Annoyingly, last week’s post on eliminating tension (which was to be the first of two or three on the subject) has itself been eliminated. It disappeared into the ether when my web host was down. While I attempt to retrieve it, I will make a small detour and complete a post I started a while back on skipping the octave. The subject matter is not unrelated. ***   ***   *** I am a great believer in the attitude of a closed hand as default, any stretches happening at the last second when the hand opens and then immediately closes again. This is based on the abiding principle that a stretched out hand is prone to tension, and that tension leads directly to lack of mobility. In my teaching, I occasionally make use of an octave displacement of an individual note (or perhaps a group of notes) in a line or a passage. I do this when the note involves what might be perceived as a stretch, whereas an actual stretching out of the hand is either unnecessary, unfeasible or downright impossible. It doesn’t stop pianists trying though, even if they are not aware of this. By placing the note in question an octave higher or lower, it is obvious that any attempt to reach it by the finger is futile. Thus, we retain our closed-handedness and (depending on circumstances) either use the note before as a springboard to landing on the note in question, or we use forearm rotation, getting there quickly and loosely that way. When we to back and play the written note, we will have solved a technical problem. Since I used an example from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata in a previous post, here […]

Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills

Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on the BBC about how English history was forever changed by the civil war. The characteristics of the two opposing forces (the puritanical, serious-minded, hard-working and religious Roundheads, and the devil-may-care, spontaneous, reckless and flashy Cavaliers) ended up contributing to the make-up of the national psyche, and we have each got a bit of the Roundhead and a bit of the Cavalier in us. You may be wondering what this has to do with the subject of developing piano performance, but actually there is a lot we can draw from it. “Practise like a Roundhead, perform like a Cavalier” would be my best advice. To practise effectively demands time, energy and discipline, a seriousness of purpose and an almost religious attitude to the work. But if we take this attitude on to the stage with us, we are likely to bore the pants off our audience. We need a sense of daring-do, spontaneity, bravado and display in its place. Perhaps we can leave our trusty Roundhead in the green room, and adopt a cavalier attitude when we walk onstage? Youngsters generally have no fear about public performance. This tends to be something we learn later, if we learn it at all (there are those who seem undaunted, but they are few and far between). There was one first-year college student I had who came in with new pieces each week, learned and memorised. All his performances were fluent and confident until one week, during a studio class, he had his first major memory slip which he could not recover from, and only then did I need to give him the tools so he could memorise consciously.  As I […]

A Short Essay on the Life of a Pianist

After a recent post, I received a request in the form of a comment from a reader, suggesting I might expand on my last paragraph. The last paragraph was as follows: I wonder how many people embark on serious piano studies because they want to be performers or because they are passionate about music, about the piano and about playing the piano? Public performance is quite a different thing, it’s not for the thin-skinned or the faint-hearted. The act of performance is an art in itself, distinct from one’s abilities as a musician or as a pianist. It is like any sort of performance art, be it acting, dancing, or walking the tightrope. Actually, walking the tightrope is an analogy I often use for performing solo piano works from memory in public. The only safety nets are the ones we build in during our practising, and I reckon I spend a huge amount of time and energy in my own practice securing the memory. This is basically the equivalent of spending a fortune on insurance policies you hope you never need to use. In his later years, the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter gave up playing from memory and brought his scores, along with a trusted page turner on to the platform with him. He even eschewed the limelight, preferring a muted lamp by the side of the piano. In interviews, he said the time spent memorising or maintaining the memory was no longer worth it, and that he could learn a multitude of new pieces in the time it would have taken him to attend to his memory. There are those, it seems, who were born to play the piano in public, and I don’t […]

Top Ten Tips to Maximise your Practising

I have had a lot of requests for this article, which first appeared in Pianist Magazine last year. Here it is! With the Olympics very much in the news at the moment, 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! 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 put a little time in at the beginning of the day, and again later – whatever works for you. Organisation. Divide up what you have to do into compartments, such as scales and technical work, pieces, sight reading, etc. You may find it helpful to keep a practice diary, and a scale chart is also a good idea. Concentration […]

A Prima Vista: Some Thoughts on Sight Reading

Sight reading is included in every graded examination. Few seem to excel at it, and many actively dread it. Even the best players are likely to drop marks in this area, and despite the numerous publications available nowadays to assist the learner, exam candidates are often reluctant to practise this much-needed skill. Thinking about the long-term benefits of taking piano lessons in childhood, surely an ability to read at sight, and learn a piece reasonably fast are equally if not more important than spending a year on three pieces, cosmetically tweaking and refining them parrot-fashion in order to gain a nice mark (and kudos for the teacher)? I firmly believe we should be teaching musical intelligence and comprehension in addition to technical and interpretative skills. There is nothing that infuriates me more than discovering someone supposedly in the higher grades unable to accompany a simple ensemble piece at sight, or play a solo piece half way through the year when they have forgotten their previous exam pieces and yet aren’t quite ready with the new ones. Expert sight readers are usually expert musicians, who are able to process the information on the page in their short-term memory and reproduce it instantly. This skill has to do with musical comprehension – scanning the page for key pieces of information and, frankly, making educated guesses as to what might be going on in one hand, and snap decisions as to what to leave out. A note-perfect mechanical rendition of a piece of sight reading is often less impressive than one that may have some note errors and omissions and yet which conveys musical character and meaning. TRIAL BY FIRE Sight reading was a skill I developed as […]

More Thoughts on Slow Practising

I am convinced it is not possible to say too much about slow practising or to overemphasise its importance. Here are one or two random thoughts on the subject, which supplement what I have previously written. Slow practising basically expands the time distance between one note and the next, allowing us plenty of time to prepare ahead (the hand position, the precise sound we want, etc.) as well as evaluate our results immediately after. As I am always saying, we need to aim to evaluate these results in as precise terms as possible, so that we can have a definite goal if we need to repeat. SLOW YET FAST So often in slow practice it is the tempo that is slow but everything else is fast – the key speed, the recovery at the bottom of the key (the lightning-fast physical response to the key bed when effort instantly ceases, and is released), movements across the keyboard, preparation of hand positions and large leaps, and so on. We can often only think about these things and make sure they have really happened when the tempo is slow. In a scale passage where the thumb needs to pass under the hand, we can prepare the movement fast, and immediately the thumb releases its first note. We might think of the next finger as operating the starting pistol, and the thumb the athlete on the block raring to go. (Of course if the interval is a large one, we wouldn’t want to cause tension in the hand by attempting to stretch too far, and there are many occasions in piano playing where thumb preparation is not a good thing.) HELPING YOUNGSTERS TO PRACTISE SLOWLY It may seem […]

On Passagework

There are innumerable examples in the piano repertoire of what is commonly known as “passagework”, a string of fast notes that lasts either a few bars, a whole section, or an entire piece. The function of this passagework may be decoratively melodic (rather like the singer’s coloratura), but is most often associated with bravura display. Even though I don’t really like the term, let’s stick with it as we all know what we mean by it. It is hardest to bring off at either extreme of the dynamic spectrum, loud or soft, but I think the difficulties are compounded by the sameness of the rhythmic value. If the passage were interspersed with slower or faster note values, this would act as terrain in an otherwise flatter landscape. Extended passages played fast and loud, or fast and soft, demand considerable control. I think immediately of two opposite examples from Chopin, the finale of the Funeral March Sonata (fast and soft, the difficulties compounded a hundredfold because both hands are in unison for the entire movement): and the Prelude in B flat minor (the right hand would be hard enough, but Chopin adds insult to injury with the left hand leaps): As a guiding principle, the finger plays from the surface of the key and releases to the surface (and not a squilimeter higher). The exception to this is martellato or when the passage (or elements of it) is controlled by forearm rotation. While the end result is that the fingers should be extremely close to the keys – in contact with the key surface – the practising dictates that we might regularly and deliberately use a raised finger. In the central nervous system, reciprocal relations exist between […]

By |November 27th, 2011|Practising|3 Comments