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

A Ghost Story

There are certain places in the repertoire where I can predict that a student is going to hurry. They will usually tend to rob long notes of their value by rushing on to the next event. Perhaps our instincts tell us we should be busy making sound, playing notes rather than holding them? I surmise it has a lot to do with the nature of sound production at the piano: once we have made the sound, we need do nothing to prolong it except to hold the keys with our fingers, or hold it in the pedal. Wind and string instruments require a continuous and sustained effort of the breath or of the bow throughout the life of the long note, in other words movement. I would suggest that we pianists need also keep long notes alive – physically and in our imagination. I liken the arm in piano playing to the breath in wind playing or singing, and to the bow in string playing. If we don’t incorporate the articulations of the fingers into bigger, longer gestures of the arm we end up playing syllabically, robotically and thus without real expression. If we stop all movement as soon as we have played a long note or chord, we disconnect from our conductor (our body) and thus from the musical flow, that sense of arch that takes us from the first note of the piece to the last. There is nothing more disturbing than seeing a pianist flailing themselves over the keyboard with excessive movements that are so often irrelevant – a substitute for real listening, or built in for theatrical effect. This is not what I mean. A good example of very basic arm choreography is […]

Preparing the Canvas

With the advent of the summer holidays, a lot of piano students will be learning new pieces. On the proceeds of lessons, we piano teachers will be sunning ourselves in the Algarve and our students beavering away with little or no supervision until September. Do we simply chuck a couple of pieces at them and hope they deliver? Before we can come up with a plan, we need to distinguish between a piece that may be in the ear already and a piece that is totally unfamiliar. In the first instance, we can get straight to the keyboard and begin work, in the second, we will need to do some groundwork. Even though I have not played Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto myself, I have a very distinct aural map of the work, familiar with it through performances and recordings over the years, and from having taught it on several occasions. I already have a very clear understanding of the piece and how it should feel and sound and can justly claim that I know it. If I decided to learn it, more than half the battle would already have been won since I would just need to get the notes into my fingers (no small task in itself, I would add). If I were learning a new piece from scratch having no prior knowledge of it, I would need to dig some foundations before I approached the work at the keyboard. The obvious first solution to this would be to listen to a bunch of recordings (so instantly available to all of us nowadays) probably while following the score. In addition – or perhaps even beforehand – I would want to scrutinise the score and […]

Keeping Repertoire Alive

It seems such a shame to spend all those hours learning a piece only to forget it after the exam or the recital. A piece, once learned, is an asset for the pianist and will need just a little maintenance every now and again to keep it in the fingers, to keep it alive. Maybe we can think of old pieces like departing friends whom we have come to know well. We have hung out with them and yet now it is time for them to leave. Do we escort them to the door with a sense of good riddance, or might we feel sad they are going and pledge to keep in touch? It depends on the piece of course, and probably our experience of playing it. I think our examination culture has a lot to answer for here – so often our associations are negative or stressful ones. As a professional pianist there have certainly been pieces I have learned for a specific occasion only to shelve them afterwards, but actually not that many! If I have liked or loved a piece, I will want to continue my relationship with it. I have an old filing card system near the piano, a sort of geriatric Rolodex now rather outdated. One of these days I will get around to putting it onto my computer, but in truth I’m rather fond of it. Each card contains the name of a work and the composer, and any important details (year of composition, etc.). I write the date I started learning it, and then the date and details of each performance. This way, I keep a living record of my repertoire. Each week I remove a card from […]


I am lucky. My pedigree as a pianist is an excellent one, and I have had teachers from the beginning who showed me very clearly how to practise, but not all students of the piano are so fortunate. Is practising an art, or is it a science? It’s both! It cannot be described as an absolute science, because what works for one person will not necessarily work for another, or for the same person at a different stage in the learning (or relearning) of a piece. But I do think it is helpful to make practising as scientific as possible by formulating concrete concepts and precepts while at the same time guarding against dogma. I think I must have vexed my teachers by asking “why?” when they told me what I had to do. I wasn’t being cheeky, I was just very curious as to how it all worked. I still am! I ran a university practising clinic for a time, which was a voluntary, informal drop-in class for pianists to discuss various ways we might solve problems in our daily work at the keyboard. The room was often packed to the rafters, and there was always much lively discussion and experimentation. Since I had to be extremely careful not to tread on my colleagues’ toes by giving technical instruction, I had to find a way of distinguishing between the technique of manipulating the keyboard (which varies from teacher to teacher, depending on what schooling they offer) and the technique of learning (which should apply to all of us, more or less). I don’t have to be quite so careful about this here, but I would want to stress that just as there are (most […]