Feeling Comfortable in All Keys

Do you feel comfortable playing in all keys? Are you able to transpose technical exercises without notation? The ability to play by ear in every key is an important musicianly skill, one that cannot be developed soon enough. When we transpose technical exercises not only do we develop our aural awareness but also our keyboard geography as we experience the different black-white terrain under our fingers that each new key offers. This adds enormous value to the gains from any exercises we might be practising, and to our technical development in general. Most of the exercises we find in the various books of technique regimes give the full version of a particular exercise only for one or two keys (usually C major, and if we’re lucky Db) before trailing off with an unhelpful “etc”, or the instruction to “continue through all keys”. The ability to carry on without any further notation relies on two skills: An understanding of the structure behind the given note patterns found in the particular exercise Thorough knowledge of each key (major and minor) Knowledge of the basic chord shapes and qualities – many exercises use mainly major, minor, diminished and dominant 7th chords Pattern Recognition It is far better to memorise the exercises as soon as possible so all your attention can be focussed on the matter at hand. It is infinitely more beneficial that your eyes are directed at the keyboard and that your mind is focussed on the task (not being distracted by having to read from the printed page). The ability to memorise relies on pattern recognition, a skill that improves with practice. Let’s explore this a bit, using the infamous and all-too-familiar note pattern from the first exercise of […]

Managing Arpeggios

Scales and arpeggios are an important part of the developing pianist’s technical regime, especially for those who go through graded examinations. Having looked at scale playing in recent posts, I thought I would explore arpeggios a little. Arpeggio playing relies on similar technical skills to scale playing, only an arpeggio is more demanding for two main reasons: A scale is built up of eight notes per octave (counting the key note twice), the arpeggio four (for major or minor). Thus, arm and whole-body movements are twice as fast in an arpeggio. The greater distance the thumb has to cover compounds the difficulty – in a scale the distance from one thumb note to the next is a fourth or a fifth, in an arpeggio it is a whole octave. Unless the correct technical conditions are met precisely, an arpeggio is likely to be accident-prone and to feel awkward and precarious – like walking on ice. The Arm Looking at a beautifully controlled and choreographed arpeggio, we notice a smoothness and fluidity in the way both arms move across the keyboard, seamlessly connected together and describing a gentle curve. If the arpeggio is played continuously as though on a loop, the curve turns into a figure of eight (or the infinity symbol), all angles rounded out. My general advice for arpeggios is to hold the elbows slightly higher than in scale playing. There will be a bit more space under the arms, as though a current of air from beneath were lifting the arms up slightly so that they appear to float. The golden rule is never drop the elbow down onto the thumb!  The Thumb There are three main approaches to the thumb in arpeggio playing, all […]

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 […]

Don’t Try This at Home! – Mechanical Aids to Practice

If you were a student at the Stuttgart Conservatory in the mid 1800‘s during the reign of Sigismund Lebert and Ludwig Stark, you would have had to practise a strict regime of finger exercises, preferably with the aid of a hand rail (a device attached to the piano enabling the player to rest their wrists on it). The point was to achieve everything with the fingers and the wrist, the rest of the arm remaining quiet and passive. The elbow was to stay close to the body and only the forearm was supposed to move if the hands needed to move outwards. The basic finger touch was known as the “hammer touch”, where each finger was lifted as high as possible and then slammed into the key fortissimo (with no help from the arm). When the key was released, the finger had to return to its high position. Lebert and Stark’s method book was first published in 1858 and was widely disseminated across the world, successful for over a century.   Piano teachers at the time were trying to find ways of tackling the more powerful pianos and the different styles of music being written, and this was Lebert and Stark’s response – needless to say, crippling injuries were reported. A form of the hammer touch is still being taught to this day, and there are well-known and celebrated pianists who swear by this approach. The are plenty of others who would consider this harmful and unnatural, especially if the finger curls up tightly as it is lifted. It was during the mid 19th century that we see a split between technical and musical work, so that it was possible (and prevalent) for the player to separate […]

By |December 20th, 2013|Practising|3 Comments

The History of Piano Technique: Studies and Exercises

There has been much feedback and lively debate on last week’s post about Czerny and his legacy of studies and exercises. It seems some piano teachers firmly believe in assigning them, whereas others are dead against them. Some take the middle path and may use them (and studies by other composers) when necessary. When discussing this controversial subject, I feel there are certain things that need to be clarified. Let’s first of all distinguish between an exercise and and a study, since these two are certainly not the same thing: Exercise Often short – a contraption for practising and mastering a specific mechanical or technical goal Not usually very complex, with just one basic pattern (usually repeated several times) Easy to memorise No pretensions toward artistic merit Study A more extended composition with elements of musical form and structure  For practising and mastering a specific mechanical or technical goal May be satisfying for the player, not usually so for the listener! Concert Study  The artistic content is of sufficient quality that it can stand alone as a piece of music The listener can appreciate it as a work of art without the need to know anything of the demands it makes on the player One thing that strikes me a vital in all discussion on this subject, that should be emblazoned above the door on all practice rooms: HOW we do a study or exercise matters more than WHAT we do When I studied Peter Feuchtwanger’s exercises with him back in the early 90s, I quickly came to appreciate this truth. The exercises themselves would look simplistic on paper and actually cannot really be taught from the printed page. Proper realisation of them relies on demonstration […]

The History of Piano Technique: The Finger School

The connecting link between the harpsichord and the early piano was undoubtedly Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), whose treatise Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments was revered by Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), Johann Baptist Cramer (1717-1858) and Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), and laid the foundations for their method books. Muzio Clementi required his students to practise with a penny on the back of the hand so that the hand remained still, all the work being done by the fingers (which were to stay close to the keys) with the arm staying fixed, quiet and passive. His music is written idiomatically for the piano and includes octaves, tremolos, double thirds, rapid repeated notes, crossed hand passages, and so on. He is known for his many sonatas and sonatinas, his method book Introduction to the Art of Playing the Pianoforte, op. 42, and the set of studies Gradus ad Parnassum. In the opening piece of Children’s Corner, Debussy pokes fun at Clementi. Here is Ivan Moravec in a gently lyrical reading of Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum. Carl Czerny (1791-1857) has been hailed as the forefather of modern piano playing, and most of us can trace our lineage directly back to him. For example, Rachmaninov was taught by Alexander Siloti who was taught by Eugen D’Albert who was taught by Emil von Sauer who was taught by William Mason who was taught by Moriz Rosenthal who was taught by Liszt who was taught by Czerny. If you wish to see a fuller family tree, here is the link. Czerny’s father, Wensel, was a piano teacher and trained Carl from an early age, presenting him before the public at the age of 9 (Carl commenced his own career as a teacher at the tender age of 14). He became a student of […]

The History of Piano Technique (Part 2)

One of the things that really gets my goat is the totally erroneous statement that the harpsichord is incapable of expression. Many famous and influential pianists who should know better regularly fall into this trap. We need to remember that the harpsichord from the High Baroque was a fully developed and mature instrument, perfect for the music written for it. In order to play expressively on the harpsichord, it is necessary to have a highly developed sense of touch. Harpsichord players make a slight articulation before a note to give it an accent, or they might delay it or hold onto it a little longer. In an expressively slurred pair of notes, the player overlaps the two notes by holding onto the first until just after playing the second note – this overlap masks the attack of the second note, thus making it sound softer. You really can create the impression of strong-weak in a slur, especially if you let go of the second note early. Sensitive under- and overlapping of notes combined with skilful timings cause the playing to sound musical and expressive. This is but illusion, I hear you say! I suggest that making an actual honest-to-goodness crescendo in a melodic line on the piano also relies on illusion, since the individual tones begin to decay the moment they have been sounded. We achieve a crescendo by artfully blending the end of one sound into the beginning of the next. Pianists spend most of our lives attempting to make a percussion instrument sing. As a youngster, I was fascinated by the hybrid harpsichords made by Pleyel, Goble and others, with their array of pedals. Here is the inimitable and great Wanda Landowska playing Bach […]

The History of Piano Technique (Part 1)

Writing about the history of piano technique for my new eBook I recalled vividly my harpsichord studies with Ruth Dyson at the RCM, and her insistence that the fingers play from the surface of the keyboard, not striking from above. In addition, no involvement of the arm was either desirable or necessary. During the 300 year history of the piano we have seen two main technical approaches – what we might call the Finger School and, later, the Arm School.   Since the early pianos were similar in touch and action to the harpsichord, it was appropriate to approach them in the traditionally accepted way – using individuated finger strokes with no active participation of the arm. As the piano and the music written for it evolved, so the size of the instrument increased. The range and touch weight of the keyboard also increased, making greater technical demands of the player. Pianists responded by doggedly sticking to what they knew, believing (erroneously, as it turned out) that all that was necessary was to make the fingers stronger. The futility of this eventually became apparent and a new school of playing based on anatomic principles and the use of arm weight, transplanted the Finger School. The pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, with the idea that the arm should now take over from the fingers. Rather than work like little pistons, the fingers should instead remain fixed for the weight of the arm to be transmitted through them. Thus during this phase active fingerwork tended to get neglected, and players forgot that no matter what was going on in the arm the finger still had to put down the key! In the modern age, new schools […]

My new eBook on Technique

When I started work on Part 2 of Practising the Piano, I had only a rough outline of the content I wanted to cover. I soon found that the project was expanding in all sorts of directions. It has been an exciting journey putting it all into writing, and one that I am happy to share with you. While writing articles on technique for Pianist Magazine over the years, I learnt how to put my ideas into words succinctly, but there is still the strong possibility that someone might misconstrue the written word. Fortunately, the technology behind the eBooks enables me to include video demonstration of anything I have just described in words. Because the reader can watch the video over and over, there is a greater chance they will understand what I mean. This is why I included over 100 videos in Part 2, the camera perched as close as possible to the keyboard – warts and all! A colleague once said to me that he did not teach technique; each student must work it out for themselves in their practice room. I couldn’t agree with him less. There are so many detours and dead ends a piano student can take when left to their own devices in this way. They can get seriously side-tracked, the worst-case scenario being debilitating injury. Why have them reinvent the wheel? Why not pass down methodology that is proven to work? Piano playing is a highly sophisticated activity and, while some people do seem born to it, for most of us success is achieved through sheer hard work – blood, sweat and tears. It is true that there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to […]

By |November 15th, 2013|eBooks, News|1 Comment

Inventing Exercises from Pieces

There are pieces that contain passages of technical difficulty that require special attention, a type of practising over and above the routine use of the other practice tools. This could  also apply to whole pieces, of course – concert studies being a good example. We might need to find creative ways to solve these problems by getting into the habit of making our own exercises based on the material from the piece. These exercises might explore different facets of the difficulty by creating extended or slightly varied versions. This tends to make the passage harder or even more challenging than the original, so that when we go back to the original, we understand it better and it just feels easier. Meeting the demands of a technical challenge is a bit like capturing a wild animal. If we approach it from one direction, it will run off in another. Therefore, we need a multi-pronged strategy involving very many different approaches to practising. Inventing exercises can be challenging at first, but once we get into the habit it is amazing how creative we can become at dreaming these up as we practise. My scores are littered with my own exercises, and I return to these when I go back to a particular piece, sometimes coming up with a different or better solution. If you explore any one of the study editions of Alfred Cortot, you will find many ideas for such practice exercises. For me, it was Cortot who primed the pump. Here is Chopin’s set of Etudes, op. 10 in the Cortot edition, made available by Walter Cosand. In Debussy’s First Arabesque, there is an awkward passage that usually confuses the hand, the few bars just before the […]

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