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 […]

Feeling an Interpretation

I would like to throw out some ideas that might help develop an interpretation during practising, always keeping in mind that the process of practising should move us ever nearer to our ideal of what the music means and how it should sound. Digital or muscular practice is inextricably linked with developing what Heinrich Neuhaus calls the “artistic image”, namely the message of the music as we see it. In a word, our interpretation! As a student, I noticed that my technical ability with a piece was in direct proportion to the sharpness of my artistic image, and conversely if I wasn’t sure about the tempo, character, moods and so on, then I seemed to struggle physically with it. I recall a class on scales I gave many years ago (not my idea – I was invited!) where a girl was really having difficulties. All the classic mistakes were present, and in the short time I had with her, I wondered how to make best use of this opportunity. I asked her if she knew Beethoven’s Third Concerto, and she said she did. I then asked her to imagine the beginning of it and then to play a scale of C minor in the style of this concerto when she had this clearly in her mind. I’ll never forget the reaction on her face (and in the room) when she played the scale in this way. She was no longer self conscious of what she was supposed to be doing with her thumbs, or where the elbows were meant to be. Rather she had a sound and a feeling in her head, and this was strong enough to command her physical apparatus to produce this. Now, […]

The Trouble With Ornaments (Part Two)

Thank you for all your feedback from the first part of this post. Your comments are most appreciated, and I will respond to them all. Here, I want to get into how to make the ornaments into chameleons that blend into and enhance their surroundings, rather than sounding like a series of detonations dutifully and clumsily tacked onto the surface of the music in the style of punk jewellery, self-consciously drawing attention to themselves while taking away from the line. Isn’t it funny what stands out from one’s past? As a child, I was preparing my grade 3 exam and there was a baroque piece (Richard Jones, I think it was) with the realisations of the ornaments helpfully (?) printed as footnotes at the bottom of the page. I wish I had understood then that the scary-looking notation of the ornaments, with its array of demisemiquavers and double dots (all in footnote-size font) was only supposed to show the basic design and that, actually, there were a few different realisations that were possible. Because each was written out in full (and therefore had to conform to the arithmetic of the time signature), it made it look military and precise and theoretical. In fact, the whole point of the ornament is to sound free, spontaneous and personal. That you are lead to believe you need a calculator to work the darned things out detracts somewhat. I wish there were another way of indicating the design by having a schemata that was not, like the ornaments themselves, subject to the captivity of conventional staff notation. (Shall we brainstorm? Answers on a postcard…) OK, back to the subject of how we manage the ornaments at the piano. I […]