On Tempo Relationships

I was working with someone on Schubert’s B flat Impromptu last week, a set of variations on the so-called “Rosamunde” theme. Variation form always poses a tempo challenge to the performer – how to adapt the basic tempo we have chosen for the theme as the variations unfold.  The edition my student was using was by the one by Howard Ferguson, from the ABRSM’s Signature Series. Ferguson is a musician and scholar for whom I have a lot of respect, so I was very interested to find in the preface some tempo suggestions that are “in no way authoritative, but may prove helpful if only as points of departure”.  Schubert marks the theme Andante – most important, of course, to notice the all breve time signature, so that’s two beats in a bar (on no account must it feel like four). I’ve just been on YouTube to sample the tempo from a few recordings, here are the first five that came up in the search: Lisitsa – c. 35 Pires – c. 35 Brendel – c. 40 Schiff – c. 45 Zimerman – c. 46 It was difficult to find a fixed pulse for the Horowitz recording I found. He brings his own inimitable Romantic approach to the work that has a magic all it’s own. Howard Ferguson gives his suggestions in crotchet beats (strangely), and a tempo of 80 for the theme (40 for the minim beat). This increase to 88 (44) for the Variation 1, the slight increase making sense in light of the forward-flowing semiquaver movement that always reminds me of the sort of music Schubert writes when describing brooks or streams of water. Variation 2 pushes the pulse still further, at 96 (48), before a new, […]

Our Inner Conductor

In some Romantic music it may be appropriate to change tempo slightly when the musical idea changes, even if this is not specified in the score. This is just one of many personal freedoms that is part of Romantic style. However, in a Classical sonata we need to be able to contain the various different musical ideas in a movement more or less within one basic tempo – contrast within a unified tempo is what helps everything hang together. Quality of Beat I am no conductor, but when I wave my arms around in a lesson I feel that the energy of the beats varies from one section of the music to another, even though the tempo may stay exactly the same. The beat may have a strong, explosive attack which I show with a snap of the wrist. If this needs to happen at the piano or pianissimo level, I might make the movements quite small and high up. If the beats blend into one another smoothly, I might show this with more circular motions or even a figure of eight. The tempo stays the same but the energy and quality of the beat can change markedly within that tempo. This is often what happens in a Classical sonata first movement – the first subject may be extrovert and the second subject more expressive and intimate. As players respond to the different musical material, they often seem to change tempo without even realising. This is obviously an issue that needs our attention. Our Inner Conductor Of course we can use the metronome to stabilise the beat as we practise, this is such a tried and tested way of doing things that I am not going to dwell […]

A Scale Plan

So you know you have to practise your scales but you’re not really that keen, and you find your mind is constantly wandering. You need some sort of plan, and you need a definite way of doing things – or you’ll just aimlessly doodle up and down the scale a few times. Let’s assume you’re advanced enough to be playing your scales 4 octaves, and that you now them all well enough to be able to immediately call up a mental image of how the scale looks and feels on the keyboard. If I suggested E major, you need to be able to see in a flash the pattern the four black keys make with the four white ones (counting the key note twice) and to recall its tactile memory and possibly the sound world (or key colour). If you are still struggling with the notes, I would not suggest following this plan. Practising scales in a variety of different rhythms is a tried and tested method and is not going to be a new concept to any of you. However, when you practise in a rhythm, it is really important to be as precise as possible and to keep the pulse rock steady. If you are playing a dotted rhythm, make sure it really is dotted (and not triplety) by overcompensating and doing it double dotted. When you invert “l-o-n-g/short” to “short/l-o-n-g”, you’ll get much more value out of it if you keep the accent on the first note (i.e. on the “short”) rather than let it happen on the long note (where it will want to go). I have published a series of rhythm charts (including some syncopated ones) in Part 3 of Practising […]

Spring Cleaning a Repertoire Piece

Do you have a favourite piece you just love to play, but end up feeling disappointed that you’re just not doing the piece (or yourself) justice each time you drag it off the shelf? If you learned it thoroughly from the start, remember with anything we play we can’t just put a cork in the bottle and expect the genie to emerge fit and healthy after the passage of time. Some of the great pianists have described the process of relearning, restudying or resurrecting works that they may not have played for a while but there is no pianist worth his or her salt who does not labour in the practice room. Shura Cherkassky described his practising thus: I practise by the clock, for me this is the only way. Four hours a day. If I wasn’t absolutely rigid about the whole thing I’d go to pieces. You need iron discipline – sheer will power. So many great talents disappear about a short while because they get conceited and don’t work properly anymore. You have to work all the time. (From an interview with Stephen Hough, 1991) I would like to propose a challenge. Take a piece you would really like to get on top of, but have never felt totally comfortable with – probably something you have never really done the basic groundwork with. Decide on a timeframe that is meaningful and realistic to you and set aside a certain amount of time daily to attend to this task. It might be a week, it might be a month. You are about to undertake a commitment to a process, the end result of which will be palpable and well worth the effort. Before embarking on this, […]

By |February 14th, 2014|Practising|7 Comments

Firm Foundations

A late, esteemed colleague who had amazing sight reading skills once told me he never read through more than once a new piece he was about to learn. It was just too risky for him – on a second reading he would already have been forming habits that would hinder him in the finished version, when it eventually rolled off the other end of the production line. This might be sloppy fingering, sketching (rather than etching) accompanimental figuration, or even learned-in wrong notes. Yes, practice makes permanent and habits are formed alarmingly quickly. Let’s make sure they are good habits rather than bad ones. A mañana attitude to proper learning of a piece, while giving us a limited amount of instant pleasure is actually the shoddiest possible of foundations if we have any aspirations to perform it at any point in the future. If we allow ourselves repeated buskings where we guess at those passages we don’t have the patience to work out thoroughly, or gloss over others where our random fingering is clearly not working, we can expect a shoddy end result – no matter how much time we put in later. By then it is often too late, and we can expect to reap what we have sown, no matter how lofty our vision of the music or how talented we are. Just think how much time, energy and money has been spent today propping up The Leaning Tower of Pisa compared with how much it cost to erect it in the first place! Good practice habits not only enable us to feel good about our work and about our playing, they allow a structure to emerge from rock, enabling it to withstand the forces of […]

Q&A: How Do I Get A 12-Year Old To Practise Slowly?

A reader sent me in the following question, which feels more like a plea! I have been teaching a 12-year old boy for a couple of years now. He has a flair for piano and is quite talented but his playing is always so messy and out of control. I’ve told him he needs to practise slowly and I can get him to do it in the lesson (sort of) but he lacks the discipline at home. I get the feeling he would rather be out playing football. Any suggestions? Thank you so much for this question. There is no doubt that slow, mindful practice is an essential ingredient in our practising, no matter how old we are or what level we’re at. The first step is to get your pupil to appreciate this. You can philosophise, demonstrate and remonstrate all you like but unless he sees the value in practising slowly, he’s not going to do it. Simple! Help him to realise that there are even greater rewards to be had from delaying gratification – remember the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? – and that even great pianists practise slowly! Seeing as he is into sports, you might want to help him summon up his inner coach by imagining his ten fingers (and his right foot!) are the players in the football team he is managing. He is in charge of every movement they make, every position they need to adopt. He calls the shots, and without his leadership he doesn’t have a team. My best suggestion would be to give him something concrete to do regarding slow practice. If it is a fast piece, you can decide together on the eventual performance tempo and give him a series […]

By |December 7th, 2012|Teaching|3 Comments

The Fantasie-Impromptu: Some Ideas (Part Two)

This is my second post on Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu. In the first, I proposed two different ways of choreographing the LH, the arm steering the hand in both. I also discussed practising the RH first of all slowly and firmly, and then in a bunch of different rhythmic groupings, and then using accents. I am going to do one more post next week, where I’ll talk about individual spots in the piece. This week, my suggestions are more general. I would like to suggest two other ways of practising the RH, which are in many ways much more effective: Finger Staccatissimo If we can reproduce at a slow tempo the exact length of time each semiquaver in the RH lasts at full speed, we will find this is extremely short! Now, if we retain this shortness and practise each note staccatissimo, we will be able to practise slowly and fast simultaneously. The tempo is slow, yet the key speed and the way we react to each note extremely fast. Think of each note as a grain of rice that we unclump from a piece of sushi and lay out with plenty of space in between.  We feel staccatissimo as a plucking or scratching motion in which the active finger tip moves towards the palm of the hand. This motion is generated by and confined to the tip of the finger – the wrist and arm remaining quiet. Start off by placing the finger on the key, and pull the finger quickly into the palm of the hand. Make sure the arm does not pull back, that the motion is only in the finger. Make sure to be in contact with the key before you pluck. Making […]

Practising Fast

Common sense suggests that if we can play a fast piece faster than intended, it will be easier to manage at the proper tempo, since we will have gone the extra mile. We’ll have stretched our resources and sharpened up the reflexes, and this is indeed an excellent thing to do from time to time in our practice sessions. Short bursts rather than complete performances are fine, and it is often preferable to play lighter, like the singer who marks rather than sings out full voice. When we go back to the normal tempo, it all feels easier. I like the idea of practising at a variety of different speeds but not mechanically – aim to make the music meaningful in each tempo. This is great if you are learning an accompaniment or an ensemble work, where the flexibility gained from this endeavour can only assist in maximising valuable rehearsal time when you get together with the other player(s). I would like to put the cat among the pigeons here and state that I don’t believe there is any such thing as the ONE CORRECT TEMPO, even despite indications from the composer. If I am playing a work in a cathedral, for example, I will necessarily have to slow it down to accommodate the acoustical space. If I am playing on a small instrument in a heavily carpeted room, I will most likely go for a faster tempo. The tempo of a piece of music is chameleon-like, surely? If I have had one cup of coffee too many for breakfast, then my performance that evening will likely be faster, because my metabolism and heartbeat will be faster. Music is organic, and performance is inextricably linked […]

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

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