Q&A: How Can We Use Rotation in a Scale?

Q. You speak about forearm rotation in your eBook and in your YouTube video on scales and arpeggios, but I think of rotation as a large movement for things like tremolos and trills. Can you explain how to use it in scales? A. Great question, I’m very glad you have raised it. Until I studied the theory of forearm rotation with Julian Martin (who was working with Dorothy Taubman at the time), I had also only thought of rotation as a large movement  – something you could really see and really feel. I had two eureka moments close to the beginning of my investigations into all this, one was during a large leap when I was told to “untwist” during the journey from one position to the next (this made the leap feel fast, extremely free and reliable) and the other was in the broken diminished 7th in the Adagio espressivo section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 109: I was struggling to get enough power in this place, especially because I needed to hold onto the notes of the chord as I was spreading it. Even when I incorporated the finger strokes into one slower movement of the arm, the fingers were still doing an awful lot of the work. There was undue effort and a moment of tension. When I was able to experience the rotary movements, it suddenly became effortless and strong – as though I had flipped a switch to a new power source. The tiny backflips of the forearm are absolutely possible at high speed, and even though they are virtually imperceptible to someone watching I could definitely feel them. The difference in sensation between the rotary version and the […]

Chess or Checkers?

I have written extensively about the subject of slow practice on this blog and elsewhere. Since slow practice is such a cornerstone of our practice routine I don’t apologise for making a few comments about it again now! Here is Angela Hewitt talking about slow practice. I totally concur that when we practise slowly we can do so with rhythmic integrity, musical expression, good sound and attention to pedalling and texture. This is important! If we think about slow practice as something dull, mechanical and unmusical we risk playing in this way. I’m afraid I cannot agree with Ms. Hewitt’s sentiment that nobody likes doing it! I get the same sort of satisfaction practising slowly as any dedicated craftsman would get from the process of making something beautiful, rather than just the end result. I actually love practising slowly, controlling every finger and every sound I make. Don’t you? It feels to me like a type of meditation, a discipline where I delay the gratification that comes from playing through a piece and make a serious investment in the quality, security and polish of my playing. I think of it as something other than playing actually, a totally different type of activity. In Issue 74 of Pianist Magazine, there is an interview with Steven Osborne. I really like what he has to say about slow practice: The thing that’s helped me learn things faster has actually been practising slowly, and very intently, trying to get it to feel good and taking time before speeding up. Two important things come out of this – doing the slow practice for long enough and having it feel good. I often think of slow practice as digging foundations for a building. The more […]

By |October 11th, 2013|Teaching|6 Comments

Some Thoughts on Mental Tension

When we think of tension in piano playing, we correctly label this as negative – it is a thing that hampers us and our objective should be to locate its source and then eliminate it. This tension might be physical or mental, or perhaps a bit of both! Inadequate or inefficient technique, or incorrect use of the body manifests in physical tension. Mental tension (such as stage fright, exam nerves, etc.) may have its origins in the mind but it soon becomes very apparent in our breathing and the tightening of our arm muscles, the wrist and our shoulders. If we are particularly apprehensive, our legs may also tighten up and this affects our whole system. Adrenaline gets pumped into the body and this alters the way our muscles feel and the way we respond physically to what we perceive as stress and danger. When muscles tense up our ability to move freely across the keyboard is compromised, often severely. This leads to all kinds of clumsy and uncoordinated errors until eventually we can no longer play. Poisonous Pedagogy Unfortunately, many teachers (including some with excellent reputations at the top of the profession) teach by shaming the student, making them feel inadequate and inferior. Once worn down and confidence eroded, the idea is to rebuild them in the image of the teacher. This sets up unhealthy dependency and a host of psychological problems. I am not suggesting this is deliberate cruelty on the part of the teacher, because this behaviour is usually unconscious. The teacher is simply passing on like a hot potato the way they themselves were taught. Despite the quality of the information we might get from such a teacher, nobody needs to be subjected to this […]

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(2): Braced Conditions Of The Hand And Wrist

Yes, I know I was going to talk about forearm rotation this week, but inspiration took me elsewhere. I’ll get to that soon, I promise! This post deals with how to achieve braced conditions of the hand and wrist without the firmness and solidity we need in the periphery travelling back up the arm, translating into tension.  I think it is uncontroversial to say that the upper arm (the part from the elbow to the shoulder) needs to remain loose at all times, no matter what is going on beneath it, and that the shoulder has to remain free and NEVER hunched up in a shrug. If you were to carry a bowl of fruit from one place to another, you would naturally achieve this state of affairs, with no thought required. The trick is to reproduce this at the piano. The finger is the point of contact between us and the instrument, and varies in its role from active agent (with the arm there behind, supporting it) to passive conduit for arm energy. Sometimes the finger needs to be very firm indeed in order to support the energy or weight of the arm, and there are occasions when any give in the wrist would be fatal. So how do we achieve firmness in one part of our playing mechanism while retaining looseness and flexibility in another? For looseness in the arm, let’s begin with an exercise away from the piano: Hold the arm at shoulder height while standing comfortably. It’s best to do this one arm at a time. Let go of all the muscles that have been holding the arm up, so that it falls like dead weight back to your side. Don’t […]

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 […]

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 […]

Practice v Performance

A colleague put this quotation up on his Facebook wall this week, and while these golden words are from one of the greatest violinists of the last century, they apply absolutely to us pianists. Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn. (Jascha Heifetz) I am convinced we use different parts of our brains for practising and for performance, they are two quite different activities. In performance we need a feeling of abandon and spontaneity, of creativity and going with the punches (more of what is known as right-brained activity), whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we are constantly evaluating, repeating and refining our results (left-brained activity). In performance, we need to leave our inner critic in the green room and go into another, “thoughtless” state of mind once we are on the stage. We probably all know an excellent pianist who is not able to make the transition from the one state of mind to the other, and while they may play wonderfully, they can’t put themselves through the torment of public performance. Letting go of our critic is easier for some than others, and the ability to do this (allied with natural talent and a capacity for hard work, obviously) is what makes a good performer. Some relish the act of showmanship – performance with all its theatre – but others shrink from it, seemingly unable to get out of their own way. When I was a student, I experienced two opposite states of mind in a lesson, the careful practiser and the carefree performer. Anxious to show my professor how much I had practised that week and how well I had […]

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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