theory

Making Friends with Fiddly Fiorature

Over the past couple of weeks I have had a few requests for advice on how to handle the flurries of little notes we find in the music of Chopin. I am republishing a post I wrote back in 2013 – I hope it helps! When you’ve been teaching the piano for as long as I have, there are certain problems that are universal. It might be a particular spot in a particular piece that will always need to be brought up, or it might be a concept – such as how to manage the fioratura in the music of Chopin. Before we go any further, let me explain what this term means. Taken from “fior”, which means “flower” in Italian, fioratura refers to the flowery, embellished vocal line within an aria. Chopin was a diehard fan of the bel canto tradition, and we find its influence throughout his music. Some of these passages look extremely scary, for example the coda of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne: The first thing to realise here is that Chopin did not intend the notation of his fiorature to be mathematically precise. The whole point is for them to sound free, improvisatory and personal. In my lessons with Ann Schein on Chopin’s Second Concerto, I was instructed to start the fiorature fast and take time at the end of the groups. Since Ann was one of only two students of Artur Rubinstein – no slouch when it came to the interpretation of Chopin – this has always been good enough for me. Because the notation is free, I feel we should retain a sense of freedom and even whimsy about how we play our fiorature, being unconstrained by the mathematics […]

Resources for Studying Bach

Quite a lot of my students bring the works of JS Bach to lessons, which is always a delight. I often find myself directing them to various different sources to enhance their study of this music, so I thought I would put a few of these together for ease of reference. I hope you will find these resources useful and interesting. I am also hoping you will send me your links, which I will add to this post. Since Bach’s music is contrapuntal, even in the simplest works, we need to know how to listen to, balance, blend and articulate two or more independent lines simultaneously. If we have been brought up on a path from the Anna Magdalene Notebook to the Little Preludes and the Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias, we will be able to tackle the Preludes and Fugues from the ’48’, not to mention the suites. Before that, listen to what Rosalyn Tureck brought to some of the baby pieces (click here) Resources for ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier” Anatomy of a fugue (click here) How to analyse a fugue (click here) Ebenezer Prout’s analyses (click here) Siglind Bruhn’s homepage (with analyses) (click here) Cecil Gray’s analyses (not at all dry, poetic and rather lovely actually!) (click here) Yo Tomita’s website (click here) Performing Bach’s fugues on the piano (David Korevaar) (click here) Dr. Philip Goeth’s website, containing much material of interest (click here) Recordings Anyone can trawl YouTube and find recordings easily. Here are just three (of very many) worthy of attention. András Schiff’s recording of Book 1 (click here) Samuil Feinberg‘s recording of Book 2 (click here) Gustav Leonhardt’s recording of Book 1 (harpsichord) (click here) Here are my suggestions for fugue practice […]

A Practical Theory Lesson

Most of us were probably brought up on the middle C approach to learning the piano, and the first scale we ever learned was C major. We probably got tangled up with the fingering, since there are no black notes there to help us. Chopin taught the B major scale (RH) and D flat major scale (LH) before C major, not only because the fingerings are self-evident, but also because the hand positions are more natural and therefore these scales are the most comfortable. The long fingers (2, 3 and 4) are more suited to the black keys and the short fingers (1 and 5) to the white keys. It is useless to start learning scales on the piano with C major, the easiest to read, and the most difficult for the hand, as it has no pivot. Begin with the one that places the hand at ease with the longer fingers on the black keys, like B major for instance. (Chopin, quoted by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger) If we begin with B major in the RH and D flat major in the LH, there is virtually no chance of confusion with the fingerings. There are only two white notes in those scales and the thumb takes both of them – there is nowhere else for it to go! While adult minds will want to know the theory behind the construction of the major scale, there is absolutely no need to teach this to a child beginner for them to be able to play their scales. This would be as ludicrous as teaching the rules of grammar to a child who is just learning to speak. We can save theory until later and start teaching the scales using […]

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

Five Fingers

My piano chum, Leon Whitesell, has a brand new Facebook group called Piano Playing Questions. In a recent post, Leon referred to the five-finger exercise formulae of famous Russian teacher, Vasily Safonov (who was the teacher of Scriabin, Medtner, Josef and Rosina Lhévinne, amongst many others). This reminded me that somewhere on my shelves I had a copy of Safonov’s “New Formula for the Piano Teacher and Piano Student”, and after a bit of digging around I managed to find it. I assume it must be long out of print, but I have found the German edition on Petrucci and can link to the pdf here. I was particularly interested in what Safonov recommended for five-finger positions. Using a basic position from G up to D and then down to G again, he suggested changing the fingerings from 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 to various other combinations, thus: Having outlined the fingerings and referenced them with upper and lower case letters, he goes on to supply a formula for combining the fingers when practising hands together. This is well worth exploring:   While you’re about it, I like Leon’s suggestion carry this idea further by using additional fingerings, such as: 2-3-4-5-1-5-4-3-2 3-4-5-1-2-1-5-4-3 4-5-1-2-3-2-1-5-4 5-1-2-3-4-3-2-1-5 Practising in a whole variety of different rhythms enhances control. Experiment also with using different touches, and also different five-finger positions than diatonic major (minor, chromatic and whole-tone positions are also very useful). It strikes me that these alternative fingerings can also be applied to some of the Hanon exercises, certainly the first one. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I like to practise Peter Feuchtwanger’s five-finger exercise, played with reverse fingerings. Instead of 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 in a RH ascending/descending pattern, he uses 5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5. This necessitates the […]

Transposing the Difficult Spot

Vocal accompanists and repetiteurs need to develop the skills to transpose virtually at sight in order to accommodate the different voice types and the vocal ranges of the singers they work with, but transposition is also a valuable practice tool for the solo pianist. We can use transposition to build and test the aural and analytic memory for those pieces we need to memorise, and we can also use it for refining motor control and coordination in difficult passages. I explore both these areas thoroughly in Chapter 7 from Volume 3 of my ebook series, but I wanted to give an example of the benefits of transposing from a lesson I gave this week on Bach’s Italian Concerto. Having taught this piece dozens of times over the years, it comes as no surprise that I might have to help a student with the following bars (I have added my own performance suggestions, please excuse the absence of treble and bass clefs): This snippet occurs in three different guises in the first movement – the first time ending on the tonic, the second time on the dominant and the last time on the subdominant. Apart from a tied RH thumb and a modified LH in the last example, the notes and fingerings are the same. The RH seems to trip people up until its contents have been digested and the fingers organised, so how do we do this? Since Bach has been meticulous in showing the parts, we can at least do him the service of practising it thus. I especially like omitting the thumb and practising the upper two parts alone but playing the other combinations is valuable too. If we really want to take […]

Eat Your Greens!

It seems to me that a thorough knowledge of scales and arpeggios is an absolute necessity for all serious students of the piano. Western music is built on the major/minor tonal system, and to attempt to study the instrument without scales (or basic theory) would be as nonsensical as learning language without the alphabet or bothering with basic grammar. Of course scale playing serves a technical end, but I don’t think we can consider scales as mere warm-ups when the pinky gets used only once per scale, or in some cases not at all. I will often use scales as a vehicle for teaching something else. It might be to develop touches (one hand plays using one particular touch, and the other hand with another) or to abstract an issue from the complexities of the piece. Just yesterday, a student who brought along Debussy’s evergreen Clair de lune was struggling to feel the changes from the default triplet subdivisions of the main beat to the duplet ones. We used the scale of D flat major to help him feel the changes from “tri-po-let” to “du-plet”, with both hands playing in unison, and also with the LH playing in dotted crotchets: Practising scales two against three is also a great way to develop this necessary skill (when the LH plays in 3s, remember to start two octaves apart, to avoid the inevitable collision): If scales are the ABC of music, what about aural, sight reading and theory? All examination boards include tests in each of these areas for a very good reason – to aid and abet in the process of forming an all-round musician. The more theory you know, the more you appreciate how music is […]

By |December 14th, 2012|Practising|4 Comments

The Analytic Memory

I have had several requests for an article on memorisation. Since I already wrote one last year for Pianist Magazine, entitled Mind Over Memory, I thought I would include it here. This is Part One, dealing with the most neglected aspect of memory, using one’s brain. Next week, I will give specific tools for memorisation. ***   ***   *** Mind Over Memory (Part One) What NOT to do: Learn the piece with the score until eventually you find you can play it without! While this method may work if you are playing in cosy situations (such as for yourself, a trusted teacher or a few friends), it will often let you down in a recital or exam when you are nervous because the stakes are higher. Why? Firstly, muscular memory tends to be easy come, easy go. Under the stress of performance, muscles tighten and the mind plays tricks that can cause memory cues to break down, sometimes irretrievably and always to the detriment of self confidence. Secondly, we must take steps to memorise actively, and not merely hope we remember. Given that the way we encode the information (practising) is vastly different from the way we decode it (performing), there is a considerable margin for error, and terror! I liken this to the tightrope artist who risks nothing when the rope is close to the ground, but everything when it is several meters up in the air. We have all found that as soon as we remove ourselves from our comfortable and familiar surroundings things can feel so totally different, as though we did not know the piece at all. To the student who complains that they can play it perfectly well at […]

A Prima Vista: Some Thoughts on Sight Reading

Sight reading is included in every graded examination. Few seem to excel at it, and many actively dread it. Even the best players are likely to drop marks in this area, and despite the numerous publications available nowadays to assist the learner, exam candidates are often reluctant to practise this much-needed skill. Thinking about the long-term benefits of taking piano lessons in childhood, surely an ability to read at sight, and learn a piece reasonably fast are equally if not more important than spending a year on three pieces, cosmetically tweaking and refining them parrot-fashion in order to gain a nice mark (and kudos for the teacher)? I firmly believe we should be teaching musical intelligence and comprehension in addition to technical and interpretative skills. There is nothing that infuriates me more than discovering someone supposedly in the higher grades unable to accompany a simple ensemble piece at sight, or play a solo piece half way through the year when they have forgotten their previous exam pieces and yet aren’t quite ready with the new ones. Expert sight readers are usually expert musicians, who are able to process the information on the page in their short-term memory and reproduce it instantly. This skill has to do with musical comprehension – scanning the page for key pieces of information and, frankly, making educated guesses as to what might be going on in one hand, and snap decisions as to what to leave out. A note-perfect mechanical rendition of a piece of sight reading is often less impressive than one that may have some note errors and omissions and yet which conveys musical character and meaning. TRIAL BY FIRE Sight reading was a skill I developed as […]

Taking Ownership

Some years ago, Dame Fanny Waterman gave a masterclass for the BBC (Beethoven Sonata, op. 2 no. 2 , I think it was) and had made some suggestions to the student who then proceeded to play it back, respectfully verbatim. Dame Fanny likened this to loaning the student a dress for a party, but that to prevent it from looking borrowed or passed on, the student would need to add a brooch, a belt or some other accessory to make it her own. The lesson, of course, being that aping someone else’s playing or ideas won’t end up sounding authentic no matter how well you do it. The first stage of taking ownership of a piece of music is to process all the information from the composer’s score. This is the explicit instruction (notes, rhythm, tempo modifiers, articulations, character descriptions, dynamic markings, etc.) as well as the implicit. Examples of the latter might be the implication of più forte when the composer doubles in octaves a bass line previously written in single notes, or diminuendo when the texture thins out. It may take a while to understand the meaning behind all this so that we come up with our own understanding of the composer’s message, but digest it we must. (Implicit directions are much more significant in baroque music, say, when the composer’s score is devoid of much else, but that’s probably a subject for another post.) I am sure we have all heard performances where all the notes were there, all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, but you weren’t moved or stirred. There is nothing worse than a safe, boring, non-committal, grey, correct performance and obeying the composer’s instructions is only the first step – […]

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