On Double Notes (Part One)

Technikos: “of, or pertaining to art, artistic, skilful” But there is no difference between interpretation and technique. Every dynamic and nuance must be produced simultaneously by a technical means (Walter Gieseking) The next few posts will be on practising exercises, and I decided to start with double notes. This week I will give some background, and next week some practical advice. I recommend doing some double notes every day, in the form of a scale or two, or an exercise, or indeed a study. It is the act of doing this that is more important than what you practise, and any book of exercises worth its salt will have some patterns of double notes. I favour exercises that transpose or use patterns of white and black keys – playing on just white keys is very limiting (how many pieces do you know, even elementary ones, that avoid black notes?). Playing double notes is, mechanically speaking, one of the most difficult activities at the piano, and one that requires superfine coordination. The pair of fingers need to sound dead together and, in order to do this in a controlled way, have to be played from the surface of the keyboard. The weaker outer fingers need to be as strong and agile as the others – stronger, actually, in the right hand since the top notes will need to be projected more.   “Nothing by finger without arm; nothing by arm without finger” (Leonid Nikolaev) I imagine a seesaw where one end represents “ARM” and the other “FINGER”. Because of the unhelpful assumption that we play the piano with our fingers, I am always trying to push activities of the finger as far as possible in the […]

Preparing the Canvas

With the advent of the summer holidays, a lot of piano students will be learning new pieces. On the proceeds of lessons, we piano teachers will be sunning ourselves in the Algarve and our students beavering away with little or no supervision until September. Do we simply chuck a couple of pieces at them and hope they deliver? Before we can come up with a plan, we need to distinguish between a piece that may be in the ear already and a piece that is totally unfamiliar. In the first instance, we can get straight to the keyboard and begin work, in the second, we will need to do some groundwork. Even though I have not played Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto myself, I have a very distinct aural map of the work, familiar with it through performances and recordings over the years, and from having taught it on several occasions. I already have a very clear understanding of the piece and how it should feel and sound and can justly claim that I know it. If I decided to learn it, more than half the battle would already have been won since I would just need to get the notes into my fingers (no small task in itself, I would add). If I were learning a new piece from scratch having no prior knowledge of it, I would need to dig some foundations before I approached the work at the keyboard. The obvious first solution to this would be to listen to a bunch of recordings (so instantly available to all of us nowadays) probably while following the score. In addition – or perhaps even beforehand – I would want to scrutinise the score and […]

The Trouble With Ornaments (Part One)

The year was 1978 and I had been assigned the G major French Suite of J. S. Bach by my piano professor at the RCM. I duly went off to the Kensington Music Shop (which is still there by South Kensington tube station) to buy the Henle Urtext edition, and then found a practice room to explore. Uncertain as to the exact meaning of the ornament signs that littered the pages, I decided I ought to listen to a few recordings from the College’s record library only to discover that each performer did them differently. So what was a poor undergraduate to do? In those days, I assumed that anyone good enough to issue a commercial recording of anything had to know what they were doing, so I was bemused and confused by what I had heard. It struck me that perhaps all of these different versions of the ornaments were OK, and I could just do whatever took my fancy. Somehow this didn’t seem quite right, surely there had to be some sort of difference between the squiggle with the line through it and the one without it. Since it was going to be a whole week until my next lesson, and I wanted to take at least the first two or three movements along, I thought I had better ask around. Accosting members of staff in the hallways, one eminent professor of piano told me one thing, while another said he thought it should go like this (there ensued a whistling session) and I was left none the wiser. This was beginning to really trouble me! My studies of Shakespeare and the bible at school had impressed upon me that quibbling over textual […]