touch

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 […]

The Dance of the Dampers

The subtleties of the right pedal are extremely hard to pin down. I can show a student what I am doing with my hands, fingers and arm to produce a particular sound, but when it comes to pedalling I so often find myself asking them to look not at my right foot but rather to stand up and take a peek inside the workings of the instrument and watch the dampers as I play. Instead of a cut and dried “up” then “down” in the manner of marching soldiers, the dampers might often only barely lift away from the strings. The pedal is neither up nor down, my foot (controlled directly by my ear) making incredibly fine adjustments to temper the resonance from a mere tickle to full throttle. This sort of pedalling is impossible to write in the score, there are just too many variables. “Pedalling cannot be written down. It varies from one instrument to another, from one room, or one hall, to another.” Claude Debussy Back in the 80s I had a few lessons with Theodore Lettvin, who wrote somewhere in my score of the Chopin Scherzi “1/10,000 of a pedal”. This concept of foot added to the particular scale pattern a fine mist of resonance like water droplets sprayed from an atomiser. Not enough to drench the thing, but enough to moisten it so it could reflect the light. Nobody listening to my playing would detect the presence of my right foot (in this case the very edge of my big toenail), but would somehow notice its absence. To experience the effect, play a full chord with the pedal fully down and release your hands into the air. As you lift the […]

Practising Chopin’s “Ocean” Etude

In last week’s post on ties and repeated notes, I referred to Chopin’s Ocean Etude (more properly known as op. 25 no. 12). A reader contacted me asking if I could offer some practice suggestions for this etude, so here are a few thoughts. The Cortot Edition Apart from his most useful exercises for practice, one of the things I really like about Alfred Cortot’s study editions is his commentary, often shedding light on the more poetic aspects of the music. It is so important to keep in mind that while each etude by Chopin is a study in a particular aspect of piano technique, it is also a tone poem. This is where Chopin’s genius lies – raising a technical study to the ranks of great art. Cortot has this to say about the poetic meaning of this etude, as he sees it: It is said…that Chopin composed this Study, as well as Study No. 12 (Op. 10), in his anguish at hearing the news that Warsaw had fallen into the hands of the Russians. If the legend can certainly add nothing to the intrinsic beauty of these two compositions, it lends them however a particularly pathetic significance. Wounded national pride, grief most sacred, generous outburst of revolt explain perfectly the sublime ardour that sweeps through these pages. Keeping the meaning of the music in mind while we study the technical difficulties is for me paramount. Thanks to Walter Cosand, I am able to give you the link to his wonderful library of scores. Search through and you will find the pdfs to the full English translations. Cortot realised the importance of diagnosing the technical problem and came up with an array of exercises that focus […]

By |September 20th, 2013|Practising|7 Comments

The Pot-Bellied Monster

Heinrich Neuhaus spoke of the pot-bellied monster, a fault in piano playing where the harmony swallows both bass and melody. I find myself discussing the layering of sound all the time with my students, the ability to do this skillfully is such a crucial aspect of fine piano playing. If we want to build a hierarchical sound where we can sense foreground, background and middle ground it is not just the volume that counts, but also the texture – the type of touch we use within a given dynamic level. In this example from Schubert’s G flat Impromptu, it is not hard to see that the harmonic middle needs to be played more softly than the top melody, but the rippling quavers also need to be extremely even tonally and yet rhythmically structured. An impressionistic wash won’t do here: Whenever we see fortissimo, it is as though there were an unspoken command that we’ve got to try and play everything on the page as loudly as possible. Let’s now look at the climax of Rachmaninov’s beautiful Elegie that someone brought to their lesson today: The three-layered structure is clear here, with the main melodic line in the RH, the bass A (that needs to last all the way through the two bars in one long, deep pedal) and the middle part. Now, this middle part supplies not only the harmonic filling but also forward momentum and a certain turbulence but it should not be on the same tonal level as the top or bottom. Experiment with omitting the middle part completely and you will discover that you can already achieve an ample triple fortissimo without it, especially if you have wrung out the maximum amount of good quality […]

Getting Students to Use the Practice Tools (2)

Last week, I discussed how we might encourage our younger students to use the practice tools by incorporating elements of practice into the lesson, so that each week we devote a part of the lesson to checking and supervising what we want to be happening at home. I guess this would be the equivalent of an apprentice in an atelier who polishes and displays the tools of his craft for the master to inspect. There would be enormous pride not only in the product, but the very tools themselves and the proper use of them. We all know that tonal control is a hallmark of excellent piano playing. By this, I mean a full dynamic range as well as a sense of balance between the hands and (later) within the hand. There is no reason why we can’t introduce this concept, and also the skills involved, from the very beginning. Youngsters love a challenge if it is presented playfully, demonstrated well and they can see the value in it. The elementary player often struggles to do one thing in one hand and a different thing in the other hand, such as projecting a RH melody line and playing the accompaniment in the LH softer. Before we can expect them to do this, we need to help them develop the necessary independence between the hands. Games are a good starting point – you can get them to pat their head with one hand while rubbing their stomach with the other, or draw a circle and a square simultaneously. At the piano, we might use a basic five-finger position. I prefer Chopin’s whole-tone position (E-F#-G#-A#-B#) but any position will do. Both hands play in similar motion up […]

By |February 10th, 2013|Teaching|1 Comment

On Touch, Articulation and Phrasing

This week my third video demonstration on touch went live on Pianist Magazine‘s YouTube channel. When I was given the original commission for three articles for the magazine, I knew I wanted to write firstly on legato and staccato touches, and secondly on those grey area non-legato touches, but I wasn’t sure at that stage how to round off the series. It struck me that there was a lot of confusion about how to articulate the music of Bach, in particular, and I’m constantly frustrated by how pianists can misunderstand the short slurs we find from Mozart onwards, right up to Brahms. So, I thought I would pull this all together and give some suggestions for articulation. Three main points come out of all of this for me: In the absence of any markings from the composer, articulation is decided based not on whimsy or for cosmetic reasons, but rather on the structure of the musical material. There is usually a variety of possible articulations of a given subject, theme or motive. When playing Bach, some pianists have the mistaken sense that the music is to be curated rather than enjoyed and fully lived. Here is the video: ***   ***   ***   ***   *** I am launching the first two volumes of Practising The Piano ebook series! It is presently in “beta” mode which means that while the publications are fully functional and the content is of a high quality, there are still a few small issues that we are ironing out.  Furthermore, I would also like to obtain further feedback and suggestions during this beta phase in order to refine the final versions.  As a concession I am offering the publications at a […]

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

On Touch (Part Two)

My second article on touch has just been published by Pianist Magazine. When I was first commissioned to write a series of three articles on touch, dealing with legato and staccato in the first one was relatively straightforward. However, the subsequent article on non-legato touches was rather more challenging and I found myself getting lost in semantics, particularly over the distinction between portato and portamento.  You Say “Portato“… These two terms are often confused with each other, but only by pianists! Portamento means to glide between two pitches (similar to a glissando, but with all the intermediate pitches). This is the domain of singers, string and (sometimes) wind players and is clearly not possible on the piano. Pianists do sometimes use the term portamento when they might more accurately call it portato, the literal meaning of which is “carried” (implying the notes should be sustained, lengthened, and drawn out). Again, this means to play halfway between staccato and legato, and is indicated by staccato dots under a slur, or by staccato dots under tenuto markings. You might think of this touch as a sticky staccato which is both non-staccato and non-legato, best realised by separate arm strokes for each note, through a loose and flexible wrist. The use of the wrist to add drag to the release of each key is very appropriate with this touch. Depending on the context, the notes may be played legato (but using separate arm strokes) or the notes may be slightly separated. This notation also has connotations of playing the notes freely, with rubato, or even rather slowly and drawn out, and the effect of portato in a melodic line is to communicate serious and expressive emotions. The Pedal And Staccato A vital thing to remember about […]

By |November 29th, 2012|Performing|6 Comments

On Touch (Part One)

I was recently asked by Pianist Magazine to write a series of three articles on touch, which turned out to be more challenging than I had anticipated. The second article on non-legato touches was especially difficult, since these various touches overlap (no pun intended), and any attempt to classify them risks ending up confusing rather than clarifying. The first article, just published, is on legato and staccato. In this, I talk about four different types of staccato and three different types of legato – our plain vanilla default touch, legatissimo for cantabile melody lines and ‘finger pedalling’ where notes are deliberately held down and overlapped. I want to distinguish between finger pedalling as a specific touch and the bad habit of neglecting to pick up the finger after its written note value. Beginner and elementary pianists are constantly being told (quite correctly so) by their teachers to pick up their fingers. Holding fingers down beyond the written note value at this stage is bad technique and produces unwanted blurs and smudges. However, at the advanced level an overlapping touch (finger pedalling) is indispensable. Let’s say we have an Alberti bass (or broken chord pattern) with a melody above it. It sounds dry and clattery, but pedalling blurs the melody and adds too much resonance. The best way of adding resonance is to use finger pedalling. Instead of releasing the notes of the Alberti bass in a conventional legato touch, we hold onto them, creating a harmonic effect. This enables us to play broken harmonies without dryness, and yet to play the melodic line above without the smudging that would happen if we used the sustaining pedal. Actually, we are still able to use the sustaining […]

Practising on Tour

I have been away for the past three weeks on a concert and teaching tour of Singapore and Australia, the focus of my work there was three performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I thought it might be of interest – and hopefully of use – to talk about how I prepared this magnum opus for performance having not played it at all in about a decade, and how I approached the practice time I had while on the tour itself. Quite early on in the life of this blog I devoted a whole post to how I set about learning the Goldberg Variations in the first place, very much an obsession and a labour of love. Sometime last year, I was engaged by the Kawai Series at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane to play the Goldberg this Easter; a piece eminently suitable in its grandeur and magnificence for such a Festival (especially given Bach’s own strong religious views). I played the Shigeru Kawai, the model EX concert grand, and wonderful it was too! From this engagement, I was also invited to play at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore, and on the Team of Pianists’ series in Melbourne. In addition to my performances, I gave masterclasses and taught a fair number of individual lessons as well as giving a lecture for the Piano Pedagogy programme at the Queensland Con. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these experiences. I started to resurrect the Goldberg Variations just before Christmas, figuring that I would need four months to get the piece back into my fingers and into my head. This would also allow enough time for what I can only describe as the Olympian training component – regular […]

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