An Energy Saving Tip

The other day the bulb in my piano lamp blew. It was the only light I had on in the room, and because it was dark outside and I was too lazy to get up and turn the main lights on, I decided to carry on practising for a while in the pitch black. This showed me how much we all rely on the visual not only for obvious things like jumps but the eye is involved in so much of what we do, often unnecessarily and distractingly so. Years ago I recall a moment where, in recital, I closed my eyes. This was quite unpremeditated and unconscious, and yet there was a stray thought that went through my mind as I did it that this was a bit of a risky thing to do. I think I probably wanted to eliminate all other distractions and be left with just the sound so I could feel it and shape it, and live it. I certainly remember feeling very connected to the music at the time. While I am not suggesting you follow my example in public (I doubt I will repeat this myself), I do think practising in the dark, or with eyes closed, is a very good practice tool. The obvious benefit is an immediate sharpening of our senses of hearing and touch, and if we can manage jumps with our eyes closed, think how much easier they will be when we open them again. In some ways, switching off the lights is better because chances are you will doubtless cheat if you simply close your eyes! Another benefit is that you will also be making a small saving on your energy bill. Some […]

The Baroque Urtext Score (3): Articulation

Articulation in music is understood to mean the way notes are connected or grouped – this involves accentuation and, to some extent, rhythmic inflection. While François Couperin was an obsessive control freak in this regard, it was only from Beethoven onwards that composers routinely marked articulations into the score. Open a score of Beethoven and you will see at a glance how he wanted the music to be articulated. You will find a few dots and slurs in Bach’s keyboard music, but for the most part we have to make our own decisions. How? On what basis do we decide? I don’t think this can be done cosmetically, by which I mean I don’t think we can add slurs and staccatos willy-nilly  (“Oh, I haven’t had a staccato for a while, better stick one in on this note”). The articulation should enhance phrasing, help project rhythm and show the design features of the thematic material. The long legato line is a 19th century concept – 18th century phrasing was based more on the articulation of shorter units, at the discretion of the player. Long legato lines are just as out of place (and boring) as long staccato ones, and the still-prevalent idea that quavers in baroque music should be detached is just not correct. Now for some examples. The first is the subject from Bach’s B flat major Invention, for which I have given three possible articulations (scribbled, somewhat clumsily, one on top of the other). There will be other possibilities, but these were the first that occurred to me: I would say it is important to stick with the same articulation in the second half of the bar as you use for the first half, because the second half is an inversion of the […]

On Double Notes (Part Two)

This post deals with the “how” of double notes. Because double notes appear to be very finger-based, making demands on the weaker fingers on the outside of the hand, they should be practised with care and certainly not for hours on end! Firstly, then,  some advice on INJURY PREVENTION: Avoid awkward hand positions and angles by aligning the hand with the forearm. Maintain flexibility in the wrist, especially laterally. Adjust the position of the elbow to enable fingers to pass over other fingers more easily. For example,  you are holding RH 4 and 2 and you need to ascend a step to 3 and 1. If the elbow is in leading mode, it will require more of an adjustment since the 3rd finger has to go over the 4th. For this reason the elbow will need to be closer to your torso in double note passages that move away from the body. Incorporate finger strokes into the arm whenever possible. This might involve only tiny movements (more on this later in the post). Practise softly and loosely before building in key speed. GENERAL PRINCIPLES Fingering – in a legato context, compromises often need to be made as breaks in the legato are inevitable. If you can’t join both parts, find a fingering solution that enables a join in one part. If the break is in the lower part of the RH, it will not be so noticeable. Look at the alternative scale fingerings in Part One of  Moszkowski’s “School of Double Notes” for ingenious fingering suggestions, which will inspire you to explore various unconventional fingering possibilities, fingerings you probably wouldn’t have thought of. In this extract from Beethoven op. 2 no. 3, I prefer the following fingering, which probably would […]

Practising Softly

One of the most skillful and useful ways to practise is softly, especially loud passages. Let me start with an anecdote. In the early 80s I had the great good fortune to have a few lessons with Andras Schiff at the start of my postgraduate studies in New York. I remember one occasion when I arrived at the building and, having been admitted by the doorman, made my way to the apartment. As I walked down the corridor, I heard Andras Schiff practising, but extremely softly. Fascinated by what I was hearing, I was in no hurry to press the buzzer. Assuming this had something to do with neighbours and decibel levels, I was surprised to learn that he always practised softly, saving fortes and fortissimos for the concert stage. My teacher at the time, Nina Svetlanova, was always telling us the same thing; this seemed to be a theme of her teaching, it would be mentioned at each lesson. The way we produce sound at the piano is to depress keys (a vertical activity) whereas music tends to move in horizontal lines. While the distance the key has to travel from top to bottom remains the same whether we are playing soft or loud, fast or slow, the energy used to play forte or fortissimo is greater, as is the key speed (the speed at which the key descends) and the recovery time at the key bed (for a skilled pianist, we are talking about tiny fractions of a second). Physical problems in loud playing come from an excess use of force, and a slow recovery. This translates into tension, which gets carried from one event to the next. The sound gets rougher and rougher, […]

Voicing Chords

A chord is officially two or more notes played simultaneously, but there are probably as many species of chords as there are of spiders. There is so much to say about practising chords that this is part one of a multi-part series of posts (not sure how many yet) on the subject. Except for percussive tone clusters, a chord on the piano is rarely intended as an amorphous blob of sound. It is a living organism where each finger involved contributes to the hierarchy of tonal priorities, so that the melody finger will be stronger than the filler (or harmony) notes. If both hands are involved, there will be this sense of top (melody) as well as bottom (bass), with harmony notes in between, graded by the ear of the individual player so that no two pianists will reproduce exactly the same tonal balance. I have often joked that piano playing would be easier if our hands were attached the other way round, so that strong thumbs (instead of puny pinkies) were on the outsides of the hands, and would be responsible for top melodies and foundation basses (the latter so often neglected). I am going to quote again from Heinrich Neuhaus’ The Art of Piano Playing (if there were one definitive book on piano playing, it would surely be this one). It is very appropriate here to remember that Anton Rubinstein called the two fifth fingers “conductors” leading the music. The limits of sound (both upper and lower) are to music what the frame is to a picture, the slightest blurr  [sic] (which is particularly frequent at the lower limit) in the bass results in a diffuse, shapeless picture; the musical composition then turns (as […]