trouble spots

Top Ten Tips to Maximise Your Practice

At the start of the New Year, everyone is making resolutions. I have noticed that these usually have to do with self discipline – not eating or drinking so much and exercising more seem to top the list. Piano practice, in order to be effective, must be disciplined. If there is no thought or organisation behind our work, it will be hard to find the impetus to make a regular commitment. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics just round the corner, I think of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to each day in their training regimes. We pianists have to train also – countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! It seems timely to republish one of my most popular blog posts, so here are a few tips (in no particular order) that will help you get the most out of your practice time. A Teacher. Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a restarter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons. Commitment. Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. “Little and often” will help you achieve FAR more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to […]

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

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 […]

Inventing Exercises from Pieces

There are pieces that contain passages of technical difficulty that require special attention, a type of practising over and above the routine use of the other practice tools. This could  also apply to whole pieces, of course – concert studies being a good example. We might need to find creative ways to solve these problems by getting into the habit of making our own exercises based on the material from the piece. These exercises might explore different facets of the difficulty by creating extended or slightly varied versions. This tends to make the passage harder or even more challenging than the original, so that when we go back to the original, we understand it better and it just feels easier. Meeting the demands of a technical challenge is a bit like capturing a wild animal. If we approach it from one direction, it will run off in another. Therefore, we need a multi-pronged strategy involving very many different approaches to practising. Inventing exercises can be challenging at first, but once we get into the habit it is amazing how creative we can become at dreaming these up as we practise. My scores are littered with my own exercises, and I return to these when I go back to a particular piece, sometimes coming up with a different or better solution. If you explore any one of the study editions of Alfred Cortot, you will find many ideas for such practice exercises. For me, it was Cortot who primed the pump. Here is Chopin’s set of Etudes, op. 10 in the Cortot edition, made available by Walter Cosand. In Debussy’s First Arabesque, there is an awkward passage that usually confuses the hand, the few bars just before the […]

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

Top Ten Tips to Maximise your Practising

I have had a lot of requests for this article, which first appeared in Pianist Magazine last year. Here it is! With the Olympics very much in the news at the moment, I think of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to each day in their training regimes. We pianists have to train also – countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! Here are a few tips, in no particular order, that will help you get the most out of your practice time. A Teacher. Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a restarter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons. Commitment. Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. “Little and often” will help you achieve FAR more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to put a little time in at the beginning of the day, and again later – whatever works for you. Organisation. Divide up what you have to do into compartments, such as scales and technical work, pieces, sight reading, etc. You may find it helpful to keep a practice diary, and a scale chart is also a good idea. Concentration […]

An Obstacle Course

I have spoken before about the negative effects of playing pieces through prematurely, before the foundations have been laid. However, once the piece has been thoroughly learned, we will need to plan complete play-throughs. As we get closer to exams and recitals, I am more convinced than ever that devoting practice time to regular play-throughs is an essential part of the preparation. Playing a piece from beginning to end for the first time without stopping can be challenging and sometimes even demoralising for the perfectionists amongst you – you’ll want to stop and correct mistakes and you won’t be at all comfortable riding roughshod over passages you know you can play perfectly well when you play them in isolation. And yet how are we going to know how it feels to play a piece in its entirety until we do just that? The section after the double bar, completely manageable when played out of context, now feels quite different when placed therein. Those fast runs, normally comfortable, suddenly buckle for no apparent reason. Stamina, concentration, dynamic and tempo relationships, timings, etc., can only be fully developed in the context of the whole. Very often, the results of serious practising show up a week or two later, which is why I recommend being completely ready for a performance three weeks ahead, if at all possible. Certainly the daily play-throughs need to be done a month or so ahead, and as the date approaches, it will be better to back off a bit so you don’t get over anxious, stale or exhausted. Then it will be easier to take it in your stride, and maybe even enjoy the occasion! (Remember, there is such a thing as over practising.) As […]

Practising Chords (Part Three): The Difficult Chord

I am sure we can all identify a particular chord in a piece that causes us to stumble or fumble (and, under our breath, mumble). This could be because the chord is an awkward or unfamiliar shape for the hand, or because the way the chord is spelled is hard to read. We end up needing more thinking and preparing time than the music allows. The solution is to get it into the head as well as into the hand. The first thing to do is to analyse the chord, either theoretically or in simpler terms such as its shape, intervallic structure and patterns of black and white keys. Here is an isolated chord from Robert Muczynski’s highly effective Toccata, op. 15: There are two obvious ways of seeing this chord. Mentally changing the D flat in the LH to a C sharp, you can understand the shape as an augmented chord of A with two extra notes – a B flat in the LH and an E in the RH. Notice that the extra notes form a minor second, or a semitone with their neighbours. Alternatively, you can see it bitonally, as a chord of A major with an added minor sixth on top of a triad of B flat minor constructed on a bass A. Having understood the chord in whichever way is meaningful to you, here are some suggestions for practice: Play the three A’s, then fill in the rest of the chord Play the semitones (the A/B flat [LH] together with the E/F [RH]) then fill in the rest of the chord Play the LH B flat and the RH E then drop in the A augmented (and vice versa) Play the white […]

Top Ten Tips for Trouble Spots

It is possible to hack away at a trouble spot for several minutes, constantly repeating it and beating it into submission, and then be able to manage it, more or less. I am sure a statistician would be able to come up with the odds for this being so. Apart from being incredibly unskillful, it is a waste of time because the following day you will most likely be back to square one. Practising like this is like building your house on sand – some days all will be well, but on others, the whole thing just collapses. In performance we can’t take multiple stabs at something, it has to be right first time and this fact needs to be reflected in our practice. Think about it – if we never practised errors, we’d probably never play any! I would have to go further – it has not only to be right but also to feel easy. There is no such thing as a Difficult Piece.  A piece is either impossible – or it is easy. The process whereby it migrates from one category to the other is known as practicing.  (Louis Kentner) Trouble spots are like bad apples or unruly kids in a class. Left unattended, they ruin the good ones. Identify the trouble spots in the piece, those places that trip you up and cause you to stumble and fall (and affect subsequent parts of the piece you know perfectly well) and isolate them. They will usually consist of small parts, perhaps a bar, or even a couple of notes that derail you (but may of course be longer). Put them in the equivalent of pianistic detention for a few days and give […]

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