5 Top Tips to Improve Finger Staccato

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One aspect of playing I have written little about is touch and articulation, specifically staccato. This past semester, several of my students have taken advanced graded ABRSM exams, requiring many scales, the majority of which must be played legato (smoothly) and staccato (short or detached, indicated on the score by dotes above or below notes as in the example above).

Most pupils have few problems negotiating rapid legato scales, but short detached passage work at speed rarely feels comfortable, hence staccato scales are sometimes taken much slower than the intended tempo. Scales are only one facet of acquiring an effective staccato technique, but they do provide a convenient vehicle for those just getting to grips with short, crisp articulation, and with this in mind I aim to offer a few tips, which may (or may not!) be helpful.

As with so many areas of piano playing, tension can rear its ugly head and ruin even the best intentions. Economy of movement is essential as is ‘built in’ flexibility.  There are many different types of staccato; ‘close to the keys’ staccato, ‘finger’ staccato, wrist staccato, whole arm staccato, and a few others in between. Each variant will need a different technical approach. This applies to both the physical and mental set-up.  However, in this post, I will deal with finger staccato, and how to achieve crisp, clear and even note groups, helping those who are working at their scales, exercises, or simply wanting to produce neater articulation.

1. Finger staccato implies that only the fingers should move. This is true, however, if the arms and wrists remain completely static, tension will quickly arise, rendering fast movement virtually impossible. Start by ensuring complete freedom in the upper body. Drop your arms by your side freely, whilst sitting at the piano, and notice the relaxed, ‘heavy’ feeling. If you can replicate this feeling when playing, flexibility won’t be an issue. As with many technical challenges, focus on how your body feels when playing, not just on what is being played.

2. Practice rapid finger movement away from the piano. Fingers should work from the knuckles, without the aid of the hand or wrist, and every joint must be complicit; they need to move independently, using the first two joints of each finger particularly. Aim for a very swift finger motion; encourage fingers to assume a tapping movement. This can be built up, so work in short sharp bursts for a few minutes at a time, returning to dropping arms  by your side at the end of each brief session.

3. As with most techniques, starting slowly often produces the best results. It can be useful to use heavy finger strokes to begin with; playing much heavier, forcefully and with strong fingers in order to strengthen them and become accustomed to the quick, snappy movements.  It’s important to pay attention to how every note ends. Think spikey, pithy, sharp, and extremely short. Combine this with a free wrist at all times; letting go of tension at designated places.

4. Once heavy movements have been assimilated and they feel comfortable, lighten your touch, using the finger tip (or top of the finger), and aim to acquire a ‘scratch’ or flicking motion, so every note can remain incredibly short and effectively sounded. Once the finger has ‘flicked’ it will usually draw inwards, almost into the palm of the hand, but best not to allow it to go too far, as quick finger changes necessitate fingers to resume the usual position promptly. When playing a whole scale or passage using finger staccato, it can be beneficial for the hand to employ a very slight ‘bouncing’ motion, allowing flexibility, but keeping the flow.

5. Practice passage work in different rhythmical groups; groups of four semi-quavers can be accented slightly on every first beat of the group, to improve co-ordination (if hands are playing together). Practice different strong beats, so all fingers can attain control, making it possible to achieve totally even playing, both rhythmically and tonally. Every time the thumb turns under (or the hand turns over it)  in a passage, encourage the wrist to use a small rotational or circular movement, providing a place to release any tension caused by the incessant ‘picking up’ finger motion necessary for finger staccato. Even using a ‘scratch’ or flicking technique, fingers still need a  ‘picking up’ movement, which after a while, becomes tiring. If tension does build, stop immediately, and only practice a few notes at a time. Divide passages into small sections to begin with, building up as and when strength is acquired.

The deeper and heavier fingers are worked whilst practising slowly, the less the eventual effort when playing fast, light and crucially, detached. This can work for many other types of technical issues too. Try incorporating some of the above, and hopefully your finger staccato will sound lively, energetic, and clear!

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Variations for Judith: And the Winner is……..?

 

Many thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition. The prize is a signed copy of Variations for Judith; a wonderful collection of 11 piano pieces composed by eminent composers for amateur pianists of around Grade 4-6 standard.  Variations were composed for Judith Serota as a leaving gift when she retired from her job as Executive Director of the Spitalfields Music Festival in East London. For more information about the works and to purchase them, click here.

Judith selected the winner this morning, and she loved David’s comment. So many congratulations David! Please send your address via my contact page (here on the blog) and a copy will be on its way to you.

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Variations for Judith: Win a Signed Copy!

Variations For Judith

One recent discovery whilst searching for repertoire for an article I wrote last year, was this wonderful little set of pieces written for Judith Serota, and presented as a leaving gift when she left her role as Executive Director of the Spitalfields Music Festival in East London. The collection was the brainchild of composer Diana Burrell, and it contains pieces written by a collection of illustrious composers; Richard Rodney Bennett, Michael Berkeley, Diana Burrell, Anthony Burton, Peter Maxwell Davies, Jonathan Dove, Stephen Johns, Thea Musgrave, Tarik O’Regan, Anthony Payne, and Judith Weir.

Each piece is based on “Bist du bei mir” by G H Stölzel arranged by J S Bach, hence the title, Variations, and they are perfect for students who want to explore Contemporary music idioms. Around Grade 4 – 7 standard (of the British examination boards), students and amateurs will love their accessibility. You can find out more about these works in my original blog post here.

I have one copy, very kindly donated by Judith, and signed by the first performer, concert pianist Melvyn Tan, and also by Judith herself, to give away to one lucky reader. To take part in this competition, just leave a comment in the comment box at the end of this post, and Judith will select a winner on Monday.

Judith Weir is composer of the week on BBC Radio 3 from Monday March 30th, and her contribution to the collection, To Judith, from Judith will be featured. You can enjoy Melvyn Tan playing a selection from Variations at various concerts halls around the UK this year, including on 25 April, in Portsmouth , and 29 April at the Wiltshire Music Centre. Enjoy his performance of the whole set here:

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9 Recommended Resources for March 2015

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This month I have listed nine resources, and I hope they contain some interesting and useful selections. Focusing again on ideas for beginners and younger players, as well as some intermediate pieces. The online content is often the most popular choice for many teachers and students.

Beginners and Elementary:

Improve Your Piano Grade!

Paul Harris/Richard Crozier: Improve Your Piano - Grade 1

A new set of publications by Faber Music. Written by Paul Harris and Richard Crozier, these volumes (I looked at Grades 1, 2 & 3), focus on the ABRSM exam syllabus for each grade, and they are based on Paul’s Simultaneous Learning method. The Simultaneous Learning map is printed at the beginning and referred to substantially for each piece. Nine works are featured in each book, and are given a holistic approach although the actual piece isn’t included, because these volume are designed to be used alongside the ABRSM syllabus. The method segregates each musical element; providing pre-notation activities (such as rhythm and pulse, aural, key and scale patterns), introducing the notation i.e. opening the book, playing and refining the piece and a worksheet. This encourages students to really ‘know’ their pieces from every angle, and some teachers may find it beneficial too. Buy a copy here. Watch the introductory video here.

Music, Me, Piano

A series of piano workbooks which have been written and devised by British piano teacher Roberta Wolff. They are very user-friendly and have been colourfully illustrated by Claire Holgate, really appealing to children of all ages. The practice note books are designed to make practising more fun and also encourage development and progress. Although interactive and lively, the basis for the concept is built on one of deliberate practice, and to this end they are beneficial for all piano students. The books work with any teaching method, and they can help set termly targets, make weekly practice notes and plans, asses whether students are on track, allow parents to check progress, draw scale patterns onto keyboards, and use manuscript paper and note pages. There are three different versions: Express, Workbook and Practice Pages, and they work for pupils of all standards too. You can find out lots more here and order your copy here.

The Classical Piano Method: Repertoire Collection 2

The Classical Piano Method: Repertoire Collection 2

I discovered this series whilst repertoire searching for my latest Sinfini Music article. The article focuses on interesting works for beginners and elementary pianists (Pre-Grade 1 – Grade 2) and my brief was to include one transcription or arrangement, providing players with a recognizable tune. This collection, arranged by German composer and arranger Hans-Günter Heumann and published by Schott Music, contains many well-known pieces such as Salut d’amour (Elgar), Clair de Lune (Debussy), Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (J S Bach), Greensleeves (Anonymous) and The Entertainer (Joplin). Beginners and Elementary pianists will enjoy the tasteful arrangements which bestow the character of the original, but without the burden of too many notes! You can find out more about the collection of books and order your copy here.

Improvisation Exercises for Beginners

Improv Notation Exercises

If you like the Higgledy Piggledy Jazz tunes series, and use the Piano Maestro app, these exercises are for you! British composer and publisher, Elena Cobb, has created them for students and presented them for the first time at the MusicExpo workshop in London. They will work with any tune in C major but you can easily transpose them into various keys. The exercises are designed for complete beginners in jazz, and late elementary level piano. Find out more and order your copy here.

Intermediate:

Picture Studies

It’s great to highlight less familiar composers and their music. These lovely miniatures certainly fall into this category. Robert Bruce is a Canadian composer of both educational and film music. Many of his compositions have been included in the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) examinations syllabus, as well as various Canadian music festivals. Picture Studies contains six pieces for pupils of around Grade 3-5 level (British exam board standard), and they lie well under the hands, are bright, tuneful and fun to play. Piano Studies make an excellent alternative to standard repertoire and will give students a break from exam syllabuses. Listen to some of the pieces and get your copy here.

Little Passacaglia

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This effective, contemplative  little piece was written by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, who died last year. It’s around grade 5/6 exam standard, and contains a beautiful serene, minimalist flavour (for those who appreciate and enjoy playing this style). Contemplative chord progressions lurching from one eloquent melodic strand to the next is a feature throughout, yet it has a wistful, melancholic character which will appeal to students. It requires a smooth, legato, cantabile touch; every note needs to contain pathos. Listen to the piece here and get a copy here.

Online:

Susan Paradis

American teacher, Susan Paradis, was one of the first teachers online to start a website exclusively for piano teachers. For almost 10 years, piano tutors from all over the world have come to her website to print music theory games, worksheets, early level music, flash cards, and other “printables”. Her free downloads of early level music, include off the staff notation for beginners. UK and Australian teachers especially love her webpage of material containing UK music terms. You can find out much more about Susan’s website and resources here.

Wolfie Piano App

Wolfie Piano App essentially provides students and teachers with a new or different way to practice. Download the app on the iPad or tablet, and Wolfie behaves in a similar method to a teaching assistant for the piano teacher, helping students master each piece. Wolfie has around 1000 scores in its digital sheet music catalogue, so there will be something for everyone. The App can listen to a performance, turn pages for you, provide practice statistics, score synchronized recordings, annotations and more. Visit the website here, and you’ll find more information about how to use the app here.

Musical Orbit

Musical Orbit Logo

This is an interesting new website for all those wishing to learn to play an instrument. You can sign up completely free of charge, and once signed in, browse various teachers and their services. Select a date and time when you would like to connect with the teacher. Once you have booked your slot, you pay the price which is listed on the teacher’s profile. Musical Orbit will then put you in touch with your new teacher. All teachers have professional profiles and many are principal players of top orchestras. Musical Orbit has recently entered into lessons for beginners and young people too, offering beginner lessons and aural tests for a fraction of the price. Find out more here.

 

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Sinfini Music: Ten Very Easy Piano Pieces

Sinfini Music Cutting Through Classical

SinfiniMusic.com is a popular Classical music website, devoted to inspiring and encouraging a love and passion for the genre. The website is easy to navigate, and readers can enjoy articles on many interesting topics, watch specially created videos, listen to podcasts, hear the music free through Spotify, as well as enter competitions. Sinfini recommends recordings designed to make record-buying decisions as easy as possible, and Sinfini 1000 covers all the major works and composers, providing links to the recordings throughout the site.

My first article for Sinfini was published last September, and it recommended various piano works for pianists of around Grades 4 – 6 level (according to the British exam boards); it can be read here. In today’s feature article, I focus on pieces for those at the start of their piano journey; around Grades 1 – 2 standard. It was such fun researching and writing this piece, partly because the variety of music on offer is amazing; it would have been easy to suggest forty superb pieces! My own criteria: to include several Contemporary composers, particularly female composers.

The selection includes Clarke, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Kabalevsky, and Nielsen. To find out which works I chose click here: Ten Very Easy Pieces for Beginners and Elementary Pianists.

For more repertoire and piano resources tips and ideas, take a look at my Recommended Resources, and March 2015 resources will be published next week.

www.sinfinimusic.com

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5 Practice Tips To Instantly Improve A Performance

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been travelling around, teaching and adjudicating, providing the opportunity to hear a large and varied smorgasbord of piano playing. Whether pianists are young or old, beginners or very advanced players (and there has been an unusually large cohort of superb playing this year), several issues persist amongst pianists. With this in mind, my post today focuses on a few (hopefully) constructive, yet easily implemented, ways to improve piano playing, based on what I’ve witnessed.

1. Pedalling. It can be a major issue, particularly for nervous performers, because there is often a tendency to ‘ride’ the sustaining  or right pedal. It’s such a shame to work so hard with the fingers, playing accurately, and in many cases, beautifully, only to hide all this good work under a cloud of pedal. Admittedly, it’s not easy judging acoustics, especially if pianists aren’t used to the hall or piano, however, if in doubt stay away from the sustaining pedal! It can be a good idea to practice your piece completely without pedal (from beginning to end). Most of us sectionalise pieces when we practice, generally without using the pedal, and we get used to this, but try to become accustomed to playing through any piece sans pedal. Once confident with the sound, add smaller amounts of sustaining pedal (to start with), for a cleaner performance. Listening is crucial. Know the work inside out so you can think only about the sound and how the pedal changes that sound; particularly observe ends of phrases, rapid passage work and chordal passages.

2. Legato. The knock-on effect of a heavy right foot (i.e. the sustaining pedal), is often a lack of smooth, legato playing. It’s too easy to forget to join notes effectively, when the pedal is readily available to do it for us. Once students are stripped of the pedal ‘security blanket’, they can be upset by the sheer clipped, detached nature of their playing. Bypass this by preparing a piece using fluent legato fingering from the outset, adding the pedal only once notes have been fully digested. You may be pleasantly surprised by the pleasing sound of the fingers alone, once legato has been achieved. If you have already learned your exam piece, go through it without any pedal, checking you have used adequate ‘joining’ fingering, creating a smooth contour, which is usually vital in melodic material.

3. Tempo. Starting and ending in the same tempo can be an issue for some pupils, and this ties in with the problematic matter of thinking before beginning. Once seated to play, resist the urge to start at once. Instead, take a few seconds to think; ten seconds should be ample (although it will feel like two minutes!). This will not only grant time to collect thoughts, but will also allow space to set a speed which is both comfortable and realistic. Always feel the pulse, counting two bars before playing, almost as an introduction! Use this time to think about the fastest or smallest time values in the chosen work; semi-quavers or demi-semi-quavers can be negotiated with ease at a chosen tempo. Feeling the pulse religiously can also be helpful, and can stem the compulsion to rush (or slow down).

4. Body Movement. As many know, too much movement (whether swaying, nodding of the head, obsequious arm movements or moving around on the stool), can be detrimental and distracting. However, even more debilitating, is not to move at all. Rigidity causes a harsh sound and wrong notes (generally). This is a matter which can be caused by nerves, or perhaps lack of preparation. In order to play in a relaxed manner, it’s important to develop freedom in body movement and cultivate a relaxed stance at the keyboard. Start by careful observation; watch posture, hand positions and wrists, during practice. Try to focus on how you move around the piano. Basic tips are to keep shoulders down, wrists free and use arms in a way so  they transport hands easily around the keyboard. If this issue is worked on consistently and consciously in practice sessions, it will become a good habit, and one which will continue to linger in performances too, even under pressure.

5. Close to the keys. It might seem contradictory after reading tip number four, but  a good plan is to keep fingers close to the keys as much as possible, even if body movement is considerable. Whilst wrists and arms must be flexible and able to shift around if necessary, fingers and hands are best kept hovering over the keys ready for action (this may sound obvious, but many don’t adhere to it). This isn’t to suggest rigidity or keeping hands/fingers ‘in position’, but on the other hand, moving (i.e. being in place a split second before playing in order to prepare fingers) and thinking ahead all the time, particularly at the beginning of a performance, will help instil confidence and proffer accurate playing.

These points are fairly easy to effectuate; work at them one at a time, and slowly if necessary, building them into weekly practice routines. They will instantly improve piano playing, creating an assured performance.

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Training to be a Repetiteur

A repetiteur can be a fulfilling and immensely satisfying job. Repetiteur, accompanist and teacher Kevin Thraves has enjoyed a highly successful career, and here he writes an illuminating article on the prerequisites of this demanding role.


As Head of Music Staff in the School of Vocal Studies and Opera at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, one of my main responsibilities is to oversee and tutor the postgraduate repetiteur students.

Many concert pianists, accompanists and piano teachers often do not know what the job of an operatic repetiteur actually entails. Even regular audience members who attend the opera might not fully appreciate what the job of a repetiteur actually involves. There is little information and practical advice available regarding the training and the skills required to work as a repetiteur, and many musicians do not fully realise that the role of a repetiteur is one of the most varied, enjoyable and gratifying areas of all musical activity.

A repetiteur is a highly skilled pianist whose main work generally takes place in a rehearsal studio of an opera house. Requiring a broad range of performance and musicianship skills, an operatic repetiteur not only needs to have a solid and confident keyboard technique (enabling them to play the most complicated operatic scores), but they also require a good working knowledge and have the confidence to coach singers in a variety of languages – English, Italian, German and French (and sometimes Russian and Czech). A repetiteur is required to offer historically correct instruction in musical style during the rehearsal or vocal coaching process, correct musical and linguistic inaccuracies and often has to assist the conductor by taking notes on their behalf during the stage and orchestra rehearsals.

Repetiteurs are often required to play other keyboard instruments in rehearsals and performances, such as the harpsichord, fortepiano or celeste. They also need excellent sight-reading skills, and, more importantly, the skill to be able to learn music quickly with a good understanding of the full orchestral score they are required to play.  It is not a career for concert pianists who are perhaps interested in public recognition and fame, but it is one of the most rewarding for those pianists who enjoy being involved in collaborative work with a dynamic and creative team, often working alongside more than one hundred people at a time. Repetiteurs need robust teaching principles and the skills to impart the necessary musical coaching, training and directional aspects of their job. They also need agreeable communication and interpersonal skills, patience, and the ability to stay calm in pressured environments.

Is work experience or learning on the job the best kind of training for a young repetiteur?

It can certainly be a very good way of getting a real and practical insight into the working life of a repetiteur, but I would encourage anyone who wishes to work professionally in this field to undertake a specific period of study on a dedicated repetiteur course, such as those on offer at many of the UK conservatoires. Although most of the UK conservatoires offer a postgraduate course in repetiteur studies, it seems that often the course information is not easily accessed and, in some cases, is not available at all. Many of the courses available do not appear to be entirely comprehensive and it seems that many repetiteur students are often left to their own devices to develop and enhance their skills without clear guidance.

Ideally, a good repetiteur course or training programme should contain the following elements (assuming the pianist is already at an advanced level): regular keyboard lessons (piano/repetiteur tuition with some dedicated time and tuition spent discovering the skills required to play the harpsichord and fortepiano); regular Italian, German and French language lessons (with the emphasis on comprehension, correct pronunciation and a clear understanding of the rules of singing in these languages); the opportunity to study, adapt and play a wide variety of operatic scores whilst following a conductor; mentored vocal coaching (one to one and ensemble); the experience of playing for opera rehearsals in a studio as well as in an orchestra pit; some involvement in orchestral keyboard playing and scheduled dedicated conducting tuition. The programme of study should be a very busy and full timetable. A course containing all of these elements would certainly give a talented young repetiteur the initial skills required and every opportunity to succeed in eventually securing employment in this fulfilling profession.

It is an extremely rewarding career. The variety of skills required make for an interesting time in the rehearsal room and opera theatre. The interaction between repetiteur, conductor, singers, directors and orchestras is nothing short of exhilarating.


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Kevin Thraves (pictured above) was born in Cheltenham and studied as an undergraduate pianist at the Royal College of Music and as a postgraduate accompanist at the Royal Northern College of Music.  He has worked as a repetiteur for many of the main UK opera companies including Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera, English National Opera and Opera North.  Kevin has worked with many of the UK’s leading orchestras including the Hallé, the BBC Concert Orchestra – during the Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall, the BBC Philharmonic, and the Manchester Camerata.  Kevin has a busy and varied recital career which has led to performances at many of the leading international music festivals. He is currently the musical director and repetiteur for the Mananan International Opera Festival.  Kevin is the Head of Music Staff in the School of Vocal Studies and Opera at the RNCM where he has worked on many of the award-winning operas.

The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester is pleased to offer an exciting bespoke postgraduate course in Repetiteur Studies attached to the School of Vocal Studies and Opera. For more information click here.

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