10 Top Tips to help Resolve Tension

 A few days ago I published an article which was originally written for EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) last year, and was published in the Piano Professional Magazine. This article focused on resolving tension at the piano (you can read it here), and many of you have subsequently contacted me asking for a few tips regarding tension, to remember whilst practising. So here are ten reminders! I hope they might be helpful. I’ve also added them as a PDF at the end of this post, so you can print out and keep by the piano.

10 Top Tips to help Resolve Tension


  1. Check posture at the beginning of a practice session. Raised shoulders and tight muscles are sure signs of tension, so make a conscious effort to relax physically. As this tension is realised, the easier it becomes to correct, so be aware of how your body feels at all times.
  2. Drop both arms by your side when sitting at the piano, and remember the feeling of ‘heavy’ arms (i.e. totally relaxed). Replicate this physical stance when playing, as much as possible (at least for part of a practice session), and you will be on the way to developing a more comfortable disposition.
  3. When practising, learn to observe all hand and body movements, and by doing this you can begin to correct habits. With this in mind, memorising exercises and studies might be a good idea.
  4. Ensure wrists are always supple and pliable; they should be flexible, free and be able to move easily. Stiff, high or low wrists can cripple piano playing by seriously restricting movement.
  5. A free wrist motion is probably the most crucial of all; start by moving the wrists (not the arms or hands though) up and down, then in a circular or rotational motion. Do this away from the piano at first.
  6. Always observe fingers at the keyboard; joints must not ‘collapse’ because they need to support the fingers bestowing power and clarity.
  7. Try to ensure fingers are playing on their tips or pads. Many are not in favour of this method, but most students do respond well, and it allows them to become aware of the connection with each piano key as they play, as well as gain finger independence.
  8. Encourage finger strength by producing a large, but rich sound engaging every finger fully. Do this by working very slowly at basic exercises (like the Czerny study below). After every note, release the wrist (and tension needed to play the note) by making a circular or rotational motion.
  9. When fingers are strong, the rest of the upper torso can relax and do its job; which is to support and cushion the fingers and help to produce a warm tone.
  10. Make observation, concentration and physical focus play a vital role when developing flexibility; awareness leads to correction. Start every practice session with 10-15 minutes of technical practice. If you’re not keen on studies or exercises, try working with short pieces, or even just a few scale passages. Good luck!

Czerny 3

Click here for the PDF: 10 Top Tips to help Resolve Tension

© Melanie Spanswick

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Resolving Tension in Piano Playing: Article for EPTA’s Piano Professional

We all know too much tension can ruin piano playing, yet alleviating this issue generally takes time and lots of work. There are many ways of dealing with the uncomfortable, tight feeling which often accompanies a fixed, tense disposition at the piano. The following article was originally written for the Piano Professional Magazine, an EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) publication, and it first appeared in the Summer 2014 Issue (No. 35, pages 8-10). Thoughts presented in this essay are merely a few ideas or tips to consider whilst practising, or when teaching technical proficiency to pupils; to acquire assured technical skill, the best way forward is to seek a specialist teacher.

Resolving Tension in Piano Playing

There will always be an element of stress in piano playing. Public performance, on any musical instrument, requires nerves of steel as well as complete focus, discipline and concentration. However, this is substantially different from the tension that arises due to technical problems and deficiencies. Some tension is very necessary, because without it, playing would be impossible, so it’s important to be able to recognise the imperative tension from the unnecessary often detrimental type. Tension is a widespread problem in piano playing. Most professionals, amateurs and students suffer from this ailment at some time or other, and it can be very debilitating. Prolonged tension frequently causes pain which can eventually manifest as Tendonitis, Repetitive Strain Injury and at worse, can stop piano playing completely.

There are two differing types of disadvantageous tension. The first comes from negative thought processes or mental stress. Many pianists have suffered from this, and it takes lots of positive mental work to alleviate. It’s quite startling just how much our external thoughts can ruin a performance particularly amongst those who have yet to learn how to deal with anxiety. Negative thoughts can arise from peer criticism, harsh, unhelpful teaching or just self-doubt. The latter is a recurring problem and is all down to fear and the age-old question; ‘will I be good enough?’

The first line of defence when dealing with this conundrum is to tame the negative ‘inner-voice’. Recognise the mental ‘chatter’ that goes on before a performance (or perhaps on the days leading up to giving a performance). This chatter or ‘little voice’ never stops (‘what will happen if I make a mistake or my memory lets me down?’). We have all suffered. The most obvious way to remove this problem is to practice playing in front of others; whether it be one person, a small audience or large gathering, it doesn’t really matter. The most crucial factor is to get out there and play. It will be painful at first and mistakes will be made, but eventually with regular performance practice, pianists become familiar with the performing experience and as the fear subsides so too will the tension. In essence, this tension is associated with fear.

The second kind of tension is physical, and is generally caused by technical issues, which are that much harder to mitigate. Rather like mental tension, technical issues can stop successful piano playing and solving them requires professional help or regular coaching. Physical ‘tightness’ or ‘tensing up’ is even more commonplace than mental tension. It can occur for many different reasons; the most obvious is poor teaching or insufficient, sloppy practice, but physical restrictions and pain may happen due to the mental worries and negativity already mentioned above. Another possible reason is attempting to play pieces that are out of our comfort zone or technically too demanding. Challenging repertoire needs to be worked at carefully otherwise damage can easily be done to hands, arms, wrists, and fingers.

One interesting feature regarding tension is that it can occur at any stage of musical development; from beginners to advanced students. The latter are much more difficult to help because their unfortunate habits are ingrained and therefore everything needs to be re-learnt which is very challenging for the student as well as the teacher, but it can be done with hard work and perseverance.

Good piano playing all starts with proper posture and free, flexible movement. This seems very obvious but it’s frequently side-lined as playing becomes more advanced, and this is where problems often start. As we sit at the piano, our whole body must feel free. Pupils should be encouraged to sit up straight near the edge of the stool, with their body weight transferred to their feet (which are flat on the floor) aiding stability. Hips can then be used as a pivot allowing for free movement. As the hands are placed on the keyboard, the forearms should be parallel to the floor in order to promote relaxed, comfortable playing.

Raised shoulders are a real sign of stress and tension. One of the best ways to deal with this is for hands to be placed on a student’s shoulders as they play, making them aware of their movements. They will then eventually start noticing it themselves. Neck and shoulder ache are associated with this habit, so pupils will start to feel better once they begin to free themselves. We are frequently unaware of our posture because we are totally focused on the music, so with this in mind a good teacher can be extremely helpful.

The next issue is usually tight forearms; often a ‘knock-on’ effect from the raised shoulders. Pupils are, again, unaware that they are playing in a tense fashion, so one way of illustrating this is to help them relax their arms altogether. A good idea is to encourage ‘heavy arms’. Ask pupils to drop their arms down by their side (as they sit at the piano) in a ‘floppy’ state (almost like a ‘dead’ arm which should feel very ‘heavy’); they will then know how to start ‘freeing’ themselves. Unless students are made aware of the ‘correct’ feeling, they will be unable to achieve this alone. Make no mistake, this is difficult to accomplish, but can be done over time and with a good supportive teacher. Pupils may need regular prompting at every lesson for a while in order to get used to this completely ‘relaxed’ posture, because it will feel ‘strange’ and different at first; it is a habit that must encouraged regularly in order for it to become permanent.

As shoulders and arms become more supple attention can turn to the real issue which is usually weak fingers. Weak fingers provide so many physical problems and we find that tight forearms and shoulders try to compensate for this deficiency. In fact, many parts of the body will try to counteract weak fingers and it’s probably the most problematic element in piano playing.

Weak fingers (or fingers that don’t really work on their own, they are relying on other extraneous parts of the body to ‘prop’ them up) are also related to stiff wrists. Often pianists will use their whole arm in one rigid motion forgetting that a free, rotating wrist can not only really help with movement but is paramount for a good sound too. One way of dealing with these issues is to address the wrists and finger shortcomings concurrently. There are so many ways of doing this, but it can be particularly helpful to use simple Czerny exercises. The simpler the better; The 101 Exercises Op. 261 work well, for example. The first two exercises provide all the necessary notes in fact.

Figure 1

Czerny 3

The first exercise consists of groups of four semiquavers in the right hand (which run up and down the keyboard in C major) with accompanying chords in the left (see Figure 1 above). The aim here is not speed. On the contrary, the slower the better to start with until the fingers and wrists are responding correctly. Always use Czerny’s fingerings. Start with a good hand position; one useful analogy is to place your hands over your knees whilst sitting down, you will find you hand forms a ‘cupped’ shape. It’s really important to make sure that knuckles are in an elevated position, i.e. the hand isn’t collapsing (see photo below), otherwise strong fingers are impossible to achieve. Free or rotating wrists, which are not too high or low, are also crucial.

So you want to play the piano photo 5

Image from So You Want To Play The Piano?

Power and finger strength both come from a solid hand position which will then encourage each finger to play on its tip (or pad) and most importantly, on its own i.e. without relying on other muscles from other fingers or parts of the hand to help out. The joints in each finger must not collapse either, but rather, they must help the fingers attain complete independence which is the end goal.

Practice the right hand of the first Czerny study alone for a while; each note must be deliberately struck, slowly so that every finger plays on its tips and produces a good, full sound; i.e. reaching fully to the bottom of the key bed. This is not the time to play pianissimo. It’s beneficial to learn these exercises from memory, so that hand positions and movements can be properly observed during practice. Between each note, encourage pupils to ‘free’ their wrist of excess tension. An effective way of doing this is to make sure the wrist moves freely between each note so as to stop it ‘locking up’. Many cite this as rotational wrist movement.

Encourage students to move their wrists (between every semiquaver at first) in a circular motion, making sure the wrist feels relaxed or floppy (the correct sensation should be very similar to that when the arm flops down by our side; nothing must feel tight or tense). This is all especially important when dealing with the fourth and fifth fingers, which by nature are far weaker and therefore more troublesome. A sure sign of tension in the hand is when the fifth finger sticks up towards heaven. This is symptomatic of problems, but will eventually be alleviated during this ‘freeing’ process as every finger gains control and independence. As the fingers and wrists become accustomed to this motion between every note, so then this rotational movement can be eventually lengthened to every group of four semiquavers allowing for more speed.

It’s a good idea to reiterate the main issue concerning tension; whilst striking a note, tension is needed but as soon as the note has been played, that is the time to relax the hand fully. This coincides with freeing the wrist at the appropriate moment in the Czerny study as described above. By doing this, fingers will eventually become not only much stronger but also totally independent too, because their muscles are being perpetually strengthened with every practice session whilst the rest of the upper torso is learning to relax.

The second study (see Figure 2 below) focuses on the left hand and should be practised as much, if not more so, than that for the right. The left hand by nature is weaker (for most pianists) and usually needs more attention. Repeat the entire process with this second study. About twenty minutes practice per day on these exercises should be sufficient to change basic technique.

Figure 2

Czerny 5

Students must be encouraged to listen to the sound they produce and also to feel the connection between each and every struck note (and to be sure that the whole arm and shoulder is responding freely). Always observe rhythm, and metronome practice is a good idea once the fingers start to move properly. All semiquavers (or whatever passagework is being negotiated) should be played absolutely equally, which is a sign of secure strong finger motion. It will usually take a few months of slow practice before the student learns to feel relaxed playing in what is essentially a completely new and alien way. It’s at this point that speed can slowly resume.

Once fingers are independent, examine hand positions for chords, arpeggios and scales as these provide the bedrock of piano technique as well as most piano pieces. The perfect scale requires constant free rotational motion in the wrist which is all linked to the technique studied using these basic Czerny studies. The same applies to arpeggios, which demand much more movement; tense wrists stemming from weak fingers are the overriding reason why many struggle with rapid passagework such as arpeggios.

Once the fingers and wrists are working well, introduce arm weight. This should now be a fairly straightforward process because fingers and wrists are already flexible, strong and independent, so pupils will learn to harness their body weight to make not just a good, rich sound but also a full, large one too. Harsh sounds are often produced because of insufficient arm weight which can lead to ‘hitting’ the instrument resulting in limited tonal colour. Once a pupil grasps the feel for a large, warm sonority, then they will be able to hone their tonal palate accordingly.

Learning to resolve tension in piano playing is a challenge, but if taught correctly, it will lead to a confident, relaxed, comfortable technique and a much happier, contented pianist.

Read the original article here: Resolving Tension in Piano Playing

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Festival Teachers Forum

Liz's Flyer

Today’s post highlights a new scheme brought to my attention by my colleague and fellow adjudicator, Liz Childs. Liz is a flautist, teacher, and an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Festivals. She is a passionate educator, and feels strongly about the need for teachers and schools to engage with adjudicators for mutual benefit. The main aim of this forum, is to encourage music teachers and their schools to become involved with the Festival Movement, granting the opportunity to find out about festivals in their local communities. The forum is a way of seeking out information, focusing on all aspects of the festival experience for the performer.

The benefits of music education, and more specifically, playing an instrument, have been well documented, particularly recently in the National press, and a forum such as this, could provide the ideal vehicle for teachers and adjudicators to mutually help and assist young musicians.

To find out more click here.

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Stephen Kovacevich in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My fortieth interview in the Classical Conversations Series features celebrated American concert pianist Stephen Kovacevich. I spoke to him at his home in West London just before Christmas, and he provides great insights into practising, overcoming nerves and late Beethoven.

The distinguished American pianist and conductor, Stephen Kovacevich, was born under the name Stephen Bishop to a Croatian father and an American mother. He began his piano studies with Lev Schorr in 1948, and in 1951, at the age of 11, made his public concert debut in San Francisco. When he was 14, he played Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major and Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In 1959 he went to London on a scholarship to pursue his piano training with Dame Myra Hess. A highly influential teacher, Myra Hess recognised and encouraged Kovacevich’s affinity with L.v. Beethoven’s music, particularly the works from his late period.

In 1961 Stephen Kovacevich made a sensational European debut at the Wigmore Hall playing the Alban Berg Sonata, three Bach Preludes and Fugues and L.v. Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Following his London triumph, Kovacevich embarked on a brilliant international career. In 1967 he made his New York debut and since then he has toured Europe, the USA, the Far East, New Zealand and South America. He has appeared as a soloist with many of the major European and North American orchestras, as a recitalist, and as a chamber music artist. In 1975 he began to use the name Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich, adding his Croatian mother’s surname, Kovacevich, just in time to avoid confusion with popular singer-songwriter Stephen Bishop. Finally, in 1991, he decided to use just the Croatian surname, using the name Stephen Kovacevich. His international reputation as a pianist has been built both on his concert appearances, renowned for their thoughtfulness and re-creative intensity, and on the highly acclaimed recordings he has made throughout his career. He is considered as one of the most searching interpreters, demonstrating an extraordinary command of an expansive repertoire. He has won unsurpassed admiration for his interpretations of the core classical repertoire, including J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart (he has played all of Mozart’s concertos), L.v. Beethoven, F. Schubert, Robert Schumann, E. Grieg, Johannes Brahms and Béla Bartók. But he is also an acclaimed interpreter of contemporary music, including Tippett’s Piano Concerto and Richard Rodney Bennett’s concerto (which was dedicated to Kovacevich).

In 1984 Stephen Kovacevich made his conducting debut with Houston Symphony Orchestra, and thereafter pursued a dual career as a pianist and conductor. From 1990 to 1993 he was music director of the Irish Chamber Orchestra in Dublin. He has won warm praise for his work with many of the world’s finest orchestras, including the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, London Mozart Players, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Gulbenkian Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Tapiola Sinfonietta. After his London conducting debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, the Daily Telegraph critic Geoffrey Norris wrote: ‘…he brought precision and crispness combined with a full tone and galvanising immediacy. Structure was unshakeable; these performances really made one sit up and take note.’ After an initial concentration on 18th-century music (especially Mozart), Kovacevich’s conducting repertoire has expanded to include 19th-century Romantic music, including the symphonies of L.v. Beethoven, J. Brahms, Tchaikovsky and a memorable Sibelius Symphony No. 4. He has also played and directed from the keyboard, with orchestras as the London Mozart Players, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

Stephen Kovacevich is also a committed chamber musician. Chamber music partners include Jacqueline du Pré, Martha Argerich, Steven Isserlis, Nigel Kennedy, Lynn Harrell, Sarah Chang, Gautier Capuçon, Renaud Capuçon, Kyung-wha Chung and Emmanuel Pahud.  Other appearances include chamber recitals at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Vienna Musikveren.

Stephen Kovacevich has enjoyed two long-term relationships with recording companies, first Philips and then EMI. His concerto recordings for Philips, including L.v. Beethoven, Robert Schumann and B. Bartók, have long been staples of the catalogue. As an exclusive EMI artist, he recorded both J. Brahms Piano Concertos with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Wolfgang Sawallisch; No 1 was Grammy-nominated and won the 1993 Gramophone Award and the Stereo Review Record of the Year, while No 2 won the Diapason D’Or. The other great projects with EMI were a compelling series of Schubert Sonatas and a set of the 32 L.v. Beethoven Sonatas completed in 2003, hailed as one of the most authoritative ever recorded. One critic described The Hammerklavier as: ‘an unflinching, sometimes combative view of a titanic masterpiece, and a version to be spoken of in the same breath as those of Brendel, Gilels and Pollini… Kovacevich announces the music’s potency from the first bar.’ His subsequent CD release of Chopin and Ravel won Choc du Monde de la Musique and Recompense Classica/Repertoire. Kovacevich has recently recorded L.v. Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for Onyx Classics, exactly 40 years after his first recording of the work for Philips in 1968. The CD is coupled with J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 4 (BWV 828), his first Bach recording and was released in January 2009.

Stephen Kovacevich has been a London resident since the early 1960’s, and is currently living in Hampstead. In 1986 he was appointed to an international chair at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Also known for his support of contemporary composers, Kovacevich commissioned Stephen Montague’s Southern Lament and performed the premiere at the 1997 Cheltenham International Music Festival. Also a teacher, Kovacevich has published a scholarly edition of Schubert’s piano music.

Stephen in action…..

And the transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews:

Melanie: Celebrated American concert pianist, Stephen Kovacevich, has been performing internationally for over 50 years. He’s renowned for his interpretation of Beethoven, amongst other composers, and I’m thrilled that he’s joining me here at his home today in London for what is my 40th Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Stephen: Thank you.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you.

Stephen: You, too.

Melanie: I want to start by asking all about your education, how you started, why you started, what was the catalyst, and whether you come from a musical family.

Stephen: Music loving. Father and mother had a very good sound system. We’re talking 1943 or 44, but at that time my father had made quite a bit of money as a fisherman, and he loved music and so did my mother and they bought not a bad sounding system for the time. The first piece I fell in love with was Mozart’s 40, Fortieth Symphony and Meistersinger and Johann Strauss. Those were my loves. And then my grandmother had an upright piano and I started, you know, fooling around on it when I was 5 or 6. And I went to my mother’s choir rehearsal. She sang, and I was a rat, always correcting people for their pitch and this kind of thing. And little by little I started to play. I had an okay teacher in the beginning and then I had a good teacher from about the age of 8 or 9 in San Francisco. I studied with him until I came to London to study with Myra Hess.

Melanie: Right.

Stephen: That’s it, basically.

Melanie: Yeah. That was going to be my next question, which teacher or teachers were an inspiration and helped you-?

Stephen: Well, my Russian teacher who I studied with age 8 to 18, of course he was extremely important. There were some drawbacks, but he gave me the fundamental grammar of music and then Myra Hess was a different order of artist. I mean, she was an artist. You can’t say that about everyone who plays. And at that time I was 18, I was primarily stimulated by late Beethoven and the modest rated young man he is and I fell- I didn’t like Beethoven very much until I heard the Diabelli.

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: A marvelous recording of Serkin, then I fell for the third period, the late period, and learning the Diabelli took me about a year and Myra, of course, knew it, but she’d never studied it. So, as it were, we learned it together. That period, they’re very, Serkin, Schnabel and Klemperer, involved and there were very few people who understood third period Beethoven and how it’s different from, really different not just lip service different, but really different. And that’s how I started my career at the Wigmore Hall with Berg, Bach and the Diabelli.

Melanie: Interesting.

Stephen: Yeah. So, with ups and downs that’s how it’s been.

Melanie: How did you develop your technique over the years do you think?

Stephen: Just slavery. I’m physically quite gifted, but psychologically I’m not really born to the stage and my Russian piano teacher didn’t help at all.

Melanie: Really?

Stephen: He was quite nervous himself, and so he imparted even more anxiety than I would have had otherwise. However, it’s been a lifelong struggle, and in the last 10 or 15 years it’s been much better. But in terms of the ability to play, just in the way that a lot of people do it. Just slow persistent practice. And I don’t know why, especially when you’re young, why slow practice enables you to play very quickly. I don’t know, but it does.

Melanie: Did you work any studies at all?

Stephen: No. I devised my own, because for me the giant is Rachmaninoff as a pianist and I love him as a composer, too. And he devised his own exercises and someone showed me some of them. Who knew that the person he traveled with, his piano tuner, and I didn’t exactly do those but I started to make up my own, apart from scales and things like that. And it does give you a grammar. And even today it helps, because about 4 or 5 years ago I had a stroke and I thought, “That’s it!” But after the stroke, I played very well and then something weird happened. Who knows what. They call it a TIA.

Melanie: What is that?

Stephen: Temporary isquemic something, and it took me about 9 or 10 months to get over that, and now I’m completely recovered, but one of the ways to get back your-

Melanie: Speed?

Stephen: Your feeling of competence is to go back to scales and things like that. And it’s boring as hell. [Laughter] but it does pay- I don’t spend that much time, but each day

Melanie: Right.

Stephen: I force myself-

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: I force myself 10 or 15 minutes and it pays off. It pays off.

Melanie: When was that light bulb moment when you thought, “I’ve got to be a pianist” or did that not happen like that?

Stephen: It didn’t quite happen like that. I played from about the age of 7, not very well. I played well when I was 11. I’d give really probably quite a good concert. I played the Ravel concerto when I was 13 at an audition very well and Schumann – I didn’t even think the Schumann was difficult. Can you believe that? And it is difficult! But, I didn’t know. You know, I played it at that time without inhibition. That’s very weird. I don’t know how that works, but there it is. And well just one thing led to another.

Melanie: You’re renowned for Beethoven. We were talking about Beethoven. Can you tell us a little bit about what attracted you to his music and especially your affinity for his late sonatas?

Stephen: Well I think I’ve changed my feeling about what I think he was, the subtext of his life in music, but for all those years when I was besotted by the third period, I always felt there was a subtext of radiance and some sort of inherent faith in life that came through. You get the same impression sometimes in late Mozart with late quintets. Schubert is not exactly like that. I think he takes it on the chin and there aren’t always nice endings. But now I think of Beethoven, I think he was still concerned with those things. I view it now as a hope rather than a certainty. And I just read this wonderful biography, which was of course was trashed in the Gramophone, by a man who about 10 years ago Jan Swafford, he published a book on Brahms, which is one of the best things you’ll ever read about anybody. I’ve given it to all my musician friends and they all actually worship this book, similarly this new one on Beethoven. I sometimes think it’s not the critics think something is bad and then poo on it. I think they secretly know it’s good and that is just what will make them go – certainly in my life as a performer, we’ve all had good reviews for bad performances and bad – you know, upside down – but the most surprising category is to be trashed for really wonderful performances.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Ashkenazy – I was really stunned and proud. I opened up a newspaper and there was an article he’d written to the newspaper, furious because one of the Mr. Magoos of the critical world – You’re too young to know who Mr.Magoo was. He was a character who bumped into everything. He didn’t what he was doing.

Melanie: Okay.

Stephen: Writing the newspaper saying that this was just complete nonsense. I didn’t know he was going to do it but – how did we get on to that? About Beethoven.

Melanie: Yes.

Stephen: Reading this book I now see that, first of all I didn’t know he was in so much physical pain all of his life. He had a lot of really quite unpleasant pains apart from his deafness and he was filthy. As a young man, he had quite a normal – I mean, he had girlfriends and he was apparently not attractive but he probably had a charisma, because there are letters from friends of his saying, “How does this ugly guy get all these pretty girls?” And that was when he was young. And then when he was 30 or I think, all that side, it wasn’t personal anymore, he paid for it. But what was sad at the end was that you had the impression that he’s just suffering and really horribly and that there isn’t – his last words now it’s been reported were, “The comedy is over.” That’s not the words of someone who feels that things have been worthwhile and it’s a statement of some despair really. How he walked around- You ask me why I love him, I mean, I don’t think I would like him as a person. But walking around all this music. You know at one point he had the 9th symphony, the Diabelli, all going at the same time. That must just drive you mad. You know, he would be seen on the streets as shouting and screaming and people avoided him. Sometimes when he was invited to a palace for a proper reading, they wouldn’t let him in because they didn’t know who he was and they thought he was deranged. I don’t think he – and he probably bordered on being an alcoholic. That’s right on the cusp, right on the cusp. Well I mean a genius of geniuses, but he didn’t have a – He had a hard time.

Melanie: Yes.

Stephen: But anyway this – I mean, the energy is simply absolutely astonishing in his music. You don’t have the impression almost, that’s why I dislike Fidelio so much, because when he writes with a voice – it could be for a clarinet. I feel no distinctive difference. And when Mozart writes you have a sensible pleasure, that he loved the voice. Somehow it’s human, not in an intellectual sense. It’s sensual. Beethoven is cerebral. Even his – even the opera, and therefore I dislike him for that. I feel claustrophobic. With the sonatas and the chamber music, there’s nothing to say.

I think, yeah. And I mean, Liszt, what I would’ve given to hear Liszt play the Hammerklavier, for example and he did and he played the one, the third and the fifth piano concerto. And Liszt wrote a very completely perfunctory cadenza for the third piano concerto. It’s so boring. It has none of the flamboyance that you would expect. Beethoven’s is actually, his own cadenza, is much more flamboyant than Liszt’s. But and when Liszt once played the Hammerklavier at one of his soirées – you know, one of the dramas of playing the Hammerklavier is the opening. I don’t know if you know, but it starts with a jump. To my credit, I don’t cheat. I don’t mind playing with the right and the left sometimes, but here I think it’s part of the music. So I take my chances. And most of the time it’s fine. But Liszt avoided the whole thing. Before he played it – I would have loved to have heard it- he did a kind of fantasia of all the themes and it gradually erupted – he improvised it – and then he erupted into [Hums music]. But of course that takes away the danger of [Laughter] of all people I’d love to have heard play Beethoven, Liszt.

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: Because I’m sure and he was quite strict about metronomes. I do think that metronomes are a mistake in the sense that they’re – Beethoven, he couldn’t hear- so they were based on an internal ear. And if you ask me for example, “How does the Hammerklavier go?” I’d say to you, “[Hums music]” That’s approximately 138. You do that on the piano, it just sounds a bit silly, because it doesn’t have the sound, and that’s all he had. And he was also a control freak.

He was terrified that he would play too slowly. And so he would trouble his poor nephew with the chore of going, “Tic Toc- No, not fast enough! Tic toc, Tic toc” and then finally. But that way totally makes it very funny. He probably waited until the tic toc was as exciting as the music, and then said, “That’s it.” And against all that, the greatest absolutely in a class of its own, Beethoven performances I ever heard were Klemperer, and they were so slow, so politically incorrect. You can imagine he’d be jumped on by the critics today with their authentic Emperor’s new clothes, with one exception. I think there is one who really is a great musician. The others, I’m not so sure. But Klemperer, in any case was not that, he was funerial, but he needed it, it as authentic from him, for concerts with the philharmonic in those days were, devastating, it could be boring, yes. But whatever it was, he was just on fire in the right way. He was really quite frightening.

Melanie: Which of those late Beethoven’s do you really love to play? Do you have a favorite one?

Stephen: I think the one that is the most personal is Op. 110. That’s not the one that I enjoy playing the most. I think I enjoy playing Op. 109 the most.

Melanie: Yes. That’s my favourite. It’s beautiful.

Stephen: I often as a joke say if I could win Wimbledon, I’d give up all the Beethoven sonatas except for Op. 109. I wouldn’t give up 109 to win Wimbledon, but all the others, yes.

Melanie: Which other composers do you love to play?

Stephen: Brahms. I worship Brahms. Schubert. Schubert’s tough, because Schubert is not as lyrical and nice as people seem to think. He can be quite disturbing to work on, because there is no subtext of, you know, the good guy wins. I love Rachmaninoff, always have. I’m now learning some of his pieces and it’s an odd thing to say but I know his music isn’t as great as Mozart, but I love him as much. And my favourite concerto of all, of everybody is Rachmaninoff’s second and then Brahms’s one. And of course Mozart and Beethoven – but they’re not my favourites and – You can make it what you want, but one of the most ridiculously gifted pianists we have today sometimes comes and works here and she admitted that it was the same for her. It poses and interesting question, “What is great? Why is for me the Rachmaninoff second as great as any of them and more so in some ways?” I can’t tell you because you can’t defend yourself. You know, if you were being prosecuted in the court of law you would be actually destroyed. It’s not greater than K.595 of Mozart or K.491, but in some ways it is. And I also admire this man. When he was composing at the time, Stravinsky was there. Schoenberg was there. Stravinsky obviously hated his music, but they met at a dinner in Hollywood, and Stravinsky has the grace that was not his saving characteristic. He writes, “What an awesome man!” and from him that’s really the real thing. I’m sure he didn’t like his music, but he recognized what this man was, and Bartok was much more open. Bartok heard the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and he said, “This is genius.” And you know contemporary composers in the last twenty or thirty, it would seem they only feel secure if they have to trash their immediate predecessors. And it just shows you how – I don’t know what it shows, but it’s ridiculous.

Melanie: Yes. Yes. You’ve often said that nerves have been a problem for concerts.

Stephen: Yes.

Melanie: How have you managed to overcome or do you still worry about it?

Stephen: I still worry about it, but I have ways – First of all, I’ve cut down my repertoire and it’s been on and off all throughout my career. Sometimes working with the slavery that shocks even me and I’m used to slavery. I remember I heard Bartok’s second concerto when I was about 23, 24 and I thought, “What a sensational piece!” and I bought the music, and I wasn’t being coy. I can’t do it, and in those days I occasionally dropped in on Colin Davis and I dropped in and I said, “I just heard this incredible piece and I went out and bought the music. I can never play.” I wasn’t fishing. He was in charge of the BBC and he asked me to do it at a Prom 9 months later. Well, I accepted. I knew I could always cancel it, but I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t try. Twice during that period – thank god I don’t remember which hand – it was paralyzed. I couldn’t hold an orange. I woke up the morning and it looked like this or like this, whichever hand, and I had massage and a lot of treatment. The doctor who I was seeing at the time said, “Well, you can play the first performance. It’ll hurt, but you won’t damage yourself.” It did hurt. It wasn’t the world’s greatest performance, but I got through. The next performance was terrible, and then – you were speaking of nerves – the next performance was live and for a festival opening night. I was so scared that I couldn’t give the BBC – this is with Bartok 2 – a balance test. Everybody had to do it cold, just like that.

And I walked on stage with my speech of abdications saying my hand hurts, you know. And there’s two things that I find very difficult, one is on the third page and a lot of – even people who have much more experience with that kind of music – they wobbled a bit in these parts. It’s not important, but it’s very awkward. And then I had another problem a bit later, and I’d worked all summer on this piece. And Martha Argerich was sitting in the public with another pianist who died, you wouldn’t know him, and they knew about my bête noires in this piece, and when the second one came up, they held each other, and I got through it. And when I got through it I get completely ballistic. And I walked away thinking, “Now I know how to do it.” Well, no. [Laughter] Yes, I know how to do it if you want to work the whole summer on one piece, but you can’t live like that.

Melanie: No.

Stephen: I mean it was an amazing performance and the recording is like that, but you can’t live like that. If I could live my life again, I think I would probably do that. I would have cut out a lot of pieces and just slaved on the things that I did well. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have learned some pieces that I learned to do very well, but – nerves have been up and down. Sure, psychologists helped me.

Melanie: Really?

Stephen: Yes.

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: And a young woman, I was one of her first cases in hypnotism. She was a violin player that became a hypnotist, and it did help but that’s hard work.

Melanie: That was brave.

Stephen: It was hard work. For it to work, you can’t actually be passive. Once you’re at the session, you’re passive. But when you go home and start working in the next week or so, it’s quite active and it’s tough. It’s really quite hard, but it did pay dividends. But then, you know I’m lazy as hell to do that. [Laughter]

Melanie: Do you still have trouble with it or do you feel fine now?

Stephen: I don’t feel fine, but I can cope.

Melanie: You can cope. Yes. Yes. Now, you love teaching.

Stephen: I do. It depends on the student.

Melanie: Of course, and you’ve written a scholarly edition of Schubert’s piano music. Is that right?

Stephen: Well, Howard Ferguson, who was a close friend of Myra Hess and a very good composer and a Bach scholar, but he did an edition of some Schubert and I just added a few notes. I didn’t really do much. But I have done a lot.

Melanie: What do you love about teaching? How do you divide your time? Do you – do you do quite a bit of it?

Stephen: People get in touch and if I know that they’re good.

They really don’t dare to get in touch unless they are good. [Laughter]

Melanie: I bet!

Stephen: And most of them I either know or know of. And even some quartets, I mean great quartets come here and we work on Beethoven, for example. And these are some of the best times in my musical life and if the pianist is – most of them are marvelous – I mean, a staggering amount of people come here who really can play. I mean, they’re not students. They’re the real thing, and those days are marvelous and it’s very interesting sometimes what you can release just with a tiny, tiny push. And you don’t even have to say anything specific. Sometimes you do, but a lot of young musicians have so much inside them that – You know, they’re Asians. They play 3 or 4 times a week, and they don’t have the courage or the sense to say no and then they wonder why they dry up. And then when they dry up, some of them collapse for a time and I hold them responsible, because a few of them are stars and there is actually no reason. They can say no for a year and it won’t make any difference. And then their agents sometimes don’t help. But I spoke to an Agent once who said that he does try to say sometimes and then someone rings up and the person says, “Oh yeah! I love to do that.” And then that week or so he’s gone. But I do think that – I don’t know if it’s true, but I read and I knew him slightly, Horowitz, He played 25-30 concerts a year.

Melanie: Wow!

Stephen: Yeah. Maybe at his peak, but his concerts were events.

Melanie: Yeah, absolutely.

Stephen: and also he didn’t find giving concerts easy. He was very nervous. Whereas, Rubenstein, he was born for the stage. I think Barenboim is born for the stage, but most of us are not. Other people are cool. That’s not exactly being born for the stage, but it means you have that knack of not falling off the high wire. But certainly Horowitz was not like that. Again, probably the most exciting of them all.

Melanie: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

Stephen: There’s a price.

Melanie: What are your future plans?

Stephen: I’m learning some chamber music that I don’t know. I’m learning some solo Rachmaninoff and my birthday is in October at the Wigmore Hall. My 75th. I can’t believe, I can’t believe it. But they gave me my 70th birthday, and they’re giving me a concert. It’s not quite on the birthday. It’s a few weeks later. So Martha is coming to do the first half, En Blanc et Noir, some Debussy, and then we are playing the Symphonic Dances, and the second part is Schubert E flat Sonata. Could be good.

Melanie: Absolutely. Yes. Amazing. What does playing the piano mean to you?

Stephen: I don’t have an answer to that. [Laughter] It’s like saying, “What’s waking up in the morning?” No. I’d be okay without doing it, but it’s a way of – It’s the primary means of expression.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Stephen: Ok. Thank you!

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Improving Your Scales: Feature Article for Piano Professional Magazine

I’ve written about scales and arpeggios before here on my blog, but the following article was penned for the Piano Professional Magazine (Issue 34: Spring 2014), published by the European Piano Teachers Association or EPTA, which is designed for piano teachers. I write a regular feature article on technique for this very informative publication (find out more about EPTA here). Hopefully this article contains some useful advice and practice ideas for those keen to improve their scales. There is a handy PDF at the end of the article (10 Top Tips To Improve Your Scales) to download and keep next to the piano too!

Scaling Heights With Happiness

Scales and arpeggios often receive a bad press. They are the foundation of good piano playing yet few want to play them let alone practice them. However, scales are an excellent way to hone and establish piano technique.

The development and concept of major and minor scales goes back as far as ancient Greek music; the origins of scales can be traced to the system of modes which evolved in Greek music and church music particularly. Modern major and minor scales were eventually developed alongside the ongoing evolution of keyboard and stringed instruments, and the various temperaments affiliated with all the ancient and modern tunings which were finally adopted.

Every pianist is expected to learn scales and arpeggios from the outset and they are included in virtually all piano exams irrespective of the grade or examining board. This is one indication of their significance but exams are certainly not the only reason why budding pianists need to focus on them. The benefits of good scale practice and thorough knowledge of scales and arpeggios are numerous in fact, practised properly you could probably cultivate a sound technique from scale practice alone (although it’s advisable to use many other practice methods and musical material for technical development too).

Scales and arpeggios will first and foremost allow a pianist to become very familiar with all twenty-four keys; a crucial milestone in musical development. They will improve keyboard geography, rhythmic grasp, strengthen fingers, encourage proper legato playing, teach equality of touch, help develop endurance, train the ear, control knuckle movement, help control motor-activity, assist with the passing of the thumb under the hand and the hand over the thumb fluently, teach traditional fingering, encourage variety of tone production (dynamic variation), and flexibility of the wrists and arm movement. They can also promote independence of nuance and touch, variety of accentuation, different staccato and legato articulations and fluency with cross-rhythms, as well as complete co-ordination.

So they are indeed a very useful tool for generating superlative piano playing. One other often forgotten benefit is the role they play in improving sight-reading; if a student is routinely exposed to scales, arpeggios, chord shapes and their appropriate fingerings, then they become much easier to decipher when reading music at speed. Indeed thorough knowledge of scale patterns and shapes forms the bedrock of secure musical foundations.

So what is the best approach to scale practice and how can we keep ourselves both motivated and stimulated whilst working at them? There are many different ways to make practising scales and arpeggios more interesting, and with a little thought and imagination, they can even sound beautiful.

I believe students benefit from thinking about the musical considerations as well as the technical aspects associated with scales. So with this in mind, perhaps it’s a good idea to focus on them musically and once learnt, inject them with character and personality. This way they enhance a pianist’s musicianship rather than become just a test in agility. Every scale must be imbued with delicacy, warmth, a good sound, musical shape, grace and brilliance. Only then can they truly be regarded as effective and accurate. As with many facets of piano playing, merely playing the notes becomes a meaningless exercise, whether it’s a scale or a Mozart sonata. Students often ignore this important element at their peril precipitating the boredom so often associated with scale practice. Arpeggios also need a musical approach and I find them much easier to negotiate when the rhythm of movement (i.e. the thumb passing under the hand or third/fourth finger passing over) is thought of in terms of a musical phrase; this encourages smoothness in tone and hand movement thus avoiding jerky, unrhythmical playing.

A large part of technique is, of course, physical movement, but there are many reasons for using our minds and ears in a more fruitful, perceptive way. Indeed visualisation and imagination go a long way to creating excellent musicianship and greater facility too. Technique grows with the development and cultivation of the mind, musical awareness and personality. All these aspects can easily be applied to scales too, and it is definitely the quality of your scale practice that matters rather than the quantity.

Pupils and students have found the following suggestions and practice tips helpful whilst working at scales and arpeggios.

At the start of each scale practice session make sure your shoulders are down allowing every part of your upper torso to feel relaxed. The wrong kind of tension kills speed, so relaxation of the muscles is imperative here (tension is definitely required, but is only used at the exact moment of impact (that is, playing a note), after which relaxation must occur, otherwise your arms, hands or wrists will eventually ‘lock up’). Allow the fingers to work freely supported by arm weight. It’s a fact that you need to move when playing the piano (how else are you going to get from one end of the keyboard to the other?) this is especially true of scales, so allow your body to move freely and be aware of this when you are playing (it’s all too easy to block out physical sensations when you are focusing on playing the correct notes and keys).

It may sound obvious, but to play scales fluently and accurately, both hands need to be working equally well. So finger strength is paramount. The left hand must not be dragging behind the right. This is a very common problem. The best way to deal with it is to practice hands separately slowly, gradually increasing the speed.

It’s a good idea to start by practising two octave scales (only elongate to three and four octaves at a time when you have really grasped the patterns); the left hand will probably need more attention than the right regarding fingerings and hand positions. Everyone has their favourite hand positions, but when learning scales two crucial points arise; the number of accidentals (depending on the key) and the shape or pattern of each scale or arpeggio. If these points are observed completely from the outset then memorising will not be a problem, so it’s worth spending time getting this right from the beginning as all scales and arpeggios have to be played securely from memory anyway.

Once you have learnt the key and its shape, you will need to find a way of using appropriate arm weight and wrist movement allowing each finger to work properly on its ‘tip’. I am a real advocate of the fingers working on their tips i.e. the very top or ‘pad’ of your finger thus avoiding ‘flat’ fingers (many argue that flat fingers are effective but I prefer using my fingertips thus each finger acquiring a ‘hooked’ shape). The power should be coming from your arm weight, the knuckles supporting the fingers and the wrists working freely in a lateral and rotational motion. This technique not only allows flexible, free playing but also fosters excellent tone production and finger strength too. The fourth and fifth fingers are naturally weaker, but if they are encouraged to work well, functioning as independently as possible (from the other fingers) and via the knuckles (rather than the wrists which should feel free and ‘light’), then scale playing will be even and fluent. Spend time playing each note with a full sound, working slowly and purposefully, preferably with arm weight on each note to start with. This will help build up finger strength and achieve smooth, legato playing.

Rotational movement will play a vital role when dealing with the problem of passing the thumb under the hand (right hand scales) or fingers (usually the third or fourth in the left hand) over the hand. This does tie in with my earlier comment regarding flexibility. The more pliable the hand, then the easier this motion will be. The trick is to practice it so that the scale passage is not only completely stable rhythmically, but also the amount of tone or sound used for each note is matched exactly. Then your scales will be even. When practising very slowly, allow your hand position to move copiously i.e. encourage a complete lateral and rotational motion each time the thumb passes under in the right hand. Although this will feel awkward, exaggerated and uncomfortable to start with, it will allow your right hand and arm to get used to moving freely with no tension so when you practice up to speed, the whole arm will move flexibly and the movement itself will be much smaller and quicker. The same flexibility and motion also applies to the left hand when the third or fourth finger passes over the hand.

This works surprisingly well and needs careful consideration when applying to arpeggios which, by their nature, require lots more movement. Arpeggios rely on a perfect ‘swivel’ in the hand; your hand will need to return to the same position for each octave otherwise notes will not be accurate. This is especially true with the left hand. Rather like scales, they require slow separate hand practice before being played hands together. Get the perfect position or ‘swivel’ in both scales and arpeggios, and providing you have built up your finger strength, you will be able to play at very fast tempos with no difficulty. Try not to ‘block’ motions with tension or tense movements; we don’t consciously do this but it often happens, leading to inflexibility.

Articulation (or touch) is vital when playing scales, and staccato passagework needs a completely different approach to legato. Start by using your whole arm on each note, rather like the legato technique suggested above, only playing detached. Then introduce wrist staccato, playing every note with a separate wrist action, and finally you will need to use a finger staccato as you build up the speed. This takes a free wrist and total finger strength (a factor you will already be working on if you employ some of the suggestions above). There are many variations with articulation and you may want to think about implementing some of the following: legato, staccato, non-legato, marcato and leggiero. Once scales are really fluent, try playing legato in the right hand whilst playing staccato in the left and vice versa. You can build many different permutations regarding touch and they will all help in your quest to play scales perfectly.

It is worth mentioning the importance of fingering in scales and arpeggios. Many pianists (pupils, amateurs and professionals) like to invent their own, but scale and arpeggio fingerings are there for a reason. This is especially true of arpeggios, where I find fourth fingers in the left hand to be imperative (see the example below of a C major arpeggio in the left hand).

Extra example 1 scales

If you play this passage with a third finger on the second, fifth, ninth, and twelfth note, E (instead of the suggested fourth), you are immediately making your hand movement more awkward whereas with the fourth finger, this position is entirely natural as it’s in the shape the chord is usually played. Whereas in the second example below, which is in the key of D major, a third finger is preferable and more comfortable because of the addition of the F sharp.

Extra example 2 scales

So it does all depend on the shape or rather key of the scale or arpeggio. Fingering should support natural fluent scale playing.

Once you have grasped the keys, patterns and movements that are necessary for good scale playing, the next consideration should be how to co-ordinate your hands so that they play accurately and rhythmically at all times.

It’s a good idea to purchase a metronome. No one really enjoys learning to use one or indeed playing along to anything that feels unnatural or forced, however it’s challenging to learn to play in time effectively without one. It is possible to feel the pulse unaided, and of course pianists must learn to develop an ‘inner- pulse’, but slow metronome practice really does help achieve secure rhythmic scale playing. Start with slow tempi and increase as finger strength develops.

There are several ways to attain perfect co-ordination. The first is accentuation. Learning to play with accents; this will depend on how many octaves you are negotiating. Two and four octave scales can be accented like this:

Example 1 for Scales EPTA

And three octave scales can be accented in triplets:

Example 2 Scales EPTA.

This is a basic way to achieve co-ordination, however you may like to consider some of the following too:

Try basic dotted passage-work like this:

Example 3 Scales EPTA

Or this, practising two octaves apart:

Example 3 for scales article

Or this:

Example 5 for scales article

This can be quite helpful as well:

Example 6 for scales article

Then it’s possible to build up on the accent ideas, as this will help with finger independence:

Example 7 for scales article

Or cross rhythms like this:

Example 8 for scales article

Try different dynamics in each hand:

Extra example 3 scales

And you could even try something like this:

Extra example 4 scales

The last two examples could potentially be practised in so many different guises and corresponds with my earlier recommendations regarding playing scales and exercises expressively with plenty of sound, dynamic gradation and musicianship. This will really improve your scale and arpeggio playing tremendously.

Some find it useful to practice hands two octaves apart which will encourage astute listening. Listening skills, as with all piano playing, should be perpetually fine-tuned and honed. This is perhaps a very important factor when practising; always play exercises and scales when you are fresh and fully focused.

I encourage advanced students to establish a scale rota; if you are taking an exam like Grade 8 (whatever the exam board), it will be time-consuming to practice every scale every day, so a good plan is to build in a way of playing all keys and permutations effectively from week to week. Practising two or three keys per day is a good way of doing this. Make sure each version or variation is worked on. If you are doing the key of C for example, you would look at all scales (thirds, sixths, contrary motions) and arpeggios with their appropriate inversions (as well as dominant and diminished sevenths) in C major and minor.

Practising scales in a different order from that presented in your scale book really makes sense; they will always be tested in an entirely different order in an exam and it’s surprising just how distracting this can be. It can play havoc with your memory, so be prepared. Another tip is to practice with someone else who is also working at scales (a scale buddy!). You can then ask each other scales or arpeggios, and learn from each other too. Scale groups or small classes can work well especially if two or more pianos (or keyboards) are available, and then you can play scales together (although you will probably need a metronome!) as well as testing each other separately.

If you implement a few of these suggestions and ideas, you will be well on the way to developing an exemplary scale and arpeggio technique, and you may even find they become an enjoyable part of your practice regime.

10 Top Tips To Improve Your Scales

Read the original article here: EPTA Article on Scales

© Melanie Spanswick

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? here.

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Words and Music with Lucy Parham and Friends

British concert pianist Lucy Parham came to prominence when she won the piano final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984, and  has since played with many of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors. More recently, she has become synonymous with performances of Words and Music. Lucy teams up with eminent actors, and themes her  concerts; each one delves into the lives (and often the loves too) of celebrated composers, such as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Debussy.

Piano music combined with narration is indeed a popular concept, and Lucy has just released a couple of videos showcasing her work. You can enjoy them both by clicking on the links below:

If you would like to soak up the atmosphere and hear Lucy in person, here are a couple of forthcoming events:

Odyssey of Love (which focuses on Liszt and his women) will be performed on the 16th January at the Salisbury Playhouseand Lucy is joined by Joanna David and Martin Jarvis,  and also on the 17th January at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, where Harriet Walter and Henry Goodman will feature.

I interviewed Lucy as part of my Classical Conversations Series; she was one of my first guests:


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Miniatures for Piano by Robert Bruce

Piano MIns 1

This post follows on from my first of the year; highlighting useful piano resources. Whether a teacher, pupil or a professional, we can never have too much piano repertoire it seems, and discovering new possibilities is always exciting.

Canadian composer and pianist Robert Bruce has been active in Ontario for many years. He has penned copious works for the instrument, and published his first set of piano pieces in 1991 for Celestial Music Publications (his own publishing company).

Robert has written music for young children, as well as piano repertoire for students which is used by all the major music conservatories in Canada for formal piano examinations, is performed in many music festivals each year and is included in the 3rd edition of the well-known reference book Pianists’ Guide to Piano Literature by Dr Maurice Hinson. His catalogue also includes music for film, television and animation; music for healing and meditation; piano works; ensemble works; orchestral works.

Stylistically, the music is predominantly tonal with  touches of blues and impressionistic flavours; Robert labels both his style and his performing ensemble, Classical Nouveau. Believing firmly in the connection between music and spirituality, he has written two text-books, In Between the Lines – Books 1 and 2, which outline the philosophy he has discovered and developed over a period of seventeen years (have a look here).

Three Books entitled Miniatures for Piano were written in 1991, 1992 and 1995 respectively, and they will suit both younger and more mature players. Each book contains 6 piano pieces, which are brief, but yet (according to the composer) ‘are streamlined musical expressions that convey, in sequence, a variety of feelings ranging from happy and carefree to warm and sentimental, and they draw upon a few of the many “sound colours” that are inherent in the piano’. The works are title-less, therefore encouraging performers to be ‘imaginative, creative, expressive and musically-free’.

The first set is probably the least taxing technically, with numbers 1 and 4, easily being within the capabilities of a Grade 5 student, the others are suitable for those around Grade 6-8 (UK exam boards). Brief and occasionally very simplistic, they do demand players to be aware of emotions and feelings, and this aspect is what makes them (in my opinion), an ideal addition to repertoire. There is plenty of guidance in terms of expression and colour, but pedalling is left to the performer, and the notes (at the back of the book), ask the pianist to ‘colour these pieces freely, but carefully, with sustain pedal’.

Book 2 and 3, follow a similar structure; I really like the harmonic changes in No. 2 (of Book 2), which relies on chromatically shifting chords in the LH, and a legato octave melody in the RH (excellent practice for smooth Cantabile playing!). Book 2 No. 6, is clearly inspired by Debussy, whilst the first piece of Book 3 has many similarities with Chopin’s Prelude No. 2 in G major (from 24 Preludes Op. 28), although it’s taken at a much more leisurely tempo.

If you would like to hear a selection of works from Miniatures for Piano, click here. You can also purchase the scores from the same page too.


Robert Bruce

Composer and pianist Robert Bruce

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