Weekend Competition: Composer’s Choice Series

20160204_205923_resizedFriday seems to present itself on an increasingly quicker basis! The weekend competition today features two books by American composer Glenda Austin. They come from the Composer’s Choice series, published by The Willis Music Company. Glenda is in demand as a composer and teacher, and she frequently presents workshops for conventions and teaching organizations all around the world; her music has been published and recorded in the US and Japan.

There is much to enjoy in both volumes of piano music, each containing 8 original compositions; the first is intended for Mid to Late Elementary (Grades 2-4), and the second, for Early to Mid-Intermediate (Grades 5-6). The books include performance notes written by the composer, and contain a whole smorgasbord of Contemporary styles, which will appeal to a wide range of students.

As usual, just leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post, and I will pick two winners on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

Alternatively, you can purchase these volumes by clicking here.


Top Recommended Piano Resources for January 2016

Badge Graphics Draft 3As we wave goodbye to January (how is it possible already!?), my blog celebrates its fourth Birthday! Mulling over the past four years, I can’t help observing just how much my life has changed; this website has given me the opportunity to meet many interesting pianists, teachers, composers, publishers, and writers. It has expanded and shaped my life in ways I could have never imagined, for which I’m extremely grateful.

January brings a crop of varied piano resources from sheet music and books, to online products and courses. I hope there will be something to interest everyone.


Beginners and Elementary:

Music Me Piano Practice Time Notebook

RobertaThese notebooks have been designed by Roberta Wolff and are a fun and useful addition to piano lessons; they are suitable for young learners everywhere. Music Me Piano Practice Time notebook features an all-in-one style practice page with keyboards, manuscript, cycle of fifths and up to six different practice activities per week for your student to explore. The pages are interactive, involving your student as well as  supporting their practice. For a free trial pack and to place your order, click here.

Piano for Fun Series

Piano For Fun SeriesA new series, published by Elena Cobb (EVC Music publications), which features four books written by four composers; Heather Hammond, Olly Wedgwood, Alison Mathews, and myself. Heather Hammond is a renowned educational composer, and has already published several piano books with EVC Music publications. Piano Olé!, brings a Spanish flavour to ten bright, tuneful compositions, which lie comfortably under the hands and are intended for early intermediate players. Olly Wedgwood (son of renowned educational composer Pamela Wedgwood), has written Piano Plan B! This volume of ten pieces and certainly lives up to its title, exuding joy, fun and plenty of jazzy tunes, which are intended for late beginners (some pieces are published, but the whole volume will be available later this week). Composer and pianist Alison Mathews’ Piano Planets, feature a collection of ten pieces, which are current and vibrant, and they are written for late beginners. My volume, Piano Waves, which will be available very soon, consists of six Minimalist style melodious pieces, inspired by my many piano adventures at sea, and suitable for intermediate players. There is currently a 50% discount sale on all music published by EVC Music publications, just quote this code when purchasing: BDAYGIRL!

You can hear some of the pieces from Piano For Fun Series and meet the composers at the Music Expo Educational Event in London next month, where we will be presenting an informal showcase. You can find out much more about the music, here.

Composer’s Choice: Glenda Austin

Glenda AustinAn interesting, innovative series published by the Willis Company, featuring various Contemporary composers. This book introduces eight pieces by American composer, arranger and pianist, Glenda Austin. The collection includes six of Glenda’s favourite pieces through the years, as well as two brand new ones composed especially for this series. Titles: Betcha-Can Boogie • Jivin’ Around • The Plucky Penguin • Rolling Clouds • Shadow Tag • Southpaw Swing • Sunset Over the Sea • Tarantella (Spider at Midnight). The volume contains helpful performance notes too, and I enjoyed reading through each piece, which will introduce students to a variety of modern, Contemporary styles. Educational music at its best! Purchase your copy here.

Intermediate:

The Celtic Series

Celtic Piano SeriesThe Celtic Series, published by EVC Music publications, consists of three new books; A Borders Suite by Donald Thomson, Piano Celtico by Barbara Arens, and Irish Streams by Jenny Walker. The series is intended for those of intermediate level (Grades 4 – 6), and has recently been introduced to the public via various book launches in Edinburgh (Scotland), Grantham (England), and Leipzig (Germany). Each books includes original works and arrangements of traditional Celtic and Gaelic tunes, which are aimed at the educational market, as well as for those who love and appreciate traditional folk-style music. It’s a unique series of books (complete with EVC’s beautiful, stylish covers), and will be enjoyed by young and older learners. You can find out much more here and receive 50% discount by quoting this code: BDAYGIRL!

 5 Pieces for 5 Left Hands at One Piano

Mike CornickBritish composer, Mike Cornick‘s latest addition to this popular series for numerous players at one piano, published by Universal Edition, is for 5 left hands. This is, by all accounts, a fairly unusual combination! However, I’ve used this series on many occasions when running my sight-reading courses and students really do enjoy playing these volumes. Entertaining for the audience and fun to perform, each piece encourages pianists to listen, interact with each other, and above all, become accustomed to ensemble playing.  A second copy of the score is included for easy reading in performance and free downloads of the single parts are available to make practising at home possible.  Intended for those between Grades 2 – 5 level (early Intermediate), you can find out lots more here.

Advanced:

Virtuoso Transcriptions Piano Transcription Series

VirtuosoPianoTransBackPublished by Schott Music, this is an excellent collection of favourite works, all arranged for piano, and, as the title suggests, in a virtuoso manner. For those who enjoy a good romp around the keyboard, there are many works from which to choose, from musicologically significant transcriptions to interesting modern arrangements. I particularly like Paganini Jazz and Alla Turka Jazz, both written by Fazil Say (you can hear the former played by the composer/arranger here), but there are also works arranged and transcribed by Franz Liszt, Glenn Gould, Olli Mustonen, Marc-André Hamelin, Percy Grainger, amongst others. There is definitely something for everyone in this series which celebrates the piano in all its glory! You can find out much more here.

Books:

So You Want To Learn To Improvise? and So You Want To Play The Piano?

Books by AlfredThis series has been written by Andrew Higgins and myself, and published by Alfred Music.  Andrew’s book focuses on developing improvisation technique; there are plenty of written instructions and explanations throughout, to guide students.  Much information is proffered, and those who digest this book thoroughly will surely be on the way to honing excellent improvisational skills. My book is intended for prospective students and beginners everywhere; those who want to know the best ways to begin learning to play. It may also be useful for anyone considering becoming a piano teacher. There is a myriad of information; from which instrument, teacher, and piano method is suitable, to piano technique, piano exams and information on piano music and composers. So You Want To Learn To Improvise? can be purchased here, and So You Want To Play The Piano?, here.

Online:

Easy Ear Training

imagesEasy Ear Training is a music education technology company, who are developing digital products like mobile apps and audio-enhanced eBooks to make learning the essential listening skills of music easy, fun and effective. Easy Ear Training offers many different apps for musicians and aspiring musicians of all different levels and abilities, encouraging them to develop an increasingly sophisticated ear. You can browse their courses, and digital products here.

Piano Courses:

Piano Week

Piano WeekThis course is held at Moreton Hall School in Shropshire, UK and is organised by Artistic Director Samantha Ward. Piano Week is an international piano festival and Summer school for pianists of all ages and abilities. Consisting of many recitals, master classes, talks, discussions, one-to-one lessons, and performance opportunities for all participants. Course dates are 17th – 24th July: Piano Week 1, and 24th – 31st July: Piano Week 2. Stephen Kovacevich will be giving the celebrity recital, and there is a host of pianists and teachers providing coaching (the faculty changes slightly over the two-week course). For more details visit the website, here.

A Beethoven Pilgrimage: Master Course with Julian Jacobson

landscape11Pianist, composer and Royal College of Music professor, Julian Jacobson, is taking a Summer course in Austria this year. The substantial new summer course and festival is devoted entirely to Beethoven, and is dedicated to the solo piano sonatas. Course dates are August 5th to August 22nd (2016), eighteen full days, with excellent facilities, copious recitals by participants and artists in residence, open sessions and excursions. There are also various awards for students including further concert opportunities. It’s taking place in the most glorious countryside in the Salzkammergut region of Austria. Each full participant brings three complete sonatas and receives six lessons; part courses are also possible. This will no doubt be a wonderful experience, and to learn more click here.


 

 

Memories of Moscow: a guest post by Alicja Fiderkiewicz

I’m delighted to introduce Polish concert pianist Alicja Fiderkiewicz on my blog today. Alicja (pictured below) enjoys a busy career and she studied at the renowned Central School of Music in Moscow, which is attached to the Moscow Conservatoire. Here, she recalls her time at the Central School, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the professional training of young pianists in Russia.



IMG_0179I was born in Warsaw, Poland, and from a very early age I was besotted with music, especially the piano. It was obvious that I had some talent and at the age of six I started piano lessons which led to me entering Karol Szymanowski’s Music School in Warsaw. I loved my piano teacher and with her careful guidance, I was soon making huge progress, and in no time at all I was performing in concerts and even small radio broadcasts in Poland. I became a little Polish child prodigy, and was extremely happy playing the piano, and I was lucky enough to have a wonderfully loving, supportive family and happy childhood.

Alicja aged three

Alicja aged three

When I was nine years old, my Father was appointed a Naval Attaché and joined the Diplomatic Service at the Polish Embassy in Moscow, USSR. So the whole family, including my older siblings moved to Moscow. My parents did not waste any time finding suitable further musical education in Moscow. So they applied for an audition for me at the most famous music school in the world: the Central School of Music attached to Moscow Conservatoire. I had just turned nine years old. I remember the day very well, I was so excited. I was playing some difficult pieces (or so I thought!!) and went into the audition room with a happy smile. Nothing prepared me or my parents  (who went in with me), for the very grim, stern faces in a very dark and scruffy room. Nevertheless I got on with my programme and played it as well as I could.

When I finished, those faces were just as stern, or maybe even more so! We were told in as many words that although I obviously have some talent and potential, I was not suitable material for the school as my technique was non-existent, and I was also very small and my hands were too tiny. They took a quick look at my parent’s hands and shook their heads in dismay; they were also too small, so there was no chance that my hands would ever be large enough. We were told that the children of my age had been  studying at the school (primary – instrumental lessons only) from the age of three, and by the time they were my age, they were already playing Beethoven Sonatas, and Mozart Concertos etc. But, as a good will gesture and after recognising musicality in my playing, they would accept me for a six month trial period, and at the end of that time, I must take another exam to show the progress I had made. As I did not understand any Russian, I didn’t realise what was going on, but my parents half smiled at me and told me that I had been accepted.

So I was a very happy child without realising that my carefree childhood had come to an end! A totally new chapter in my life had begun. The next six years were difficult and challenging, but they were extremely happy too. I was given one of the best teachers, Prof. Tatjana Evgenevna Kestner, a strict and formidable looking lady, who had a heart of gold and never-ending patience. I found myself in Prof. Kestner’s class with Andrei Gavrilov, Tatjana Shebanowa, Natalia Gavrilova and many others, most of them future stars of Russian pianism. They all treated me as an equal and soon we became good friends. However, I couldn’t get over how well they played, and I realised just how far behind them I was. I was determined to catch up and the regime of 6 to 8 hours practise a day soon began. As my hands were small, I was given some incredibly painful stretching exercises which have given me a very big span between my fingers. I was also assigned numerous exercises, scales, and studies. On top of that, Bach was a MUST, and within few months I had completed all of the Little Preludes, Two Part Inventions and had started on the Three Part Inventions, plus some Cimarosa Sonatinas and studies by Loschorn.

At the end of my six month trial, I sailed through the audition, with smiling faces this time and officially joined the school. Apart from practising all those hours, I was also learning Russian, studying all the subjects in a new language. My academic tutors were friendly and encouraging, and they gave me extra lessons too. At the end of my first year at the Central School, and by the age of nine, I played my first piano concerto, J S Bach’s F minor Keyboard Concerto. It still remains one of my favourite piano concertos!

Life at the Central School of Music

Alicja with her teacher Prof. Kestner and classmates, including Andrei Gavrilov, Tatjana Shebanova, and Natalia Gavrilova

Alicja with her teacher Prof. Kestner and classmates, including Andrei Gavrilov, Tatjana Shebanova, and Natalia Gavrilova

At first I was quite horrified by the school building. My Warsaw school was new, airy, situated by the Vistula River and surrounded by a lovely park. At the Central School, we were right in the centre of Moscow, admittedly near Kremlin and Arbat, but the building was dilapidated, and almost falling to bits! The inside was not much nicer; cramped classrooms, awful lavatories, a tiny library and canteen. The only concert hall with a reasonable piano was on the fourth floor, and that was the dreaded place of millions of exams we had each year! Prof. Kestners room (No. 28) was rather nice, with two Bluthner pianos, but not particularly good ones. However, we were all happy and practised on some terrible pianos without any complaints. I had an upright in our apartment, it was a “Red October ” at first, and later my parents got a “Lira ” which was dreadful, but at least I was able to practise at home.

During an academic year (which lasted from 1st September until mid-June), we were put through a number of different tests. You were assessed on technical progress, and also on repertoire programme. Every year there was a most important technical assessment. Depending on the year you were in, you had to play three Etudes, and there were special sets you could choose your studies from. At first it was Kramer (Cramer), followed by Czerny Op. 299 & Op. 740, and Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum before you were allowed to play Liszt or Chopin Etudes. That assessment included numerous scales, arpeggios, diminished & dominant sevenths, all played in different positions. The average time of this assessment varied from 20 to 30 minutes depending on your age.

Apart from a technical exam, there was an annual Bach exam (which included the Inventions, French Suites, English Suites, Partitas and eventually the Forty-Eight Preludes & Fugues). By the time I finished in Moscow, I must have played enough Bach for at least three full evening recitals, but I loved Bach and he remains my favourite composer to this day. I think the reason for such massive emphasis on teaching Bach, is that it just about teaches a pianist everything about piano playing, and also develops your memorising ability.

Alicja playing for Prof. Kestner

Alicja playing for Prof. Kestner

If that wasn’t enough, we had separate exams for a Classical sonata, Romantic works, and Modern or Contemporary works. At the end of the academic year there was an extensive exam involving works by Bach, a Classical sonata, a Romantic & Modern work, and a concerto. Every piece had to be different to those played during previous exams that year. And the adjudicators were rather scary to say the least: Sviatoslav Richter and a friendly looking Emil Gilels! It was frightening to play in front of them but we all got used to it.

Depending on your marks, you either progressed to the next form or you were told
politely that you are wasting your life and time, and made to leave and go to a ” normal” school. It was always frightening waiting for the marks to appear on the wall after the exams.

Throughout the year we were encouraged to play in group classes, so you got used to playing in front of other pianists.Tatjana Nikolayeva would frequently drop in to listen to us, she was a great friend of my teacher. It was so incredible to hear her say, “well this was a very good performance of Bach”, I was lucky to hear that from her few times!

Apart from our music education, academic subjects were also of the highest standard. The School was divided to junior (7 to 12 years olds) and senior (12 to 16 years olds). Juniors used to attend school from 8.00am until 2.00pm. Seniors would attend school from 2.00pm until 8.00pm. It was necessary to divide the school as there were shortages of classrooms and practise rooms. We had two ” free” days a week depending in which form we were in. All our instrumental and academic lessons were 45 minutes in duration and our practise was also encouraged to be done in 45 minute periods, so you could rest for 15 minutes. To this day I try to work like that, although not always successfully.

My piano lessons were on a Tuesday and Friday (both 45 minutes). My so-called “free days” were on a Wednesday and a Saturday, so I could really practise a lot on both days following my lessons. I was often given a new piece on Tuesday, and expected to have it memorised and played almost up to speed by Friday. So you had to learn and memorise very quickly. This was fine, but once I was given the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in  C minor on a Tuesday and expected to play it from memory (including the Cadenza) on the Friday! Well, we just got on with it and never complained.

Apart from all this work, we were expected to attend a number of concerts at the nearby Conservatoire, just a 5 minute walk away. Most of the teachers at the Central School were also professors at the Conservatoire, so often our lessons took place there and we were frequently rubbing shoulders with great musicians like Leonid Kogan, David Ojstrach, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich and so many others.

I was extremely lucky and privileged to study at this fabulous school for six years. It was very sad to say goodbye to Prof. Kestner who was such a wonderful and patient teacher, and who opened my eyes to so much beautiful music as well as guided me so successfully through my first months in Moscow. I became and have remained friends with a number of very famous Russian instrumentalists; my contemporaries like Pavel Kogan, Evgeny Levin, Vladimir Feltsman, the late Tatjana Shebanova, and Andrei Gavrilov, to name just a few. The “old ” school building was rebuilt a few years ago, but I believe one old wall remains!

It was a most interesting period of my life, and my experiences at the Central School from the age of just nine until fifteen had unbelievable influence on my life and my development as a musician and person. I was so upset when my father was recalled back to Warsaw and I had to leave my Russian life behind. But I will never forget this incredible experience.

Six years after leaving for Moscow, I returned to Poland playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor.

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To read more about Alicja and her forthcoming concerts, click here.

You can hear Alicja by clicking on the link below, or by browsing the videos on her Youtube channel here.

A master class given by Emanuel Ax

I enjoy highlighting workshops and master classes, and today’s post features a class given by distinguished American pianist Emanual Ax. It was recorded in December 2014 and published in June 2015 by the Jerusalem Music Centre. This public lesson focuses on Mozart’s sublime Concerto in C minor K. 491, and it is played by Itai Navon Ax is a prominent pedagogue and faculty member at the Juilliard School in New York.

There’s always so much to learn from master teachers, and I hope you find it interesting.

You can find out much more about Emanuel Ax here and listen to him here.

Grade 5 Theory: Melody Writing

Today’s post has been kindly written by Pamela Rose. Pamela (pictured below) is a piano teacher who specialises in teaching Grade 5 Theory. The importance of this exam shouldn’t be overlooked, as (for me) it plays a key part in understanding how music is constructed and structured. The ABRSM exam board require a pass at Grade 5 Theory (or alternatively, Grade 5 Practical Musicianship or Grade 5 in a solo Jazz subject), in order to undertake Grades 6, 7, and 8 practical exams, so for many this test is crucial. In this post, Pamela highlights one area of study; writing melodies.

Melody Writing for Grade 5 Theory
Pamela Rose

The mark of our success as music teachers is the creation of independent musicians.  This independence is born of understanding and enables a deep and lifelong enjoyment of music. Students who understand the music they play and hear are more likely to carry on playing and achieving their full potential.  I believe Grade 5 Theory is a lot more than a certificated door to the higher practical grades – it’s an opportunity to help music students evolve into fully independent and comprehending musicians.

For the last 16 years I have specialised in teaching the Grade 5 theory level to all instrumentalists and have published an online website where I teach music theory at the piano so students can connect the music they read with what they play and hear: www.learngrade5theory.com.  This teaching is called multi modal, and I like to teach in this way from the very first lessons.  You can view some of this early teaching online by clicking on this link here.   
There are many challenges in Grade 5 theory exams, but certainly one of the greatest for most students is writing a melody.  However, given the right tools, writing a melody is not so daunting. In www.learngrade5theory.com I have deliberately structured the lessons logically for students to build their knowledge progressively, so that the foundations for each lesson are already laid and melody writing is prepared for in this way.
Here are just a few pointers for Grade 5 Melody Writing.  I hope they help.
To start,  a word of warning – do not copy the given opening.  Although it is important to use elements of the given opening, copying is not advisable.
Students need to know the key signatures of major scales and their relative minors in order to determine the melody’s key.  If it is in a minor key they will need to keep the 6th and 7th or just the 7th raised depending on the opening, so an understanding of harmonic and melodic minor scales is helpful.
Once the key is determined, the last note will normally be the tonic (first note of the scale).
Students need to understand the time signature (the number and value of the beats in each bar). Importantly, each bar must have the correct amount of beats. Rhythms need to adhere to the time signature and be correctly grouped.  Any anacrusis or upbeat needs to be provided for in the last bar, and the last note must not be shorter than a whole beat.
The melody should be 8 bars long.  2 four bar phrases with the melody and dynamics rising and falling together in each phrase will keep the melody well-balanced.
Students need to say which instrument the melody is written for and keep the melody within that instrument’s range and capabilities (no large leaps).
Many students worry about what notes they will use in the melody. Melodies need a sound harmonic structure and if students know the key and understand tonic triads and cadences, then using the notes of the chords to make an imperfect cadence in bars 3/4 and a perfect cadence in bar 7/8 (chords I II V I in the last 4 bars work very well) is not a problem.
Performance directions are necessary. A tempo marking – Moderato or Andante work in most situations – logical dynamics, and maybe a ritardando at the end of the melody.  A pause on the last note can be effective.
A double bar line is needed to end the melody.
Anybody who struggles with this might find my video lesson on “Writing a Melody” very useful (www.learngrade5theory.com)
Grade 5 Theory can be the conduit to musical understanding.  Even for advanced performers the constant relating of theory and understanding to playing, listening and composing is a vital ingredient for musical enjoyment throughout our lives.

David Bowie meets Minimalism

bowie_aladin_sane_custom_290x320_06200686The recent tragic death of David Bowie (1947 – 2016) has further highlighted the legendary genius of his music and his persona. To mark his death, I’m featuring the following interview with American Minimalist composer Philip Glass, with whom he collaborated. Symphony No. 1 “Low”, also known as the “Low” Symphony is a work by Glass based on the album, “Low”, released in 1977, and written by Bowie and Brian Eno (Glass also based another Symphony, “Heroes” on Bowie’s album with the same title). The “Low” Symphony was written in 1992, and Glass has made these comments about the work:

“The record consisted of a number of songs and instrumentals and used techniques which were similar to procedures used by composers working in new and experimental music. As such, this record was widely appreciated by musicians working both in the field of “pop” music and in experimental music and was a landmark work of that period.

I’ve taken themes from three of the instrumentals on the record and, combining them with material of my own, have used them as the basis of three movements of the Symphony. Movement one comes from “Subterraneans,” movement two from “Some Are” and movement three from “Warszawa.”

My approach was to treat the themes very much as if they were my own and allow their transformations to follow my own compositional bent when possible. In practice, however, Bowie and Eno’s music certainly influenced how I worked, leading me to sometimes surprising musical conclusions. In the end I think I arrived at something of a collaboration between my music and theirs.” (Philip Glass, New York City, 1992).

In the following video, Glass discusses his work with Bowie, and you can hear the first movement of this work by clicking the bottom link.


You can hear the first movement of the “Low” Symphony by clicking here.

Photo: Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973. Photograph by Brian Duffy © Duffy Archive

 

A piece a week: the winners….

congratulationsMany thanks to all for taking part in my New Year competition. With over 60 entries, the A piece a week series, written by Paul Harris and published by Faber Music, will surely prove to be a very popular one.

Karen Newby wins A piece a week Grade 1, and Lynne Hall wins A piece a week Grade 2. Congratulations! Please send your address via my contact page and I will send the books tomorrow.

There will be many more competitions and giveaways on my blog soon, so stay tuned!

You can find out more about this series, and purchase the books by clicking here.

Image link

New Year Weekend Competition!

20160108_085820_resizedThe first competition of the New Year features a series written by Paul Harris and published by Faber Music. I mentioned this series in my last Recommended Resources before Christmas, and it will be helpful for all piano students. A piece a week is just that: a repertoire of short pieces for Elementary pupils to learn in a week, encouraging quick study and instant score recognition (these volumes could also be used as sight-reading for more advanced students). They are companions to the Improve your sight-reading! Series also published by Faber and written by Paul.

I have two books to give away; Grade 1 and Grade 2. As always, please leave a comment in the comment box at the end of this post to be in with a chance of winning, and I will announce the two winners on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

If you would like to buy A piece a week, please click here.


The Piano Bench Mag: New Year 2016 Edition

JanuaryCover768x1024Last year I was featured in a magazine called The Piano Bench Mag, which is an American publication designed for piano teachers and published online by teacher Karen Gibson. The Piano Bench Mag‘s 2016 New Year edition highlights all those who appeared over the past 12 months on the front cover, and I was delighted to be included as part of this illustrious group! For the New Year edition article, we were all asked five random questions about our lives, and readers are asked to guess which facts belongs to which teacher!  You can read the article by clicking here The Piano Bench Mag; Did You Know?

If you would like to read The Piano Bench Mag you can do so here: It’s available for Android products here and for Apple products here.


10 Tips To Seriously Improve Your Piano Playing in 2016!

new year music facebook

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I hope Christmas exceeded your dreams and expectations, and I wish you good health, success and happiness during 2016.

I want to start this year on a high, and really motivate pianists, piano students and piano teachers everywhere to enjoy their piano playing and their practice sessions. So today’s post is aimed at encouraging progress and real improvement throughout the year. With this in mind, I’ve mentioned a few practice tips and ideas which will hopefully be helpful for any practice session, irrespective of standard or level of playing.

Those who play the piano sometimes complain that when they sit down at the instrument to practice, they never really know where to start; they play through their pieces, correcting odd errors, then play parts of their piece again, and finally, feeling bored and frustrated, give up and do something else instead. So the idea behind this post, is to implement some structure to refresh practice regimes; progress  will be quicker if you stick to a timetable, and one which you are both enthusiastic and motivated to follow. The latter point is crucial in my opinion, as working towards a goal (any goal) is one of the best ways to make leaps and bounds in your piano playing.

My suggestions are based on approximately 60 minutes of practice time per day (you may want to elongate or decrease each element accordingly, depending on other commitments or level of interest).

  1. Ideally, practice when you are able to really focus. It might be morning or evening, but it must be at a time when you are enthusiastic and alert.
  2. At the beginning of any session, when sitting on your piano bench, drop your arms by your side and relax until you feel no tension whatsoever. As you place your hands on the keys, keep this feeling (and make a note of the feeling too), allowing your whole upper body to be free. Always keep your shoulders down. I ask my students to return to this ‘position’ at regular intervals during lessons (and practice sessions), encouraging them to resist ‘locking-up’ (I spend a fair amount of time on this during lessons). For more ideas about resolving tension in piano playing click here.
  3. Start by warming up your fingers. Don’t play cold! There are many exercises which serve as a warm-up. Whether you like to start with a few scales, chords or five-finger exercises, ensure you begin slowly playing deep into the key bed. Do this for at least a couple of minutes. For a few warm-up suggestions, click here.
  4. Aim to work at several elements at every practice session. I suggest beginning with sight-reading. The better you read, the easier it is to learn piano pieces. Add a ten minute sight-reading session every time you practice and you’ll see results fairly swiftly. Keep a collection of sight-reading material – you will needs lots, and almost any music do, as long as it isn’t too difficult. it’s much better to start a session with simple examples and gradually add more complex tests (if you find an exercise easy, you’ll be encouraged to continue). For sight-reading practice ideas click here.
  5. Many don’t like the idea of scales and arpeggios, so I often suggest working at studies and exercises as an alternative (especially if a student doesn’t plan to prepare for an exam). There are many scale ‘alternatives’; Czerny, Hanon, Joseffy, Cramer, or the great little exercises I recommend to my students drawn from the ABRSM’s Graded Pianoforte Studies. These studies (they start at primary level and run through to Grade 7) provide variety and are more akin to pieces than studies. Allocate some time at every session for technical development (how they are practised, of course, is absolutely paramount, and a good teacher will guide you here). If you do fancy working at scales and arpeggios, and would like more tips, click here.
  6. After the inclusion of all so-called ‘extra’ piano studies (technical work and sight-reading), which will probably take up half a practice session (around 30 minutes), you can spend the remaining time on your chosen piano pieces. I say chosen, because if you don’t select the pieces yourself and play works you feel some connection to, then you simply won’t want to practice them. This goes for exam pieces, festival pieces, or any other performance you are preparing for – or you may just be learning a work for yourself. Selection plays a crucial role, so whilst strict about technical development, I usually encourage adult students to choose their own pieces.
  7. There are innumerable methods to adopt when practising pieces. Let’s say you have three on the go; you will need to rotate them, ensuring they all receive some attention, hopefully daily! As the learning process begins, research each piece thoroughly, learning about its background, its composer and why it was written. Then look at the structure, texture, key, time signature, and varying tempos in your piece (write these details down in your notebook, or somewhere in the score). For more about why it’s a good plan to write on your score, click here.
  8. It can be a good plan to develop a ‘routine’ at the beginning of the learning process. It might look like this: Separate hand practice (until you really know ALL fingering and note patterns, and these elements feel like second nature), ingest the pulse and rhythmic patterns fully, tapping the rhythm on the piano lid before you start (both hands, together), then spot practice (hands together) but working at a bar at a time, digesting the necessary rhythms and movements, followed by playing sections at a quarter of the intended speed, counting aloud then using a metronome (if preferred). When secure, gradually increase the speed, still working in sections until you feel confident. These ideas are not new, but the more of them you incorporate, the better the results.
  9. Once grasped, work through each piece again, but slowly; playing slowly is always the key, but discipline will play a fundamental role here (are you able to resist playing up to tempo, working purely in a systematic manner?). Practising slowly provides time to think and correct any potential errors BEFORE they are made. You could end your practice session, playing the piece through (or as much as has been practised at any session), checking and assessing your improvement (in a sense, becoming your own teacher and critic). This final step is quite important, as it will finish your session on a positive note. For more information regarding slow practice, click here.
  10. Become accustomed to addressing technical and musical concerns at the same time; dynamics, phrasing, pedalling and articulation are imperative and should be given much thought when practising. Here’s some more information about articulationtonal production and pedalling.

I wish you well on your musical journey during 2016, and I hope these few tips might plant the seed for fruitful piano playing. Don’t forget to play to friends and family (or anyone else who will listen) regularly – performance practice is key to making you an effective communicator. Explore various piano courses (there are many both in the UK and abroad) and seek a very good teacher (if you don’t already have one) – the secret to real improvement is finding the right coach. Good luck!

For guidance and advice on how to start playing the piano, plus copious practice tips to improve your playing, you might like to consider my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? – for more information click here.

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