Teaching the tricky intermediate stages, by Karen Marshall

My guest post this week has been written by piano teacher and author Karen Marshall. Karen feels passionately about keeping students engaged in their piano studies, with emphasis on enjoyment, so they want to continue their piano playing. I asked her what elements she considered most important when teaching at the intermediate level (approximately Grade 3 – 5). Over to Karen…


The intermediate stage of learning the piano – and indeed any instrument – is a notoriously tricky period. Many teachers may find students dropping off, losing interest and quitting lessons. I’ve been teaching now for over 25 years and it could not fail to come to my attention that these stages of learning were some of the most difficult to progress through.

There are multiple reasons for this, but I believe it is often at least partly due to increased school work (leaving less time to practise), at the same time as music becoming considerably more complex.  Students who have a good ear and have previously been able to memorise music will start to struggle to do this with the longer repertoire.  Added to that, frustrations mount as music becomes more technically and musically demanding, resulting in slower progress.

My solution to these problems was to come up with an intermediate curriculum for my students that would help to develop their musical understanding and provide a holistic learning experience. But I also realised that my students required variety, the opportunity to be creative, and a continual sense of achievement. If these elements are combined with key theory, technical development, and carefully chosen repertoire, I found that note-reading will be improved, technique and musicality developed and students will gain a greater understanding of what they are learning.

The Intermediate Pianist is an amalgamation of my life’s work, tailoring this holistic approach for use with Grade 3 to 5 level students. It is a series of three books that has emerged from years of working with these students, aided by many attractive compositions by Heather Hammond.  It is, in essence, a music curriculum that piano teachers can use to fit their teaching style, either by working through each chapter in lessons, or by getting students to use it at home.

Co-author Heather Hammond and I have paced the books to take into account varying time students have to practise. We made sure that the music deliberately spanned a range of difficulty levels and styles, so some pieces can be learnt in just one or two weeks, whilst others are more challenging. This approach has been highly successful in ensuring my students didn’t give up the piano, and very luckily I was able to get this curriculum published. Here’s a quick look at the different elements:

To provide variety and understanding

25 Styles of music explained with definitions and activities over three books.  Including March and Lullabies, Swing and Boogies; Polka and Baroque Dance Suits, Four chord Pop and Reggae; Latin and Theme and Variations, Impressionism and Minimalism.

To provide opportunities for creativity and understanding

Musicianship activities included throughout from playing by ear to transposition, listening activities to recognising cadences.  Theory is included in a creative and attractive way with word searches and quiz activities.

To provide pace and ‘quick wins’

Quick learn material for sight reading – lots of easier material is included so students will have enough time to complete the whole book and experience lots of styles, keys and improve their sight reading.  Pieces move forward and backwards in levels for consolidation.

To provide understanding

Technique – All keys’ scales and arpeggios are covered up to five flats and five sharps along with carefully selected technical exercises or repertoire to develop key technique.

To keep students inspire using the repertoire of great composers

Repertoire – Core repertoire has been selected from Bach’s Anna Magdalena Note book and his Two Part Inventions, Schumann’s Album for the Young, Tchaikovsky’s Children Album, Clementi Sonatinas Opus 36, Burgmuller’s Opus 100, Chopin’s Preludes and Bartok’s For Children.  This is combined with new composition and arrangements or famous classical music from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony to the Flower Duet by Delibes, Howard Goodhall’s QI theme and Por Una Cabeza Tango.

You can purchase The Intermediate Pianist from all good retailers, or from Faber’s website, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

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A Royal Double Bill

I live in Windsor, which is situated in Berkshire, around 20 miles to the west of London. I settled here four years ago and it’s a delightful place. However, this week my small town has become the centre of the universe (or so it seems), and it’s been almost impossible to walk out of the front door without bumping into a camera crew. The impending Royal Wedding is certainly a much-anticipated event, and I wish the royal couple every success for their future married life. But if your interest in this regal occasion has already waned somewhat, you might like to take a look at this concert, to be held on the same day at 7.00pm in London.

The Around the Globe Piano Festival, organised by Marina Petrov and Maya Jordan, is a wonderful music festival and concert series which fervently supports Contemporary composers.

The Festival is held in the Autumn every year and is open to all levels and abilities. I adjudicated at the 2017 festival and thoroughly appreciated the wide variety of repertoire on offer. The standard of performance was also extremely high, and winners are invited to perform at various concerts arranged throughout the year.  I’m honoured to be amongst the group of Contemporary composers whose music features on the syllabus.

The piano recital on Saturday showcases winners from last year’s festival, including children, adult amateurs and professional pianists. A diversity of styles pervades, from classics to modern, including compositions written by a host of innovative composers including Lola Perrin, Lindsey Berwin, Vera Milanković and myself. Guest pianist Olga Dudnik will perform the captivating “Jewish Suite” written by prominent Serbian composer, Aleksandar Vujić. You can book your tickets via the Around the Globe Piano Festival’s  website, or alternatively you can purchase them at the door. Hope to see you there!


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

My Journey as a Composer by Lindsey Berwin

British teacher and composer Lindsey Berwin is my guest writer today. She has written several pedagogical publications for teachers and students. I asked Lindsey about her work as a composer, and why composing has become an increasingly important element in her life. Over to Lindsey…


My journey as a composer began some thirty years ago, primarily in response to my pupils’ pedagogical needs and their requests for specific repertoire. Little could I have known then that I was embarking on a voyage which would blossom into a passion, providing me with a wonderful means of self-expression as a musician, and of self-discovery as a person.

I was privileged to have spent four invaluable years studying at The Royal Academy of Music, but I never received any instruction in composition. Thus, I was left to rely on my experience, knowledge and instincts as a pianist and teacher, to guide me through this unfamiliar territory! My first works included a sight-reading series, subsequently entitled ‘FunKey!’, a number of bespoke duets, a set of jazz-style technical exercises and a piano course for pre-school children.

A significant turning point for me was the discovery of The EPTA annual composers’ competition. This opportunity provided the catalyst for me to broaden my compositional horizons. In addition, it spurred me on to incorporate this creative element of music into my teaching, resulting in many years of enjoyment and satisfaction for both myself and my pupils.

In terms of my own development as a composer, having begun to explore a freer range of writing, the creative process gradually gathered momentum. I revelled in the technical challenges of wrestling with toccatas, fugues and studies, and in the chance to explore both the field of tonalities and the world of the subconscious. The latter resulted in works of a somewhat philosophical nature, such as Chromatic Fantasy, Enigma and Tunnel Vision, and, influenced by the jazz idiom, Introspection.

Opening out the parameters of composition meant the need to adopt diverse approaches. The above mentioned FunKey!, and its flute counterpart Jazz Keys, both later published by Kevin Mayhew, were written very much as teaching aids, intended to improve students’ reading and transposition skills. I created most of the material away from the instrument, relying on my inner hearing, and the process felt predominantly cerebral in its nature.

In order to compose more complex repertoire, working at the piano was, and remains, a necessity. Pieces with a specific structure, and those with a technical purpose again have their roots in a cerebral process. Fugal writing, in particular, has a methodical, almost mechanical aspect to its construction, and I find composing music of this type immensely rewarding intellectually. By contrast, compositions of the more philosophical nature emanate from my emotions (although edited by my intellect!), often providing a cathartic experience and an outlet for life’s complexities.

‘All The Fun Of The Fair’, published recently by EVC music, was my first substantial collection of pieces, and my inaugural venture into the realms of programme music. The suite consists of ten pieces representing different fairground rides, and I wanted to produce a sound-world which suitably described each. For this task I turned to my imagination for inspiration. Coming full circle, and returning to my metaphor of a journey, I hope that the following whistle-stop tour of the fairground will show how I set about achieving my aim, and provide an entertaining conclusion to this blog

The Ghost Train

An eerie, rubato introduction sets the scene. A left-hand ostinato based on augmented 4ths represents the movement of the train, while the right-hand mimics the sound of its whistle. Tension builds, until fortissimo chords herald the appearance of a frightening apparition. The train restarts twice more, the last time accelerating, until octaves, played presto, lead into a final terrifying encounter!

The Lotus Flower Ferris Wheel

The movement of a slowly turning Ferris Wheel is captured by fluid writing and gently rising and falling phrases. To add to the feeling of tranquillity, parallel 4ths are employed, transporting the performer and listener to the beauty of the Orient.

The Roller Coaster

An atmosphere of excitement tinged with fear is set from the start! The whole-tone scale rises, as the passengers are slowly carried to the summit. The cars descend dramatically, represented by vivace chromatic semiquavers, becoming dissonant along the way to reflect the cries of the riders. Twice more this scene is repeated, and the final descent builds in contrary motion to a fortissimo climax.

The UFO

Slow, dissonant chords create a feeling of outer-space, leading into an appassionato section which gradually rises to a soaring fortissimo. The music then slowly dies away, with descending sequential imitation. A return to the opening style follows, but this time, almost like gravity, the harmony pulls us away from uncertainty (dissonance) to end with a feeling of peace (consonance).

The Mechanical Bull

A Latin style, characteristic rhythms and ornamentation carry us to the world of the Spanish matador. The 5/4 time signature at the start, and the later insistent ostinato add humour, as the rider attempts to stay mounted. As the ending approaches, a repeated pattern rises from the depths of the piano. It culminates in a fortissimo descending glissando, as the jockey finally admits defeat!

The Coconut Shy

Each hand represents a person competing to win the prize in this final piece. Acciaccaturas, imitation and changing time signatures, combined with considerable dissonance including bitonality, bring All The Fun Of The Fair to a suitably quirky and light-hearted ending!

You can purchase Funkey! and Jazz Keys, here and All the Fun of the Fair, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Lang Lang Music Theory Cards Twitter Competition

The new Lang Lang Music Theory Cards, published just last month by Faber Music, are colourful, informative and innovative. Fifty-two colour coded cards are designed to extend knowledge and make theory an enjoyable experience for students, teachers and parents. Each pack features imaginative questions to improve note-reading and music theory skills. The cards are the latest addition to the Lang Lang Piano Academy; they can be used in conjunction with the Lang Lang Piano Method and are suitable for complete beginners.

With questions such as ‘True or false’, ‘What’s the difference?’ and ‘Explain this!’ alongside favourite characters displayed in the piano method books, these fun-filled packs add a different dimension to learning theory, offering an engaging, appealing adventure. Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang is renowned for his work in music education and has inspired millions of children to study the piano.

Learning an instrument can be a really important part of a child’s development and a great way to improve many things like concentration and focus. Learning needs to be enjoyable as well and I’m sure kids will make good progress and be inspired to keep going with this series.”
Lang Lang

You can purchase the cards here, and sign up to Faber Music’s mailing list here, to hear more about The Lang Lang Piano Academy, plus music education and piano news & ideas from Faber Music.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.



 

Are you all Fingers and Thumbs?

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s e-newsletter (you can read it here) focuses on the thumb. As always, my intention is to draw attention to an area of piano playing which may benefit from concentrated practice. I notice in my own teaching that students perpetually work to achieve and maintain finger strength, but then leave the poor old thumb to its own devices. Here are five practice suggestions.


Thumbs. They might just be appendages stuck on the side of our hands, but for any pianist, they are important additions to our armoury of articulation. If used optimally, the thumb can enable easy turning (both under and over the hand) for smooth passagework, and can take the lead during chords and octave passagework, creating assured playing. Here are a few practice ideas to strengthen our thumbs.

  1. Start with a thumb exercise away from the keyboard; I like to use a circular motion exercise. Observe the three thumb joints; the first at the bottom of the thumb, next to the wrist, the second, at the thumb base, and the third, in the middle of the thumb. By moving the whole thumb in an upward (almost above the hand) then downward motion, so that the movement finishes with the thumb under the hand, whilst keeping the arm relaxed but still, you can start to loosen the fleshy areas, so that they feel pliable and soft. Aim to keep the movement flexible and free of any tension.
  2. Observe your thumb position on the keys. The thumb is naturally lower than the other fingers, and it should ideally make contact with the keys on the tip of the thumb nail; at the left tip for the right hand, and right tip, for the left hand. The nail just touching the keys. Try to avoid the whole side of the thumb flopping down on the keys, as this position makes thumb control challenging.
  3. To practice thumb positions and get the thumb moving, play a one octave C major scale ascending with the following fingering: 12121212 (right hand), 21212121 (left hand), you can then switch fingers starting with 21 in the right hand, and 12 in the left. Practising with 13131313 (right hand) can be helpful too. Ensure a flexible thumb movement every time the thumb moves over or under the hand.
  4. Now try a one octave chromatic scale using the same fingering; when you move to the black notes, try to ‘place’ the thumb tip with care as these notes are narrower therefore demanding greater accuracy. Thumbs will also need to employ a larger movement in order to negotiate these notes.
  5. Finally, practise intervals i.e. a C and E in the right hand using the third finger on the C and thumb on the E, and in the left hand, the thumb playing the C and third finger, the E. This seemingly unnatural position (practising the turning motion) will require a tension free hand so ensure the ‘fleshy’ part of your hand is relaxed as opposed to taut and ‘locked up’. When playing these intervals, sound them together as chords, and keep both notes in place whilst relaxing your hand; this is a useful preparation exercise for arpeggios. When comfortable, move on to larger intervals such as a C (played with a third finger) and an F (thumb) in the right hand.

You can sign up for Pianist’s e-newsletter, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Composing Piano Music: a guest post by John McLachlan

This week my guest writer is Irish composer and music examiner, John McLachlan. A prolific composer, John has written for many genres, including a substantial collection of pedagogical piano works, some of which have been selected for inclusion in the syllabus of the Royal Irish Academy of Music. I asked him about his music and his compositional process. Over to John…


I began writing pedagogical piano pieces some decades back when I was very busy teaching piano and trying to finish a PhD in musicology, as well as juggling piano practice. This didn’t leave much time to write big serious pieces, and so when students were absent I would quickly scribble a simple piece, with the original idea of bringing the harmonic practice into the modern era. The PhD was on Boulez, Xenakis et al, and my serious music is fairly complex. I was concerned about what young musicians learn and  whether it sufficiently stretches their understanding of more modern adventures in harmonic and rhythmic practice.

I showed a few scratchily handwritten scores to Deirdre Doyle, who was then head of keyboard at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, where I was studying, and she said: “Let’s see more of those”.

Things evolved from there.  I got positive feedback from other wonderful piano teachers at the RIAM such as Ray Keary, and I changed the focus from being a fiercely revamped post-war version of Bartok to being within the parameters of specific piano grades: I learned to dial down (but not discard entirely) the challenging harmony, rhythm and structure of the pieces.

I was also very much aware as a teacher how the material for beginners varies from nice and clever pieces to dry-as-dust exercises thinly disguised as ‘fun pieces’. But when you try to write music for absolute beginners you soon see how hard it is: it is a great exercise and a big challenge for any composer to stick within a few bars and a couple of five-finger positions, yet come up with something that sounds in any way inspiring! However, models such as Kabalevsky, Grieg and Schumann often show how good pieces can be constructed from a starting point of technical ease, focused in one useful technical area, and with a bit of imagination can really be appealing to play while staying within the technical level set out at the start.

I was also struck by how few early pieces would appeal to late or adult beginners, and how very anodyne they can be, compared, for example, to stories and poetry written for children, which can be ghoulish or bloodthirsty! This is why sometimes my pieces have titles such as ‘the Guillotine’, ‘Caves’ and ‘Night Prowler’. I have a piece called ‘Chop Chop’ which has been selected for Preliminary grade a number of times, the piece was going to be one of those with words written under the tune: “Willy built a guillotine, Tried it out on sister Jean, Said Mother as she got the mop”, “These messy games have got to stop!”. But I shrank back from including the words on the score in the end, as I had not asked for the author’s permission, and I figured there was no way the RIAM would use it in that format anyway. But I don’t want to give the idea that my music is all on the dark side! I also found inspiration from sun-soaked travels in Greece with ‘Evening at the Harbour’ and ‘The Meltemi’ (this is a wind that cools the fierce summer heat on Crete). ‘Wheelies’ is about childhood joy in messing about on a bicycle.

Initially, I gathered all the pieces together into a volume that I titled “From the Strings of a Rainbow” (inspired by a poem from St-John Perse), offering a collection of pieces from elementary level to advanced. Then some time later I pared back the difficulty with a volume I called “Fifteen Easy Miniatures”. Just this year I reassembled the various pieces, including many written after those volumes, into three new volumes: ‘First Flights’: ’14 playful pieces for piano beginners; ‘Further Flights; 15 easy repertoire pieces from grades 1 to 5′, and ‘Lighter and Darker: 5 repertoire pieces above grade 5’. There are a number of pieces from the early volumes that I have discarded. The pieces are all available individually and/or gathered together in these volumes.

How do I go about writing such pieces? There are almost as many answers as there are individual pieces, but I will try to answer this. In the case of two of the African Melodies I was inspired by the technical control of the travelling five-finger hand positions seen in many of Kabalevsky’s “24 Pieces for Children”, and also by the general mood of some music by Kevin Volans, the South African/Irish composer who was teaching me at the time. The pieces use only pentatonic scales, a further limitation. “Hop, Skip and Tumble” also relates in that way to Kabalevsky’s models.

Other simpler pieces in one position sometimes use artificial or non-western scales such as the Hungarian minor or the hirajoshi pentatonic to give the ears something fresh (examples: “A Little Japanese Tune” and “The Guillotine”). Archaeopteryx on the other hand is a very advanced essay on what can arise from the octatonic scale, which starts with superimposed hand positions, the kind of positioning seen in Debussy’s Mouvement (and countless other pieces). It is in strict Sonata form and the development sees some breakdown of the octatonic structure.

I hope that all doesn’t make it sound boring or technocratic, the truth is, I always compose in the classic “flow state”. Structures such as scale or formal plans merely help the enjoyable aesthetic craziness to fit more easily together and that speeds up the writing process immensely. I often tried to achieve some unusual forms or phrase structures, but to slip them in a way that is not obvious to the ear. But there are also pieces that are more straightforward, with blues or jazz influences. “Ice-Dance” is just a jazz improvisation on quartal chords (chords built up from fourths rather than the usual thirds).

In “An Raibh Tú ag an gCarraig?” the top line is a very old Irish tune which I noticed was in a hexatonic scale (as in the first 6 notes of major), where the other 6 notes of the 12 make a mirror set of the same scale a tritone away. I immediately decided to use those notes in the left hand to compose a free left hand accompaniment or counter-melody. I soften the dissonance by choosing only consonant combinations between the hands. I was very happy with that, and in fact this way of ordering the 12 pitches crept into parts of a 12-minute piece I wrote for organ and later for orchestra called “Here be Dragons”. So it is evident that writing all the simple pieces did have an effect on my more serious art music output, where I devised for a while a cross between simplicity and complexity which proved very fruitful between 2001 and 2011 or thereabouts.

All composing can lead to other composing so the best advice for composers is to keep writing as often as possible, as only then can issues and solutions flow from one piece to the next in your output. Also listening to and playing great music is vital, and figuring out how it works (by thinking and analysing)—all this is how piece X leads to piece Y.

Pieces selected for inclusion in the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s examination syllabus: Little Reverie, Tranquillity, African Melody I, African Melody II, Night Prowler, The Curious Cat, Chop Chop!, Melody for K, Ice-Dance, and Hop, Skip and Tumble.

You can purchase John’s music by clicking here, and can hear selected piano pieces by clicking on the links below:

 


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Weekend competition: the winners…

Many thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition. The prize is a copy of a new volume written by pianist, composer, examiner, and writer, Mark Tanner; Mindfulness in Music: Notes on Finding Life’s Rhythm, published by Leaping Hare Press.

I have two copies to giveaway, and the winners are…

SIMON BURGESS and MUSICATMONKTON

CONGRATULATIONS! Please send your address via the contact page on this blog and your book will be on its way.

You can purchase this book by clicking here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Weekend Competition! Mindfulness in Music: Notes on Finding Life’s Rhythm

It’s time for a weekend competition. This one features Mark Tanner’s new book, Mindfulness in Music: Notes on Finding Life’s Rhythm (pictured to the left). If you’ve been reading this blog over the past week, you’ll have read Mark’s own post about this publication, which provides a useful background (to read it, click here).

Published by Leaping Hare Press, this volume will be of interest to anyone who feels the need to reflect on the inner rhythms of their life, and perhaps find a different approach to hearing and  digesting music. Chapters focus on the following subjects; Music as Meditation, The Rhythm of Life, Sound & Sensuality, The Language of Music, Parallel Universes, and the The Art of Possibility.

Beautifully presented, the book contains interesting quotes from various artists, writers, philosophers, and musicians, and  I particularly like the suggested mindfulness exercises which are peppered throughout. These offer food for thought, and allow our minds to put Mark’s many theories and ideas into practice. A thought-provoking read!

I have two copies to giveaway this weekend, so, as always, please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this blog post, and I will announce the winners on Monday evening (British time). Good luck!

You can purchase Mindfulness in Music: Notes on Finding Life’s Rhythm, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Hand Flexibility: Piano Professional Article

I’ve written about hand flexibility before here on my blog, but it’s an important topic for piano students and teachers, so I thought I’d publish a more in-depth post on this subject. The following article was first published in the most recent edition of Piano Professional, which is the UK piano teachers magazine published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association). I hope you find it of interest.


Hands. They are fairly crucial for pianists. Many will immediately refer to the fingers as being the most significant ‘tools’ in a pianist’s tool box. And there’s no doubt, without fingers, playing is rather tricky. But, over the past few months, I’ve been working with a group of students and we have routinely discussed hands; hand positions are always important, but one aspect causing regular issues (and sometimes anxiety too) is the flexibility and ‘softness’ in our hands necessary to move easily, at the same time as retaining finger strength and independence.

Whilst we work ceaselessly to remain ‘free’ and relaxed in our upper torso, even once this has been acquired, some find the muscles in their hands are still inflexible and tense. For me, movement around the keyboard (particularly at the moment of impact i.e. depressing the key) is vital. There’s little point in discussing the finer points of interpretation, musicianship or even dynamic range, if we can’t get around a piece and feel comfortable doing so!

Once our students have assimilated the feeling of freedom in their wrists (the first point of relaxation), arms and upper body, it’s probably time to move onto the hands. When muscles in the hand itself are tense, octave stretches feel challenging, as do large chords and double note passages. Many complain that they find octave stretches and beyond almost impossible. However, I’ve yet to come across a pupil who really can’t play an octave once taught how to relax their hand (small children are an exception).

To begin with, our students need to know which part of the hand to relax. Photo 1 illustrates the approximate area to which I’m referring:

Photo 1.

Photo 1 shows the palm and surrounding areas, especially around the thumb joint; these are normally fleshy and soft when not outstretched or engaged in playing; they need to stay this way as much as possible, as and when a student plays. This does present some challenges, but the main aim is to keep the hand (or the area between the wrist and knuckles) loose and relaxed.

Photo 2.

Photo 2 illustrates the muscles between the finger joints which also have a tendency to tense.

Here are a few ideas to loosen the hand, helping it to feel less restricted during practice and performance.

Ask pupils to drop their arms down by their side, allowing them to swing loosely, so they can ‘float’ freely from the shoulder (arms should feel ‘heavy’ and weighty as the muscles relax). Once this has been grasped, encourage pupils to lay their hand flat on a surface (away from the piano), palm facing downwards. Slowly open the hand, determining how far it can reach in an outstretched position without feeling tense or uncomfortable at all. To begin with, it might not be that much. However, pupils should note the feeling of the hand when it is still relaxed and ‘loose’. Do this every day for just a minute or so, until it feels natural.

Now ask a pupil to play both chords in Example 1 (first with their right hand, and then the left), and during contact with the keys, with their spare hand (i.e. the hand not playing), feel how the muscles in those fleshy areas of the hand, respond. They might be surprised by how ‘hard’ or rigid each hand appears as the chords are depressed.

Example 1.

The trick is to learn to relax the hand whilst it’s playing. It’s paramount to know how our arms, wrists and hands feel when engaged. These feelings are easy to block out, as we are generally too busy focusing on the music. This is why exercises or scales can be of value, as they generally have less musical content, allowing us to concentrate on how our upper torso feels in action. When the feeling of flexibility has been digested thoroughly, we will start to assume a comfortable stance whilst playing.

Hand flexibility can be exacting to teach as it requires students to really know themselves and their hands. I constantly work with pupils on this aspect, and find it equally fascinating and rewarding.

A good way to begin is to play a single note (in each hand, separately). As the note is struck, notice how the muscles within the hand react; decide if they are tense or uncomfortable. If they are rigid, as the note is held by the finger, relax the surrounding hand by releasing any tension in the whole arm (students often need help here, both in terms of learning to feel the difference between tension and relaxation, and also learning to hold a note in place whilst relaxing). Clenching the hand (this can be done away from the piano) and then swiftly ‘releasing’ the clench can be one way of explaining the feeling of tension and the subsequent ‘release’ of muscles. We need to be honest and truthful about the physical sensations felt as we play. It can be beneficial to keep returning to the feeling learnt when the hand was outstretched, but was still pliable and felt completely relaxed. By returning to this sensation time and again during practice sessions, it will eventually become a habit.

The following single note pattern, Example 2 (right hand, followed by the left), opens with notes a sixth apart or an interval of a sixth, moving on to an octave (the interval of a seventh could also be used too, before the octave):

Example 2.

Encourage a student to gently ‘reach’ or rock from one note to the next, with the aim of developing wrist and hand flexibility between notes; there are many ways of doing this, but I ask students to ‘drop’ their wrist after they have played one note, and before they play the next (whilst still keeping notes depressed), allowing a ‘heavy’ relaxed feeling (as the muscles loosen), moving the wrists in a free lateral motion. This motion can be extremely useful, helping students acquire the necessary loose feeling, enabling them to determine the optimum movement needed to release their hand.

Students can check the muscles and tendons in their hand by using the hand that is free i.e. the one not playing, to make sure they feel comfortable and not tight during this exercise. If they don’t feel relaxed, ask them to gradually ‘let go’ of the muscles as they engage their hand. ‘Letting go’ is just another terminology for relaxation or releasing a tight hand. This is the most challenging part. When we learn how to ‘let go’ as we play, at the same time as keeping the fingers in place, the hand starts to release its grip.

Eventually, octave intervals, such as those in Example 2 (second and fourth bar), appear more relaxed and notes can be played together i.e. to form an octave. If we can do this with ease already, as we play an octave, encourage wrists to drop (it’s awkward and uncomfortable to play such intervals with high wrists), and relax (releasing the hand, wrist and arm), whilst still playing the notes. For secure octave finger ‘positions’, the fifth finger needs to be fully functional, and the thumb, light but aiming to keep the shape during movement.

If octaves are played slowly, we can watch and feel the hand as we ‘let go’ or relax in the fleshy area, whilst the fingers depress the keys; the flesh should change from being tense to become softer and more malleable. This type of exercise must ideally be done slowly and painlessly, with much focus on physical movement. After a period of time, it’s interesting to note how the hands adapt, and pupils will be increasingly able to cope with being outstretched and ‘open’ with no discomfort, as is required during octaves and chords.

Once octaves have been negotiated (these exercises should be done little and often, and certainly not for long periods of time), students can move onto adding chords to their ‘flexible hand repertoire’ (inserting inner notes after practising the outer parts alone first), and then working at other types of passage work, including double notes and large leaps.

Hand flexibility takes time, but a positive, valuable way to begin is to become more conscious of hand palpation and movement.

You can read the original article, here:

Hand Flexibility (Issue 46, Spring 2018, pg. 16 – 17)


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Mindfulness in Music: Notes on finding life’s rhythm, by Mark Tanner

My guest writer today is pianist, composer, author, adjudicator, and music examiner, Mark Tanner. Mark has penned a wealth of piano and music related publications, including The Mindful Pianist (published by Faber Music in 2016), and numerous educational compositions (many of which have been featured on various exam syllabuses). Today, he provides an insight into his new book, Mindfulness in Music: Notes on finding life’s rhythm (published by Leaping Hare Press), which can be purchased here. Alternatively, you can pop by this blog next week and take part in my weekend competition, where I will be giving away a couple of copies. Over to Mark…


We talk a great deal about music – the role we think it plays in our lives, its seemingly endless capacity to rejuvenate, stimulate and orientate us. But we’re increasingly at risk of thinking of music as a utility or commodity – something that’s been created to tick a box perhaps, or to help us fulfil a particular function in our lives. Some of us look for music to be purposeful – or indeed to help us to be more purposeful in whatever activities we happen to be engaged in. We jog with headphones on, wait for an elevator to the accompaniment of tinny pop tune cover versions, and sit in the sauna to a backdrop of synthetic flutes and wind chimes. This resignation to the idea of ‘functional’ music seems to have become entangled with how we consume it – sometimes unthinkingly or with a sense of entitlement. Streaming music seems strangely out of kilter with the devotion shown by those who created it in the first place, drip by drip. Music on tap potentially leads to a lack of excitement and engagement – that feverish sense of anticipation we once felt as we put on a new CD is now more likely to resemble a lucky dip in Apple Music. Music might be something we sit down to listen to, but just as easily it will underscore some everyday activity such as fixing a broken toaster or waiting for someone to answer the phone about an electricity bill. One might be tempted to contrast this with music enjoyed in an earlier point in time, where the very notion of recordings would have seemed about as likely as Donald Trump becoming President. In taking music for granted we underplay its marvellous, mysterious qualities – we become harder to please, harder to be moved or exhilarated by sound, perhaps to a point where the beauty of a musical moment escapes our attention altogether. Today music all too easily blurs into ‘muzak’, which is a perilous place for us to have arrived at, since we feel robbed of choosing how, what and (perhaps even more importantly) when we listen. Listening and hearing are quite separate things of course; for me, this superabundance of music is the very antithesis of mindfulness, for we feel cajoled into consuming music instead of drawn in by its powers of intoxication. We can even feel that there is only a single, acceptable response to certain sounds, or that our emotions are in some way being manipulated to someone else’s ends. Advertising would be largely impotent without music, and yet ironically the music used is virtually always rendered anodyne in the process. Potentially, our dispassionate receptivity music leads to mindlessness, not mindfulness. This burden of choice, or else its polar opposite – no choice at all – also discourages us from pausing to reflect; we forget how to be thrilled or devastated by a musical experience. The flip-side of this is true when playing the piano of course, or perhaps especially when teaching it. The knowledge that an exam is on the horizon might help someone to concentrate on improving, but will it necessarily help them to notice what in the music is truly of value? Music exams, competitions and festivals, though hugely advantageous to many learners, unwittingly contribute to this regrettable commoditisation and compartmentalisation of music. Perhaps this is all rather inevitable and not worth getting distressed about; yet for me, the listener forms a key point in the triangle that starts with creation and ends with an emotion beyond the realm of words. Listening can even be said to be creative in and of itself, but only if we are alive to what it is trying to say to us.

I wrote Mindfulness in Music: Notes on finding life’s rhythm in 2017 as part of an ongoing series of around 30 beautifully presented hardback books published by Leaping Hare Press. I recall first noticing the series a few years ago as a table display in my local Waterstones and was immediately enticed by their craftsmanship; they really are things of beauty. Topics so far go from bread-making to bereavement, surfing to singing, Einstein to cycling! The book came out in April 2018 and was discussed in my interview with Tom Service on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Music Matters’ a couple of days later. The publishers wanted me to sum up in a concise, easily grasped way the essence of mindfulness and indeed the essence of music. There is surely no expectation of the need to be an expert in meditation, mindfulness or indeed music in order to gain something of value from such experiences – in the same way, one doesn’t need to be a virtuoso to enjoy playing the piano, or a graduate in music to enjoy listening to it being played. Music is always of the moment, even when it takes on epic proportions, such as a Wagner opera or Strauss tone poem. Perhaps Erik Satie had a rather important point to make when he penned his exquisite piano miniatures – for he achieved that impossibly difficult thing as a composer: to beckon the listener into a perfumed musical moment that seems to have already started before we’d even tuned in. Satie’s music, a little like the minimalist movement that followed a few decades later perhaps, rarely appears preoccupied by grandiose machinery, development or architecture – the music is there to be savoured, rather like caviar, truffles or a fine cognac. Deeply meaningful music does not, therefore, need to be large-scale or impressively ambitious in order to make its mark.

“Mark Tanner has written a mindfulness manifesto for music”

Tom Service, BBC Radio 3 ‘Music Matters’

It seems those who love music, or indeed use it in a more sophisticated way – either by learning about it or even earning money from it – become especially prone to this habit of picking away at the minutiae of surface details. It’s as though we imagine ourselves to be Michelangelo, putting the final touches to the Statue of David when we practise a few bars of intensely tricky music on the piano. Music students may feel a certain satisfaction from having put into words the cleverness bound up in, say, a Mahler symphony or lengthy Miles Davis jazz piece. And rightly so, for music’s narrative journey, or ‘story’, is frequently complex and deserving of that extra bit of attentive thinking, or even, dare I say it, analysis. The question here is at what point should we just let the music go its own way, unjudged, unevaluated? This is not a contradiction, more a conundrum, for there are times when we need to scrutinise, and others when we can just wallow and enjoy. As a pianist and composer, I find this question strikes at the heart of all I do, for I’ve spent many hours pouring over recapitulations in Mozart concertos, or else looking for ways to extend a simple tune that has just landed in my head. And yet, in the end, I know that this type of detailed work is only valuable because it allows me to tap into, and hence express the music’s bigger picture so that others are able to gain something from it.

When I wrote The Mindful Pianist for Faber in 2016, as part of the ongoing EPTA Piano Professional series, I dug deep into what we as pianists are attempting to achieve when we are playing; I broke this difficult subject down into four main areas: focus, practise, perform, engage. In essence, I was wanting those who love the piano to view what they do from a subtly different perspective, not just to grind away for days on end in an unwinnable bid to out-manoeuvre Beethoven, or conquer Ravel. I commissioned  perspectives from 25 well-known pianists, composers and teachers, and the ultimate aim was to provide an original way ‘in’ to the craft of piano playing, not just to offer a raft of tips on how to practise (though the book hopefully achieves that, too!). The book is unapologetically pianocentric – it’s my sincere attempt to embody the idea that we need to play and think about piano music in a thoughtful, mindful way in order to do it, and ourselves, justice.

“invigorating and thought-provoking”

Martino Tirimo

In this latest publication I assume no preexisting knowledge base or skill-set. It’s not written for aficionados or those in the know. Nor am I focusing exclusively on piano music. There are chapters on music as meditation, the rhythm of life, sound and sensuality, the language of music, parallel universes (how music can inhabit multiple meanings for us simultaneously) and the art of possibility – how the reader might acquire the confidence to sing in a choir, take up an instrument later in life or become a valued member of the musical community. I also take a closer look at what, if anything, we mean by ‘talent’ in music, what tone-deafness is, or indeed is not. I unpack the notion of perfect-pitch to see whether it really adds much to what proficient musicians might achieve, and offer 20 activities designed to help us all to resonate more enjoyably with everything from the sound of a squeaky gate to a love song by Elton John.

“Mindfulness in Music is both informative and thought-provoking – a fascinating read on many levels”

Julian Lloyd Webber

The ‘point’ of music – in virtually any way I consider to be realistic or meaningful – is surely  to connect with our human urge to feel emotion. It’s amusing to me that we talk about the Romantic period as driven by passion, feelings and expression, as if this has not always been the case, both before and since the 19th century! Sometimes we feel an impulse to re-connect with a particular song or piece of music in order to help us to relive a moment; in this respect, nostalgia in music is every bit as powerful as looking at sepia photographs or blowing dust from the yellowing pages of an old book. Come to think of it, the antiquity of Classical music perhaps renders all of our listening and playing experiences potentially nostalgic? I’ve always felt that music is all ‘ours’ – in other words, humans created it for the wonderment of other humans – and to this end the book sets out to scratch a little beneath the surface of what we thought we already knew. Let’s not forget that the world was making its own music millions of years before our distant ancestors began drumming away on stretched animal skins or experimenting with echoes in forests, and there is perhaps no greater music than silence, itself an endangered species. Becoming more aware of how we engage with music, and indeed what constitutes music in the first place (isn’t a waterfall music, or a storm reverberating through a valley?) is how we will gain more from it. I ask, in the book, “how can we be interested in the sound of nature if we are not intrigued by the nature of sound?” Can elephants really listen with their feet, for example, and why is it we cannot hear the deafening ‘songs’ of whales when we are ashore? These and other questions are not intended to be semantic or philosophical for their own sake, but seeded here and there within its pages to help place our enjoyment of music in a sharper spotlight, irrespective of what kinds of music we enjoy listening to or playing. Spirituality, in these terms, becomes more about the relationship we have with music directly – and a world that is forever teeming with sound – not necessarily tied to any god or religion.

As pianists, most of us grow used to grappling with music that was etched onto manuscript centuries ago. We take for granted that our playing skills need to be entwined with an ability to read music and make sense of heady things such as structure, harmony and counterpoint. This all too easily leads us to the numbing conclusion that music is only there to be sifted and sorted through, organised and fiddled with, until it finally submits to all our tireless thrashing about at the keyboard. If, on the other hand, we can learn to take a helicopter view of the music we love from time to time, even when we are doing battle with the intricacies of a Bach fugue or scrabbling around with fistfuls of notes in Debussy, we will access it from a more immediately rewarding place. And by doing this, not only will we derive more from the experience itself, we may also have more to ‘say’ when we sit down to play.

Mindfulness is concerned with self-compassion, i.e. forgiving ourselves for making mistakes and playing imperfectly. It’s also about savouring the here-and-now, not over-reaching, over-thinking or over-analysing. These things just throw a spanner in the works and at the same time distract us from noticing, savouring, enjoying and simply ‘being’. We can have an eye to the future prospect of playing to others, or perhaps taking an exam, without feeling fatigued by ‘end-gaming’, as Alexander would have put it. But it is also about positioning ourselves right at the centre of the musical experience. Though I am not a Buddhist, I find the notion of playing music as a ‘practical meditation’ utterly irresistible. We are engaging with the finest of art-forms – “the word music, after all, comes from ‘muses’ – the daughters of Zeus – to crystallise the purist conceivable artistic aspirations of the gods”, to quote from my own introductory text. It’s interesting that music has the power to realign us as well as fortify our daily lives, but more than this, musical experiences are valuable because they remind us of who we are, and this might even help us to become better versions of ourselves.

Mindfulness in Music, Notes on finding life’s rhythm, by Mark Tanner (Leaping Hare Press).



My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.