Over the past few weeks I have been coaching several Grade 8 and diploma candidates; pianists who have come to me to play through their set pieces and other aspects of their respective exams. It’s the time of year for cramming, studying and practising way beyond the norm in order to achieve that coveted high mark. There have, however, been recurring issues in many performances and perhaps these are fairly common place amongst those preparing for exams so, as a good blogger, I am going to write about them!
All advanced exams follow a similar format, irrespective of the exam board you have selected for your grade or diploma. Graded exams are slightly more restricting than diplomas due to the more limiting choice of repertoire. One aspect of critical importance in all musical forms, but especially the Baroque and Classical style, is rhythm. This may seem an obvious observation, but not adhering strictly to the pulse is a very easy mistake to make.
I’m not referring to basic rhythmic errors because these generally don’t occur in more advanced playing (well they may happen occasionally). However, some pianists are so locked into their performance or interpretation of a work, that they have become immune to the pulse or tempo.
I have been guilty of this crime in the past. When I developed my cabaret show, I had to learn to play with a live band and use a ‘click track’; an electronic beat similar to the sound of a metronome which runs throughout an entire piece usually via a pair of ear phones. A click track makes no allowance for even the slightest tempo deviation, and I quickly realised just how un-rhythmical my playing could be. As soloists, pianists are at free will to play as they please, which encourages the habit of copious rubato (or taking time) everywhere. Some works do suit this type of playing, but it isn’t a requirement for whole swathes of twentieth century and popular music.
The best way to solve tempo problems initially is to work with a metronome; use it every time you practice for several weeks before an exam or concert, making quite sure you are playing on the beat all the time (this requires careful listening). However, that is only addressing half the problem; pulse deviation can be the result of many shortcomings including uneven playing, lack of concentration or even basic rhythmical awareness.
Uneven playing is a common culprit. Take a group of four semi-quavers like those below in Example A. If these notes have awkward fingerings or are difficult to place accurately for whatever reason, then this may lead to uneven articulation, thus throwing out the pulse completely. The second example (B) demonstrates what can often be heard in place of rhythmical semi-quavers (this is slightly exaggerated but you get the idea).
A metronome can help to develop a sense of pulse, but it is the ‘inner-pulse’ that needs be cultivated for long-term rhythmical success. The ‘inner-pulse’ generally refers to a musician’s own sense or natural sense of rhythm, where pulse has become internalized; but when applied to playing, if sub-divisions of the beat are un-rhythmical then this can all be challenging to say the least.
One solution to this problem is for pupils to count fastidiously in small denominations; dividing the beat, counting 1,2,3 and 4 very evenly as suggested (in the example below), at the same time as playing the notes (this example is taken from the opening of Prelude in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 by J S Bach):
If your piece contains many semi-quaver passages such as those frequently found in works from the Baroque or Classical eras, then in order to ensure ‘even’ playing, it can be really useful to count every single semi-quaver beat accurately and separately. If you account for each semi-quaver beat vocally, then you really do have to concentrate and play with your mouth literally! (success also depends on your vocal counting being absolutely exactly in time). If you are unable to count rhythmically and play at the same time, then another way of addressing the problem is to set your metronome to beat on every single semi-quaver (it can be done although needs to be on a very fast setting and the passages must be practised slowly too). Beware, this is exhausting. Start slowly building up speed gradually.
Once you have practised in this way for a while, you will find you are then totally ‘tuned in’ to the necessary precision required for rhythmical accuracy because you will be focussing on the beat inside the main crotchet beat (in this case). A steady ‘beat’ or ‘pulse’ is effortlessly achieved as a result, and it is much easier to play along with the metronome too. Sufficient regular practice in this way encourages the development of that elusive ‘inner-pulse’. If you work at this you will find that you never, ever rush or play un-rhythmically and your piano playing will definitely sound more professional.