A Workshop at Forsyths

For anyone in the Manchester (UK) area, I will be presenting an afternoon workshop at Forsyths music shop on Saturday 26th January 2019. Based in Manchester city centre, Forsyths is a major music store which holds regular events and workshops. My workshop starts at 2.00pm and will finish at around 4.30pm, and it is intended for teachers, parents and students.

The afternoon will focus on piano technique basics; how to keep relaxed and flexible at the keyboard and how to apply relaxation methods to various technical patterns such as scales, arpeggios, broken chords, and so on.

There will be an opportunity for audience participation too, and I will also be presenting my books, Play it again: PIANO Books 1 & 2, and Book 3, which will be published very soon. The books will be on sale throughout the afternoon, and we will finish with a Q&A session. Read more about my piano course on Forsyth’s blog this week by clicking here.

To find out more and book your ticket for this event, click  here.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

Fruitful Fingering Part 2

This is the second article in my series for Piano Professional Magazine, published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association): a teacher’s publication, for which I write the technique feature. You can read the first article, here, and in Part 2, I look at different methods of applying certain fingerings, offering various options  for students.


Teachers all know the importance well-placed fingering has in the context of learning a new piece, and this fact remains true irrespective of a student’s level or ability. My previous article examined several expected fingering techniques, and in this article I will endeavour to venture a little off-piste, with a few different ideas around this vast subject. Our goal, as teachers, must be to equip our students so that they can eventually think for themselves, writing their own fingering on every score.

Firstly, I return to reiterate perhaps the most vital concept when learning to finger fruitfully, and that is the assimilation of scales, arpeggios and broken chords; if students have thoroughly learnt these patterns, then adding fingering to most piano pieces will feel simple and natural. This point cannot be stressed enough, as without these symmetrical note patterns and their fairly rigid fingerings, pupils simply won’t be able to grasp the basics of piano playing. If your student hasn’t been taking exams, it might be prudent to suggest the acquisition of a scale manual – both the ABRSM and Trinity College London publish separate volumes with all keys, scale permutations, and fingerings.

Knowing your fingering is paramount, and as a general rule, once a fingering has been chosen, written into the score and played through, it’s highly advisable not to change it. This cardinal rule certainly rings true for less experienced players. Our brains seem hard-wired to play patterns or sequences, but once these patterns are even slightly distorted, it causes us much grief and cancelling them altogether will feel very unnatural.

Practice tends to make ‘permanent’ as many teachers will attest, so aim for students to be quite sure of their finger selections before they leave the lesson. Try going through a piece slowly with them, hands separately, checking that they are actually using the fingering which has been added to the score. This will be key to successful absorption of each hand’s fingering, and will stop the inevitable corrections which will occur at the following lesson if this stage in the learning process has been side-stepped.

After advising our students to religiously stick to one fingering for their pieces (especially for any fiddly figurations), it can be extremely liberating to throw out this rule when returning to study a piece for the second or third time. This may only apply to more advanced pupils. Occasionally students will play a piece, leave it for a while, only to return at a later date to find that the fingering which once fitted like a glove, now feels less than ideal. In this case it’s time to revise the original fingering and search for something more convenient. Whilst it may appear akin to climbing Everest, a more advanced student can reconfigure passages with relative ease, especially when they are able to work out the new fingering for themselves.

Smaller hands inevitably struggle with certain elements, namely wide intervals and large chords, which can be challenging, particularly when playing extended passagework. Fingering must be very carefully applied when taking this fact into consideration. Sometimes the only option is to ‘rearrange’ passages, leaving out notes which don’t disturb the flow or the construction of a piece. Adding a spread chord where the original is too large, or rewriting chords in some cases, may provide a simple solution. Dividing passages between the hands is another beneficial tactic. It may appear as though cheating, but it can be a workable option if the sound and character of a piece remains largely unaffected.

Octaves are renowned for causing smaller hands grief, but with regular flexibility exercises and a relaxed wrist and arm, most students can handle them. There is much debate over the fingering of octave passage work. Some schools of thought are insistent on using the thumb and fifth finger for all such passages, whereas, others believe the thumb combined with a fourth or fifth finger provides a better option. Certainly when playing fast chromatic passages, the fourth is a welcome addition (and if a student has a large hand, a third finger may also be used):

This passage from Study No. 49 of Czerny’s Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740 illustrates how the fourth finger, if implemented scrupulously and only with a relaxed or loose arm and wrist, can be an excellent method of moving quickly around the keyboard.

Sliding from two black keys when playing octaves, can be a helpful way to join notes smoothly (I’ve written about ‘finger sliding’ in more detail in my previous article: Fruitful Fingering Part 1). It should also be remembered that using the thumb on black keys is now regarded as acceptable, whereas previously, this practice was sometimes considered ‘unsuitable’ fingering.

How the fingers physically play notes is another often forgotten factor when discussing fingering. I work with students until they can easily use their fingertips when playing fast figurations or scalic passage work. The tips are best incorporated via a flexible wrist and a ‘hooked’ finger position:

This fosters firmer finger and rhythmic control. However, flatter fingers can work well too, for chords, especially those on black notes, and they are generally more conducive to achieving a completely different timbre. Some impressionistic repertoire might be best played with this approach.

Two notes, one finger! An effective tactic for large chords, such as the following, which employs a spread thumb:

Chopin Prelude (Op. 28 No. 7 in A major), is easier to grasp when using the thumb over the C sharp and A sharp:

This also works for white notes:

And, for certain repertoire, playing ‘in the crack’ might be a practical alternative:

Two fingers playing the same note can have a real impact on certain passages, carrying more weight and drama, and the thumb is also able to support the other fingers creating a deep, rich sound.

The thumb might also be extended slightly when playing back notes, therefore avoiding mishaps involving slipping off or missing notes (example below, to the left):

Fingers have their own character and personality, and, again, this is a very personal element when considering how fingering might be applied to a passage. As a general rule, the thumb and possibly the third finger appear stronger than the others, perhaps due to their positioning on the hand. We aim to encourage students to ‘strengthen’ their fingers, but realistically everyone’s hand is different, and this applies to finger strength as well. I ask students to examine their fingers, observing how they work at the keyboard, deciphering which they feel is the strongest or most powerful. Once then have done this, they are in a better position to work at instigating a more secure technique; developing power in the fourth and fifth fingers especially. However, this must be done with great care, using flexibility in the wrist, arm and hand so as not to cause tension issues.

Finger pedalling is a topic which must be mentioned here. It’s not pedalling as we know it, but it does create a similar effect, as if depressing the sustaining (or right) pedal. The technique of finger pedalling is essentially the over-holding of notes i.e. holding down the keys whilst continuing to play other notes over the top (or underneath). This was a popular technique used for the harpsichord and other early keyboard instruments before the pedal was invented, and as a result it is often synonymous with Baroque music. Before the sustaining pedal (which was implemented from approximately W.A. Mozart’s time onwards), holding down the keys was the only way of sustaining the sound. The following is a well-known example:

Here, the two lower notes in J. S. Bach’s Prelude in C major (No 1 from the Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues Book 1), are held, as the top line (played by the right hand) plays the melodic material. This example has been ‘written in’, but it’s often the case that a player must use their own artistic judgement when employing this technique.

Fingering can have quite an impact on tonal balance. A suitable fingering will enhance chordal balance, and will allow melody lines to come to the forefront of the texture. Guided practice is required when voicing any chord; whilst firm fourth and fifth fingers are generally a prerequisite for melodic playing in the right hand, much suppleness in the wrist and hand will be necessary behind this firmness, supported by the Bridge position or the knuckles. Where possible, it can be practical to introduce the thumb for melodic material, even if it involves much movement around the keyboard.

Finally, if we can guide students to think about fingering before the learning process begins, they will become aware of the fundamental impact this can have on their learning capacity.

You can read the original article, here:

Fruitful Fingering Part 2


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

 

 

 

Sounds of Intent

The first guest post of the year has been written by Sum Yee Chan who is a specialist in Genitourinary medicine in London. She has recently completed a course entitled Sounds of Intent at Roehampton University. Sounds of Intent is a framework of musical development for children with learning difficulties. According to the university; ‘The Sounds of Intent programme is designed to enable practitioners to gain the skills and understanding necessary to use the Sounds of Intent framework to assess children and young people’s levels of musical development and devise music policies and curricula.’ Here, Sum Yee  outlines her experiences.


I have  recently completed a course run by Roehampton University in the Department of Education on special educational needs and music (Post Graduate Certificate in Sounds of Intent).I have an amateur music background and do not work in this field, none the less I found the course to be very valuable and have gone back into a school to lead a weekly music session there.

The course is led by Prof Adam Ockelford who is Professor of Music.  The Sounds of Intent project was set up in 2002 in conjunction with the RNIB.  Prior to that there was little or no research into musical development in children with special educational needs.  The PROMISE report in 2001 (Welch, Ockelford and Zimmerman) was a survey of 52 special schools providing education for 2758 pupils, this highlighted a large variation in music provision for children with special needs.  It also recognised that music provision is important for the general social and educational development of children away from the musical setting.  The Sounds of Intent project is an evidence-based web site which enables practitioners to map the musical development of children in three domains:  reactive, proactive and interactive over time.  There are example videos on the website to show each level.   Anyone reading this blog post can use it, as it is completely free. 

The site can be used for children (and adults) with any level of special educational needs ranging from profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) to those with extraordinary musical skills.  The website has now been viewed by over 6.2 million people around the world and is used to develop music policies and curriculums in many schools for special educational needs around the UK.  The project has been launched in many countries around the world and was recently listed as one of the UK’s 100 best breakthroughs for its impact on people’s lives (Universities UK).     
Another recent development has been a pilot project in conjunction with Trinity College London, where people who are unable to take traditional graded examinations in any instrument, including piano, due to their disability are able to gain an accreditation from a recognised exam board.  The pilot focused on the lower levels of Sounds of Intent, but the aim is to extend that to include all levels of musical ability. 
Through the course, I was also introduced to many different organisations for disabilities and music. This includes charities such as The Amber Trust which provides grants for children with visual impairment to have music lessons or equipment. Also OHMI, which helps physically disabled musicians with e.g. specially adapted instruments.

Music has been and continues to be very important in my life and I hope that it can be an important part of people’s lives irrespective of disability or special educational needs.



My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


Five New Year Tips to Seriously Improve Your Piano Playing in 2019

Happy New Year! It’s January 1st 2019 and I hope you have all enjoyed a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s Eve. At the start of any new year, we make resolutions, create new goals, or perhaps re-evaluate or reflect on existing goals. It’s the perfect time to revisit our hobbies, or investigate new ones. Many have written over the past year, telling me how they have really loved learning to play the piano again, after a lapse of one or two, or indeed many, years. Today’s New Year’s post is intended for those who have taken a break from their piano playing and have decided to start playing again. It is possible to move from intrepid pianist to competent, confident player with the help of an excellent teacher and solid, regular practice.

Here are a few ideas to help your practice regime over the coming weeks. Piano practice can tend to fall into a rut and it usually requires an occasional overhaul, so that interest is kept and improvement, monitored.

  1. Regularly monitor your progress. It doesn’t matter how you do this; you might decide to write your updates in a notepad, noting what you feel has improved, or it could be that you ask for judicious feedback from your teacher, or perhaps perform regularly to fellow students, who might provide a candid opinion (this usually only works if you reciprocate the favour!). However, as a pianist it’s too easy to lock yourself away, playing only for yourself, where it can be challenging to be honest about improvements. Try to remain pragmatic about your own playing, because this is the most effective way to change for the better.
  2. Record your pieces. Recording our playing reveals far more than we might imagine. It doesn’t matter how you do this, and you may prefer to record short passages, phrases, or a few bars at a time, but as long as you listen carefully to the results, you will be able to find a starting point from which to build and improve your technique and interpretation. We rarely sound how we think we do, so it can be a shock at first, but it proffers a realistic perspective which can really help in the long run.
  3. Only play a piece through at the end of a practice session. This goes for sections or movements of works too. A common misconception when practising is that it is beneficial to perpetually play your pieces through. There is no doubt that this can be advantageous for memorisation and for structural practice, but during the early stages of learning particularly, it is generally more useful to spend time working at small sections. The ability to break pieces down, almost reconstructing them, enables our brain to think about them in a different way and can certainly aid mastery. When you’re happy with your sectional practice, you might feel it necessary to ‘play’ the piece in its entirety, either at a slower tempo or up to speed at the end of your session.
  4. Slow practice is key. Many articles sing the praises of playing slowly. But it is such an important facet that it’s definitely worth adding to your new list of practice tools for 2019. My suggestion to students is to implement several practice speeds whilst working at a piece (or a technical exercise or study). The slowest tempo must be one which works for exaggerated practice, whereby you can equally focus on both hands, fingerings, movements, notes and sound at the same time. Therefore you should ideally think about a subdivided beat (if the piece is in quavers, practice in semiquavers or even demisemiquavers, for example). The second tempo can be a little faster, allowing you to ‘move’ around the keyboard, but still keeping in check all the above technical considerations. The final tempo could be similar to the speed of the piece, but slightly slower, so that you still have crucial thinking time, for accuracy and sound.
  5. Articulation will make or break your performance. Clarity, neatness and precision in your finger work will make all the difference when it comes to clean playing. It’s vital for almost every style or genre, but of special importance in Baroque and Classical music. Clean finger work can be developed by ensuring fingers not only play every note with a full sound, but also by paying attention to the end of a note too, that is, how long you leave your finger depressing each key. If you are playing rapid scalic passages, for example, make sure notes are equal in length by employing a very firm pulse. Such articulation is more of a challenge for the weaker fingers, such as the fourths and fifths, but it can be honed with spot practice and a flexible, loose arm, wrist and hand (remembering that only the fingers and knuckles should remain firm).

I hope these ideas may inspire you to focus rigorously during your practice time, so that you make the most of your sessions irrespective of whether they are long or short. Good Luck and enjoy your piano playing.

For those returning to playing the piano, you may like to take a look at my piano course written especially for the returner. Play it again: PIANO is published by Schott Music, and currently consists of a two-book course which contains 49 graded, progressive piano pieces from the standard repertoire, as well as including many more unusual works, from Baroque through to Contemporary (also including Jazz, Blues, Rock, Improvisation, and Latin styles). Each piece has copious practice tips and suggestions, as well as a whole technique section at the beginning of each book, and a music theory section at the end of each book. Book 1 is approximately Grade 1 – 4 level, Book 2 is Grade 5 – 8 level, and Book 3 (to be published in February 2019) is Grade 8 – Associate diploma level. Find out more by clicking here, and you can purchase all the books on Amazon too.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

Merry Christmas!

As another year draws to a close, I hope you have enjoyed reading my blog and, if you are a piano student or teacher, have found it beneficial and of interest. Here are my top six blog posts of the year – several are perennially popular and have appeared on my Christmas ‘favourites’ list many times.

  1. 10 tips to seriously improve your piano playing in 2016!
  2. 10 reasons to play the piano
  3. A few thoughts on Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor
  4. Resolving tension in piano playing
  5. Scales – six reasons why you need to practice them
  6. 9 top tips for practising octaves

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading my blog, and for your kind messages and continued support.

WISHING YOU ALL A VERY HAPPY, PEACEFUL AND FESTIVE CHRISTMAS


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

Beethoven Piano Concerto Project

Beethoven’s piano concertos are amongst the most emotionally satisfying in the whole piano repertoire. British pianist and teacher David Alexander has, for the past few years, been programming all five concertos in London as part of his own Beethoven project. On January 10th 2019 he will be performing Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 58 at St. Peter’s Church in Notting Hill Gate with the Johannes Ensemble conducted by Angelika-Rose Stangl. I asked David why the fourth concerto is so special, and what draws him specifically to this work. Over to David…


Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58 stands out amongst the entirety of the keyboard concerto repertoire. The unique sound world makes it immediately recognisable and it has no less emotional and spiritual depth than is conjured up in his three last piano sonatas for example, composed fifteen years later. Listening to it leaves one to consider that they are hearing the composer’s heartfelt feelings expressed through music first and foremost over beautiful and successful harmonic and melodic notation. This in no way detracts from the compositional brilliance of the piece or the beauty of the work, the most lyrical of his five piano concertos. But it is a truly organic piece which speaks from the soul.

The opening very much sets the scene, a five-bar phrase played by the soloist and based upon very simple harmonies. However, a more spell-binding musical beginning is hard to imagine. Such simplicity is all-the-more striking when heard next to the huge technical demands asked of the soloist too during the opening movement; there follows virtuosity in abundance and a big cadenza too, but the work is rarely dramatic as such and the sound is never forced even at the loudest moments.  One particularly special section is the start of the development section where the piano plays very soft passagework consisting of falling sixth harmonies over long sustained bass octaves in the strings. Time appears to be totally suspended, a thoroughly captivating and entrancing point. The second movement is comparatively brief. The orchestra’s very angular and pointed statements contrast with the tranquillity of the piano’s chordal writing before eventually resolving softly in E minor. There follows a short but emotionally charged cadenza before the movement draws to a close in complete stillness. The third movement is a lively rondo and is playful in mood. It is regularly interspersed with calming moments where one feels that the music literally needs to take a breath before immediately snapping back into character again. There is a third and final cadenza before a victorious finish.

The solo and chamber music repertoire of Beethoven have always been closest to my heart and to my pianistic ideals, both technically and musically. Therefore, putting on my own Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle was a must! I have no doubt that this will be one of, if not the most satisfying performance project of my life, and so far it has more than lived up to expectation. The idea was to take three or four years to study these works intensively and to perform them, in order to experience my very own and largely uninterrupted Beethoven journey. I wanted to develop some understanding of how each concerto moves on from the previous compositionally, structurally, and pianistically as Beethoven’s own mind developed to the form. I approached conductor Angelika-Rose Stangl who formed the Johannes Ensemble (as in Brahms) in 2011 and she was every bit as excited as myself to take on the project, and so all the ingredients were quickly in place. I find that not only has my own understanding of the music improved with each performance so far, but a real sense of evolvement regarding the partnership between myself, Angelika and the Johannes Ensemble has occurred throughout the cycle. Focused rehearsals, while also leaving room for some spontaneity in the performances have so far produced the highest of highs for all of us. This concerto will truly be the heart and soul of our project, our own heart and soul, and a performance experience like no other.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

Finchcocks: A Piano Course with a Difference

Last Friday evening I disembarked from my train at Paddock Wood station in Kent (UK), and enjoyed a meandering car journey through what appeared to be a never-ending warren of country lanes. Eventually, we turned  on to a long, narrow private road, which peregrinated around various fields before revealing, in the distance, a large, palatial mansion. The house was beautifully set, classically formed (to my eye, at least), and effectively lit. Next to the house was a much smaller building, a coach house, and this was to be my home for the next two days. My room (pictured below) was of ample proportions, tastefully decorated in rich dark colours with luxurious fabrics and an impressive fireplace; had I inadvertently stepped into a romantic Eighteenth century novel? I fully expected Mr. Darcy to sweep in and take me to dinner.

This was my introduction to Finchcocks Music. Finchcocks is an early Georgian manor house (pictured at the top). For 45 years it housed a large collection of historical keyboard instruments which was open to the public. Recently, Finchcocks was sold and has now started a new chapter, reopening as a retreat to study the piano. Piano courses are a feature most weekends throughout the year, and they are largely frequented by adult amateur pianists and piano teachers who are keen to improve their skills and meet other musically minded souls.

As piano course director it was my job to ensure participants savoured the whole experience. My course began on Friday evening and concluded at 4.00pm on Sunday, it was advertised for intermediate players (around Grade 4 – 7 of the ABRSM exam system), but most of the seven attendees were beyond this level. From all walks of life, my students clearly shared a common love for the instrument and a tremendous capacity to learn.

The course was conducted in the main house; the basement had been converted from cellars into a most attractive and unusual performance and practice space (see photo to the left, where I am coaching Finchcocks owner, Neil Nichols). There were five designated sections for solo practice; within the cellars, rooms had been created with sound proof glass doors, each one resplendent with mostly historic grand pianos. There were seven grand pianos in total, available for student use. The main space contained a concert sized historic instrument, with plenty of room for participants to sit, walk and spread out during the course. And there was even a comfortable ‘coffee area’ with several sofas, designed as a much-needed respite from the intensity of the course.

I love teaching, talking about, and writing about piano technique, and Friday evening’s class was a basic introduction, surveying wrist flexibility and motility during practice and performance. This was well received, and it certainly got participants thinking about the importance of cultivating a relaxed posture. This is the first step to overall improvement. ‘Technique chat’ continued on to dinner. The meals were enjoyed back at the coach house, and they  took place around a lavishly set table (pictured above), and consisted of a three-course meal with delicious food and copious wine, all prepared by a chef employed for the weekend.

Saturday was a full day, commencing with memorisation techniques, moving onto master classes, which continued after lunch. Course members were generally quite anxious whilst performing, but (hopefully) due to the relaxed nature of the weekend and the constantly evolving friendships forming between them, these open classes gradually became more light-hearted.

One aspect of the course that I particularly enjoyed and appreciated was the opportunity to give one-to-one lessons. Neil Nichols, who now owns Finchcocks and hosts the courses, was keen for students to have time with me on their own, rather like a private lesson. This works extremely well, and it offers the chance to address issues in a more private domain. I gave private lessons on both Saturday and Sunday during the course.

After a feast on Saturday evening, Sunday began with a morning of sight-reading; ordinarily this is seen as a dull, perfunctory element of piano playing. But I’m always keen to show that it can be fun. After waltzing through my sight-reading notes (I aim to give course members practice notes), we embarked on solo sight-reading, and, after coffee, this was followed by duets, and finally, trios or three pianists at one keyboard. The trios were definitely a highlight (see photo above), and due to the plethora of instruments, we were able to double up and have six pianists at two pianos (photo below). I find this one of the best and most engaging concepts for those wanting to improve their reading. It also encourages students to really become acquainted with the fellow course members.

After all the classes and private lessons, the course ended with a final performance of a trio by composer Mike Cornick. Coffee and a rather indulgent slice of cake closed a delightful weekend. I had made wonderful new friends and worked with some talented pianists.

Piano courses are a great way to improve many facets of music study. They seek to inspire, address technical and musical issues, consolidate learning skills and endeavour to suggest new practice ideas. My thanks to Neil and his wife, Harriet, for their superb hospitality. If you would like to study the piano in luxury at a country retreat, do check out Finchcocks. Next year’s tutors include Graham Fitch, David Hall, Andrew Dunlop, and Warren Mailley-Smith.

If you would like to attend one of my courses in 2019, the dates are as follows:

June 14th – 16th

September 6th – 8th

November 15th – 17th

I look forward to meeting you!

For a more thorough review from course participants and Jenny Maslin, who helps to run the piano courses held at Finchcocks, please click here.

www.finchcocks.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

No Words Necessary Competition

This week Pianist Magazine and Schott Music are kindly running a competition on Pianist’s website; the prize is a copy of my new piano pieces, No Words Necessary published by Schott Music. This volume features 12 original piano pieces intended for students of around Grade 3 – 6 of the ABRSM examination board level.

These pieces are melodious and comfortable to play, and they are suitable for children or adult learners. If you or your students enjoy playing music by composers such as Ludovico Einaudi, Yirumi and David Lanz, then they might like to try these compositions. You can find out more about the pieces, and hear them, here. And you can read a recent review on Pianodao website, here. To enter the competition (there are three copies to giveaway), click here.

‘These are pieces which I believe could easily find their place in the intermediate player’s heart, combining easy-to-master patterns, melodic charm, and simple structural cohesion. They give players a vehicle through which to develop expressive, engaged playing. And with plenty of variety on offer, too, the collection offers good value. If you’re looking for a fresh collection of accessible contemporary pieces, do give this a try! Warmly Recommended.’

Andrew Eales (Pianodao)

www.pianistmagazine.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

 

Basic Tips for Healthy Piano Playing

Earlier this month I presented a workshop for piano teachers at Millers Music in Cambridge. This activity will become increasingly important during 2019; Schott and I have organised several workshops across the country, and I’m really looking forward to meeting and working with teachers and students. The following article was published on Millers Music website earlier this week and it offers basic relaxation ideas, which is why I thought it useful to publish today. Hope it’s of interest.


My workshops for piano teachers offer a few ideas for developing basic flexibility in piano technique, with a view to harbouring positive habits during piano practice and piano performance. It’s a privilege to work with teachers, talking about technique, how to develop it, and more specifically, how to keep students free from pain, discomfort and tension.

The following tips serve as elementary suggestions; some can be done away from the instrument, and, as with piano practice, regularity is the key to success.

Before a practice session begins, sit at the instrument and drop your arms by your side, so that they hang loosely from the shoulders. Ensure your upper torso is really relaxed; it’s sometimes difficult to notice tension – this is why a good teacher can prove crucial. Relax from the shoulders and arms, through to the wrist and hand. The feeling should be one of looseness and ‘heaviness’. Remember this feeling, as it provides a useful reminder of relaxation during practice sessions.

From this relaxed position, swing your arms up (from the elbows), and literally rest the hands on the keyboard or a table top; it’s the ‘feeling’ that you need to cultivate, so it doesn’t matter if there’s no instrument present. Keep your upper body relaxed and loose as your hands rest on the piano keyboard. And don’t worry if you are not in the ‘correct’ playing position (your hands and wrists will probably be in a hanging position). This is not about playing, but rather about understanding the feeling of relaxation required for the concept of ‘tension and release’ necessary in developing technique. Assimilation may take time, especially in older students.

The next step is to use a simple five-finger exercise: try middle C – G with both hands in either minims (half notes) or semibreves (whole notes). Start with the thumb (in the right hand); play and hold the note (middle C) and then drop the hand and wrist afterwards. Keep hold of the note; you may need the other hand to help here, as both the thumb and fingers have a tendency to fall off the keys at first. As you drop your wrist, ensure that it feels loose; the wrist should be relaxed, and will probably be ‘hanging’ down from the key.  It’s not the position you would ever use to play, but it can provide the key to promoting flexibility, fostering relaxation. Work at each note in this way and then try with the left hand.

The final step for basic relaxation, would be to use the five-finger exercise again, but this time introduce a circular wrist motion technique. That is, using the same note pattern, but forming a circular motion with the wrist between every note whilst keeping it depressed.  They key here is to make sure that the whole arm, wrist and hand feel totally loose. If done after every note, this motion can really instigate complete flexibility, both physically and mentally, that is, students learn to remember the feeling and start to implement this into their practice regime. I encourage pupils to play to the bottom of the key bed, or play heavily and powerfully on every note, establishing a firmer touch.

These steps may take a good few weeks to master, after which we move on to little exercises (usually by Czerny, and these are followed by J S Bach’s Two-Part Inventions), implementing wrist motion techniques on extended passagework.



My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

5 Tips to Create the Illusion of Legato

Every pianist knows the importance of legato, or the creation of a smooth musical line or phrase, notes joining evenly from one to the next. But there are many instances in piano music where we can’t join the notes; the melodic line might leap beyond our comfortable stretch, for example. How do we overcome this inconvenience and lull our listeners into believing that we’ve created a beautiful legato line? In my recent article for Pianist Magazine’s newsletter, I offer a few ideas to instigate the illusion of legato. I hope it’s of interest.


Legato, or playing smoothly, is probably one of the first techniques we master as beginner pianists. We learn how to transfer our finger weight evenly from note to note, joining them all neatly. But what do we do when notes are difficult or impossible to join? Whether a large leap or an awkward, widespread melody line, we simply can’t reach the notes purely with our fingers, and yet there still must be a sense of shape and legato. That’s where the illusion of legato comes in handy.

  1. Sit down at the piano and with your right hand play a middle C and then the D next to it; use your thumb followed by your second finger. Practice playing legato, transferring weight from thumb to finger, listening to the smooth sound you create. Now play both notes with a rich tone, using just your thumb, and listen to the sound ‘gap’ between the notes as you play them one after the other.
  2. To create the illusion of legato, we must close that sound gap. Play the C with your thumb using a deep touch. Keep your thumb depressed on the key until a millisecond before you move it to play the D, also using your thumb. The D must be played slightly lighter than the C, and by moving the thumb from the C to the D extremely quickly and lightly, the ear shouldn’t be able to detect a gap in the sound between the notes. Aim to match the sound of the second note (D) to that of the dying C.
  3. It can help to employ the ‘drop-roll’ technique’; a pair of slurred or joined notes are played with the hand and wrist dropping as the finger or thumb plays the first note, then rising up as the second note is played. Using the wrist and hand to ‘drop’ into the C, as you reach the bottom of the key with your wrist in a lowered position, ‘catch’ the D (played with the thumb) as your hand and wrist rolls upwards.
  4. Practice until the legato is smooth and fluent; you will need to listen carefully. You can then experiment with other fingers; try playing two consecutive notes using your fifth finger. Then try using your fourth finger. Also practice the same note patterns using the left hand too.
  5. Finally, introduce larger intervals. Play from a middle C to an E; the drop-roll technique, slurring the two notes with your thumb, will be most beneficial with larger note skips. Drop the hand and wrist into the C, playing it with your thumb, via a flexible downward movement, and as you turn the wrist to move upwards, manoeuvre the thumb extremely quickly to play the E softly. As always, match the sound of the dying note (C) to that of the new note (E).

Work will be required in order to close the sound gap and create the illusion when playing larger intervals, but with practice it is possible to ‘join’ notes without using consecutive fingering or the sustaining pedal.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.