Teaching Improvisation to Groups Part 2 by Christopher Norton

Today’s guest post has been penned by renowned composer and educationalist Christopher Norton. This is the second post in a series which offers practice ideas and suggestions for those teaching group improvisation (you can read Part 1, here). Christopher’s work has, for many years, involved teaching students how to improvise using his imaginative and very popular music. Over to Chris…


Having looked at right hand chords (with a track) using root position G, first inversion G and second inversion D chords, with a bass pattern added, we can now talk about some simple techniques for right hand improvising on Samba Sand from Connections for Piano 3. Here’s the piece again:

With the track, play this left hand pattern 3 times:

Once this feels comfortable, almost automatic, you are ready to try adding right hand.

With students, I often find they are happier tapping than playing initially, so I would try tapping unaccented quavers (eighth notes!) on the right leg while playing the left hand chords:

Now for the magic moment – miss one eighth note out. For example:

Now we play right hand notes, playing the same rhythm. I suggest starting with G, A, B, C, D, but play around to see which ones sound good where! My first solution:

I’m already using some principles of melodic development – repeating a phrase with one note changed (bars 1 and 2) repeating an idea (bar 3) and having a contrasting idea (bar 4) The tune also joins the left hand rhythmically for the final bar of the phrase.

Now try missing out the 5th eighth note. Tap first:

This suggests different tunes. For example:

Notice I’ve added a low D and an E (so a sixth note) Students often do this – adding new notes – quite naturally (and so do I!). If a tune suggests itself, go for it, whether the notes are the given ones or not.

Now experiment with missing other eighth notes out to create different rhythm patterns. Always tap first, then play. And don’t be worried if slight variations happen spontaneously, while tapping and while playing. The left chord rhythms may also vary spontaneously as well…

Another useful tip: play the left hand chords and try playing right hand rhythm patterns starting on one note. G is the best starting point. Then try 2 notes (G and A) 3 notes (G, A, B) and 4 notes (I like G, A, B, D – when in doubt, keep it pentatonic!)

Here’s an example of a tune which gradually build the number of notes:

This is another principle of melodic development – playing the same rhythm with different notes. And I’ve also done a new rhythm in bar 7 and I have also repeated a pattern higher up (bars 1 and 2, then bars 5 and 6).

In the next lesson, we will look at various other right hand tricks – grace note, chords (ie more than one note at a time), pedal notes, arpeggio figures and changing direction. Lots of fun!

Until next time…

The Connections for Piano series, with tracks, are available from www.80dayspublishing.com.


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.


 

No Words Necessary Review

Writers, composers, musicians, and almost anyone in the arts, tend to wait with bated breath after the completion and release of their latest achievement. Will anyone actually like it? And more pertinently, what will the critics say? Never is this more true than when publishing compositions, because our tastes in music, particularly educational music, are all very different. Therefore, I was really delighted to read this lovely review of my new piano pieces, No Words Necessary, written and published earlier this week by writer and reviewer, Andrew Eales, who owns the Pianodao blog. I’ve published Andrew’s complete article below, but you can read the original, here. For more information about the pieces, and to purchase No Words Necessary, please click, here. Over to Andrew…


Lots of piano players enjoy the contemporary stylings of popular composers such as Ludovico Einaudi, Yirumi and David Lanz, but it’s not so easy to find really good arrangements of their music that are accessible to intermediate players, and which manage to be both concise and accurate distillations of the post-minimal piano style.

The search for an educationally sound and musically engaging alternative just got easier with the publication by Schott Music of No Words Necessary, an excellent collection of 12 new pieces composed by Melanie Spanswick.

These interesting and enjoyable pieces will certainly satisfy those looking for approachable contemporary piano solos, and they further confirm Melanie as an imaginative and engaging composer.

So let’s check it out …

Concept and Recordings

Ever since it was established in 1770, Schott Music has been open to current trends and new development in music, seeking to represent a broad and colourful spectrum of new music. At present, they seem to be going through something of a golden age, with a succession of brilliant new publications in 2018, and much more scheduled for the coming months.

No Words Necessary joins their releases for this Autumn and brings well-known teacher, writer and adjudicator Melanie Spanswick to Schott’s roster of contemporary educational composers. Spanswick may be known to readers as the author/compiler of the outstanding Play it Again: Piano series, which I reviewed here last year.

According to Spanswick, No Words Necessary is:

“… a collection of 12 piano pieces intended for those who are approximately intermediate level, Grades 3-6. Consisting of melodious tunes and poignant harmonies, they are reminiscent of the Minimalist style…
Easy to learn and comfortable to play, they are equally well suited to the younger or more mature learner, and perfect for either concert performances or playing for pleasure. The collection will hopefully unleash the imagination and make piano playing an immensely rewarding experience.”

The Pieces

While reading on, you can start to discover the pieces for yourself using the composer’s own video recordings of them:

If the music isn’t your cup of tea, we’re done for today (you can discover more intermediate music here though!)

Otherwise read on for my thoughts…

The pieces appear loosely in order of difficulty, with the beautifully serene Lost in Thought providing a wonderfully contemplative opener. Inflections particularly reminds me of Philip Glass, while in Dancing Through the Daffodils there are echoes of Bach and Clementi, their motifs refreshed for the present day.

Spanswick’s melodic sensibility is more to the fore in the swaying Pendulum, the lyrical Walking in the Woods (my personal favourite here) and delightful China Doll. Other highlights for me include the restrained Voices in my Head, exotic Phantom Whisperer, and Beneath, which conjures a superb sense of hushed wonder. All these pieces are in my view well worth a look.

In terms of level, I would say most are accessible at the lower end of the advertised range; the book is ideal for the Grade 4 player wanting to explore fresh new music.

A feature of the contemporary post-minimal piano style is the emphasis given to organic flow rather than single gestures; often such music includes little in terms of suggested articulation, phrasing, and only a block outline of dynamics. Teachers will be pleased that Spanswick gives more detail here, including indications of balance between hands using a different dynamic for each.

The Publication

For the book itself, Schott have used their generic plain cover, which is a little disappointing given the target audience and imagination of the music within.

Spanswick-No-Words-Necessary

Inside though, Schott’s house style is as welcome as ever: with quality cream paper, crystal clear notation engraving and well spaced layout, the presentation is a cut above that sometimes found elsewhere. The amount and suitability of suggesting fingering throughout the collection is also, I think, spot on.

The premium quality Schott bring certainly adds to the ease and enjoyment of exploring the music itself.

Conclusion

It’s been a busy year for new piano music, but this latest publication certainly shouldn’t be overlooked.

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


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.


 

Play it again workshop at Millers Music

For anyone in the Cambridge area (UK), I will be presenting a workshop at Millers Music next Friday. This free workshop is essentially for teachers, but anyone is most welcome to come along. I’ll be focusing on topics which run throughout my Play it again: PIANO course; with a brief walk-through of both books (touching on Book 3 too), followed by a practical workshop highlighting the suggested practice techniques intended for technical improvement which feature at the beginning of Book 1 and 2.

There will be plenty of opportunity for audience participation, and hopefully lots of discussion. Each audience member will be given a copy of my workshop notes detailing the considered topics, which will mostly examine the importance of cultivating a tension free technique.

The workshop will be held from 6.30-8.00pm on Friday 16th November, and you will find Millers Music in the heart of the city: Millers Music, 12 Sussex St, Cambridge, CB1 1PW, UK. You can register to secure your ticket, here.

If you would like to find out more about Play it again: PIANO, which is a course for students returning to playing the instrument after a break, click here. You may also be interested in the following video, which has been recorded by piano returner Tommy, who runs a ‘piano corner’ on Youtube; this is the first video in a series which will survey each piece in Book 2.


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.


 

No Words Necessary: 12 Piano Pieces

It’s been a busy year so far, with several publications nearing completion. One new volume, about which I am particularly excited, has been released this week. It marks my debut as a composer for my German publisher, Schott Music. Whilst I already write for Schott as an author, I hadn’t previously published a book of my own compositions. The new collection is called No Words Necessary and it is a selection of twelve piano pieces for intermediate level, or for students of approximately Grades 3 – 6 standard (of ABRSM, Trinity College London or London College of Music exams).

I wrote the pieces earlier this year during my stay in Hong Kong, working as an adjudicator for the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival. Adjudicating is a demanding job, but I frequently enjoyed unusually long lunch breaks  of around an hour and a half in length. Adjudicating sessions often took place in splendid theatres with lovely well-tuned grand pianos, so I decided to put this time to good use. Within a few weeks I had written all twelve, albeit scribbled on manuscript paper as opposed to using my Sibelius software.

The pieces are characteristically tonal, with a nod to Minimalism. The title, No Words Necessary, was inspired by German poet and writer Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856):

‘Where words leave off, music speaks’

Each work is intended to evoke thoughts, emotions or images in the mind. Many are reflective in character, with melodious tunes and poignant harmonies, but there are also more energetic, lively pieces too, for those who want to get their fingers moving. When composing for students, my aim is to write in a tuneful, expressive style, which I hope resonates with pianists of all ages, levels and abilities; these works are equally suited to younger or more mature players. Each one is comfortable to learn and rarely employs large chords or overly elaborate passagework, and they are intended as concert or festival pieces, examination pieces or simply to learn and play for pleasure.

The titles are as follows:

  • Lost in Thought
  • Inflections
  • Voices in My Head
  • Pendulum
  • Phantom Whisperer
  • Dancing Through the Daffodils
  • Walking in the Woods
  • Beneath
  • China Doll
  • Balletic
  • Tinged with Sadness
  • Spiralling

Recorded at Moreton Hall School in Shropshire, and at Jaques Samuel pianos in London at the beginning of August, you can hear each piece by clicking on the links below. The book can be purchased as a hard copy or digital download (either the complete book or each piece separately), here: No Words Necessary.













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.


 

 

 

Structured Piano Practice for Beginners: 10 Tips

Several readers have recently written requesting a post on structured practice ideas for beginners. I scrolled through my archives (you can browse them here) and realised that I hadn’t written anything on structured practice for this vast and significant group of piano students. I’m very sorry about this, and in order to redress the balance, I hope you find the following of interest!

  1. Beginners, particularly teenagers and adults, might benefit from setting goals. Decide what you wish to achieve by next week, next month and next year. When goals are in place, you are working towards a tangible outcome. It will help focus your mind and encourage you to keep going during those less than fruitful practice sessions.
  2. Stick to that routine. Find a time of day which works for you, then you can look forward to practising at the same time everyday or whenever suits your timetable. Piano practice might not always be possible, but if you can mark it in your schedule and are keen to do it, then you’ll be sure to make it happen.
  3. Little and often can work well. A beginner really doesn’t need to practice for more than 20 – 30 minutes a day. You may find it easier to work in two sessions. Aim to practice regularly as opposed to a couple of rushed sessions before your lesson (if you have one).
  4. Studying with a teacher is much more productive than learning alone. Find a suitable teacher and a beginner’s tutor or method book which is user-friendly and well organised (your teacher will probably advise here). Use this alongside other resources; it’s best to explore a variety of material as opposed to relying on one piano method book.
  5. Try to start your daily practice with a brief memory session on note testing. Practice writing the notes on manuscript (music) paper, and follow this by naming and locating them on the keyboard. Repetition will prove key. Learning to read music is a prerequisite when studying the piano. In my piano course, Play it again: PIANO Book 1, there is a music theory section at the back of the book with note-reading and rhythmic exercises.
  6. Begin your practice with a few relaxation exercises. Relax your shoulders as much as possible, and try to ensure they don’t rise up during practice. Keep your wrists loose, and arms, light and fluid. Fingers need to be firm, but the hand, wrist and arm should ideally be loose and flexible.
  7. Rhythmic reminders are vital. Clapping or tapping on the piano lid may prove beneficial, as will counting out loud along to your playing. Always keep a steady pulse, and aim to ‘feel’ a regular beat which might be described as similar to that of a ticking clock or heartbeat. It can be helpful to clap along to either a metronome or stop watch in order to become aware of the regularity and steadiness required. Clap or tap the pulse and rhythms in your pieces before learning the notes.
  8. Find and play the notes in your piece (or pieces) without the rhythm. Learning to coordinate both hands whilst grasping note patterns can take time, so try to do this before you add the rhythm. Write your fingering into the score, and ensure you use it! Take time moving around the keyboard and aim to find the notes with your fingers before you need to play them. Name the notes as you play, and keep your wrist and hands loose and relaxed.
  9. Repetition is important when getting to grips with note patterns. When combining the notes and rhythm together you may need to work at each bar many times. Keep your fingers close to the keys, eliminating any possible errors. Set an extremely slow pulse at first. When confident, add speed and repeat the phrases using a different tonal colour (try playing softly, then much more powerfully, for example). This precludes mindless repetition, encouraging focus on dynamics, phrase shape and other important musical features.
  10. Spend a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes on each little piece (similar to those in length in a piano method or tutor book), and in that time, concentrate fully until you can play fluently. The sense of achievement will feel monumental when you can skip through your piece with no errors. Play each piece from beginning to end after your practice session. This will channel your concentration, and illustrate what needs to be done at the next session.

And finally, make a note of each practice session in a notebook. It can help to write down what was achieved and how you did it.

For more practice ideas for beginners, check out my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred 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.


 

At The Piano: a study series by G. Henle Verlag

Many will know G. Henle Verlag as a sheet music publishing company with a difference: they are one of the few publishers who can claim to produce world-class Urtext editions. From music students through to professional musicians, G. Henle’s volumes are probably the most popular worldwide, with the familiar smoky deep blue covers adorning a fair few music desks.

Henle has always been my edition of choice and I have a rather substantial collection, including all thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas in both the hardback and soft cover editions!

Günter Henle was a keen amateur pianist and he formed his company in 1948. Based in Munich, Henle specifically focuses on publishing Urtext sheet music. ‘Urtext’ is characterised by using the correct musical text according to the composer, drawn up from following strict scholarly principles, often including extensive commentaries about the original sources and details regarding the readings. G. Henle publishes all the major composers, including the complete piano works of J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, J. Haydn, W.A. Mozart, Schubert and R. Schumann.

More recently, Henle have added a study edition series (smaller study formats) to their score library, as well as facsimile editions of composer’s manuscripts. They have also created a pedagogy (teaching or study) programme intended for a specific student demographic. The first venture in this direction, the At The Piano series, features a collection of twelve volumes, each focusing on a particular composer. This series is primarily designed for those returning to the piano; predominantly more mature students who have played the piano to a considerable level, and who wish to return to this enjoyable but exacting past-time.

Each At The Piano volume contains a selection of original works which are generally considered to be amongst the composer’s more accessible, ‘easier’ piano compositions. The progressive nature of At The Piano encourages a carefully gauged return to playing the instrument, and a reintroduction and familiarization with a composer’s style and technical attributes.

The books follow the same format and they all begin with facts about the content, Urtext score, historical context, and information about the composer’s stylistic traits. This is all beneficial and interesting, particularly regarding the Urtext commentaries.

There are twelve composers from which to choose: J. S. Bach, W. A. Mozart, J. Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, F. Mendelssohn, Grieg, Chopin, R. Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Debussy. The number of pieces included in the volumes differ depending on the length and difficulty of each work, but typically they contain between 10 – 15 pieces, a large proportion of them well-known; a vital component when enticing the returner.

Placed in order of difficulty, the pieces are beautifully laid out, as might be expected. Henle’s scores are lavishly presented with pristine, clearly defined print, set on rich, thick cream paper. And they are past masters of ‘spacing’ the music carefully, providing a sense of space between the notes. This might not appear obvious at first glance, but it cleverly leads us to believe the music is possibly slightly simpler than it really is, enabling students to learn with more confidence.

The levels of difficulty are displayed on Henle’s website and at the front of the books: level 1-3 (easy), level 4-6 (medium), and level 7-9 (difficult). This general guideline doesn’t adhere to the usual British graded exam system, and therefore, At The Piano would undoubtedly seem advanced for those expecting to see traditional examination levels. Some volumes that I examined began at around Grade 4/5 level (ABRSM), but others were more challenging. However, this may suit the returning pianist, who will probably be adept at note reading and will already know their way around the keyboard.

The pieces have been selected to complement one another, and they are also designed to prepare students for more advanced repertoire written by that particular composer. At the beginning of every piece is a commentary, commencing with a paragraph or two highlighting historical facts, informing readers about how or why the work was composed. This is followed by suggested performance notes. These practice notes vary in length depending on the complexity of the piece, and they tend to be a ‘walk-through’ with helpful guidance on phrasing, articulation and dynamics. Edited, annotated and fingered by German pianist and professor Sylvia Hewig-Tröscher, every publication contains reproductions of a page of the autograph or engraver’s copy. These are interpolated at various points throughout; an imaginative touch which extends the historical value.

At The Piano is an excellent series for students and teachers. Those who fancy learning a major composer’s ‘piano favourites’ will really enjoy working their way through each book. G. Henle have combined a scrupulous ‘pure’ score with plenty of valuable information, offering a fascinating glimpse into the history and style of each composer.

You can find out more about the pieces included in each volume, and purchase the scores here: At The Piano


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.


 

 

How loose are you? Piano teaching in Asia

Returning from another enjoyable and successful book tour, I find myself reflecting on a perennial piano teaching issue; one which seems to occur all over the world.

This tour was the busiest yet with visits to four countries and multiple cities; Singapore, Malaysia (Melaka and Kuala Lumpur), Indonesia (Jakarta and Surabaya), and Hong Kong.  On this trip I was fortunate to have company: I gave teaching workshops alongside colleagues Samantha Ward, who is artistic director of PIANO WEEK and also a fellow Schott Music author (she was presenting Piano Junior, the new Schott beginner’s method), and Dr. Wolf-Dieter Seiffert, president of G. Henle Verlag (who spoke about Urtext editions), as part of the Arrow Vision/Schott Music/G. Henle Verlag tour, which formed the middle segment of my trip.

Whilst our workshops were open to students, teachers and parents, the majority of the audience consisted of piano teachers. It’s a real pleasure connecting with teachers around the world, sharing a few (hopefully) useful ideas, as well as highlighting the benefits of using my piano course, Play it again: PIANO. Several teachers had previously attended my workshops last year, and it was lovely to see them again. I also appreciated their feedback regarding Play it again, and it was wonderful to hear how much their students have enjoyed using the books.

Teachers are generally very receptive to this two-book course (pictured above), which, as readers of this blog will know, contains an anthology of 49 piano pieces progressing from Grade 1 – 8 level, with copious practice suggestions for every piece. I was delighted to be able to talk about Book 3 for the first time too. This new addition will focus on works of approximately Grade 8 level up to the DipABRSM diploma, and it was written due to vociferous demand from teachers! Many thanks to all who have been in contact over the past year.

At the Encore Music Centre in Melaka, Malaysia, giving a two-day workshop for piano teachers

Play it again: PIANO Book 3 will be available at the beginning of next year (2019), and it will follow the same format as Book 1 and 2, featuring a select group of pieces drawn from mostly standard repertoire with plenty of guided practice tips and advice. The practice ideas, which run throughout the books, are certainly not designed to replace teachers; piano teachers are irreplaceable. However, in my experience, students tend to ‘forget’ much of the advice we offer from week to week, therefore my suggestions, which primarily focus on breaking pieces down to enable swift, successful learning, are intended to serve as reminders and ‘extra’ help between lessons.

In Singapore and Hong Kong I gave private lessons as well as workshops and master classes. The level of playing was consistently high; many of the students were teachers, and they were nearly all advanced diploma level. This isn’t unexpected, but what I often find surprising is the amount of time I spend on teaching physical flexibility.

Physical movement at the piano is, for me, probably the most crucial factor when playing the piano, because without a flexible, relaxed technique, playing accurately and with a rich, full sound are both challenging. But, perhaps more importantly, a tight, tense technique also tends to make playing a very uncomfortable experience for the pianist.

I spend a large percentage of lesson time working with students to sort tension issues. I always pose the question: “how loose are you?” or “how loose do you feel?” as this is often the easiest way to help students understand the desired ‘feeling’ necessary in several parts of their upper torso. It’s interesting to note that tension can occur at any level or stage of piano playing, and it’s this that fascinates me. The more advanced the student, the more demanding my job! Although it isn’t a ‘job’, but rather a pleasure and privilege to help.  Advanced students might have habits which are inextricably ingrained. The fun part is being able to unravel their issues, and replace the old habits with new, healthier ones.

In Surabaya, Indonesia, with piano teachers at my workshop

Repetitive strain injury and tendonitis are just two of the conditions resulting from piano playing laced with tension. Over the past few years I have worked with students who had developed quite serious pain issues, and we carefully reconstructed their technique over a period of around twelve months (it can take less time with a very dedicated pupil). Boring and painstaking work? Actually, I find it very rewarding. Witnessing a student’s progression from pain and dejection  to mastery and confidence is very gratifying.

Working with a student at a master class in Hong Kong

There are a profusion of effective teaching methods which can be employed to reverse tension. I use one which is easy to understand, and one which emphasizes relaxation (or a ‘loose’ feeling). The tension/release concept is relatively simple to comprehend, and if it is implemented with a series of loose wrist and hand movements, which are all exaggerated to start with, improvement can be almost instantaneous. Although it can take a while for such movements to become an instinctive, natural habit.

I aim to continue my work with pupils who require such teaching, and my trip served as a vital reminder of its value. I examine the basics of flexibility in the opening section of Play it again: PIANO, Book 1, 2 and 3, and you can also watch my videos online for more ideas (see below):

 

You can watch all four videos in this series by clicking here. Huge thanks to my publisher Schott Music for their fantastic worldwide support. I look forward to next year’s Far Eastern adventures.


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.


 

“Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!”*) – Four Famous Composers at the Wiesn**)

My guest writer this week is Dr. Wolf-Dieter Seiffert, president of the world-renowned Urtext publishers G. Henle Verlag. This light-hearted story takes place at the famous beer festival and features several rather well-known composers; written by Dr. Seiffert, it was first published on the G. Henle Verlag blog. You can read the original, here, which has been directly translated from the German version. Over to Dr. Seiffert…


Yesterday evening I was once again sitting in the party tent at the world-famous Munich Oktoberfest with a good Mass Bier***). Facing me sat four rather odd-looking men who introduced themselves as “perennial musicians”. I didn’t really quite catch their names (for the band in the tent was very loudly playing “music”). But their appearance and their speech certainly seemed somehow weird to me, in fact, “old-fashioned” – then suddenly it hit me, WHO they were, sitting at my table. Hard to believe, but for sure!!

“Well, gentlemen, shall we now order another Mass Bier?”, asked the most elegant one in a cultivated Garmisch dialect. “High time, very high time!” exclaimed the pudgy one with glasses on his nose, grinning, “I’m dying of thirst!” – “I’m not counting, valued Fugue-Reger, he he, Reger-Euguf, and go ahead, of course, indulge in your 11th Mass Bier. But don’t you think we ought to go about it a bit mezzo-piano?” weighed in the one with the high-pitched voice, whom they fondly called Amadé (or some such). “Oh, come on, let’s still enjoy the good Bavarian beer at least once a year”, reckoned the one from Garmisch, “especially as we Bavarians do indeed drink beer so temperately” – thereupon, Amadé pipes up again: “You probably mean – dear Kapellmeister Richard – temperate in volume?” – “How do you actually like the new G. Henle publishers’ cover, esteemed Bavarian colleagues? Henle is certainly genuinely Bavarian – but don’t you think the cover is pushing it a bit too far?” asked Max in the round. His question, though, totally disappeared in the band’s A-flat major Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit! and mugs were raised all around in a toast. “Now where is our Ludwig? Wasn’t he just here?” observed Amadé, looking around. At that, Kapellmeister Richard said: “He’s probably gone searching again for his distant beloved; there are certainly a lot of really pretty Madln****) here …”. – “Next year, we’ll bring Franzl along again as a guest from Himmelpfortgrund [Vienna], he’s so much more amusing than the perpetually grumpy Ludwig from the Rhineland”, opined Max, who gratefully beamed at the waitress as she set before him a fresh Mass Bier. “Now let’s all toast the angel Aloysius who year after year has us come down here to the Wiesn. Bottoms up, gentlemen – and three cheers!”

I would really like to have toasted their Aloysius with the gentlemen, also absolutely wanted to discuss with them our new cover and Urtext basics, and just get into a conversation at all with them, but then unfortunately they somehow got lost to sight in the beer-tent turmoil.

PS: Here, but only for my hardier Bavarian readers, is the ever wonderful, original Bavarian story of the Munich angel Aloysius.

PPS: You can see Aloysius with his harp soaring in the beer-tent canopy, incidentally, in the brief video clip at the beginning of my text.

*) “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit” = A toast to cheer and good times.
**) “Wiesn” = Oktoberfest (famous beer festival in Munich/Germany), in Bavarian dialect.
***) At the Oktoberfest beer is served in one-litre mugs, called “Mass”.
****) “Madln” = young ladies, in Bavarian dialect.


You can find out much more about G. Henle, which is based in Munich, Germany, here. For those interested in Urtext editions, the following video provides a fascinating insight into the traditional craft of engraving on metal plates which was traditionally used by G. Henle Verlag:


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.


 

Fingering: Part 1

Today’s weekend post focuses on fingering; a topic about which I often write for the reason that I feel it’s particularly important for students of all levels. This article is the first in a two-part series written for the September 2018 edition of Piano Professional, published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association), for whom I regularly write a technique feature.


Fruitful Fingering Part 1

Fingering comes in all different guises and there is certainly no ‘one-size-fits-all-approach’; much can depend on the size, shape and disposition of the hand. However, there are certain fundamentals which might be applied to most hands, and with that in mind, some of following suggested techniques will hopefully prove advantageous for all kinds of repertoire. This is the first of two articles examining various fingering strategies and ideas which may be useful for your students.

If you use Urtext editions, fingering will have generally been written in to the score by an editor or in some cases, the composer, but irrespective of who has added the fingering, it’s always possible to change it and replace with your own. As a teacher, I often spend a significant amount of time during lessons either adding or changing fingering, and sometimes fingering may have been drafted in to the score at the very start of the learning process only to be changed after a week or two, if a more suitable one miraculously comes to light.

A crucial factor, when educating our students about the benefits of idiomatic fingering, is the practice and absorption of scales, arpeggios and broken chords. Students and teachers frequently bemoan their existence in exams, but they do serve a myriad of purposes. I have written extensively about the importance of scales as technical exercises, but another, often overlooked, factor is that by assimilating all the scale and arpeggio technical work properly, students learn ideal fingerings for much passage work.

Baroque and Classical repertoire is routinely constructed from standard scale patterns, and therefore it’s both pragmatic and practical to base fingerings for such passages on those learnt from scales. The following is a good example; hailing from the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1, the scale passage in the right hand can be clearly identified as that of E flat major (starting on the third of the scale), and if the same fingerings are employed as in the scale, the passage is that much easier to grasp:

Contrary motion scales prove a useful tool for learning symmetrical playing. If the thumbs or same fingers (in either hand) can play together when moving in the opposite direction, coordination feels comfortable. This won’t always be possible, but when our students are starting to play scales, aim to begin with simpler objectives.

Symmetry is also at work when learning arpeggio patterns. Fingering must be well-defined in arpeggios; the left hand, particularly, relies on the careful use of the third or fourth finger:

In this example, it might seem taxing to use the fourth finger on the E (the second note in the C major arpeggio), but using the third finger here, as suggested in some exam manuals, renders an awkward position for the hand. Eventually, the fourth becomes accustomed to the second note, and this helps with chordal playing too. However, when playing a major third at the start of an arpeggio, such as in D major, the third finger would be ideal:

Encouraging students to learn these patterns accurately from the start is a good plan, as it becomes tricky to change them at a later date. The brain seems hard-wired to play the first fingering pattern it learns – changing always feels alien.

Aim to play in position as much as possible. This involves limiting turning the hand, or changing hand positions. Hand turns can lead to uneven playing, especially when a melodic line is involved. Bumpy or jerky playing can happen when there are too many thumbs on the scene. If students can be coaxed into using their fourth and fifth fingers as frequently as the inner part of their hand i.e. the thumb, second and third fingers, not only will the hand be more balanced whilst playing passage work, but it will also feel more natural, with considerably less movement. In order to do this, the outer fingers will require sufficient practice, so that they are able to cope with the demands of playing crisp passage work. With this in mind, it might be pertinent to use a few daily exercises, but only with the guidance of a teacher, as it’s easy to ‘lock-up’ or become tense without cultivating flexibility in the hand and wrist when working at developing finger strength.

Know your thumbs! Thumbs can be pivotal for secure playing; knowing where they occur in both hands, and where they don’t need to occur, will create confidence. Once students are aware of thumb placement, the other fingers tend to fall in to place. Although thumbs provide stability when playing, as they tend to ‘anchor’ passage work, the challenge is to listen optimally so they do not dominate; they must ideally be tonally equal to all the other fingers, therefore we must strive to find ways to camouflage thumb ‘accents’ which can happen due to thumb physiology.

When writing fingering in the score, it can be enough to pen where thumbs arise, as opposed to marking every finger, but I still tend to write in much more fingering than this for my students. If possible, try to ensure that hands work in tandem; occasionally what seems like the best fingering in the right hand might become unworkable when both hands play together.

Repeated patterns or sequences can be an excellent way to absorb fingering quickly. Sequences of notes or note patterns may lend themselves to replica or repeated fingering i.e. the same patterns over and over again. Repetition is key here, and the ‘blocking-out’ technique can prove a suitable method of learning i.e. playing note patterns all together in one go, enabling pupils to find the notes and their corresponding fingerings at once. This can be seen in the following example, which shows two bars from the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1. The first example illustrates how the Alberti Bass pattern in the left hand appears in the score, and the second, how it might be practised (keeping the same fingering throughout):

Further to the second example, for even swifter learning, the entire bar could be played as one or two chords (where possible).

Repeated notes are a different fingering issue altogether. There are often two schools of thought; some believe it’s better to change fingers on every note during a repeated note passage, whilst others find using the same finger achieves a more pleasing result. I encourage students to try both methods, and decide for themselves. Let’s examine the following passage, which is the opening of Turina’s Fiesta Op. 52 No. 7, right hand:

Both fingerings are acceptable. By using the same finger, or the top fingering in the example, you may find that students are able to create a smoother, more even repeated note passage. For clarity and control, advocate keeping the second finger close to the keys and employ a gentle finger tapping movement.

Finger substitution is a preferred method of playing legato. It’s too easy to rely on the sustaining pedal to ‘join’ note passages. If a pianist can continually substitute or change fingers on one and the same note, fluent, smooth playing should be the happy result. Finger substitution entails holding a key down with one finger whilst quickly swapping to another finger or thumb, ensuring the same note is held for the entire procedure. This technique enables pianists to form an unbroken musical line whilst playing other note figurations or patterns underneath (or above).

Finger sliding utilizes the same finger to literally ‘slide’ from note to note. I call this the ‘illusion of legato’ and it may also be a useful technique for larger intervals too; notes don’t actually need to be next to each other to benefit from the sliding approach.

Sliding requires a very smooth manoeuvre, where the second note of any ‘slide’ must not only match the sound to that of the dying first note, but should also aim to avoid gaps in the sound between notes. Astute listening is paramount.  Students might like to work at the following exercise. After practising this exercise using the thumb, play it with the second finger, and then third finger:

Fingering is of utmost importance when learning to play smoothly, evenly and proficiently. It’s for this reason that we must offer our students a thorough grounding, so that they are eventually able to annotate scores for themselves.

Click on the link below to read the original article:

Fruitful Fingering Part 1


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.


 

A Canadian Playlist by Maggie Morrison

My guest writer this week is Canadian pianist, teacher, adjudicator and musicologist Maggie Morrison. Maggie (pictured below) is studying for her doctorate at the University of Toronto, where she is researching the piano music of Canadian composer David L. McIntyre. I asked her what qualities pervade David’s music and what drew her to study the music of contemporary Canadian composers. Over to Maggie…


When Melanie and I met this past March as adjudicators in Hong Kong, my grandfather was alive. He now rests in the Eternal Garden, a niche cremation wall in Brantford, Ontario.  After his death I began spending every Thursday with my Nana. During one of our Thursdays together, I noticed a hunter green chest tucked away in a corner with the title “J. WRATTEN” printed on the top in big black lettering.

I opened it up and found my great grandfather’s immigration slip from England dated 1913, from the port of Liverpool – the immigration slip!  I hadn’t thought or realized until that moment that my gramps was first generation Canadian. He instilled values that serve me today – work hard, be kind, and get the job done.

My grandpa grew up in the Salvation Army playing the tuba; he encouraged my mom to be a musician as a young girl, driving her to lessons and local Kiwanis competitions.  She is now an established teacher, life coach and mentor; blazing a trail for badass entrepreneurs with her online business The Music Teacher’s Teacher.

I grew up with Boris Berlin’s pedagogy books as a beginner pianist, attended Sharon, Louis and Bram concerts as a little girl, and later blasted Alanis Morissette and The Tragically Hip on my car speakers as a young driver, ripping around southern Ontario.  As a teenager I studied with Dr. E. Gregory Butler who encouraged me (and his entire studio) to learn and perform Canadian pieces every year.  My first advanced piece of Canadian repertoire was Jacques Hetu’s Impromptu Op.70.  I love the freedom that new music brings, the map is a familiar landscape among a different terrain.

I’ve come full circle with my love of Canadian music: I’m focusing on the piano music of David L. McIntyre for my doctorate dissertation at the University of Toronto.  Back in 2011, I asked David to write a piece for me.  We exchanged many emails – he was interested in getting to know me both as a musician and an individual.  He asked me many questions, from favourite colour to country to cuisine.  The piece he wrote for me, “Transmissions”, is now a part of Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music syllabus for the Diploma level.

David’s music is completely captivating.  His compositional style is very pianistic; he himself is a pianist.  His music for beginners is full of humour and personality.  Listening to the Sun and A Small Band of Smart Rodents are two of my favourites. There is often a rhythmic force – a pulse, a pattern that drives his music.  In Transmissions, David’s compositional style ping pongs between two main focuses: rhythm and melody.  The first section pushes forward with intense rhythmic drive – from the first bar McIntyre doesn’t spare a second – it begins with sixteenth notes in both hands chromatically crashing to the second bar where an intense motive then takes over.  There is an element of satirical humour heard here, with an almost Prokofiev-like approach. The feeling of breathlessness and intensity doesn’t let up until a few minutes into the piece.  The contrasting section is dreamy and melodic – highly pianistic and soulful writing – using the lowest and highest ends of the piano simultaneously, featuring languid rhythms in a bluesy section and ostinato in the bass.

David’s inspiration for this piece came from the first telephone call ever made by Alexander Graham Bell from Paris (Ontario) to Brantford, about 15 kilometres away.  David thought it was interesting that I was originally from Paris, but was premiering this piece for a fundraising concert in Brantford.  Thus blossomed his idea of a transmission – a wave of energy through technology, from the earth to the stars (or satellite) and back.

We often don’t know how our environments influence us. Sometimes it’s very clear, sometimes it is less obvious.  I am proud to be the granddaughter of a man who valued music.

Here is my Playlist of Canadian music for you to explore and enjoy:

  • The Tragically Hip – Bobcaygeon
  • Alanis Morrisette – Ironic
  • David L. McIntyre – Transmissions, for Maggie
  • Alexina Louie – Scenes from a Jade Terrace
  • Francois Morel – Etude de Sonorite, No.2
  • Heather Schmidt – Nebula

The following video comes from one of my Bachelor’s Degree performances at The Cleveland Institute of Music in 2012.


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.