Why write on the score?

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A piano score is a ‘sacred’ book. Many pianists are immensely attached to their scores and feel they couldn’t possibly work from another copy. Once bought and used, scores are associated with memories, emotions, special concerts, recitals and performance venues, and even correspond to particular periods of our lives. They have significance, and are generally covered with markings too. These pencil ‘markings’ often turn them into priceless commodities, and musicians can become disgruntled or morose when they misplace a much-loved music score.

I don’t enjoy working from a copy without all my own markings. These annotations will include fingerings (essential for certain passage work and especially for more demanding or lengthy pieces such as studies or concertos), dynamics, pedalling, phrasing, and inspirational or personal markings as well. They are not a necessity, but they do really aid quick, easy study. There are various schools of thoughts on this subject and some musicians write very few details into their scores, but this practice can be very helpful particularly when teaching.

Students frequently protest when piano teachers write on their music. I have found this to be the case many times over the years, irrespective of the age of the pupil, and usual comments include; ‘Oh but I want to keep my music clean’ or ‘I find it off-putting to see your scribblings all over my nice clean, crisp score’. So why is it a good idea to  annotate your piano piece?

Learning a piece of music is a demanding process and one which very much relies on mental work as well as the more obvious physical activity. With this in mind, anything that makes a complicated process easier should be embraced. Many teachers like to write their student’s weekly lesson notes in a notebook, but I prefer to write directions on their music. This way pupils never forget what work needs to be done for the next lesson.

To learn quickly, a piece should be analyzed thoroughly.  Some choose to work at their piece in a different musical order to that written (i.e. practising backwards), or focus on complex passages first, so breaking the piece into small sections is advisable. Most pieces follow a specific musical form, so start your study by identifying this form and marking it on the score (look for thematic material, repetitions or similar passages, key changes and the obvious climactic points) then mark them up. This will also help to structure your practice sessions.

Most pianists like to write fingerings into a piece. This is crucial because correct fingerings aid smooth playing. Fingerings (numberings which tell a player which finger is needed play each note) all written into a score will help swift learning; every time you return to play the piece you will be reminded of the right fingerings (because they are immediately in your eye line as you read the music) and in time, this will become a permanent habit.

Those who have difficulty keeping time might need extra help regarding counting or beating. It’s a good idea to write every beat in every bar, and this is especially important for inexperienced players or beginners. A break down or subdivision of beats in each bar is useful too, along with metronome markings (which are not automatically marked in many scores but need addressing and working out in a lesson). It’s easy to forget practice tempos so this is another good reason to write them down on the music.

We all tend to forget details as we practice. Whether dynamics, pedalling or phrasing (especially phrasing), so highlighting these details is a great idea. Again, this way, they become much more noticeable when reading the score. Whilst we must observe a composer’s original markings, sometimes ‘extra’ reminders are necessary. These can include accentuation (it’s easy to ignore a sforzando, but when it is circled in pencil it is that much harder to forget!), articulation, or any number of musical directions.

Small children especially benefit from extra score markings. They often like to draw little pictures at the side of their pieces and adults will occasionally write inspirational reminders helping conjure suitable images or atmospheres for particular works.

I write my own signs on scores. A pair of spectacles may signal a passage where I need to pay attention to another musician’s part when playing chamber music or accompanying. A little ‘cloud’ may signify an area where I need to think about a passage in a certain way, or maybe I just need allow some breathing space in the music. These are all commonplace amongst musicians.

Score markings are not a necessity but they do make learning and practising that much better and more convenient so surely that has to be a good thing? After all, providing you write in pencil, you can always rub out all the markings if you feel the need to own a puritanical immaculate copy.


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.



Pulse Perfection

Over the past few weeks I have been coaching several Grade 8 and diploma candidates; pianists who have come to me to play through  their set pieces and other aspects of their respective exams. It’s the time of year for cramming, studying and practising way beyond the norm in order to achieve that coveted high mark. There have, however, been recurring issues in many performances and perhaps these are fairly common place amongst those preparing for exams so, as a good blogger, I am going to write about them!

All advanced exams follow a similar format, irrespective of the exam board you have selected for your grade or diploma. Graded exams are slightly more restricting than diplomas due to the more limiting choice of repertoire. One aspect of critical importance in all musical forms, but especially the Baroque and Classical style, is rhythm. This may seem an obvious observation, but not adhering strictly to the pulse is a very easy mistake to make.

I’m not referring to basic rhythmic errors because these generally don’t occur in more advanced playing (well they may happen occasionally). However, some pianists are so locked into their performance or interpretation of a work, that they have become immune to the pulse or tempo.

I have been guilty of this crime in the past. When I developed my cabaret show, I had to learn to play with a live band and use a ‘click track’; an electronic beat similar to the sound of a  metronome which runs throughout an entire piece usually via a pair of ear phones. A click track makes no allowance for even the slightest tempo deviation, and I quickly realised just how un-rhythmical my playing could be. As soloists, pianists are at free will to play as they please, which encourages the habit of copious rubato (or taking time) everywhere. Some works do suit this type of playing, but it isn’t a requirement for whole swathes of twentieth century and popular music.

The best way to solve tempo problems initially is to work with a metronome; use it every time you practice for several weeks before an exam or concert, making quite sure you are playing on the beat all the time (this requires careful listening). However, that is only addressing half the problem; pulse deviation can be the result of many shortcomings including uneven playing, lack of concentration or even basic rhythmical awareness.

Uneven playing is a common culprit. Take a group of four semi-quavers like those below in Example A. If these notes have awkward fingerings or are difficult to place accurately for whatever reason, then this may lead to uneven articulation, thus throwing out the pulse completely. The second example (B) demonstrates what can often be heard in place of rhythmical semi-quavers (this is slightly exaggerated but you get the idea).

Uneven rhythm copy

A metronome can help to develop a sense of pulse, but it is the ‘inner-pulse’ that needs be cultivated for long-term rhythmical success. The ‘inner-pulse’ generally refers to a musician’s own sense or natural sense of rhythm, where pulse has become internalized; but when applied to playing, if sub-divisions of the beat are un-rhythmical then this can all be challenging to say the least.

One solution to this problem is for pupils to count fastidiously in small denominations; dividing the beat, counting 1,2,3 and 4 very evenly as suggested (in the example below), at the same time as playing the notes (this example is taken from the opening of Prelude in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 by J S Bach):

Bach Prelude Example copy

If your piece contains many semi-quaver passages such as those frequently found in works from the Baroque or Classical eras, then in order to ensure ‘even’ playing, it can be really useful to count every single semi-quaver beat accurately and separately. If you account for each semi-quaver beat vocally, then you really do have to concentrate and play with your mouth literally! (success also depends on your vocal counting being absolutely exactly in time). If you are unable to count rhythmically and play at the same time, then another way of addressing the problem is to set your metronome to beat on every single  semi-quaver (it can be done although needs to be on a very fast setting and the passages must be practised slowly too). Beware, this is exhausting. Start slowly building up speed gradually.

Once you have practised in this way for a while, you will find you are then totally ‘tuned in’ to the necessary precision required for rhythmical accuracy because you will be focussing on the beat inside the main crotchet beat (in this case). A steady ‘beat’ or ‘pulse’ is effortlessly achieved as a result, and it is much easier to play along with the metronome too. Sufficient regular practice in this way encourages the development of that elusive ‘inner-pulse’. If you work at this you will find that you never, ever rush or play un-rhythmically and your piano playing will definitely sound more professional.


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.


 

British female pianists and teachers: Fanny Davies

In today’s blog I am continuing my series on British female pianists and teachers. Fanny Davies was born in Guernsey in 1861 moving to Birmingham where she gave her first performance at the age of 6. She studied privately in Birmingham, then at the Leipzig Conservatory under Carl Reinecke and Oscar Paul. She also studied with Clara Schumann in Frankfurt.  Fanny was an extremely successful concert pianist and was considered to be the successor to Arabella Goddard though her playing was nothing like Goddard’s in style or technique.

Her concert career began with the Saturday and Monday popular concerts in 1885. Then she performed with the Philharmonic in 1886; the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 1888; Rome, 1889; Beethoven Festival at Bonn, 1893; Vienna Philharmonic, 1895; Milan, 1895 and 1904; Paris, 1902, 1904 and 1905; Netherlands, 1920 and 1921; Prague, 1920 and 1922; and Spain 1923.

Davies was frequently engaged by the Royal Philharmonic Society, making her last appearance in its Society programme on 15 November 1915 under the baton of Thomas Beecham in Mozart’s G major Concerto, K. 453. She had appeared in a Mozart concerto at Beecham’s London debut at the Bechstein (Wigmore) Hall on 5 June 1905. Fanny was the first pianist to give a recital in Westminster Abbey.

Her playing has been admired by many for its lyrical projection, warmth and clarity of inner lines and musicianly authority. George Bernard Shaw was not a great admirer, and in 1891 described her as a ‘wild young woman’. In May 1892, after a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia, he wrote: ‘To those who cannot understand how anybody could touch a note of that melody without emotion, her willing, affable, slap-dash treatment of it was a wonder’. But a year later, at her Crystal Palace performance of the Chopin F minor concerto, he was warming to her, calling it ‘the most successful feat of interpretation and execution I have ever heard her achieve’.

Harold C. Schonberg observed, ‘behind her neat, controlled, tasteful playing one can see the specter of Clara…….she embodied in a remarkable degree the unique qualities of the romantic school of which Clara Schumann was admittedly the most spontaneous and finished exponent’.

Fanny Davies loved to play chamber music, working often in a piano trio with Joseph Joachim. In 1892 she appeared with Richard Mühlfeld and Robert Hausmann in the first London performances of the Brahms Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114. She also gave the first London performance of Brahm’s D minor Violin Sonata, also with Joachim. She was accompanist for lieder recitals given in 1894–6 by the baritone David Bispham, in Schumann and Brahms (including the Op. 112 Liebeslieder).

Davies gave the premiere performance of Edward Elgar’s Concert Allegro, Op. 46, in 1901. The piece was written only after constant requests from her for a new piece, and was dedicated to her.

Fanny Davies’ success had a great influence on other female pianists; she was professor of piano at the Royal College of Music and gave much encouragement to students in England and on the continent. She also helped to ‘create among the general mass of amateurs a taste for pianoforte playing of a more warm-blooded type than had hitherto satisfied them’, wrote Herman Klein. Davies wrote articles and lectured widely on music (many of these papers and articles are in the RCM archives) and she died in 1934.

Here are a couple of sound bites to enjoy:

Main Source: Wikipedia


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.