To play Studies or not to play Studies

There has been much debate recently over the internet, as to whether technical exercises are important or not when learning to play the piano. These include comments here on my blog (and on many other blogs too) as well as via my inbox, regarding the merits of playing and practising studies irrespective of the standard or level of the pianist. Many believe them to be totally irrelevant; learning should be an organic process, assimilating difficulties within each work studied. Others, who enjoy exercises and feel there is much to be gained from the practice of such technical work, want to know which ones are ‘better’ or ‘more’ effective. Is there, in fact, a ‘holy grail’ manual which could possibly improve playing once and for all? Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Working at studies and exercises is of course, personal taste, depending largely on, the teacher, a student’s capabilities and whether the student will work in the necessary diligent way, week after week.

For any technical work to be really useful, a student has to believe in it and trust it (this is true of a teacher too). If pupils feel exercises to be a waste of time, dull, or perhaps ‘not real music’ then undoubtedly they will become bored quickly and will cease playing them. However, if the benefits are obvious as they hone and work at their increasing pianistic skills, then practising them will become a good and perfunctory habit, rather like taking a bath!

There are two crucial factors in successful study practice; firstly, the way exercises are tackled and assiduously worked at and secondly, how they are taught. There is little point in playing the same technical exercise over and over again achieving little and not really improving technique at all. In many cases, exercises seem quite straight forward; many Czerny, Hanon or Cramer studies are indeed easy to sight-read and play, but this isn’t the point when studying them. The idea behind technical improvement is to play in a ‘different’ manner, working at personal deficiencies (we all have them!) and it’s much easier to do this with relatively simple music. To make a steady and real improvement in piano playing, it takes self-discipline and self-knowledge in order to know exactly what is required to improve.

Here are a few tips and useful points when thinking about adding studies and exercises to your daily practice regime:

  1. All studies, whatever the composer, can be useful depending on what is to be achieved. It may be a good idea to mix it up and play several by different composers, as this will provide variety when tackling the same technical issue.
  2. When practising studies, try to observe physical sensations (do you feel really comfortable when playing, for example), after all, these works aren’t necessarily intended to be ‘great’ music, which is one of the reasons why it is possible to potentially learn on any study accomplishing similar results.
  3. The intension is not only to improve finger power but also physical strength and flexibility in the upper body, so pupils feel a sense of complete ‘freedom’ in movement, particularly in the arms and wrists, which contributes to successful playing. This can’t be achieved if pianists don’t know how they feel when they play.
  4. One of the main factors when playing great music is that mental focus will usually be on the music and on interpretation as opposed to perfecting technical issues. Studies break this cycle and allow pianists to use their minds in a different direction, concentrating purely on improving movement and efficiency when negotiating the whole keyboard. Once this has been assimilated, it’s then possible to focus entirely on interpreting the music.
  5. Studies are not just about fast finger work (although they are great for this, and are especially useful for hand co-ordination too), but are also about using arm weight properly, producing a good sound, installing accurate rhythmic playing, perfecting articulation, encouraging proper use of the body and creating a more ‘professional’ approach to the instrument regarding all aspects of technique.
  6. Concentration is paramount and this ties in with really listening to what is being attained. Perhaps use a recorder to ‘hear’ what is being played. It’s best to avoid employing any pedal when playing studies as this merely clouds finger work. Memorization can also be useful, as it will encourage complete mental focus on efficiency of body movement.
  7. Students are often shocked when physical ‘tightness’ is highlighted in lessons, particularly with regard to wrist movement and upper body freedom (apparently concert pianist Claudio Arrau practised while watching his movements in mirrors, so he could observe his body’s actions whilst playing). Pupils are nearly always unaware of ‘how’ they are playing. This is why it is vital to work with a good teacher in person. They are then able to correct every issue immediately and work with pupils until the proverbial penny drops (which can often take a long time depending on how ingrained habits have become).

Which particular exercises students choose to play is of little relevance, but some of the following may be useful: Czerny, Hanon, Cramer, Clementi, Moscheles, Moszkowski, Dohnányi, Tausig, Beringer, Joseffy, and some Brahms. Etudes by Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninov and the like, are all ‘Concert Studies’, showcasing technique once it has been acquired. Studies can really be a good addition to a practice regime and if addressed properly, will definitely improve piano playing.

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.

Ruth Nye in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The twenty-fourth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Australian pianist and esteemed teacher, Ruth Nye. I caught up with Ruth a few weeks ago and we chatted at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London.

Ruth was invited to study in New York with Claudio Arrau after the Maestro heard her perform in Melbourne, Australia.  A close personal and musical relationship developed which included accompanying him on countless tours around the world and lasted until his death some 30 years later.

After her work with Arrau in the United States she made London her home and a full international performing career followed which included six Queen Elizabeth Hall, and five Wigmore Hall performances.

Ruth has taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School for over twelve years and is also a member of the Keyboard Faculty at the Royal College of Music.  She is in demand to conduct masterclasses in countries around the world and frequently adjudicates on international competition panels.

In recent years her pupils have received The Chappell Medal at both the Royal Academy of Music (where Ruth was formerly on staff) and the Royal College of Music, won the concerto competition multiple times at the Royal College of Music, won places in the Junior Tchaikovsky Competition, Japan and the Bechstein competition, Berlin, won a solo Wigmore Hall recital (2005) and places in the keyboard finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year (2005).

And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Australian concert pianist and  esteemed teacher, Ruth Nye has performed extensively.  Her students have won both national and international competitions.  And, she studied with Maestro Claudio Arrau with whom she became a close personal friend.  So, I’m really excited that she’s joining me here today at Jack Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

RUTH NYE:  Thank you very much. 

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Lovely to be here chatting to you.

RUTH NYE:   Thank you Melanie.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I am going to start by asking you what about your musical education?  How old are you when you started?  What was the catalyst?  Did you come from a musical family?

RUTH NYE:   Well, I started to play when I was five.  Basically, I suppose because I had an older brother who’s… who was already playing the piano and like all little sisters you know, you want to do what your older brother is doing so, so my father said ‘I think we ought to get her taught properly instead letting her fiddle about by herself’.  And my father was probably the big driving influence and he drove with a pretty strong hand  in a sweet glove in a way.  But he came from what you call one of those intensively amateur musical families.  Music was a great thing in the whole family’s life, you know, that the…  he played the violin, he sang, he and his sister won a lot of Eisteddfods and things like this, singing and as amateurs you know, extraordinary, and  he also conducted but wasn’t… wasn’t brought up theoretically well, he just had music in his veins somehow and I think when he realized he had a couple of children that were really…

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   were talented.

RUTH NYE  …talented, he was delighted.


RUTH NYE:   And so, he kept…keep…  kept this pressure.  We had to do our practice there was no slipping out of it! But I probably got away with a lot more than my brother did.  I remember for some time I’d be up to read a book while practising  my scales.  You know, the book up on the–

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I’ve heard that before actually. People just playing their scales whilst reading!

RUTH NYE:   Don’t tell the students.


RUTH NYE: But I’d been certain place in the book that I didn’t want to let it down and as long the piano was going I thought I was safe!… Anyway, but it was… it was a very good background to have come from and it started with a wonderful….  this was in Brisbane, Australia which is not a very big city.  It was the capital… it’s the capital of Queensland.  It didn’t have a conservatoire but we did have this wonderful teacher.  I mean, she was meticulous, not… with some sense of humour, but she was determined that she would teach us as well as she could and she not only taught us to play…. she did teach us all the theoretical background.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Which is so important.

RUTH NYE:   So important.  It’s no point to learn… if say to the students, well go back to the F minor modulation and they look at you, what? You have to know these things obviously otherwise it’s like a ship that’s completely got no rudder. So, she was… she was great and my brother and I were brought up to play a lot of duets, lot of two piano music and she did it all and we won a lot of compositions of course but…  and then that went…went on for quite a while until my father was advised…  I think my brother would have been probably 15, 16, that he should be sent to Melbourne , where there was a very strong musical conservatory and a whole ethic was right there and a wonderful teacher as well called Lyndsay Biggins. And then we didn’t play or work together-


RUTH NYE:   –until… until when we were both in our 30’s when we actually did perform the Mozart Two Piano Concerto. After it was over, my brother Ronald said to me, ‘you know, the first performance of that was given by Wolfgang and Nannerl and I wonder how many other brothers and sisters have played it’.


RUTH NYE:   combinations of brothers and sisters.


RUTH NYE:   But we didn’t research it I’m afraid so we don’t know.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So, you didn’t know?

RUTH NYE:  So, we were… we were very fortunate.  And fortunate in many ways in Australia too because it’s… we got a lot of, lot of opportunities to perform.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. I can imagine.

RUTH NYE:   Whereas, here, it’s a much bigger population, much more drive in the arts than when we were children and Australia’s …  much stronger now of course.


RUTH NYE:   But we did because we were good we got a lot of opportunities which you can’t…I will say to the youngsters nowadays, you know, you can’t just sort of say, I’ll buy that when you’re twenty.  If you had that…  If you had this experience behind you, it’s like, you’re putting something in a safe deposit in a bank and it’s all experience that you cannot buy later on.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So, do you feel competitions are very important?  That was one of my questions.  Do you think they can … Can they establish a career, even today because we have so many of them, don’t we?

RUTH NYE:   We do.  We’re swamped.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   I don’t know… I read there was 350 last year and that’s professional ones you know.  I mean, does … does it mean anything at all?

RUTH NYE:   I’m… I’m not… I don’t keep up with them.  From that point of view, I’m not a good teacher.  I’m not one of those teachers saying, ‘this is coming up, you must go for it’.  They come to me and say, can I do this?   Occasionally, I will say I think you should do it.  I think when we were young; it was… it was a much more gentle atmosphere.  It wasn’t so cut-throat.  I know that when people, perhaps particularly parents, saw our names on the list they say ‘oh God’, because we would usually win but… but it wasn’t… it wasn’t anything that was… you… you felt that you will be belittling somebody that didn’t win.  It is much quieter, calmer, I think. Even the big competitions in Australia were…were gentler somehow I felt.  But, I think, throughout, a lot about the whole work because it would have been a handful of really, really big—like the Geneva one…..


RUTH NYE:   — ones you know, the sort of thing but well, after the war, Second World War, I think and then they sprang up like mushrooms, didn’t they?  I call them a mixed blessing.  I think… I think to get the experience of doing them is good for the students as long as they don’t fall down when they get knocked out in the first round.


RUTH NYE:   You get the philosophy that if you’re knocked out, you’re knocked out. You get on with it. The danger of them… I think there are many dangers.  One is that the youngsters carry the same repertoire for too long because they feel they’ve got a good competition repertoire and they’d go from one to the other playing same thing, so mostly they ask for much the same things, works to play, repertoire.


RUTH NYE:   So, that’s… that’s one danger.  So, they are not pushing their horizons with their own repertoire enough, nearly enough.  And the other danger is of course, that if they do win, sometimes they’re not equipped to carry off the prize which is a lot of playing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   A lot of concerts, different repertoire.

RUTH NYE:   Different repertoire.  And they’ll be asked to play a concerto, that they have to learn, in four months time somewhere and of course, even as they say yes, but big concertos need more than four months to gel.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. That’s right.

RUTH NYE:   To mature inside you, which has to work. So, they’re dangers but if… but if… I mean, they are with us.  We can’t ignore them.


RUTH NYE:  So, we… we have to… we have to take the good side and I hope that we can… gentle, as they take about horses! So the student is not to get upset if they’re knocked out.

 MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yeah.  That’s true.

RUTH NYE:  And they often make great friendships because they all meet each other…..

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, they must know each other very well…..

RUTH NYE:   Yes. They do. Yeah.  Seriously, I… I… I am quite ambivalent about them.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Which teachers do you think were most influential in your life, especially when you were young?

 RUTH NYE: Well, I… I only had three teachers in my life.  I mean, one can learn from going to to a performance of somebody’s and then think wow. And I know that John Lill said that the greatest teacher he ever had was Arrau even though he never had a lesson from him in his life. He was a great devotee of Arrau but he would go to all his concerts.


RUTH NYE: So, that is possible you know, you do learn from performances. But, I was lucky that I didn’t… I didn’t have that sort of wandering search for a good teacher.  They almost arrived in my lap.


RUTH NYE:  So, from… from Edna Hosking in Brisbane to Lindsay Biggins in Melbourne, who was I would say very different.  Lindsay had a huge personality and was really wonderful at getting you prepared for performances.  He had this innate sense that he mustn’t allow any tension… bad tension to spring in, but of course we need some tension, you won’t play a note if you don’t have some tension.  You got to know how to get rid of it.  So, that was good.  So, nothing ever grew up, grew into us that had to be knocked out, but he… he had a flair.  He was talented, no doubt about it.  He was great.  And then from then, to be offered from Arrau, to go out to study with him in the US.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  It’s fantastic.

RUTH NYE:  And that was… that was not a… How should I put it?  Not a sort of volcanic change but it was… it was such a widening of my whole piano experience.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  It must have been…  that was my next question, it must have had a huge impact on your… on your playing.

RUTH NYE:   Yes.  Yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  And your career.

RUTH NYE:   Yes. Yes, it did. He did say to me when I first played to him… I was about twenty.  He said, who taught… who taught you  to play like that?  I said,  like what?  What do you mean?  You know, everything is organic.  And so, I was really… I was quite natural.  So, and of course he was delighted with that.  So, it was… It was great.  Because he was unique, you know.  He was sent by the Chilean Government, the family was sent from…  he was the age of five or six, six, it would have been, I think.  He was playing concerts at five and… And the Chilean Government didn’t know what to do with him… they have this young genius on their hands.  So, they… they paid for the whole family to go to Germany and that was the best scholarship they could offer him and fortunately in time, when he was about nine, he found the teacher called Martin Krause. Who was one of Liszt’s late students, and so this wonderful hereditary line we have is great. Goes from, through to Liszt, through to Czerny and through to Beethoven.


RUTH NYE:  It’s wonderful. We pride ourselves on it but we’re just lucky.  But… So, Krauss was a father figure to Arrau.  His father died when Arrau was two years old.  But he… he was pretty tough to, you know, I think Arrau… they… they rented a house in the same street that Krause lived with his daughter.  And Jenny Krause was a piano teacher too, and Arrau used to leave his house and go stay for the whole day while Krause was at the Stern Conservatoire teaching, he would practice there.  And he would come home in the evening and work there, practising. It was really, really tough but… and he realized that Arrau played  in… but he that said Arrau played like Liszt played. He said everything was natural at the keyboard.  It was nothing that was restricted.  The sound was fantastic.  So, he left that alone but… but he certainly did insist that all the technical work was done absolutely a hundred and ten percent.  So, I think he just realized that this boy knew it all. Now when Krause died, when Arrau was sixteen, which is a horrible time because he just almost got out of short pants into long pants, after being that child prodigy, then suddenly he having  to be that ‘ultra’ performer and so it was devastating.  He…. he died because of that awful flu epidemic that came after the First World War . And he… He was invited by so many people to go and study with ‘this one, that one and he said I don’t know where he got the strength because he was always quite a shy person, but he got the strength to say to all these people, no.  No.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Especially at such a young age.

RUTH NYE: Yes. And so then, he was by himself and he then thought ‘why is this sound I make different from a lot of pianists’ and so our good fortune is that he set mirrors up all around (a bit like in here) he… he just watched what he did.


RUTH NYE:  — with everything and so he was able to pass it on, because if he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have known what he did… so he wouldn’t have known how to teach it.


RUTH NYE: So, that was from my point of view a wonderful thing, that was a pretty devastating couple of years for him. But his repertoire was unbelievable.  I mean, he … he performed the whole Bach works, and I know you have met Angela Hewitt….


RUTH NYE:  And she is wonderful.


RUTH NYE:  I’m sure she has performed most if not all of Bach. And… But he did a whole cycle of all Bach works in Berlin and… and he…he you know, he’s done so many of these, played all the Mozart sonatas, he just…   he did all these chunks of huge repertoire,  in his early years and it’s a… as an experience, I feel very privileged to be able to pass on to others.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.  I can imagine. What are your special memories of him?  Do you have any?

RUTH NYE: Special memories and lessons, let’s do the serious side first.  I remember the first, the very first lesson in New York, when I was doing the Appassionata and when I played it, he was just sitting over there upright. He never used another piano when he taught and I’d go along with this because you don’t want them to copy you.


RUTH NYE:  You have to put it into words so that they can  translate it and then do it, whereas, so many people play it and the students get an idea but they don’t find it for themselves, you’re not really teaching them anything.  You’re teaching them to be monkeys – to copy.


RUTH NYE: Anyway when I turned round  and saw him  the… and he started to speak in a gentle, quiet voice and not because I was unhappy but I was so overwhelmed that my eyes were filled with tears and they just rolled down my face for probably the whole lesson and  he said, ‘oh dear, don’t.  Have I distressed you?’  I said, ‘no, I’m happy’. So, anyway, I had a few tissues so it was alright. But… but his teaching was… always with words, he had a wonderful gift of, because at one stage he was fluent in five languages.  I think couple of them got a bit rusty as he got older, but he could speak, because of his life, that’s what he could do.  But he had this wonderful sense of being able put across with words what you then had to take in and make your own and bring out yourself.  He never… He never said like this and played it, and that was… that was a rare, rare thing.  It’s so… so often you see a teacher just… just play, you know.



MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes. Just sit and the piano.  Just mimicking.

RUTH NYE: Yeah.  Yeah.  I remember one person when I had this wonderful birthday, concert given to me at the Menuhin school last December and a musical friend came up after this, cause a lot of my students came back and played , and the whole concert was made up, and the Director of Music organized all.  It was all a secret from me.  I didn’t know what’s on the programme until I got there.


RUTH NYE:   But somebody came after the concert, amazing things are all different and I took that as a great compliment.


RUTH NYE:   I really did.  They had all the same, what I call, philosophy of the way  to play the piano.  But you have to let the person run themselves musically and not just stamp your image. They’ve got to find their own way.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Sure.  Sure. You’re… you’re a very celebrated teacher now, you teach at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Music.

RUTH NYE:   Yeah.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   What is it that you love about teaching so much? Because you’ve devoted a lot of your time to it.

RUTH NYE:  Yes, I have over the last twenty years, really.  Because I contracted Dupuytren’s contracture in my finger in the early 90’s.  And, that really started to put the end to my playing. I’ve got arthritis but anyway, apart from I’ve been lucky enough to find fulfillment–


RUTH NYE:  — in teaching.  Fortunately, with a lot of…with an awful lot of talented people.  So, I say to the… to my students when they start to teach, I say look at … when a little youngster coming to you, has to have one of two qualities,  they have to be musical or they to be enchanting that you can’t resist them, you know.   But… But that is true, you know.  But, what I love about it is you get somebody who has musical gift there and has talent and that… that varies you know, you can find somebody who works at the piano and has no problems at all. You find someone who’s hand is perhaps not quite the right thing for the piano and you got to make it right. But what I love about it as much I think, most… two things that I do,  I’m able to do, is to see a human being develop as a person because we’re developing the talent inside them. And if that talent wasn’t developed, I don’t say they would be a lesser person but they’ll be a different person and to see this growing so wonderfully with confidence and they’re prepared to express themselves that is… that is wonderful.  And then of course the… from ability to do it. You have to teach them that as well.  So, it’s very fulfilling.  It’s… It’s… It’s wonderful when they find things for themselves to you know, say well, someone was playing and I said ‘ why… why did you want to do that accelerando there?  It’s not marked.’ ‘well I just thought it would be, you know’, I just said…It’s not convincing.  Play it again and convince me.  If you convince me, you can do it.  But play it again, and convince me.  Nine times out of ten Melanie, they’ll play it again and then turn round to me and say, ‘ no, it didn’t work to… didn’t work.’  And that’s the best way because they find it out themselves.


RUTH NYE:   Whereas, if you just come and say, ‘don’t do it’.  And  they… Hmm… Hmmm..say ‘I want to do it’.


RUTH NYE:  But when they find out themselves, it doesn’t work.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.  What aspects of piano study are most important when you take a young… young pianist and you start training them? What do you think is the most important?

RUTH NYE:   I… I just got a new youngster…at the Menuhin School…a little boy and he’s incredibly musical.  He’s nine years old, I think. And what I found that his theoretical knowledge is very patchy, even for a nine year old, it’s patchy. So, I… I… I, he’s had two weeks of school with me but already I’m starting to… to build that foundation to make sure there is no holes anywhere.  There comes a time when he… you know, if he doesn’t know that F sharp  major has  6 sharps.


RUTH NYE:  He doesn’t know there the order of  sharps and flats.


RUTH NYE:  Which he didn’t.


RUTH NYE: It might sound trite but it’s important, you know.  And the…  all these foundations, these cornerstones, that we must make sure are in place and if you suddenly find there’s is a gap then you’ve got to fill it in, making it fun, making it an adventure. If it’s dry and boring, they get dry, they get bored.


RUTH NYE:  But if you make it an adventure and then they can  see it then and they apply it to what they’re doing.  What key are you playing in?  Why have you got a B natural there?  What’s happened?  And make them think.


RUTH NYE:   Make them use their brains.  So, that’s… that is very important.  The other thing is you’ll find a lot of this business.  And sometimes, it’s easy to break and other times it just takes a little time because it’s quite ingrained but just… you just gently keep pushing it down ‘cause that’s also puts awful  tension through the whole body. If you’ve got a restriction anywhere, I feel that you cannot get the sound out of the  instrument that you want, because you’re finally, no matter what you do, you finally just might get a pencil and go ‘bonk’.  You need… You need to know what you want to do with your body to get that particular sound, ‘cause we are playing… we are playing a machine really.


RUTH NYE:  We’re not in, we’ve got an E.  We’ve got all the mechanics that work inside but we can make that particular  note sound different.  One… One thing I find is that people only think of expression like, pianos and fortes or mezzo fortes, that sort of thing… and they think of them in decibels.  They don’t think what type of mezzo forte that I am wanting to produce?


RUTH NYE: And the range that is huge but… but how can we produce it?  That… That range when you’re touching something, work something  inside and I… it’s magic because if… if you have the image of sound in your head, and you just… use your body in the correct way, the sound will come through. If you don’t have the image, well then you’re lost. But you have got to have the image first and then it turn… it just… it happens and this is I think, was the… why Arrau said to himself, ‘why do I make a different sound?’  Not only a different sound, but a range of sound. Not in decibels but in that area of … of that one little string.  If you… If you think of the world, you get it like in painting.


RUTH NYE:  You’ve got a beautiful pink jacket on , well  there are a lots and lots and lots of sorts of different pinks jackets aren’t there? But it’s still a pink jacket?

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s very true.


MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So, what does playing the piano and teaching the piano mean to you?

RUTH NYE: I suppose it means a huge amount. I think I was very lucky when this thing happened to my finger that I was able to go into teaching.  I think if it had been taken away from me completely.  I think you’d be a different person.  I don’t say you’d be a worse person or a better person, I think you’d be a different person.  I don’t think you’d be the same person.  I think I’m lucky that the other side of my life is good.  I’m… I’m very lucky, I’ve got a wonderful family and so, it’s not that I would feel pushed out because I know I still have that behind me that’s solid… solid thing. And… But, I think if you take any artist or you take any art away from any person you… you must end up as a different person.


RUTH NYE:  And I’m sure I’m afraid although I love my garden, and I love my gardening, I’m afraid as every year I past the ground gets further  away all the time. So, in as much as I could have spent hours and hours in the garden, I can’t now.  So, I just have to enjoy… enjoy it a  little… little… a little and often but not a long time.  So, there are… I… I don’t think I’ve been miserable but I would be bereft.  Yeah.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Thank you so much for joining me today.

RUTH NYE:  It’s a pleasure.  Thank you, Melanie.

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.


A few thoughts on Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C Sharp Minor Op. Posth.

Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes offer a rich array of depth and emotion for both the pianist and listener. Written between 1827 and 1846, they consist of 21 short pieces. The genre was developed by the Irish composer John Field, but Chopin expanded on this original conception producing what are generally considered to be among the finest short pieces ever written for the instrument. The Nocturne typically constitutes a romantic, dreamy character suggestive of the night. The main feature of most Nocturnes is a beautiful song-like melody, often with melancholic overtones accompanied by a rolling unobtrusive  bass. Ornament passages and filigree in the melody are commonplace, and the importance of the sustaining pedal cannot be overestimated bestowing the overall dramatic effect. There are variations on this idea, however, this formula has produced some of the most haunting, emotional and beautiful piano music.

Whilst Nocturnes are generally slow and may sound fairly ‘straightforward’, in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. One of my students presented the Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor op. posth a few weeks ago and we have been working hard on various aspects.   This Nocturne was composed in 1830 for Chopin’s older sister, Ludwika, and was first published 26 years after the composer’s death. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Reminiscence’ Nocturne.

There are so many different layers of sound in this work requiring a whole variety of touches and colour.  It’s possible to work at this piece on so many levels and a Grade 8 or diploma exam is not in any way equivalent in standard to the rendition by Claudio Arrau (one of the greatest pianists of the Twentieth Century), linked below, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts on how to approach and practice this work (or any similar style piece) on a fairly basic level.

The opening chords can present a few problems and require consistent balancing; an active, strong fourth and fifth finger must be combined with a ‘soft’ approach in the wrists so as to cushion the sound. It’s particularly daunting starting off with an opening such as this, where each note must sound fully; being perfectly voiced and very quiet all at the same time. The trick (other than trying your concert piano first!) is to focus on the top note (or melodic material) making quite sure it is completely legato by constantly changing fingers and employing sparse pedalling. By making sure your arm weight is transferred to your fourth and fifth finger, you should be able to produce a beautiful sound in the melody line allowing all other notes to fade into the background. Don’t be afraid to change fingers frequently in a legato melodic line – it’s much more effective and ‘clean’ than relying on the sustaining pedal. Play the remaining notes in the chords with a very relaxed arm and wrist, depressing the keys as slowly as you dare, testing the key bed, checking where the sound kicks in. Note too that the repeat of the chordal progression is effective when played softer, like an echo. Here’s the original passage;

Chopin Nocturne 1

And the melodic line, which needs special attention (with suggested fingering);

Chopin Nocturne 2

After the introduction the remainder of the piece consists of a rolling, quaver bass constructed from arpeggio or broken chord figurations over which a an exquisite right hand melody prevails. The melody, similar to  that in many of Chopin’s Nocturnes, has a wonderful operatic quality which could be viewed as the ‘singer’ and left hand or bass clef part (the accompaniment), as the ‘accompanist’, therefore,  the pianist has to engage in being both, effectively occupying both roles at once!

There are three layers of sound in this work;

1. The melodic material in the right hand.

2. The broken chord quaver figurations in the left hand.

3. The bottom of the chord in the bass line which is generally the first quaver of every minim group which occur twice in every bar (generally).

It’s always worthwhile practising the left hand alone because it requires absolute consistency and evenness with regard to rhythm and tone. This work does not benefit from being over pedalled or from too much rubato. Rubato (or taking time) is a feature of Chopin’s music generally, but even the composer himself always insisted on a rhythmical bass proclaiming, ‘The left hand is the conductor of the orchestra.‘ Claudio Arrau’s performance (linked below) does provide an extraordinary illustration of perfect yet slightly exaggerated rubato.

Use a variety of touches when practising; start by playing the bass line fortissimo because then it is easier to pull back and achieve a smooth, soft, even sound. This practice technique works effectively in lots of other piano music too. The bass notes at the beginning of each broken chord are the most important as mentioned above, and need slightly more sound and a tenuto (or held) approach (you can afford to hold this note a tiny bit longer than the other quavers), because they are providing the bottom of the texture harmonically (the constant bass C sharps in this extract);

Chopin Nocturne 4

It’s a good idea to be aware of the musical structure (which is ternary form) and the harmonic structure too, as this aids quick study, particularly if the piece is to be performed from memory. Each quaver in the bass leads musically to the next yet at the same time must provide the ‘middle’ layer of sound so therefore should always be in the background with regards to volume. Try to avoid the temptation to ‘poke’ or ‘jab’ at notes. A flexible wrist and a rotational hand movement can help here allowing more control over the amount of sound distributed to each note. If you can, practice the left without any pedal at first and certainly without rubato. As you become more secure with the bass part, so you can add pedal. It’s crucial to listen to your pedalling; the pedal is often best controlled by the ear as opposed to written suggestions on the page. This might sound obvious however, it is easy to pedal mindlessly, not listening to everything clearly. Sometimes it’s beneficial to play the left hand part with both hands allowing for complete assimilation of the bass line.

The melody, as with many of Chopin’s works, requires a real cantabile (or singing style) touch. It must soar above the bass, the colourful chromatic inflections imparting drama, artistry and elegance, synonymous with Chopin’s style. A free wrist with plenty of arm weight provides a good sound; even the pianissimos need proper arm weight and the overall sound needs to project fully. The success of this line relies on  an understanding of the nuances of each phrase. Rather like sentences, a melody must have punctuation. Study each two or four bar phrase ‘feeling’ the direction of the music, seeking where the most important note or notes lie and adjusting your sound accordingly. The melody should rise and fall enabling the dramatic sections to stand out musically. Space is vital in this work, so allow ‘breathing’ time between phrases.

The tricky ornamental passagework and scalic runs can be easily negotiated by working again with a full sound, encouraging all fingers to work completely (make sure you have worked out all your fingering first) then experiment with different types of articulation; complete clarity is desired in every figuration.  After this, a lighter approach should reveal even, accurate trills and florid passages. As with the left hand, work on the right hand separately until you feel secure and confident. It might be a good plan to practice with the metronome until you have a total rhythmic grasp and only then start thinking about rubato.

Chopin has marked all musical details very thoroughly, so if you can colour each layer of sound, you will be on your way to playing any Nocturne effectively.

And a performance of the Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor by Maestro Claudio Arrau.

You can read a more in-depth, detailed, updated version of this blog post 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.