Listening and focusing

This might seem a rather unusual blog title, but it’s a topic that I have been musing about for a while. There are, of course, many considerations when playing any instrument but particularly the piano. Elements requiring much thought include; co-ordination, notes, fingering, rhythm, pedalling, colour, sound and so on. The success of all  important technical and musical issues depends on how carefully we listen and focus totally on what we are doing.

It’s so easy to play with closed ears; not really focusing on what we are playing and perhaps not being fully engaged either.  That may sound daft, particularly as we are making music, but really it’s a very common problem and we are, more often than not, all guilty of these musical crimes. There are several issues here; the first is being able to hear what is being played beyond the notes, and the second, is to be fully focused and engaged as we practice.

It’s all too easy to practice physically, striving to improving technique, subsequently blocking out the actual sound being produced. Another mistake is to play without really thinking about what we are doing, merely ‘going through the motions’, our minds engaged elsewhere. So how do we learn to listen and focus on our own playing objectively every time we practice?

All musicians must adhere to the score so this has to be learnt thoroughly, but beyond the notes, musicianship takes over, or it should do. If you find that you are not dealing sufficiently with technical issues, then perhaps learn a slightly less demanding piece which will allow you to concentrate fully on the music. This may be the crux of the problem; technique often demands so much mental work that the sound world and musical structure can sometimes take second place, when really it should reign supreme.  When practising, there is a tendency to enjoy the physical sensations of playing and not really focus on the sound being produce.

One way to ensure total focus and complete concentration is to ‘hear’ the music in your head before you play it and then try to reproduce those sounds as you are playing. It’s a form of singing but in your head; visualisation but in sound instead of pictures (but visualising pictures may be useful too!). This technique can be especially helpful if you are memorising a work. Singing is a crucial element in any form of music making, but is particularly effective when applied to piano playing. It’s not actual singing (although this can be a good idea) but more specifically hearing melody lines in your mind, deciphering which musical lines need to be emphasized and coloured, and which can be allowed to disappear within the texture.

Thinking about musical texture in this way requires much mental work, so it’s not really possible to do it without engaging our ears and minds fully. This especially applies to pedalling, where far more can be achieved by listening to the sounds that are being produced as opposed to purely observing written signs. Whilst thinking about musical lines and textures, appropriate tonal sonorities are created too and chances are, you will produce a more beautiful sound. You will also learn to ‘hear’ where the music is going and be able to deliver a convincing account of a work.

Pianists generally don’t have as many opportunities as other instrumentalists or singers to work in a group; whether that be a choir or ensemble. This is a pity because playing with others also helps to focus our minds, forcing us to really listen. Whether chamber music or piano duets, it’s not possible to play successfully without total compliance. So if you find yourself losing impetus, then perhaps it may be time to find a musical partner or join a choir. Working with other musicians can be such an inspiring experience which can only help to improve mental discipline. We owe it to ourselves (and those we work with) to work at our playing with open ears and embrace the music by being totally present and ‘in the moment’ every time we touch the instrument.


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.


 

Fifty Shades of Pianism

Tonal colour is a glorious and important aspect of piano playing. Irrespective of standard, all pianists need this skill which allows them alter or grade piano sound; it’s often known as shading or colouring. This adds variation to the music but it also demonstrates an understanding for the composer and a ‘feel’ for the work and style too. There is nothing quite as monotonous and dull as limited tonal contrasts in any piece of music, so it’s a good idea to experiment with sound variation from the outset.

When you start learning a piece, make a note of all the composer’s markings. Look for dynamics (how loud or soft you need to play), watch out for articulation marks (different touches) and pedalling, because they will all contribute to the overall sonority of the work. Do this from the beginning rather than waiting until you have ‘learnt the notes’, because your brain will then easily remember the feeling of playing at a certain volume or with particular articulation and phrasing. This in effect speeds up the learning process, as well as implementing character and design.

Once you have a feeling for the work and the approximate volumes of sound required, then you can really think about musical interpretation and how you wish to perform the piece. This is all tied in with the markings on the score and the form of the work. If you are playing a sonata movement, for example, you will be playing the same material twice (the form normally being that of exposition, development and recapitulation; the exposition and recap usually consisting of similar material) so you will need to consider varying the interpretation accordingly (if that is appropriate).

One technique that can be useful is to experiment with piano timbre and sonority away from playing a piece. You can do this by using studies (possibly Hanon or Czerny, or whatever your teacher recommends) or you can try it out on a Bach Chorale (anything similar to a hymn) or chord progressions. I have practised this technique simply by using the same chord over and over again.

Start off by playing as softly as you can; you will probably need to experiment depending on the type of piano or keyboard you are playing. Try to play the chord evenly i.e. taking all the notes of the chord down at the same time so each note produces the same volume of sound (the opposite of voicing a chord where certain notes need more colour and volume than others). Balancing chords in this way, making sure all the notes sound properly, takes some practice and is made easier by using a free, relaxed wrist action. Once you have got the hang of this (with the help of your teacher) then start off playing as softly as you dare, increasing the volume with each chord you play. You can stop when you reach the most powerful fortissimo possible.

To play the chords with a rich full sound, use your whole arm making certain you have a flexible upper torso. The example below is just one idea; block chords such as these provide the opportunity for a wall of sound, but there are many variations on this theme:

Experimental chords

Resist the temptation to ‘hit’ the notes or chords as you approach the fortissimos as this will produce a forced, percussive sound. There may be works that require a harsh sound, but it’s best to start off producing a rich warm sound whilst experimenting in this way.

Begin by playing these chords without the sustaining pedal making them really legato (smooth) then add the pedal for a completely different sonority. Another idea is to practice them using the una corda (left pedal) without the sustaining (or right) pedal. The una corda changes the timbre substantially providing a different layer of sound. This technique is useful too in some works.

Not quite fifty shades, but you can work at as many chordal dynamic variations as your imagination permits! There are infinite possibilities between these markings. Practice regularly before introducing ‘shades of pianism’ into your piano pieces for a more varied and convincing performance.


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.