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.


Celebrating the Left Hand

Many students have ongoing problems regarding their left hand. These difficulties may include inability to read the bass clef properly, weaker fingers or just lack of co-ordination and movement. A languid left hand can be caused by so many culprits, so today I thought it may be a good idea to examine the reasons why the bass clef is crucial, along with a few suggestions about how to alleviate various left hand issues.

Left hand concerns usually start (as with so many difficulties) with insufficient guidance from teachers at the beginning (or perhaps a student who has tried teaching themselves). Many piano tutor books can also be of little help; there are books on the market which focus solely on learning the right hand (or treble clef), rather ignoring the left until perhaps much later when, of course, it’s too late. Fluent reading must start with both hands and both staves (where all the notes live on the score) being negotiated at the same time. The bass clef is arguably harder to read and assimilate than the treble clef, so it’s imperative the left hand is given equal attention from the outset.

 Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Left hand notation, (how the notes are laid out on the stave) is different to that of the right, and the differences must be noted and learnt properly. This may take some time but will be completely worth the extra effort.
  2. Without thorough bass clef knowledge, proper hand co-ordination is challenging and sight-reading is impossible.
  3. The bass line is imperative in piano music; it often provides the accompaniment (especially in Classical and Romantic music), supporting the right hand’s melodic line. The accompaniment can be much more complicated and widespread than the melodic material too, so the left hand requires an easy facility in order to move all around the keyboard.
  4. In the Baroque style particularly (such as that by J S Bach and contemporaries), the left hand must equal the right in terms of phrasing, articulation and agility because the contrapuntal writing pervading this music, demands exacting rhythmic perfection.
  5. Whether the piece you are playing consists of a simple chordal accompaniment or is a much more florid and elaborate affair, harmonic structure and stylistic understanding frequently originates in the bass part due to Western harmonic structure.
  6. Good pedalling requires proper listening, but so often pedalling must coincide with the bass line because it is the basis of harmonic foundation.
  7. If you plan to play or learn your piece from memory, the importance of the left hand comes to the fore; left hand memorisation can be really helpful and sometimes vital.
  8. Mastering a work’s bass part can aid stability and confidence in performance.

So how can we overcome these difficulties and encourage your left hand to work properly? Once the notes and left hand layout have been properly understood and grasped, then there is the necessity (in my opinion) of working regularly at the bass line.

The best advice is to play exactly the same material in each hand (in unison); whatever you learn in the right hand should also be practised in the left. This works well with studies, scales, arpeggios and short exercises. Most pupils are probably introduced to this idea via scales and arpeggios, but to really progress, studies such as Czerny and Hanon (particularly the latter) can be very helpful. I do often mention these studies (sorry!) and they can be dull, but if played correctly will really aid flexibility.

Repetitive patterns, such as the following example, taken from 101 Exercises  Op.261 by Czerny, encourage hands to work equally, regularly work each finger. This type of repetition (if practised fluently with a free, rotating wrist and relaxed arm) strengthens fingers allowing them to work independently, which is what is needed for secure left hand playing. Try the following left hand exercise with the suggested fingering (Czerny’s own) making sure your arm, hand and wrist is always relaxed. Start by playing the left hand alone (memorising it so you can completely focus on your hand and finger movements).

Czerny 5

Build up your strength gradually and you might be surprised at how strong your left hand will become; eventually functioning as well as the right. Once you have practised the above left hand exercise, don’t forget to do the equivalent for the right hand too. The wrist should feel ‘free’ at all times and it can help to divide up with exercise into crotchet beats i.e. working on just four semi-quavers at a time.

When you feel both hands are working equally well without any strain or tension, introduce Hanon studies. These require the same finger movement in each hand; the left hand must learn to work fluently  so not to ‘lag’ behind the right. As with all studies, start slowly building up strength and speed. It is easier to notice rhythmic or note irregularities or unevenness when hands play exactly the same material.

The following example is the from the first exercise from Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist.

piano sheet music of The Virtuoso Pianist Part 1 (1-20)

Another strategy is to reverse practice or play the right hand line (treble clef) in the left hand and vice versa. This can be helpful too if done occasionally. It can be confusing to start with and you don’t have to play complete works in this fashion, but you can benefit from small sections. This can be a particularly useful method for learning to memorise a work.

Also useful is to practice the left hand material alone but two octaves higher than it is written on the page. This aids clarity, allowing you to really hear what is being played because notes can sometimes sound ‘muddy’ and unclear in the bass register. Try playing your piece hands together but then play the left hand part above the right; ostensibly the left hand will play exactly the same notes as written, rather like the suggestion above (playing two octaves higher) but with the right hand playing its material underneath. This is quite a tricky option but can be helpful nevertheless.

Thorough separate hand practice can be very beneficial. Students should be encouraged to learn each hand on its own when looking at new pieces, and if pupils focus on the left hand as much if not more than the right, this is also a successful strategy for swift learning. Try practising the left hand from memory and see how much you can remember. Probably not much to start with, but as you hone your memorisation skills, you will find that memorising the left hand comes into its own. This method is particularly useful when studying counterpoint. However you chose to practice do not neglect your left hand, because until both hands work securely you will find mastering most piano pieces a gargantuan task. Good luck and enjoy.



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.


 

Coaxing the fourth and fifth fingers into action

So you want to play the piano photo 5

‘My little finger just won’t work on its own’; how often have I heard this phrase from disgruntled piano students? Too often is the answer. Pupils invariably spend so much time focusing on and looking at the music on the desk, that they forget all about posture and technique.

One of the major technical obstacles when developing a piano technique is allowing all fingers to work equally and properly from the knuckles. This takes time, a lot of energy and practice in the right direction. Many think scales will adequately help fingers to work equally but this is usually not to the case. Scales do help finger independence but they don’t help all fingers – the poor old fourth and fifth fingers are normally left to limp along on their own.

The fourth and fifth fingers are always the weakest in both hands but especially in the left hand. If they don’t play alone i.e. independently of the other three (or thumb and two fingers) then playing becomes uneven and haphazard to say the least. Rapid passage work can become unrhythmical. Tone production suffers too.

So what can be done to aid this problem? Firstly, arms and wrists need to be very flexible and ‘free’. This can take months of practice  – many students find tension really hinders their playing, sometimes leading to pain or worse, repetitive strain injury. Tension is necessary in order to play at all, but it’s the wong kind of tension that stops fingers and wrists from working properly. It can take lots of time correcting tension problems. However, by working on fingers individually whilst ‘freeing’ the wrist simultaneously, the weaker fingers begin to work. It does take time but once understood, pupils are so pleased to feel more in control when executing fast  passage work particularly.

If you want to start improving the technique of your fourth and fifth fingers, then begin by allowing your whole arm to become a dead weight, hanging totally free by your side. Once it feels totally relaxed you will know how it needs to feel when you play. When working on strengthening fingers, try to use a rotating wrist motion every time you play a note with a different finger, so in effect, you are disengaging (or freeing) your wrist so as to stop any tension which may result when playing from one finger to another. Problems begin when students keep stiffness or continue to be tense when playing from one finger (or note) to the next without letting go of the tension in between. Tension is only required at the moment of impact. Try this at very slow speeds especially when working at the fourth and fifth fingers.

Allow the fingers to play on their ‘tips’ which generally produces better results than flat fingers (although many prefer to play the latter way) and make sure you go down to the bottom of the key bed so as to produce a rich full sound.  In a sense, you are using arm weight to play each finger via a freely rotating wrist. It takes a while to get used to this motion but once each finger has learnt to play from the knuckles on its own, using the weight of the entire arm behind it, but without any tension in the wrists, then your fingers will begin to gather some strength.

Tone production and finger strength are very much linked and it’s a good idea to work at this with very simple studies – Czerny’s  Exercises Op. 101 or perhaps The School of Velocity Op. 299 are both excellent; you could actually use any piece which features scalic passage work. These are easy enough not to disturb concentration allowing pupils to focus purely on the technical task in hand – it’s also much more effective if studies are learnt from memory, so students are free to observe their physical movements. The wrist really needs to be totally flexible at all times as do other parts of the body especially arms and shoulders (shoulders are usually raised when they are tense).

Twenty to thirty minutes of concentrated slow practice per day should be all that is needed on studies in order to start improving finger strength and create a relaxed hand and wrist action. It’s important to emphasize that any technical improvement takes time and patience.  Playing in a different way will feel completely alien at first but it will be worth it in the end!

Image: 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 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.