Practising Piano Waves

Piano Waves consists of 5 little pieces for the intermediate pianist (approximately Grade 4 – 6 level ABRSM). They were written in 2016 (published by EVC Music Publications), and have proved popular with all ages, but particularly with teenagers. This year, two pieces from the collection are set works on the Around The Globe Piano Festival syllabus (to be held in London during November).

I was inspired to write this volume after many years giving solo piano recitals on cruise ships around the world. This provided ample opportunity to observe the sea in all its forms; from beautiful calm sunsets to ferocious hurricanes and storms. Each piece depicts a different side of sea life; I hope they are fun to play and make for intuitive study.

In this post I offer five tips for each piece, which will hopefully be helpful for those considering learning them, whether for a recital, music festival or school performance.

Seahorse Dream

The first of the set dwells in the melancholic key of A minor. The seahorse briefly enjoys its peaceful slumber before being lulled into a progressively frenetic nightmare. Peace triumphs at the conclusion.

  1. The melody requires a very legato (smooth) line; the thumb turns under the hand at bar 3 beat 1, so ensure evenly placed quavers and a matching tone. Each note becomes gradually louder, the phrase crescendoing up to the end of bar 4. Aim to voice the A (beginning of bar 5) with care, as this is the top of the phrase.
  2. Every phrase (and they are mostly four bars in length), will benefit from a slightly different timbre and emphasis, as the shifting seahorse moves around in its sleep. Bar 10 should ideally tail off to nothing (or pianissimo).
  3. The left hand features a recurring figure: two quavers followed by a crotchet. Try to play the second quaver and crotchet beat lightly with the thumb, giving extra colour and sound to the first and third beats of the bar (as indicated by the tenuto marking) – they actually provide a counter melody. The fingers should brush over the notes lightly with a fluidity, offering an almost ostinato accompaniment to the cantabile melody.
  4. The middle section can be practised as a sequence of chords; start by playing each minim beat from bars 11 – 16, learning the shape and fingering of each chord, before playing as written. Give an emphasis on the top note of each broken chord from bars 13 – 16, adjusting the colour to suit each chromatic shift.
  5. Aim to quell any temptation to rush by counting vociferously, and listening to each note – especially the fourth semiquaver of each group. The sustaining pedal will add an atmospheric resonance.

Waltz on a Sunken Ship

A rather sombre piece with a slow waltz tempo and a reflective ambience. This work was inspired by French composer Eric Satie, and it’s on the syllabus of the Elena Cobb Star Prize at the British and International Federation of Music Festivals this year.

  1. The left hand moves considerably during virtually every bar and might benefit from slow, sustained practice. Find the note patterns and fingering for each chord and work slowly at the leap from beat 1 to beat 2 (or beat 3 from bars 17 – 24). As always when practising larger movements, practice playing much quicker than necessary, so when the tempo assumes its original, slower speed, the jumps feel comfortable.
  2. In keeping with the waltz style, aim to play the first beat of the bar with more sound and colour (or a decisive touch); the subsequent beats need a lighter, softer approach. This will bestow the necessary dance-like lilt.
  3. The right hand can also be practised in groups; ‘block out’ or try to play each bar altogether, at the same moment. This will allow you to become familiar with fingerings, note patterns and movement from one bar to the next (especially if you can play several bars (perhaps each four bar phrase) at once).
  4. When playing the right hand as written, ensure the top note in each bar is given its full value (i.e. resist any urge to rush), and add a richer timbre on the tied quaver (to a minim) beat (especially from bars 1 – 16).
  5. The sustaining pedal will enhance the melodic line, imparting the appropriate watery demeanour; observe the (8va) from bar 17 (playing an octave higher than written), and ensure the music floats off into oblivion at the end!

Ocean Surge

The name of this piece gives away its character! The surge come from the distinctly Minimalist flavour; with a turbulent climax, the outer sections meander around the C minor triad and offer a simple theme.

  1. Begin working from bar 17 – 28. Try to find the shape of each bar and therefore, each chord. Playing all the notes in each bar at once (as mentioned before) allows you to learn quickly, with fingers and chords comfortably under the hands. When practising bar 17 – 20, work slowly, counting every semiquaver; there can be a tendency to rush this type of note pattern, therefore placing accents on beats 2 and 4 (particularly beat 4) can help keep a steady pace.
  2. The chord patterns from bar 21 – 28 are effective if given accents or a ‘push’ on the first semiquaver of every crotchet beat. Ensure total fluency and evenness here, both in sound quality and rhythmic accuracy. Don’t be tempted to miss the pause at the end of bar 28! This is gives the music a chance to breathe.
  3. The opening has an improvisatory character. The third crotchet beat of each bar (from 1 – 8) is more effective with a slight ‘leaning’ into the note (almost akin to a tenuto), which helps convey the yearning quality.
  4. In the second line, the motif moves down to include the left hand, this can be thought off as an extension of the melodic line, and you could even give this ‘upbeat’ motif more colour here.
  5. The melody develops from bars 9 – 16 and is accompanied by a light, Alberti bass-like left hand. Keep this even, rotating the hand a little as you play; try to resist accenting or sudden sound surges in the left hand here, a neat, soft, flowing accompaniment is what’s needed.

Asilomar

The title for this piece comes from Dr Wayne Dyer’s film, The Shift, which is set on an Asilomar or a refuge by the sea. The thematic material is in the left hand; although it’s not really a theme, more a melodic movement, complimenting the right hand’s continuous accompaniment.

  1. The melodic strands in the left hand (during first two and last two lines) contain a dynamic ‘arch’, or a point at which the sound must slightly crescendo, only to decrescendo quickly afterwards. It can help to mark in which notes you consider most important tonally, and then decide how much tone variation is appropriate
  2. The right hand chordal pattern can be practised as one chord per bar, assimilating the note shapes, fingerings and patterns, as well as the movement needed from bar to bar as the patterns change.
  3. Ensure a very smooth legato for each phrase; both hands must ideally sound fluid, effortless and tranquil, and as though the fingers are brushing or ‘stroking’ the notes or chord patterns. Aim to banish any jerky sounds or tonal unevenness by listening very carefully to the ends of each note, matching them to the beginning of the next.
  4. The piece will benefit from careful counting as, rather like the evenness in sound, each note and phrase must be exactly placed on the beat for precision. Whilst this appears to be in an almost ‘slushy’ almost Romantic style, only a small amount of rubato is necessary.
  5. Practice the left hand alone with and without the sustaining pedal, so you become aware of the resonance required to highlight the melody.

Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman is the mythical ghost ship, which sails the seas, never quite reaching port and bearing bad news for those who are unfortunate enough to catch a glimpse.

  1. The opening and closing phrases are merely signalling the arrival and departure of the vessel. They require a distant quality, and a smooth legato line, fading off into the distance. Aim to use a light, but firm touch, and keep the sustaining pedal down as long as you dare (right to the end of the phrase is ideal!).
  2. The oscillating figurations from bar 6 onwards move through a series of sometimes quite chromatic harmonic progressions; aim to find the progressions easily by playing each half bar as a chord, moving quickly to the next beat, so as to become comfortable with the patterns.
  3. An easy, rotating wrist motion will help achieve the accents and changing metre within the semiquaver note patterns. Keep your wrist flexible and your arm and elbow ‘light’ so movement isn’t an issue.
  4. An even, smooth tone is important so try to select legato fingering as much as possible, joining the sound from one figuration to the next; this can be practised without the pedal to begin with, and when secure add in the sustaining pedal for a more sonorous timbre.
  5. It can help to focus on particular chromaticisms (such as those at bar 22 and 24), giving them extra colour and perhaps a slight tenuto too.

You can find out more about Piano Waves and purchase your copy from EVC Music Publications, here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising 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 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

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