5 Tips to Instantly Improve a Performance

If there’s a possibility to immediately improve any performance, most of us would jump at the chance! My latest contribution to Pianist magazine’s newsletter offers a few suggestions which can be easily implemented into your practice session. I hope you find them helpful.

5 Tips to Instantly Improve a Performance

As a teacher, I’m often asked how to instantaneously improve a performance. This is a perpetual dilemma when adjudicating at competitions and festivals. During the adjudication (before announcing the winners), I strive to help pianists in their quest for improvement, offering a few tips and practice ideas. The following suggestions have been born as a direct result of hearing numerous performances and I hope they are of interest.

  1. Pedalling. It can be a major issue, particularly for nervous performers, because there’s often a tendency to ‘ride’ the sustaining (or right) pedal. Why work so hard with the fingers, playing accurately, and in many cases, beautifully, only to hide under a cloud of pedal? For practice purposes, aim to play your piece sans pedal (from beginning to end). Once confident, add smaller amounts of sustaining pedal (to start with), for a cleaner performance. Listening is crucial. Know the work inside out, so you can focus on the sound and how the pedal changes that sound; particularly observe ends of phrases, rapid passage work and chordal passages.
  2. Legato. The knock-on effect of a heavy right foot (i.e. the sustaining pedal), sometimes manifests itself in a general lack of smooth or legato playing. It’s easy to forget to join notes effectively, especially when the pedal is readily available to do it for us. Once stripped of the pedal ‘security blanket’, students can be upset by the sheer clipped, detached nature of their playing. Bypass this by preparing a piece using fluent legato fingering from the outset (depending on the piece; generally Baroque music will require a non-legato touch), adding the pedal only once notes have been fully digested. If you have already studied and learned a piece, go through it without any pedal, checking you have used adequate ‘joining’ or legato fingering, creating a smooth contour, which is usually vital in melodic material.
  3. Tempo. Starting and ending in the same tempo can prove problematic, and this ties in with the important matter of providing adequate thinking time before beginning. Once seated to play, resist the urge to start at once. Instead, take a few seconds to mentally prepare; ten seconds should be ample (although it will feel like two minutes!). This will apportion time to collect thoughts and allow space to set a speed which is both comfortable and realistic. Always feel the pulse, and aim to count two bars before playing, almost as an introduction. Use this time to think about the fastest or smallest time values in the chosen work; semi-quavers or demi-semi-quavers can be negotiated with ease at a carefully chosen tempo. Feeling the pulse religiously can also be helpful, and can stem the compulsion to rush (or slow down).
  4. Body Movement. Too much movement (whether swaying, nodding of the head, obsequious arm movements or moving around on the stool), can be detrimental and distracting. However, even more debilitating is not to move at all. Rigidity (which can lead to tension) can cause a harsh sound and, sometimes, inaccuracies. In order to play in a loose, supple manner, it’s important to develop flexibility by cultivating a relaxed stance at the keyboard. Start by careful observation; watch posture, hand positions and wrists, during practice. Try to focus on how you move around the keyboard. Basic tips are to keep shoulders down, wrists relaxed and use arms in a way so that they encourage hands to move freely. If this issue is worked on consistently and consciously in practice sessions, it will become a good habit, and one which will continue to linger in performances too, even under pressure.
  5. Close to the keys. Aim to keep fingers close to the keys as much as possible, even if body movement is considerable. Whilst wrists and arms should ideally be flexible and able to shift around if necessary, fingers and hands are best kept hovering over the keys ready for action.

Implementing just a couple of these suggestions will instantly improve and lift your piano playing, creating a more assured performance.

You can read the original post here.

My Books:

For much more information on how to practise repertoire, take a look at my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with copious practice tips and advice for each 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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5 Top Tips to Aid Memorisation

Pianist Magazine produces a newsletter which wings its way into a reader’s e mail box every other month (sign up for your copy here). It’s brimming with piano news and information, as well as a few piano articles. I write a regular ‘Piano Tips’ feature, and today’s post presents the most recent, which focuses on memorisation. I’ve written about this topic endlessly (and I even give presentations on it), but hopefully, you may find the following suggestions of interest (here’s the original article).

Memorisation is a hotly debated topic in piano playing. Irrespective of whether a piano piece is to played from memory or not, the act of memorising is incredibly useful. It can help with so many facets when learning repertoire; from understanding form and structure, to fully internalizing your chosen work (both physically and mentally), and therefore ultimately presenting a more unified, considered and engaging performance.

Here are a few ideas to aid memorisation:

  1. Take the score (and a pencil) away from the piano and thoroughly study its structure, marking up important ‘landmarks’ such as its form (fugue, sonata form, ternary form, etc.), key changes, texture, chord progressions, and the like.
  2. When you begin studying a work, memorise from the outset. Resist the temptation to ‘learn the notes’, returning to memorise later. If you can do this from the very beginning, bar by bar (or phrase by phrase), learning everything from the physical ‘feel’ of note patterns, fingerings and movement, to the required sound and musical details, you’ll find it easier to remember in the long run. This is because you’re already taking the music off the page and allowing it to permeate your mind.
  3. Work without the score as soon as possible (that’s not to say you won’t return to examine it often). memorize each hand separately. This can be most beneficial, particularly regarding the left hand, which has a habit of ‘disappearing’ under the pressure of performance. Be aware of fingerings and note patterns especially, finding sign posts to jog your memory.
  4. Ensure you have sectionalised your new piece, so that you can practise from various ‘points’. You may want to divide the work into as many as ten sections (or more). Practise playing from the start of each section until it becomes second nature (totally engaging your mind and focus when doing this). If you have a slip when playing through or during performance, you can easily recover by moving quickly to the next ‘section’.
  5. Hear the piece in your head (away from the instrument) or visualise yourself sitting playing it at the keyboard. These are both useful techniques once the piece is under your fingers (and in your mind!). I find them extremely valuable tools. Sit quietly and mentally ‘play it through’ (concentrate completely so as not to miss any detail). Once you can ‘hear’ a piece from beginning to end with ease, you’re on your way to mastering (or conquering!) your memory.

For even more information on this topic, click here and here

For lots of information on memorisation and much more, check out my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?

For useful piano repertoire, check out The Faber Music Piano Anthology, containing 78 pieces from around Grade 2 – 8, selected by me.

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Improve Your Sight-Reading Skills: 5 Top Tips

leer-y-tocar-piano-a-la-vezMy latest article for Pianist Magazine’s New Year’s newsletter focuses on sight-reading. I’ve written about this subject many times, but it’s an important topic for pianists, and is often ignored or sidestepped in piano lessons until absolutely necessary i.e. just prior to an exam or audition, when testing is unavoidable. Few pianists are keen sight-readers, many believing a specific talent is required to read quickly. Aptitude is helpful of course, but there are copious ways to improve reading. For those who feel their skills would benefit from an over-haul, here are a few suggestions. You can read the original article here.

1. Sight-reading is all about the preparation. On first glance, check the score for the key signature (noting the major and relative minor of that written). Note the time signature (particularly if it changes during the piece), obvious note patterns such as scales, arpeggios, chords, octaves and the like (aim to decipher fingerings for such figurations before you play).

2. Separate the rhythm from the notes. Focus on the general pulse; always start with very slow speeds when learning to read (perhaps a third of the intended tempo). Then tap the rhythm of the treble clef in the right hand, and the rhythm of the bass clef, with the left hand (at the same time), keeping in mind the slow pulse you have already set.

3. Now play through the left hand alone (without adhering to any pulse), locating note patterns, hand positions changes and fingering (and remembering the key!). Then do this with the right hand. If you’re preparing for an exam, you will probably have just enough time to run through each hand separately in the 20 or 30 seconds allocated inspection time beforehand.

4. Decide how you will keep time during the exercise. A metronome may be helpful (for ‘sitting’ on the pulse), but counting out loud along to your playing is also a reliable method (providing your count is rhythmical!). Try to sub-divide the beat (i.e. if crotchets are the main beat, count in quavers). Counting a bar’s rest at the beginning can be useful too (for setting a firm tempo).

5. Play your chosen exercise very slowly, reading ahead all the time, whilst aiming to play through your mistakes (it’s tempting to stop and correct errors, but by playing slowly, you will eventually be able to resist this urge).

When reading, keep in mind the overall rhythmic structure and play the notes to the pulse as opposed to the other way around. This preparation will become gradually quicker over time, as will your reading. If you can spend 10-15 minutes sight-reading at every practice session, you’ll be amazed at what can be achieved.


Great Piano Composers of the Classical Era

iPad Great Composers

Pianist Magazine’s extra edition, Great Piano Composers of the Classical Era, is out NOW! I’ve blogged about it recently and you can read the post with all the relevant information here.

Purchase the digital version (pictured above) here, and from today, it’s also available to buy on the UK newsstand, in over 400 WH Smiths and specialist shops such as Yamaha Music London, Selfridges etc. You can also order the hard copy edition here.

With all your favourite features, such as 40 pages of sheet music and cover CD, five ‘how-to-play’ lessons, and two master classes from the experts, plus many specialist articles focusing on music and pianos of the Classical Era, you won’t want to miss out on this extra issue. Enjoy!


NEW Great Composers

Great Piano Composers of the Classical Era: Pianist Magazine

NEW Great Composers

As most readers know, Pianist magazine is a great publication for anyone learning to play the piano (it’s also helpful and informative for professional pianists too). Brimming with interesting articles, step-by-step lessons from expert teachers, and copious free scores which inhabit the centre of the magazine, not forgetting the CD which adorns the front cover of every issue.  

Great Piano Composers of the Classical Era proffers articles, information and tips on the Classical style. Included in this issue:

  • The usual 40 pages of sheet music; Pianist magazine’s editor, Erica Worth, selects the best Classical Scores from past issues of the magazine
  • 5 how-to-play lessons from beginner to advanced – including Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’, a Clementi Sonatina movement and Mozart’s Rondo in A minor
  • 2 masterclasses from the experts Mark Tanner on perfecting your Classical playing and Graham Fitch on improving techniques found in the Beethoven Sonatas
  • Top concert pianists talk about the joys (and challenges) of playing the great Classical repertoire
  • John Suchet, Classic FM radio presenter and Beethoven author, talks about the composer and his music
  • Walk in the footsteps of the great Classical composers A feature on European cities and festivals brimming with Classical music history
  • The Best Classical Sheet Music Pages of reviews so that you’ll know the best books to own
  • In-depth article on Beethoven’s ’32’
  • The keyboards of the Classical Era

I’ve contributed two articles to this issue as well; step-by-step lessons on C P E Bach’s ever popular Solfeggietto and Haydn’s Andantino. If you pre-order your copy a special offer awaits, with a reduced rate of £4.50 (the cover price is £5.99).  Release date is June 26th.

To pre-order this magazine click here and enjoy!





Piano Showcase presented by Pianist Magazine and Schott Music

Pianist - 80-Oct14

I’ve written on many occasions about the positive practical and psychological benefits from regular performance practice. Nothing can prepare a pianist for the feeling of stepping out in public, having to think under pressure and play a piece from beginning to end with few errors, stumbles or hesitations. Feeling terrified is totally normal, but the elation of sweeping aside those pesky nerves and doing it well is stupendous – and addictive! Once experienced, never forgotten. The chance to play in public will seriously improve piano playing too, bestowing a confidence in all who participate.

With this in mind, it’s great to be able to highlight a new performance opportunity created by Pianist Magazine and Schott Music. They are presenting a showcase for pianists of all standards and abilities to be held from 6.00 to 9.30pm on January 23rd 2015 at Schott Music’s store in London. Performers will get to play on a beautifully maintained Steinway Model M baby grand housed in Schott Music’s Recital Hall. The event is also free for all players and attendees.

Pianist Magazine’s Editor Erica Worth says ‘For my part, I will be proud to see some of my loyal readers play. Remember, this is not a competition. You can play the simplest 12-bar prelude, or the hardest 10-page etude. Don’t be shy. I’ll be there to spur you on. And we can all have a catch-up over a glass of wine afterwards!

To participate, you can play to any level, though you must be over the age of 18. You will need to select a piece from a wide-ranging repertoire list, which, again, covers all levels. You don’t have to memorise your piece; playing from the score is fine. Space is limited, Schott Music expects to be able to accommodate anywhere from 20 to 30 people on the night, so reserving a place now is a good plan; the link for the easy-to-use website is listed below. You can bring along a friend, family member, anyone you like. You can attend purely as an audience member too, though numbers are limited.

Schott Music has devised an eclectic and interesting repertoire list, which is completely diverse. Erica comments, ‘You can study the repertoire list for yourself at the showcase website, but make your choice soon and get your name on the list soon. Remember, this event is on a first-come, first-served basis, and the end of January is not so far away – that means you’ll want to get practising soon!’ 

So what are you waiting for? Whether preparing for an exam, concert or just wanting to gain valuable performance practice and meet new friends, come along to this exciting event!

You can find out much more information at Pianist Magazine’s website and you can browse the repertoire lists and apply here. Enjoy!

Schott inside

Schott Music’s Recital Hall and the shop (below) which is situated on Great Marlborough Street in central London.

Schott outside


My First Article for Pianist Magazine – Get your copy here…..


Pianist Magazine is the international piano magazine for people who love to play the piano. Published every other month, it’s brimming with piano tips, advice,  lessons, interviews, a plethora of complete piano scores ( a forty page pull-out), accompanying CD, online tuition, and everything piano lovers want and need to know. I am thrilled to now be a member of the writing team; my first article has been published in issue number 78, the June/July publication which is available today. Order your copy NOW!

In this month’s Pianist Magazine house pianist, the Chinese concert pianist Chenyin Li, is the cover star. Chenyin performs recitals and concertos all over the world but she still has time to record all the pieces on Pianist’s covermount CD to perfection. She talks to Jessica Duchen about this all-important work that she does for Pianist.

There are some real delights inside the Scores pages this issue. There’s the ‘Child Falling Asleep’ from Schumann’s popular Kinderszenen (perfect for the intermediate pianist) with a ‘How to Play’ on it too from Janet Newman. Lucy Parham gives her Advanced Lesson on Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau. It’s such a monumental work – no doubt a lot of Pianist’s more advanced pianists will be keen to learn it. Other pieces include a Bach Bourrée, a waltz by the unknown Oskar Merikanto, a little gem by Dvorák, a Scarlatti minuet and much more. Not forgetting Jelly Roll Morton’s fabulous King Porter Stomp (with an article about the composer alongside it). Plus, all beginner pieces have notation written within the music, giving bar-by-bar technical advice.

My own instructional column is entitled ‘How to Play’ for Beginners! and this month I write about a lovely minuet by British composer Charles Villiers Stanford, taking you step by step through the learning process. This is the perfect first recital piece and a great introduction to English music. I will be writing about many more piano gems inside every issue of Pianist.

Other How to Play articles include Graham Fitch on Practising at Different Tempos (you can watch Graham give video lessons too, on the Pianist website!) and Mark Tanner on Improvising.

Must-read articles include: 
Piano Exams: Should we or shouldn’t we, that might be the question? But the benefits are numerous. Read what shadow chancellor Ed Balls has to say about his past exam experience!

Then there’s an article on How to keep your piano in tip-top condition (whether it’s an upright, grand or acoustic).

‘Week in the Life Of…’  features Sunday Times Music Critic Hugh Canning.

Erica Worth flies to Istanbul to discover a very exotic orchestra about to appear at this year’s Proms.

Plus CD and Sheet Music Reviews, Makers, Q&As, News from the piano world, and more…
Watch lessons by John Maul, Graham Fitch and Tim Stein on the Pianist TV Channel.

Plus, you can also watch Pianist’s house pianist Chenyin Li perform some of the pieces featured inside the Scores. There’s nothing like watching the experts. Enjoy!


Screen shot.png of my article for Pianst

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.

And the WINNER is…………..?

As many of you know, I held a little competition earlier this week in conjunction with the Pianist Magazine. You can read the article here. The prize was an opportunity to win the Magazine’s new Piano Techniques app. Those who took part were asked to leave an appropriate comment in the comment box at the end of the post, and many thanks to you all (there were twenty-seven comments!), but we could sadly only pick one winner.

The winner was chosen by Pianist magazine and is Diana, who made the excellent comment ‘Pianist magazine is my piano teacher right now! Couldn’t do without my bimonthly dose of beginner/intermediate sheet music, tips and lessons. I bet the app is very useful too.’ Many congratulations to Diana, and I would be grateful if she could send her e-mail address to me, here on my blog.

For those who didn’t win, you can buy the Piano Techniques app here and you can find lots more information about the Pianist Magazine here: www.pianistmagazine.com

iPad Screenshot 1



Those who read this blog regularly will know how I enjoy holding little competitions. Today I’m offering a chance to win a  Piano Techniques app designed especially by Pianist magazine for your iPad.

Pianist magazine, in association with Steinway Hall London, is proud to present its first-ever stand-alone app: Piano Techniques. When you’ve read the articles, watched the lessons, listened to the music, your playing will be better! It doesn’t matter what level you are – there’s something here for beginner through to advanced players.

The app contains some of the best articles from within the pages of Pianist written by its expert pianist teachers. Topics include sight-reading, chords, memorising, starting from scratch, returning to the piano after a long break, fingering, a star interview with Lang Lang and more. You can even watch and listen to Lang Lang perform at the end of the interview. He’s playing the gorgeous Liszt Romance (this piece was featured inside Pianist magazine’s Scores section in the current issue 76).

Aside from the articles, the app boasts over 50 pages of scores of varying styles and levels. That’s 18 full pieces to learn. You can listen to all the pieces first, played by Pianist’s house pianist Chenyin Li. Then there are some great videos lessons on some of the most important keyboard techniques – there’s nothing like watching the professionals demonstrate at the keyboard, as you well know. Talking of videos, you can watch also a beautifully crafted film on the making of Steinway’s limited edition Arabesque piano designed by Dakota Jackson. Just like Pianist, the Piano Techniques app is aimed at helping you improve.

Download it today at the App Store on your iPad and watch your playing evolve! All you need to do to be in with a chance of winning, is leave a comment in the comment box below and the winner will be selected on Monday 17th February. Good luck!


Christmas Competition Winners

It’s time to announce the winners of my Christmas Competition! Many, many thanks to all who took part. There were thirty-six comments in total which is a tribute to the popularity of Elena’s great series. So drum roll please…….

Juliet Bromley, Efrat, Rachel Forsyth, Jeremiah, and Sue Craxton are our winners. There are five winners because we liked so many of your entries! Many congratulations to you all. Please could the winners send their postal address by writing to me via my contact page stating which book in the Higgledy Piggledy Jazz Series they would prefer to receive.

You can find out lots more about Elena Cobb’s Higgledy Piggledy Jazz Series here.

This is my final post before the seasonal holidays, so I would like to take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a very HAPPY CHRISTMAS.