A Holiday Competition!

This weekend Pianist magazine and Schott Music are holding a competition which takes place on Pianist’s social media sites. One of five copies of Play it again: PIANO Book 3 are available for five winners. You can enter and find out more about this competition by clicking here. And you can find out more about the whole Play it again series, here.

For regular piano updates subscribe to Pianist’s newsletter, which consists of more practice tips and piano information, here. Good luck!

 

 

I’d like to wish you and your family a very Happy Easter weekend.

www.pianistmagazine.com

www.en.schott-music.com


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.


 

5 Stage Presentation Tips Part 2

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s newsletter features the art of stage presentation. This often forgotten topic is rarely highlighted, yet it plays a significant role in every performance. This is the second of two articles on this subject, and you can read the first one, here.


In my previous article on stage presentation, I discussed how to foster the necessary ‘thought-process’ required for performing, as well as the importance of repertoire selection, and attire on stage. Today, the discussion turns to the actual act of going on stage itself. How we might traverse the concert platform in order to capture and keep our audience’s attention.

1. When we walk to the piano to play our concert, how we approach the instrument might indicate our level of anxiety. If you can cultivate an assured sense of confidence before the concert begins, you will instigate that same confidence in your audience, and they, in turn, will relax and start to enjoy your presentation right from the outset. You don’t need to stride – but rather stroll purposefully and with a certain conviction and realisation of the occasion.

2. Perfecting the bowing technique. A pianist must show gratitude to their audience, and this involves bowing conscientiously and with grace. This element will be highly visible to your audience, so aim to take time to bow with dignity and appreciation. It is probably a good idea to smile before you commence playing too, and try to appear relaxed and in no hurry to start.

3. How we sit at the piano will determine our comfort level. Take your time to adjust the stool, ensuring the correct height. Rest your feet on the pedals, making sure you can play them easily, and relax your shoulders; if you can rest your hands on the keyboard whilst keeping your shoulders relaxed, then you have probably found the perfect height for your stool.

4. Take a few moments to ‘breathe’ before you start. This might make the difference between a smooth, rhythmical opening to one with a few unexpected errors. Try not to rush into your piece; it can help to focus for at least ten seconds, and then, in order to establish the correct tempo, count a couple of bars (in your head) at the desired speed before you start to play. If you can do this, you will be able to exude polish and control.

5. Some pianists tend to move too much at the keyboard. There must be a certain level of movement in hands, wrists and arms when playing, to help with flexibility and comfort when circumnavigating copious note patterns. However, it isn’t strictly necessary to move the whole body as this can prove a distraction to your audience. Aim to keep movement to a minimum and try to minimise facial expressions too!

At the end of your performance, remember to acknowledge your audience. If you can learn to enjoy performing, this will bode well for all future endeavours and the improvement of your piano playing as a whole.


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.


 

Etude op. 97 No 1 by Anton Reicha

Some readers will know that I write a regular ‘how-to-play’ article for Pianist magazine; If you’ve yet to discover this magazine, you can find out much more here. My article focuses on elementary level pieces for students of around Grade 1 – 3 level. It’s actually called a ‘beginners how-to-play’, but in reality few students start with such repertoire. Our audience is mainly adult amateurs, teachers and students, and I always appreciate your kind comments (and there are many!) regarding the magazine and my articles when I visit various parts of the world, adjudicating and giving workshops.

Around 900 words in length, my column aims to shed some light on the style of each chosen work whilst offering some detailed practice ideas. Pianist magazine ensures that readers can listen to and play each piece, and every edition contains the score of the piece and a recording, which is played by Chinese pianist Chenyin Li.

A particularly wonderful aspect of my brief is that it has brought me in contact with the music of a myriad of lesser known composers. In this respect it has been a real education. Magazine editor Erica Worth and I are constantly searching for suitable material and this has led to the discovery of whole collections of various educational piano pieces. Always mindful of the level and difficulty of the piece, occasionally we unearth a composition which may be slightly trickier than the expected level, but which we feel just must be included. The featured piece in Pianist magazine edition 105 was one such piece.

Etude Op. 97 No. 1 (see above image) was written by Anton Reicha (1770 – 1836), who was a friend and contemporary of Beethoven; the two composers studied at the University of Bonn together.  Reicha is probably best known for his wind quintet literature and the important role he advocated as a teacher, numbering Liszt, Berlioz and Franck amongst his pupils. He wrote treatises on various aspects of composition and theory, but due to his apparent aversion to being published, his music largely fell into obscurity soon after his death, and his life and work have yet to be studied in detail.

Reicha contributed to the piano repertoire via a series of fugues and etudes, as well as larger scale works, including a set of variations lasting over 45 minutes in length. Inventive and imaginative, he was an early advocate of polytonality and asymmetric meters. Reicha’s fugues were also renowned for breaking the usual strict rules. However, his music is predominantly tonal, with a spontaneous quality, and his scores are relatively free from the ubiquitous composer’s musical directions, leaving interpretation solely to the performer.

The Etude Op. 97 No. 1 is an extremely beautiful, contemplative little piece; the melody  largely floats serenely above a series of repeated left hand chords, and then roles are reversed later in the piece. This Etude is an exercise (or a study) in balance between the hands, chordal balance and cantabile. Yet ultimately, it’s all about developing an elegant, personal reading with a depth of colours via a rich sound and judiciously balanced phrases. Irrespective of your level as a player, I urge you to consider playing this piece, if only to revel in the delectable harmonic twists and turns combined with a simply delicious melodic line. You can enjoy pianist Ivan Ilic’s performance by clicking on the link below. To  subscribe to Pianist magazine, click here.

You can read my ‘how-to-play’ article on this work here:

Etude Op 97 1a by Anton Reicha

If you would like to purchase and download the music for this piece, click 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.


 

5 Tips to Create the Illusion of Legato

Every pianist knows the importance of legato, or the creation of a smooth musical line or phrase, notes joining evenly from one to the next. But there are many instances in piano music where we can’t join the notes; the melodic line might leap beyond our comfortable stretch, for example. How do we overcome this inconvenience and lull our listeners into believing that we’ve created a beautiful legato line? In my recent article for Pianist Magazine’s newsletter, I offer a few ideas to instigate the illusion of legato. I hope it’s of interest.


Legato, or playing smoothly, is probably one of the first techniques we master as beginner pianists. We learn how to transfer our finger weight evenly from note to note, joining them all neatly. But what do we do when notes are difficult or impossible to join? Whether a large leap or an awkward, widespread melody line, we simply can’t reach the notes purely with our fingers, and yet there still must be a sense of shape and legato. That’s where the illusion of legato comes in handy.

  1. Sit down at the piano and with your right hand play a middle C and then the D next to it; use your thumb followed by your second finger. Practice playing legato, transferring weight from thumb to finger, listening to the smooth sound you create. Now play both notes with a rich tone, using just your thumb, and listen to the sound ‘gap’ between the notes as you play them one after the other.
  2. To create the illusion of legato, we must close that sound gap. Play the C with your thumb using a deep touch. Keep your thumb depressed on the key until a millisecond before you move it to play the D, also using your thumb. The D must be played slightly lighter than the C, and by moving the thumb from the C to the D extremely quickly and lightly, the ear shouldn’t be able to detect a gap in the sound between the notes. Aim to match the sound of the second note (D) to that of the dying C.
  3. It can help to employ the ‘drop-roll’ technique’; a pair of slurred or joined notes are played with the hand and wrist dropping as the finger or thumb plays the first note, then rising up as the second note is played. Using the wrist and hand to ‘drop’ into the C, as you reach the bottom of the key with your wrist in a lowered position, ‘catch’ the D (played with the thumb) as your hand and wrist rolls upwards.
  4. Practice until the legato is smooth and fluent; you will need to listen carefully. You can then experiment with other fingers; try playing two consecutive notes using your fifth finger. Then try using your fourth finger. Also practice the same note patterns using the left hand too.
  5. Finally, introduce larger intervals. Play from a middle C to an E; the drop-roll technique, slurring the two notes with your thumb, will be most beneficial with larger note skips. Drop the hand and wrist into the C, playing it with your thumb, via a flexible downward movement, and as you turn the wrist to move upwards, manoeuvre the thumb extremely quickly to play the E softly. As always, match the sound of the dying note (C) to that of the new note (E).

Work will be required in order to close the sound gap and create the illusion when playing larger intervals, but with practice it is possible to ‘join’ notes without using consecutive fingering or the sustaining pedal.


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.


5 tips to quell a sustaining pedal addiction

It’s a common tendency for students to rely too much on the sustaining (or right) pedal; whether aiming to create smooth legato lines or add resonance, the pedal can have an intoxicating effect. We use a little, and then before we know it, every bar is drenched! The article below is one I wrote for a recent Pianist Magazine newsletter, and I hope the five tips are helpful and of interest.


The sustaining or right pedal can sometimes become an addiction. As an adjudicator, I have heard it being used or ‘ridden’ (as some say!) with alarming alacrity. From the very first note of a piece through to the final chord, students often tend to deploy a heavy right foot as though operating a car accelerator. However, if used with a little restraint, it can add a wonderful resonance and warmth to the overall piano sound. Here are a few ideas to think about when honing pedalling skills:

  1. A little sustaining pedal goes a long way. Practise playing your piece through without any pedal at all for a while. This will secure a clearer interpretation, and will allow you to become aware of legato lines, crisp articulation, and more importantly, assess your legato. If you’ve already been pedalling a piece for a while, it can be a shock to hear clipped melodies (and accompaniment figures) on removing the pedal. Unless your piece is full of large intervals or leaps which are impossible to join via the fingers, aim to use your fingers to create legato as opposed to employing the right pedal.
  2. The most important tool for good pedalling is good listening. This may be done away from the keyboard at first, hearing a work in your head, and then being able to decide where the sustaining pedal might ‘add’ to the sound of a particular passage. Too much pedal can result in unclear harmony and obscured passagework. You may need to experiment widely for the desired effect, and become accustomed to releasing the pedal much more often than previously.
  3. The amount of pedal necessary in any piece will change depending on the piano and a venue’s acoustic, therefore assume an open mind when deciding how long to keep the pedal depressed in a particular bar or passage. It can even be a good idea to incorporate use of the pedal in different ways during practice sessions, with the foot depressed for a fraction longer (or perhaps, shorter) than marked on the score. Again, let your ear be the guide.
  4. Another beneficial skill is the use of partial pedalling. Half-pedalling, half-damping, and flutter (surface or vibrato) pedalling all involve the similar technique of only depressing the pedal, and therefore the foot, a fraction, sometimes as little as an eighth of an inch (depending on the piano). Flutter pedalling is the most widely used, where the foot rapidly oscillates up and down, constantly clearing the sound. The art of using this technique will involve engaging the pedal quietly, literally shaking the foot, avoiding any damper noise. Such application will be dependent on the style of music and your ear.
  5. Occasionally, the sustaining pedal can be replaced by finger pedalling. In some genres, particularly Baroque, it can be beneficial to ‘overlap’ the fingers i.e. keep the keys depressed for longer than written in the score, so the sound runs over into that of some succeeding notes. This offers a similar sustained effect to the right pedal. It is, however, easier to control the release of sound this way, and it generally provides less ‘smudging’ than the sustaining pedal.

    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.


     

Favourable Fingering

I’m almost half way through my work here in Hong Kong and am having a thoroughly lovely time, enjoying the urban vibe and fast pace of life. I will be giving several book presentations after I finish adjudicating, and some readers have asked where and when these will take place, so here are some details: a workshop for Parsons Music (March 29th), a workshop and master class for MusikWald (March 30th) and two master classes at the Tom Lee Academy (April 2nd). Hope to see you there!

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll probably know that I write a column for Pianist Magazine (a how-to-play article, where I teach a different elementary piece in every edition), and contribute to the bi-monthy newsletter, offering five tips on a particular aspect of piano technique. This month’s topic is a perennial favourite; fingering. Do you write your fingering into the score before you start learning your piece? Or do you let your fingers roam wherever they feel comfortable? Here are a few ideas which I hope might be useful.


Fingering is a perpetual hot topic and we all know that finding the right fingering solution for a particular passage can make a colossal difference, fostering smooth, fluent, and ideally, comfortable playing.There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to fingering as everyone one of us has a different size hand, but hopefully the following suggestions may be helpful.

  1. Aim to know all the standard fingerings for scales (particularly contrary motion), arpeggios, and broken chords. If you know these fingerings, you will have a substantial advantage when learning any repertoire, but especially in Baroque and Classical styles, where scale passages and arpeggios abound. It can be prudent to learn two or three fingerings for chromatic scales and a couple for chromatic thirds as well.
  2. Know where your thumbs are and where they should be! Even when passage work isn’t symmetrical, the thumbs can stabilize the hand and being aware of where they fall in rapid figurations aids the memory, making fingering easier to grasp.
  3. I advise my students to play ‘in position’ as much as possible. This involves limiting turning the hand or changing hand positions. Many hand turns can easily lead to a bumpy, uneven musical line (this happens when there are too many thumbs on the scene!). If you can use outer parts of the hand (the fourth and fifth finger) as much as the inner part (thumb and second finger), not only will the hand be more balanced, but it will also feel natural to play without so much movement. The fourth and fifth finger will need to be sufficiently strong in order to do this.
  4. Finger substitution and finger sliding both ultimately provide smooth legato. Changing fingers on a note (once you’ve played a note, quickly replace whatever finger you used to play the note with another, whilst keeping the note depressed), or sliding fingers from one note to another, but still keeping the musical line (almost connecting the notes, as much as you can, so the overall impression is one of legato).
  5. Once you’ve decided on your fingering, DO NOT change it! This is a cardinal rule; when you change or substitute fingers after working at the original fingering for a while, the brain has already wired these finger movements and cancelling them will be awkward to say the least. Practice tends to make permanent, so spend some time writing your fingering in the score before you begin studying a piece, and be quite sure your chosen fingerings suit your hand and you are happy with them.

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.


 

5 Top Tips for Keeping Time

My column for the latest bi-monthly newsletter for Pianist Magazine contains tips and suggestions for how to keep a rhythmic pulse. Accuracy in this respect is an incredibly important component when learning to play any instrument, and many of you have written asking about the best ways of doing this. So here are my ideas – I hope they are of interest.


Keeping time (or playing rhythmically) can be a challenge for many, and particularly for pianists, as they are often playing alone and therefore have the opportunity to change the tempo as often as they wish! For those who feel they need to curb any tendency to rush or linger, here are a few ideas to implement at your practice sessions.

  1. To create the best tempo in any work (for you), locate what you feel is the most taxing area of the piece being studied and decide what speed is most comfortable in order to achieve clarity, fluency and a musically coherent performance.
  2. Once you’ve instigated a speed (when learning a new piece), go through the piece and tap the rhythm of the right hand part with your right hand (on the lid of the piano), and the left hand part with the left hand (also on the piano lid). You could do this hands separately at first, then both hands together. Ensure you count as you do this, so you establish a firm, steady beat. It’s easier to attain rhythmic precision (at the start of the learning process) when notes are separated from the rhythm.
  3. For fluency and rhythmic accuracy, consider using a metronome at the beginning of the learning process. Listen to the ‘tick’; both the speed of the tick and the ‘space’ in between. One of the most useful methods to attain accurate pulse keeping, is learning to ‘sit’ on the metronome tick. This skill can be acquired by playing exactly with the tick every time it occurs, as opposed to just before or after; both of which can happen with alarming regularity if you’re not used to attuning your ear and mind to decisively following a pulse. To do this effectively, it’s best if notes are securely learned, so you’re free to focus on time-keeping.
  4. Once the metronome has been used for a period of time and you’ve got used to playing along to an omnipresent beat, aim to count out loud as you play, or count along to the beat you have established. It can be a good idea to sub-divide the beat for this purpose. If your piece is in crotchets, count in quavers, and if it is in quavers, count in semiquavers, and so on. It may be exhausting, but by playing along to your verbal counting, you’ll quickly become accustomed to where you are in the bar and should eventually be able to ‘feel’ the pulse. As a general rule, the smaller the sub-division, the more accurate your pulse keeping.
  5. Finally, curb any sense of rushing (or slowing down), and encourage excellent articulation (or touch) by paying attention to the ends of notes; experiment by employing ‘active’, strong fingers, placing every finger precisely, producing a full, rich tone, paying special attention to the fourth and fifth fingers. Each note (or chord) must ideally be in its rightful place at any time, and shouldn’t be ‘cut’ or brushed over.

As with many facets of piano playing, listening will prove to be a vital element when learning to play in time. If you can train your ears to be really aware of what is being played, then you’re on your way to honing rhythmically sound performances.

Image: Nathan Nelson/Flickr


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.


 

5 Tips for Practising without the Piano

I regularly contribute to Pianist magazine’s newsletter, which wings its way into our inbox every other month. My article always takes the form of ‘5 tips’ and last month’s were designed for those who fancy taking their practice away from the instrument. I hope they are of interest.


Practising away from the instrument can be a beneficial practice technique. Taking the music off the page is a most valuable facet for any pianist. If you’re able to hear it, imagine playing it, and visualise or recall any passage, you are more likely to be at ‘one’ with the music, thereby producing a performance of integrity and musical depth.

1 Instigate a happy positive mind-set before practice begins; it’s amazing the effect this can have on learning capacity. Before practice commences, aim to sit at the instrument with a relaxed posture; shoulders down, hands hanging freely by your side, breathing slowly, and thinking positively.

2 Consider the piece you are about to practice; how does it make you feel? Feelings take on a new meaning when practising away from the keyboard, and this may be what produces deeper expressivity. As you observe the score, note what happens in each hand; the movements, fingerings and gestures required to play the patterns. It can be particularly helpful to pay special attention to the left hand here too. Aim to do this without the piano.

3 Some find it helpful to write the piece out on manuscript paper (recalling it from memory). As you work at the piano, begin to test your memory during practice sessions; by repeatedly returning to the same phrases and passages over a period of time, the thought responses become stronger and clearer. Now do this away from the instrument, hearing each passage in isolation.

4 Play the piece through in your mind. The effort and assimilation required can come as quite a shock, but once accustomed to the relevant mind-set needed, a calmness and stillness is acquired, and it becomes possible to ‘think’ through the music increasingly accurately. And you can do this anywhere at any time!

5 Visualise watching yourself play your piece at the keyboard, as an image in your mind. It can be a good idea to envisage every detail; fingerings, movements, and everything necessary to play the piece from beginning to end successfully.

If you can work at some of these suggestions frequently, memory and visualisation skills associated with practising away from the keyboard will gradually develop, and this method could eventually become a worthwhile part of a practice session.


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.


 

5 Tips for the Perfect Practice Schedule

A practice schedule can lead to fruitful progress in your piano playing, and this topic was the focus of my 5 tips for last month’s Pianist Magazine newsletter. For those who feel they would benefit from a few helpful ideas to make their practice time even more successful, I have republished the article below.


One question asked by many a student; ‘how can I develop a practice schedule which will be both beneficial and practical.’ It’s too easy to sit down at the piano, play through a few pieces, practice the ‘difficult’ sections (this usually translates as ‘areas where errors are occurring’), and then call it a day. Perhaps a better plan, would be to carefully build a workable, reliable practice schedule which can be easily implemented, and more importantly, adhered to! Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Begin by deciding how many practice sessions are realistically possible. Five per week is optimal, allowing for a piano lesson (if you take them) on the sixth day and then a day off. Next, how long can you devote to practising? For the purposes of this article, let’s suggest one hour per day (but elongate or shorten to suit yourself).
  2. Are you are morning person or an evening person? If you can’t face working for an hour without a break, then maybe two (or three) shorter sessions are a good idea (perhaps one in the morning and another in the evening?). Either way, make your plan and stick to it.
  3. How will you divide your practice routine? Some like to drift from one piece to the next with no specific time plan, whilst others use a stop watch! Aim to begin with a five-minute warm-up routine. This can be anything from slow scales to more complicated studies, but again, start slowly, sinking your fingers deep into the key bed. It can be helpful to employ ‘mindful’ practice here, which might give your warm-up a ‘meditative’ quality.
  4. After warming-up, those who are keen to improve sight-reading skills may like to focus on this for 10 minutes (sight-reading is best done when fresh, as it’s arguably one of the most demanding elements of piano playing). This could be followed by 10 minutes of technical exercises (or substitute the sight-reading for exercises, if you’re already a proficient reader).
  5. The lion share of your practice session will, of course, be focused on your chosen repertoire. If you are learning several pieces, it may be an idea to rotate them, practising just one or two per day, working on other pieces the following practice session, then returning to the first set of pieces (or piece) the day after that. When practising, try to break pieces into small chunks, again, rotating sections, so a whole piece has been addressed in any one sitting (depending on its length).

As a recap, your schedule may look something like this:

Warm-up – 5 minutes

Sight-reading – 10 minutes

Technical work – 10 minutes

Repertoire – 35 minutes

Change this to suit your needs, but if you keep to a regular schedule, improvement will be swift and you’ll hopefully feel as though you are making solid progress with your 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.


 

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.


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.


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