Micro-Lectures by Boris Giltburg

I’m delighted to feature several interesting ‘micro-lectures’ recorded by Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg. According to Boris, the videos focus on musical or technical questions relating to various pieces. Each lasting just a few minutes, they have been recorded by Louisiana Music at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Click on each link below and enjoy.




I chatted Boris a couple of years ago at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London, and you can watch the interview here:

Click here to visit Boris Giltburg’s blog.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

Training to be a Repetiteur

A repetiteur can be a fulfilling and immensely satisfying job. Repetiteur, accompanist and teacher Kevin Thraves has enjoyed a highly successful career, and here he writes an illuminating article on the prerequisites of this demanding role.


As Head of Music Staff in the School of Vocal Studies and Opera at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, one of my main responsibilities is to oversee and tutor the postgraduate repetiteur students.

Many concert pianists, accompanists and piano teachers often do not know what the job of an operatic repetiteur actually entails. Even regular audience members who attend the opera might not fully appreciate what the job of a repetiteur actually involves. There is little information and practical advice available regarding the training and the skills required to work as a repetiteur, and many musicians do not fully realise that the role of a repetiteur is one of the most varied, enjoyable and gratifying areas of all musical activity.

A repetiteur is a highly skilled pianist whose main work generally takes place in a rehearsal studio of an opera house. Requiring a broad range of performance and musicianship skills, an operatic repetiteur not only needs to have a solid and confident keyboard technique (enabling them to play the most complicated operatic scores), but they also require a good working knowledge and have the confidence to coach singers in a variety of languages – English, Italian, German and French (and sometimes Russian and Czech). A repetiteur is required to offer historically correct instruction in musical style during the rehearsal or vocal coaching process, correct musical and linguistic inaccuracies and often has to assist the conductor by taking notes on their behalf during the stage and orchestra rehearsals.

Repetiteurs are often required to play other keyboard instruments in rehearsals and performances, such as the harpsichord, fortepiano or celeste. They also need excellent sight-reading skills, and, more importantly, the skill to be able to learn music quickly with a good understanding of the full orchestral score they are required to play.  It is not a career for concert pianists who are perhaps interested in public recognition and fame, but it is one of the most rewarding for those pianists who enjoy being involved in collaborative work with a dynamic and creative team, often working alongside more than one hundred people at a time. Repetiteurs need robust teaching principles and the skills to impart the necessary musical coaching, training and directional aspects of their job. They also need agreeable communication and interpersonal skills, patience, and the ability to stay calm in pressured environments.

Is work experience or learning on the job the best kind of training for a young repetiteur?

It can certainly be a very good way of getting a real and practical insight into the working life of a repetiteur, but I would encourage anyone who wishes to work professionally in this field to undertake a specific period of study on a dedicated repetiteur course, such as those on offer at many of the UK conservatoires. Although most of the UK conservatoires offer a postgraduate course in repetiteur studies, it seems that often the course information is not easily accessed and, in some cases, is not available at all. Many of the courses available do not appear to be entirely comprehensive and it seems that many repetiteur students are often left to their own devices to develop and enhance their skills without clear guidance.

Ideally, a good repetiteur course or training programme should contain the following elements (assuming the pianist is already at an advanced level): regular keyboard lessons (piano/repetiteur tuition with some dedicated time and tuition spent discovering the skills required to play the harpsichord and fortepiano); regular Italian, German and French language lessons (with the emphasis on comprehension, correct pronunciation and a clear understanding of the rules of singing in these languages); the opportunity to study, adapt and play a wide variety of operatic scores whilst following a conductor; mentored vocal coaching (one to one and ensemble); the experience of playing for opera rehearsals in a studio as well as in an orchestra pit; some involvement in orchestral keyboard playing and scheduled dedicated conducting tuition. The programme of study should be a very busy and full timetable. A course containing all of these elements would certainly give a talented young repetiteur the initial skills required and every opportunity to succeed in eventually securing employment in this fulfilling profession.

It is an extremely rewarding career. The variety of skills required make for an interesting time in the rehearsal room and opera theatre. The interaction between repetiteur, conductor, singers, directors and orchestras is nothing short of exhilarating.


Kevin Thraves photo

Kevin Thraves (pictured above) was born in Cheltenham and studied as an undergraduate pianist at the Royal College of Music and as a postgraduate accompanist at the Royal Northern College of Music.  He has worked as a repetiteur for many of the main UK opera companies including Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera, English National Opera and Opera North.  Kevin has worked with many of the UK’s leading orchestras including the Hallé, the BBC Concert Orchestra – during the Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall, the BBC Philharmonic, and the Manchester Camerata.  Kevin has a busy and varied recital career which has led to performances at many of the leading international music festivals. He is currently the musical director and repetiteur for the Mananan International Opera Festival.  Kevin is the Head of Music Staff in the School of Vocal Studies and Opera at the RNCM where he has worked on many of the award-winning operas.

The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester is pleased to offer an exciting bespoke postgraduate course in Repetiteur Studies attached to the School of Vocal Studies and Opera. For more information click here.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty

The following article was originally published in Piano Professional magazine, which is an EPTA UK (European Piano Teachers Association) publication, and it appeared in the most recent edition; Issue 37.  You can read the original article by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page, and I have compiled a list of ten top tips based on the article, as a PDF download, so you can print out and use at the piano.


 Tone Production

The piano is capable of providing infinite tonal variety, despite being a percussion instrument. From the softest whispers to the grandest, most powerful fortissimo, pianists have an abundant smorgasbord of tone available with which to conjure poetry and pathos. Whilst there are certain limitations or restrictions due to the varied quality of instruments, pianists are generally responsible for the sound they summon during each and every performance.

Exquisite tone production is the secret of a successful pianist; it makes each player unique and in some cases, instantly recognizable. Many great artists and teachers have spoken about the necessity of focusing on tone quality. These include the great pianist and pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus (1888-1964) who devotes a chapter to tone production in his book The Art of Piano Playing:

‘Mastery of tone is the first and most important task of all the problems of piano technique that the pianist must tackle, for tone is the substance of music; in ennobling and perfecting it we raise music itself to a great height. In working with my pupils I can say without exaggeration that three-quarters of all work is done on tone’ (chapter 3; pg. 56).

Renowned pianist and pedagogue, Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), also commented on tone production:

No life without art, no art without life. One does not win people’s hearts only with runs of scales and fast thirds, but rather with a noble singing style, clear and powerful, gentle and soft.’

Extract from After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton (Chapter 5; pg. 139).

Other influential pedagogues such as Frédéric Chopin, Ferruccio Busoni, and Tobias Matthay, have all remarked about the importance of tonal quality. Many pianists and pedagogues cite this facet as the most crucial factor when delivering an expressive, musically committed account.

Yet, surprisingly, tone production is sometimes rather side-stepped during piano lessons and practice sessions. It’s seemingly consigned as an after-thought; something to focus on during the final stages of preparation. How piano sound is produced does fundamentally change the whole concept of interpretation and performance, and therefore should ideally be placed at the forefront in lessons. Pupils of all standards, from beginners through to advanced players, can benefit from knowledge regarding how sound is produced and the fundamental difference this can make to their performance. Placing a student’s attention on how and why they must make a full, sonorous tone, and how this issue is intrinsically linked to phrasing, articulation and dynamics, is surely of utmost importance. So with this in mind, how do we create a beautiful tone allowing our artistic imaginations to take flight?

Before learning how to produce a good sound at the instrument, we need to understand what is required from our bodies, because the way the energy from the body is transmitted through the keys is the crucial determining factor in changing the sound. Many feel playing the piano is all about speed, fast fingers and quick hand movements (and this does play an important role!), but to significantly change the sound produced, affording a full, warm, rich tone, the whole upper body must be involved. This is the reason why any kind of tension or rigidity whilst playing generally results in a harsh, thin sound or timbre.

It begins with our upper body i.e. the back, shoulders, whole arm, elbows, wrist, hand and finger muscles, which all move specific parts in the hand, enabling it to strike the correct key. Similarly, bone structure also helps to transmit energy cushioning the hand, particularly from the back and shoulders (through the arm, wrist and hand), projecting the sound into the keyboard. The combination of the pertinent back, shoulder, arm, hand, wrist and finger movements all working in tandem, results in a bountiful, expansive tone, it also feels comfortable, relaxed and much more flexible too. Good tone production encourages a more secure, reliable technique and a feeling of calm and serenity during performance. In short, a full sound requires a pianist to move freely, swiftly and abundantly, which consequently generates greater note accuracy and assured control at the keyboard.

It’s paramount for piano students to fully explore their potential regarding the sound they are able to produce, because without learning how to use and control the keyboard’s complete sonority, it becomes almost impossible to grade tone from ppp through to fff successfully. This will prove imperative when employing an effective dynamic range appropriate for each musical period, style and composer.

Here are a few ideas to enable a more beautiful sound:

Sit comfortably at the keyboard; posture is a deciding factor where tone production is concerned. Many feel sitting too low is not good, but if you are too high over the keyboard, gaining control can be problematic. Always sit with a straight back and start with fingers on the keys, so that you will have control over the hammers (which strike the strings and hence produce the sound), and this will help with note accuracy too. Control of the sound can only happen between the time immediately before you depress the key and the escapement of the hammer. After a note has been played, pupils can relax and ‘release’ the note and their hand position, thus eliminating any further tension.

Allow the shoulders (and the whole back area) to be in a natural position, i.e. not raised.  Raised shoulders (and a tense back) can cause many problems definitely promoting tension, by stopping free and flexible movement in the arm and hand. Correct this by constantly reminding pupils to think about how they feel whilst playing. One idea is to encourage students to drop their arms by their side freely, assuming ‘dead’ arms, ridding all tension. It’s this heavy ‘weight’ that must be grasped and assimilated when learning to improve tone production. We have a tendency to ignore how our bodies really feel during a performance, usually because we are so focussed on what we are playing, but tension anywhere in the body will usually result in a certain discomfort and can lead to repetitive strain injury too. Regular prompting will eventually establish a good habit, and pupils will learn how it feels to be totally comfortable.

The wrists are probably the most vital body part for promoting a good sound. Interestingly, they are the seat of much stiffness and constriction. Some schools of thought promote high wrists, others favour a low position, but the most conducive is a constantly moving wrist. If they are kept moving, there is little chance of the wrists becoming stiff or tense. Experiment by laying both hands on the keyboard, moving the wrists (rather than the hand or arm), first up and down then from side to side, and finally in a rotational movement or motion. Practice this every day before practice commences. It allows the wrists to become accustomed to moving around flexibly.

Another exercise which can be beneficial, is to play a five-finger pattern (place the fingers over middle C, followed by nearby D, E, F, G; using the fingering 1-5 (or 5-1 in the left hand), and whilst holding down the first note (middle C), encourage the wrist to make a complete circular motion keeping the thumb (of the right hand) firmly attached to the note (even though the sound has dispersed). This allows the wrist and arm action to feel malleable whilst playing a note. Now continue playing D-G (and back down again, from G to middle C) using the same motion (taking time between each note) focusing on sinking deep into each key, feeling the key bed every time. By doing this regularly, pupils will become aware of the relaxed hand and wrist positions required to produce a more attractive sound. It’s certainly a technique to be worked at consistently; instilling the feeling which will ultimately metamorphose into a good habit.

Once the wrists are more yielding, so the arms and elbows also move freely too. The circular wrist motion will allow the upper body to move more effectively and efficiently, making keyboard coverage that much better and quicker.

The hand should now already be in a relaxed position; many prescribe forming and honing an arch shape, with the knuckles in an elevated aspect (like that formed when grasping an apple!). This can be an effective approach and will help to eliminate a collapsing hand, buoying the fingers, so they can work independently of the hand, striking each key with plenty of power by employing each finger joint (joints must not collapse, instead they should be totally engaged, supporting each finger). A rotating wrist movement will help the fingers to work on their own after a while, because of the freedom attained from the rotation motion whilst playing one note at a time (as the above exercise suggests).

A soft, elastic, heavy whole arm movement provides plenty of gravity, support and substance behind the wrist, allowing it to harness this arm weight generated by the back, shoulders, and upper arms, using this to produce a full, fat sound. The fingers should ideally play on their ‘pads’, the padded, soft area of skin on the finger-tip, because this will further ‘cushion’ the sound. If the sound is sufficiently cushioned by the finger (and whole arm) as it attacks the key, it in effect plays the key at a very slightly slower speed, caressing the key rather than forcefully hitting it. That combined with the weight of the arm seems to change the sound, thus producing a richer, warmer colour. Thorough flexibility in the wrist and ‘looseness’ in the other parts of the upper body are vital, but the fingers must remain like steel; and this is developed over time by strengthening finger and hand muscles (usually via scales, exercises, studies etc.).

It takes a while to master the use and control of the body in the way necessary to change the sound, but it can and will become a habit with patient practice. Once the fingers employ the heavy weight supported by the arm and upper body, they’ll take on a new persona and will begin to adopt completely new sonorities, particularly with regard to singing tone or cantabile. Cantabile is only really possible with plenty of weight behind the key; fingers must sink into the key bed, right to the bottom of the key, focusing on the musical line, playing with either a crescendo or diminuendo from note to note.

The piano sound’s natural decay means listening to a musical line is crucial when judging each sound in order to proffer a musically satisfying phrase. So listening becomes a vital part of tone production and tonal variation, and similarly, learning to voice within counterpoint, chords, and copious different piano textures is also essential.

It can be a good idea to practice this component by working at sound variation in combination with the physiology of tone production as outlined above. Try using Figure A as a vehicle for creating different tonal possibilities; pupils can work at creating their own sound variations, from as quiet and soft as possible to all out fortissimos, whilst being sure to check their body is working efficiently.

Figure A

Experimental chords

Plenty of experimentation will foster an increasingly large and diverse tonal palette, allowing for expert gradation of tone. Another interesting challenge is to use the same example to practice voicing specific lines i.e. highlighting the top of each chord, then the bottom note in either hand, followed by some of the inner notes within each chord. This will help to gain finger control too.

When producing a powerful fortissimo, guard against the urge to play as loudly as possible, because beyond a certain level, the sound tends to become astringent and unpleasant. Also having some sound in reserve can be important; not playing at full capacity (whether fff or ppp) all the time, keeping some power or delicacy for certain performance situations can be a good idea (in order to cope with different instruments and acoustics).

Employing the pedal further changes timbre and luminosity, and ideally the pedals can be used to enhance or complement tonal variety. Whether using the Sustaining (Damper or Right) pedal, the Sostenuto pedal (Middle) or Una Corda (Left) pedal (on grand pianos; uprights pedals may vary), each one adds a different tonal quality and ought to be used as an extra sonority as opposed to merely making the instrument louder (Sustaining pedal), quieter (Una Corda) or as a bolster (or cover) for defective finger legato.

Hopefully, these ideas may inspire students to continuously strive and search for a pleasing, more generous, opulent resonance at the piano. Once the technique for expanding and consolidating tone production has been acquired, students will enjoy the increasing feeling of beauty and control within their grasp

10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty PDF Download: 10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty

View the original article here: Tone Production

© Melanie Spanswick


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


Piano Week 2014

Highlighting piano festivals and summer schools is always a pleasure. Piano Week was launched last year by pianist Samantha Ward. It’s an international festival and summer school for pianists of all ages and abilities which takes place in the beautiful surroundings of North Wales.  Piano Week 2014 is once again being held at Bangor University between 10th and 15th August and it has an international faculty which will give recitals and master classes throughout the week.

Samantha wanted to build a performance platform for pianists from around the world and she chose North Wales partly because it’s where she grew up, and also she wasn’t aware of any venture such as Piano Week taking place in the area previously.  The location is idyllic and in 2013, the festival welcomed participants from all over the UK as well as from America.  The ethos of Piano Week is that it’s open to everyone. All festival participants benefit from one-to-one piano lessons, duet lessons, a master class with a member of the faculty, talks and discussions, classes in listening, theory and composition for children and comparative listening and analysis for adults, a performance in the Schott Music showcase, a demonstration on the ‘inner workings’ of the piano, performance opportunities both as a soloist and in part of a duet and recitals and a cabaret performance given by the faculty.

The Piano Week 2014 faculty hail from all around the globe and are all highly acclaimed concert pianists as well as excellent pedagogues; David Fung (Guest Artist, Australia), Maciej Raginia (Poland), Niel du Preez (South Africa), Sachika Taniyama (Japan), Vesselina Tchakarova (Bulgaria), Alexander Karpeyev (Russia) and piano technician David Daniels (UK).

Piano Week 2014 is being supported by Bluthner who are lending a brand new concert grand piano for the duration of the festival this year.  Pianist magazine included an article about the festival in their recent issue and Schott Music publishers will once again be presenting a showcase at Piano Week 2014.  An interesting and educational week for piano enthusiasts everywhere, if you fancy taking part or just want to find out more information, click here.

 

Sam ward 4

Sam Ward 3

Photos from the 2013 Piano Week


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


Sonya’s Lullaby Op. 16 by Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen: Sonya's Lullaby

I was introduced to Oliver Knussen’s music as a young student. Playing unusual, less familiar repertoire was always an interesting discovery. I’ve written about Contemporary piano music before and you can read my post here.

Oliver Knussen was born in Glasgow in 1952. His father was the principal double bass player in the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom he made his debut in April 1968 conducting his First Symphony in London and then at  Carnegie Hall, New York. Early major works such as Coursing (1979) and the Third Symphony (1973-9) placed Knussen at the forefront of contemporary British music where he has firmly remained. A skilled conductor of new music as well as a composer, he is a highly influential figure who has been awarded many accolades including a CBE in 1994.

Knussen’s music has often has often been described as on a ‘small scale’ with a certain transparency of texture. This is definitely the case with the piano piece, Sonya’s Lullaby Op.16. Composed in 1977/78 for his daughter Sonya, who is now a mezzo soprano. Apparently as a four month old  baby she was an insomniac (aren’t they all?!) and he decided to record her sleeplessness by creating a lullaby which employs a vivid yet lucid sound world. Knussen’s programme notes enlighten this piece;

‘The word lullaby is used in the sense of an incantation to sleep. Formally the music is, I hope, self-explanatory, but perhaps it is worth mentioning that an initial stimulus toward the piano writing was the harmonic exploitation of overtones produced from the lowest register of the instrument by composers as diverse as Brahms, Scriabin, Copland, and Carter. Sonya’s Lullaby is the central panel of my chamber music Triptych (the other two being Autumnal for violin and piano, and Cantata for oboe and string trio) and was written for the composer-pianist Michael Finnissy, who gave the first performance of the final version in Amsterdam, January 1979’.

The reference to Scriabin is interesting, because this does feel the dominant influence. The work is full of unresolved dissonances and colourful chord progressions which somehow create complete calm amid chaos, perhaps due partly to the constant tri-tone reference, suggesting the child’s inner turmoil. Pedal is a really important sonority in this work too, acting as a vital part of the texture.

The following performance was recorded in 1998 at a house concert where I played a short recital on a 1924 Bechstein Boudoir grand. I have made several recordings of this work on various fairly new Steinway pianos, but somehow, even though I’m not keen on old instruments at all, this piano did allow for a different sound world.

Oliver Knussen

 


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

From the Adjudicator’s Chair

This week several of my readers have contacted me asking whether I could write a blog post on the subject of what adjudicators or jury members are looking for in a competition performance (I’m always pleased to hear from anyone with blog post ideas). It’s wonderful that so many of you are preparing for amateur piano competitions all around the world. The main concern or question seemed to be ‘is the visual aspect of performance important and do adjudicators take note of how a performer looks whilst playing?’ This happens to be quite a topical question at the moment, as it has been the subject of much scrutiny in the newspapers here in the UK this week.

When judging any competition, it’s impossible to ignore an artist’s appearance completely. To do this, we would need to erect a screen and not see the musician at all, in order to only listen to the sound produced. This may be an effective option and many orchestral auditions are conducted in this fashion. Certainly it’s a more impartial way of listening to classical artists, but are we not missing the point by doing this? It is definitely easier to focus on the sound produced without looking at musicians, but isn’t the whole purpose of a performance just that? The sound and the visual? Otherwise why not listen to a recording as opposed to attending a live concert?

It may, on the face of it, appear to be advantageous only to more attractive performers, but a proportion (albeit small) of a performer’s ability to convey a piece of music successfully does, in fact, come from the whole package; watching every arm, hand or finger movement and enjoying the spectacle or mystic some performer’s definitely create whilst on stage. This shouldn’t be confused however, with their sexual allure (it all seems to boil down to this doesn’t it? After all, sex sells). Many fantastic musicians bring a theatrical quality to their performances which would certainly be lost if we only ‘heard’ them and this particular characteristic is significant in a live concert. It contributes to the atmosphere of a recital. Of course, many will disagree here and will wager that the ‘sound’ is the most crucial factor, but whether we enjoy the ‘theatrics’ of a performance or not, this argument has virtually nothing to do with an artist being attractive which is a different type of ‘adulation’ completely, and one which sadly appears to be more and more commonplace in the world of classical music.

Many adjudicators and jury members probably do take note of the visual aspect of a competitor’s performance. They would be inhuman if they didn’t do this. I can only speak for myself, but, when adjudicating, I’m usually quite pre-occupied with writing reports so spend little time actually looking at competitors; I prefer to listen as I write.

I do make a point of watching pianists at the beginning of their recital. It’s good to make eye contact and give, young pianists particularly, confidence, but it’s especially interesting to note how pianists approach the instrument. Whilst examining, I could always tell if a candidate was going to give a distinction worthy performance or not, by the way they merely walked into the room. It’s all a matter of confidence. Generally, features such as posture, poise and a convincing opening are crucial and all make a good impression. The opening of a performance does tend to ‘set the scene’ for what’s to come, so young and amateur pianists should perhaps bear this in mind. It’s just as important as the big finish! Concentration, intensity and a good sound are also vital attributes in my opinion. A pianist who is totally engrossed in the music is a joy to behold.

Facial expressions are another moot point. Are they necessary? Some think they enhance but others find them atrocious. It doesn’t bother me specifically, and it usually doesn’t detract from a performance either. On the contrary, sometimes it can enhance if done in a convincing way, but as with anything, exaggerated, outrageous facial expressions do disturb and may result in a second place.

Most adjudicators or jury members are hoping for the same outcome; an accurate performance with plenty of colour, variety, adherence to the score and awareness of style, as well as a captivating quality that ‘screams’ first place. Competitions aren’t for the faint-hearted, but they do instil confidence and can improve your playing, so good luck to you all.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


Pulse Perfection!

Over the past few weeks I have been coaching several Grade 8 and diploma candidates; pianists who have come to me to play through  their set pieces and other aspects of their respective exams. It’s the time of year for cramming, studying and practising way beyond the norm in order to achieve that coveted high mark. There have, however, been recurring issues in many performances and perhaps these are fairly common place amongst those preparing for exams so, as a good blogger, I am going to write about them!

All advanced exams follow a similar format, irrespective of the exam board you have selected for your grade or diploma. Graded exams are slightly more restricting than diplomas due to the more limiting choice of repertoire. One aspect of critical importance in all musical forms, but especially the Baroque and Classical style, is rhythm. This may seem an obvious observation, but not adhering strictly to the pulse is a very easy mistake to make.

I’m not referring to basic rhythmic errors because these generally don’t occur in more advanced playing (well they may happen occasionally). However, some pianists are so locked into their performance or interpretation of a work, that they have become immune to the pulse or tempo.

I have been guilty of this crime in the past. When I developed my cabaret show, I had to learn to play with a live band and use a ‘click track’; an electronic beat similar to the sound of a  metronome which runs throughout an entire piece usually via a pair of ear phones. A click track makes no allowance for even the slightest tempo deviation, and I quickly realised just how un-rhythmical my playing could be. As soloists, pianists are at free will to play as they please, which encourages the habit of copious rubato (or taking time) everywhere. Some works do suit this type of playing, but it isn’t a requirement for whole swathes of twentieth century and popular music.

The best way to solve tempo problems initially is to work with a metronome; use it every time you practice for several weeks before an exam or concert, making quite sure you are playing on the beat all the time (this requires careful listening). However, that is only addressing half the problem; pulse deviation can be the result of many shortcomings including uneven playing, lack of concentration or even basic rhythmical awareness.

Uneven playing is a common culprit. Take a group of four semi-quavers like those below in Example A. If these notes have awkward fingerings or are difficult to place accurately for whatever reason, then this may lead to uneven articulation, thus throwing out the pulse completely. The second example (B) demonstrates what can often be heard in place of rhythmical semi-quavers (this is slightly exaggerated but you get the idea).

Uneven rhythm copy

A metronome can help to develop a sense of pulse, but it is the ‘inner-pulse’ that needs be cultivated for long-term rhythmical success. The ‘inner-pulse’ generally refers to a musician’s own sense or natural sense of rhythm, where pulse has become internalized; but when applied to playing, if sub-divisions of the beat are un-rhythmical then this can all be challenging to say the least.

One solution to this problem is for pupils to count fastidiously in small denominations; dividing the beat, counting 1,2,3 and 4 very evenly as suggested (in the example below), at the same time as playing the notes (this example is taken from the opening of Prelude in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 by J S Bach):

Bach Prelude Example copy

If your piece contains many semi-quaver passages such as those frequently found in works from the Baroque or Classical eras, then in order to ensure ‘even’ playing, it can be really useful to count every single semi-quaver beat accurately and separately. If you account for each semi-quaver beat vocally, then you really do have to concentrate and play with your mouth literally! (success also depends on your vocal counting being absolutely exactly in time). If you are unable to count rhythmically and play at the same time, then another way of addressing the problem is to set your metronome to beat on every single  semi-quaver (it can be done although needs to be on a very fast setting and the passages must be practised slowly too). Beware, this is exhausting. Start slowly building up speed gradually.

Once you have practised in this way for a while, you will find you are then totally ‘tuned in’ to the necessary precision required for rhythmical accuracy because you will be focussing on the beat inside the main crotchet beat (in this case). A steady ‘beat’ or ‘pulse’ is effortlessly achieved as a result, and it is much easier to play along with the metronome too. Sufficient regular practice in this way encourages the development of that elusive ‘inner-pulse’. If you work at this you will find that you never, ever rush or play un-rhythmically and your piano playing will definitely sound more professional.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

Piano Talk with Noriko Ogawa: Part 1

Japanese concert pianist has already been kind enough to take part in my Classical Conversations Series and you can enjoy the interview here. However, we decided to meet again and chat more about several subjects. In Part 1 of this two part interview which was filmed at Steinway Hall in London, we talk about the best ways to start to learn the piano, focusing on my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?

Noriko Ogawa has achieved considerable renown throughout the world since her success at the 1987 Leeds International Piano Competition. Ogawa’s ‘ravishingly poetic playing’ (Telegraph) sets her apart from her contemporaries and acclaim for her complete Debussy series with BIS Records confirms her as a fine Debussy specialist.

Ogawa appears with all the major European, Japanese and US orchestras. She has been appointed Artist in Residence to Bridgewater Hall in Manchester where she will be Artistic Director for the Reflections on Debussy festival, hosted by BBC Philharmonic and Bridgewater Hall from January-June 2012. With the recent completion of the Debussy series, Ogawa completed recording a new Mozart disc for BIS Records in 2011. With her wonderful dynamic range and colour palate, Ogawa’s particular affinities also range from the works of Takemitsu, through the larger Romantic composers such as Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, to contemporary concerti commissioned from Graham Fitkin and Dai Fujikura.

Ogawa is also renowned as a recitalist and chamber musician. Notable chamber projects include a tour of Japan with the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Ensemble and the leader of the Vienna Philharmonic, Rainer Honeck. In 2001 Ogawa and Kathryn Stott launched their piano duo and have since toured in Japan and given premieres of Graham Fitkin’s double piano concerto Circuit, including the world premiere at Bridgewater Hall. She has also collaborated with Steven Isserlis, Isabelle van Keulen, Martin Roscoe, Michael Collins and Peter Donohoe.

An advocate of commissioning, Ogawa has been involved in numerous premieres. Her current commission is a ground-breaking series of recital pieces from Yoshihiro Kanno which feature the piano alongside various traditional Japanese instruments or sounds; the first for Nambu bell and piano Hikari no Ryushi (A Particle of Light), followed by Mizu no Ryushi (A Particle of Water) for metal chopsticks and piano, Niji no ryushi (A Particle of Rainbow) for piano and Kabuki Orgel and finally Sora no meiro (Sky Maze) for organ and piano.

Alongside performing and recording for BIS, Ogawa is sought-after for presenting, both on the radio and on television, recently appearing on BBC Worldwide in ‘Visionaries’ as an advocate for Takemitsu and in programmes for NHK and Nippon Television. As an adjudicator, she regularly judges the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, Honens International Piano Competition and the Scottish International Piano Competition.

In Japan, Ogawa acts as artistic advisor to the MUZA Kawasaki Symphony Hall in her hometown. In 1999, the Japanese Ministry of Education awarded her their Art Prize in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the cultural profile of Japan throughout the world and she has also been awarded the Okura Prize for her outstanding contribution to music in Japan. As a writer, Ogawa has completed her first book (published in Japan) and is currently working on a Japanese translation of Susan Tomes’s book Out of Silence – a pianist’s yearbook.

Ogawa is passionate about charity work, particularly after the earthquake and tsunami which devastated Japan in early 2011. Since the earthquake she has raised over £20,000 for the British Red Cross Japan Tsunami Fund and is keen to keep fundraising, also working with the Japan Society through 2012. Ogawa also founded Jamie’s Concerts a series for autistic children and parents.

Ogawa lives with her partner Philip and their cat Tama. When not practising she enjoys writing and cooking for friends.

www.norikoogawa.co.uk

Noriko in action…..


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

Sheargold Music Interview

A few weeks ago I spoke to Steven Palmer at Sheargold Music as part of their new video-blog series, about my career and my new book. I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat on camera about So You Want To Play The Piano?  (those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I love chatting on camera!). Sheargold Music own two large piano and music shops; one in Maidenhead, Berkshire (from where I hail) and the other in Cobham, Surrey. You can watch the brief interview below:


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

More Memorising tips…

That poor piano...

I had some interesting responses to the post I wrote a few days ago dealing with memorisation (which you can read here). It was suggested that I should also focus on what happens when memory fails – i.e. a memory slip! So here are my thoughts on this incredibly stressful event in any pianists life. Memory slips happen to virtually everybody at some point and they can be difficult to ‘get over’ because lots of courage is needed to get back on stage and try again. However, this is a must if a pianist is to overcome the problem.

Whilst Liszt and Clara Schumann both loved to play from memory (and indeed invented the concept), it does put so much extra pressure on public performance. A pianist needs to develop a different kind of mind set entirely in order to perform large concert programmes without the score effectively. If I know I am going play a piece from memory before learning begins, I approach it in a different way from the outset thus making  a conscious effort to memorize every bar, nuance and phrase as I’m going along. A lot of memorisation takes place in the early learning stages as you become more familiar with the piece.

One problem with memorising digitally i.e. fingerings, note patterns, shapes on the keyboard and how the work ‘feels’ under the fingers (although this type of memory is normal and should be cultivated), is that it makes forgetting very easy. Reliable memorisation really comes from thinking about the music and analyzing it. If you can spend time working through the piece away from the piano looking at the structure and form, then this will be a great help when playing without the score. It was also aid your interpretation skills too.

Even after methodical analysis and careful preparation, it is still possible to get into a muddle on stage. Nerves often undermine practice and preparation so what do you do when a memory slip occurs? Whatever happens, don’t stop playing! Some pianists have the ability to extemporize or improvise when they lose where they are in the score until the ‘find themselves’; apparently Vladimir Horowitz, amongest others, was blessed with this ability and used it from time to time.

I can’t improvise at all sadly, so I make sure that I know the piece in sections and am able to ‘jump’ quite cleanly (hopefully!) into another section or passage of the work. I find it’s not helpful to ‘go back’ and play the elusive passage again as this just encouarges another slip and can make you more and more frustrated and upset too. Once it has gone from your mind it doesn’t seem to reappear miraculously a few minutes later so it is best to move on and finish the piece in a convincing way. I find it helpful to try to completely eradicate the slip from my head otherwise I am constantly thinking about it for the entire recital.

I hope this is helpful to those working on their memory skills. Everybody finds their own way of remembering ultimately and the main factor in successful memorisation is to do it regularly in front of an audience thus building confidence. Good luck.

Photo courtesy of www.anamazingmachine.wordpress.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.