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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Weekend Competition: Holistic Day for Pianists

Holistic Day for Pianists is an exciting all-day event for amateur pianists, music students, piano teachers and young musicians from the age of 13.  The day will take place at Schott Music in London on Sunday 16th July from 10am – 5pm, and will be hosted by Russian-born pianist, teacher, composer and yoga expert (and founder of Piano-Yoga®), Genia Chudinovich (GéNIA) and myself.

I met GéNIA in 2012, and we immediately recognised our shared beliefs; helping piano students to realise their true potential by offering holistic technical and musical guidance, and thereby encouraging a different approach to piano playing. Subsequent workshops and projects have followed, and we are now really looking forward to presenting this holistic piano day which will explore several important elements; incorporating the physical flexibility and relaxation techniques employed in Piano-Yoga® with the mental mindfulness required in memorisation and sight-reading.

You can find out more about the day’s schedule and book your tickets by clicking here. My Weekend Competition offers two free tickets to two lucky readers. To take part, just leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post, and GéNIA and I will select two winners on Sunday evening. Good luck!


 

9 Tips for Piano Exam Success in 2017

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire is a new series on my blog, which will begin in earnest next week. Today’s post is in preparation, offering a few practice ideas to make piano exam study a more fruitful and rewarding affair.

Some of you have written (over the past year or so) requesting information about piano exam programmes and how best to select and practise various pieces, so I hope this series of posts might be helpful and of interest. Choosing appropriate pieces from any syllabus is always a major consideration; an important part of exam preparation is deciding which set works combine effectively, offering an attractive, interesting programme whilst also displaying your particular strengths.

I’m going to focus on two exam boards: ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London (starting with the old syllabus (2015-2017), moving to the new one over the coming months). Every post in the series will feature three pieces (for each grade) which complement one another, are fun to play, and supply engaging technical and musical demands.

These pieces are usually contrasting in style and character, which is an element I will emphasise in my selections. These selections are merely personal preferences, because all works within the syllabus lists have already been carefully chosen to present engaging programmes. My objective is to provide a few tips and practice ideas for the chosen three pieces (much of which can be transferred to other repertoire too), and I hope you find these helpful and informative.

Before I launch into the repertoire, I offer a few suggestions for those preparing for piano exams. Whether you’re a young student taking Grade 1 or a mature student taking Grade 8, there are many ways of making sure you achieve your goal. Here are a few practice ideas to utilize during the months leading up to the big day.

  1. A piano exam practice schedule is a good idea. It doesn’t need to be fanatically followed, but if you can make a promise to yourself to practice little and often, your playing will immeasurably improve. Decide just how much time you can devote to piano playing every week; it might be 20 minutes per day, or 20 minutes twice per day. The regularity of your practice is important, as is focused, mindful concentration. Five days per week is optimum, and it can be useful to work in two sessions as opposed to one.
  2. Include all exam elements in each session. Piano exams normally consist of three pieces, scales & arpeggios (or technical exercises), sight-reading and aural (there are other options too, for some exam boards). Aim to include all (or at least three of the four tests) elements at every practice session, perhaps working with a stop watch or clock, so you don’t spend too much time on one area.
  3. A set routine can be profitable. During the practice session try to establish a ‘rota’; perhaps start with sight-reading and follow this with scales and technical work at every session. By doing this, you will quickly cover two important parts of your exam whilst you are still fresh and able to fully concentrate. Leave the set pieces until later in the practice session.
  4. Sight-reading usually requires your full attention, and although it might seem tedious and onerous, if you can regularly devote time to it, improvement will be significant and will make all other piano endeavours feel easier. Ten minutes at the beginning of every session is ideal.
  5. Moving onto scales, arpeggios and technical work, you may need a quick pause between sight-reading and scales; it’s best to take regular breaks. If you’re preparing for a higher grade exam (Grade 6 or above), you might need to practise scales and arpeggios in rotation, as aiming to include all in one session can prove taxing and take too much time. Work out a timetable whereby all technical  work is practised thoroughly, allowing you to concentrate fruitfully on each one.
  6. Set pieces; each piano piece may also benefit from a rotational approach, particularly if they are advanced and complicated. It’s a better plan to practise slowly and assiduously as opposed to skimming over lightly, which may necessitate working at a smaller amount of material at each practice session.
  7. Performance goals. Once the pieces are within your grasp i.e. you can play them through slowly, aim to finish the final practice session of the day with a ‘play-through’ of at least one piece. This can be a valuable exercise to gauge your progress, note what has been achieved weekly (or daily), and become accustomed to establishing the mental thought process required to think from beginning to end without any breaks or hesitations.
  8. Time keeping. A worthwhile exercise is to play each piece slowly with a metronome. Set the metronome to a very slow speed and go through your piece, playing along precisely to the electronic pulse. This can highlight any technical problems, as well as instilling accurate pulse-keeping, and it will also consolidate fingerings, notes and rhythms. Many find it beneficial to ‘play through’ a work slowly, devoid of emotional content, proffering the space and time to think about physical movement around the keyboard i.e. how flexible, relaxed and comfortable you feel whilst playing each piece (for me, a really important aspect of piano playing).
  9. Aural. Surprisingly, it is possible to practice parts of this element on your own. Singing can be done at the piano, testing yourself on the expected patterns, such as intervals and scalic movement (I provide my students with various intervallic ‘tunes’). You can even play (and sing) the actual singing tests yourself. This is also true of cadences and any chord progressions; you can ‘learn’ how they sound whilst playing. More tricky tests such as recognising styles of music should ideally be honed over a period of time; YouTube provides all the music you’ll ever need in order to become familiar with how various genres ‘sound’.

These ideas can be easily implemented. Piano exams can be daunting, but if prepared carefully and not left until the last-minute, they offer much enjoyment and the perfect opportunity to really improve your playing.

The first post in my new series will feature the ABRSM Grade 1 piano exam. You can find out more about Grade 1 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. 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 are thinking about playing the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? is full of useful information.

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


Play it again: PIANO Book 1

The piano is an intoxicating instrument. Those who have played in their youth often harbour a desire to return to it later in life. Piano ‘returners’ make up an increasingly large cohort of amateur pianists. Whether younger or older, it’s usually fairly easy to pick up again and  progress can be swift, proffering the opportunity to fall in love with this majestic instrument (and its colossal repertoire) all over again.

My new two book piano course, Play it again: PIANO has been written with the ‘returner’ in mind. Book 1 was published just last month (and Book 2 will be available from the beginning of July). The first book takes pianists almost back to the beginning (but not quite; this isn’t a piano tutor or method book).

The course consists of 49 piano pieces, the majority of which are drawn from standard repertoire (with emphasis on pedagogical works), starting at elementary level (Grade 1) through to advanced (Grade 8). Each book has an extensive ‘technique’ section at the beginning, with plenty of technical reminders and practice recommendations, and a ‘theory’ section at the end. Each piece contains at least two pages of practice ideas and tips, as well as many musical examples, diagrams and photographs. As this is a progressive course, it’s possible to ‘return’ to a level to suit your current standard; some may want to start at the beginning (which is what I suggest, as this can be beneficial, even your playing is at a much higher level), whilst others may prefer to ‘drop in’ at Book 2 or a later stage.

In Book 1, the technique section focuses on flexibility, posture, and keeping relaxed during practice sessions, with a few warm-up exercises, posture suggestions, and scales, arpeggios, and sight-reading practice tips. The theory section offers note reading reminders and exercises, how to keep time, time signatures, and all the information needed to understand the music within the book.

Each book is divided into four parts, and Book 1 looks like this: Elementary, Late Elementary, Early Intermediate and Intermediate. Although this course is not necessarily exam based, it’s helpful to know the approximate grades for each level; Elementary is roughly Grades 1 – 2 level (ABRSM exam standard), Late Elementary, Grades 2 – 3, Early Intermediate, Grade 3 – 4, and Intermediate, Grades 4 – 5.

Each level contains seven pieces (therefore 28 in Book 1); a technical study, an arrangement and a selection of standard repertoire. My brief was to include a wide variety of styles and genres, so there’s plenty for those who enjoy rock, latin, jazz, blues and even a piece for those who want to try their hand at improvisation. I’ve endeavoured to add a number of favourite original works throughout both volumes, and have balanced these with some terrific lesser-known gems.

The Elementary section includes works by Purcell, Petzold, Bertini, Tchaikovsky, Elgar (an arrangement of Salut d’Amour), a latin number by John Kember and Elena Cobb’s improvisation piece, Super Duck. Whilst the Late Elementary portion features Clarke, W.A. Mozart, Schumann, Gurlitt,  a study by Schytte, a Scott Jopin arrangement and a rock piece by Tim Richards. In the Early Intermediate section you can expect to find works by J.S. Bach, Gounod, Chopin, a study by Lemoine, The Sailor’s Hornpipe (an arrangement), a ragtime piece by John Kember, and a blues number by Mike Readdy. And the final collection, Intermediate, offers Clementi, Burgmuller, Satie, a study by Czerny, an arrangement of Mozart’s A Little Night Music, a rock piece by Jurgen Moser and a minimalist inspired Contemporary piece (Karma from Digressions) by myself.

I’ve included the scale and arpeggio of each key (where appropriate), and warm-up exercises, tailored to certain pieces. There are a myriad of practice ideas, and different methods of breaking pieces down, resembling them with ease and with greater understanding. Each piece contains fingering, dynamic suggestions and (where necessary) some pedalling. Although you may choose to ignore this and add your own.

All the information provided for every piece is transferable to an infinite number of piano works, therefore building solid practical methods for tackling different styles and genres.

This book could be used by a plethora of students; adults returning to this pursuit (it could be useful for study on your own or whilst learning with a teacher), teenagers (or anyone of any age!) who fancy a progressive course with a variety of music (it could be used alongside piano exam preparation too), and piano teachers may find it a beneficial selection of repertoire to use with adult students in particular (several piano teaching friends have already started using Book 1 for this purpose).

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The pages are well laid out (see above) and are designed with ‘Tips’ and ‘technique’ box-outs (the books are published by one of the world’s leading music publishing houses, Schott), and I hope it’s an easy to use course, inspiring pianists to rekindle their love for the piano.

You can find out more here, watch my taster videos by clicking on the links below, and order your copy from many outlets worldwide, including:

For those in the UK: Schott Music or Amazon (there are many other online shops also selling the book).

For those in Europe: Schott Music

For those in the US: Amazon

For those in Canada: Amazon

For those in Japan: Amazon





 

Chicken Wings

I try to be inventive when conveying various technical and musical details to students, but I’ve yet to come up with a ‘technical term’ as wacky as this one. Devised by my pupil Amy Reynolds, ‘Chicken Wings’ may be of interest to anyone focusing on the elbow. Many pedagogues feel this part of the body to be of real importance when playing the piano, and Amy felt compelled to write about her recent discoveries. I have reproduced her blog post here.


Chicken Wings

Yes, you read that right. Let me explain, I had a minor revelation last week. Every now and again I forget that I can do more than move my wrist up and down, I can use my elbow to aid the rotation allowing me to play a certain passage in one movement. I was practising some Beethoven, the Tempest Sonata to be precise, and I could not think of a name for this type of movement so naturally I decided to call it the ‘Chicken Wing’ because I was using my elbow. My students are very accustomed to me using odd terms to describe certain movements, the ‘Chicken Wing’  has now been added to that list!

Now, not all pedagogues mention using the elbow, and I can understand why. The arm is what it is, the most important work comes from below the elbow. But I feel that it is important for me to share my thoughts on why using my elbow works for me. Each person has a slightly different body structure meaning some movements may work for some and not for others.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, when I started lessons with Melanie we focused on keeping the wrist separate from the arm and hand to break tension. Well now I’m talking about separating the elbow. It acts like a pivot, and once you are able to move your wrist freely in all directions you can then use your elbow to cushion and adjust the angle of your hand, therefore allowing you to execute particular passages that need extra movement more easily. If you compare it to when we sit at the piano stool, we make sure it is the right height and we are comfortable before playing. But playing musical chairs by hopping on our bum isn’t how we reach those low notes or high notes. We rock using our sitting bones to allow ourselves a better position both low and high, it also gives easier access to the mid range of the keyboard when playing runs and arpeggios. Our elbow can be that medium between the shoulder and wrist giving us that flexibility, like the rocking of our sitting bones. Maybe I got this idea from playing the violin, where the elbow is something that cannot be ignored as it drives the bow’s direction.

I think that all parts of the upper body are important when playing piano, by combining the uses of each joint to tendon you can create more power and control over what you play, the elbow is just part of that whole system.

Read Amy’s Blog here.


Weekend competition; the winner…

Many thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition. The prize is a copy of the latest Faber Music publication from renowned music educationalist, Paul Harris. A piece a week Grade 3 continues the series, and can be used alongside Paul’s ever popular Improve your sight-reading! volumes. Containing 27 short pieces, this book will surely inspire pupils to gain more confidence when sight-reading and learning new repertoire.

The winner is…

Juan C.

Congratulations! Please send your address via my contact page on this blog, and your book will be on its way.

You can find out more and purchase A piece a week here.


Weekend Competition and Review: A piece a week

This new volume continues the highly beneficial series from Paul Harris, published by Faber Music. Anyone familiar with music education will surely know how Paul has played an important role in helping to transform music teaching, particularly instrumental instruction. I’ve enjoyed using Paul’s popular Improve Your Sight-Reading! publications with pupils, as well as The Virtuoso Teacher and Simultaneous Learning, which are intended for teachers.

The ability to sight-read is a crucial skill in music making, assisting quick learning, thereby eventually affording more opportunities for students to work with other musicians.

A piece a week can be used alongside the renowned Improve your sight-reading! series, encouraging students to learn and assimilate quickly, spending a short time swiftly reading and attaining note and rhythmic security, learning each piece fluently, before moving onto the next one.

Grade 3 focuses on mostly one page pieces (of which there are 27), all with colourful titles such as Ants and aardvarks, Bagpipes at breakfast, and Ghosts in a hurry, and beautifully set with illustrations (which should appeal to younger learners particularly). An introduction contains much useful information about such topics as fingering, pulse, practice and style, expression and character. As Paul says, ‘A new piece each week for 27 weeks before an exam will make a huge difference.’ Absolutely! This series should certainly inspire confidence and creativity.

I have one copy of this new volume to giveaway. Please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this blog post, and I will announce the winner on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!


Practising Duets: Part 2

Wishing all my readers a very happy and restful Bank Holiday weekend!

In Part 1 of today’s post (which you can read here), I suggested some warm-up and practice exercises for students prior to working on repertoire. This post offers various practice ideas for duos. These are described via my collection of little duets, SNAPCHATS.

Snapchats Front Cover SNAPCHATS are a useful teaching resource for pupils between Grades 1 – 4 (ABRSM). They consist of 11 extremely short works (8 – 10 bars in length), which can be easily negotiated by less experienced players. They might be a good choice for festivals or recitals; pairing two of them together also works well. One aspect I was keen to explore when writing, was to include several different techniques and piano sonorities, which may be new to players of this level.

The title Snapchats was derived from the social media platform, but the pieces are not specifically related to each other and have eclectic titles. I love harmony, and this is often my primary focus, however, there are a few tunes, with a nod to Minimalism too!

I’m going to do a quick ‘tour’ of each piece, exploring a few of the piano techniques employed, with two or three suggested practice tips. I’ve included a video of each work, some performed by myself and British pianist Nick van Bloss, with two duets played by young students Arthur and Alex Anderson (who performed them at a recent concert).

SUTRA

The first piece (which is around Grade 2 ABRSM level) is calm and tranquil, as the name suggests, yet it must be precise rhythmically or the meditational (or chanting) character will be lost. Chords in the secondo (lower part) are answered with notes ‘ringing’ out above, in the primo. There are several technical aspects here:

  1. Once chords have been negotiated in the secondo part (this could be a new challenge for the inexperienced), experiment by playing them legato (i.e. going from one chord to the next, without any gaps in the sound), voicing the top note. The primo octave pattern, meanwhile, must be placed very rhythmically on the 2nd and 3rd beats of the bar, with a tenuto touch (first line) yet slightly staccato touch (second line), and with some directional colour, precipitating the musical line and how it develops in subsequent bars.
  2. I would encourage players, to count in quavers throughout until they can convey the chanting successfully.
  3. The repeat can be played pianissimo, dying away at the end. It might be fun to add Sustaining pedal too – one pedal per bar encapsulating all the harmonies.

DATE IN MIND

This Minimalist inspired piece (which is around Grade 3 level) focuses on an Alberti Bass secondo accompaniment with a chordal primo (often in intervals of 3rds & 6ths).

  1. The secondo part weaves its way through various chordal patterns and should ideally be light, yet appropriately colouring (or emphasising) various points in the score, particularly in the bass, which provides the all-important bottom of the harmony. Examine the bass line alone, and focus on incorporating it with the primo (i.e. practice the secondo left hand with both hands in the primo part).
  2. Primo players might like to highlight the top line, separating it (tonally) from the other notes in each chord. To do this, weight the hand towards the right or weaker side (that of the 4th & 5th fingers), moving the arm and wrist accordingly.
  3. I would work very slowly with young players, taking a bar at a time, ‘fitting’ each beat together (rather like a jigsaw puzzle), ensuring each quaver in the secondo is exactly ‘placed’ with the melody in the primo).

LIGHT

Probably amongst the simplest of all the pieces in Snapchats (Grade 1 level), Light would be suitable for those who have less experience playing duets. A simplistic tune is accompanied by chords.

  1. Chords must all be placed together which is quite challenging here, as they occur on the second (or weaker) beat of the bar. Therefore, it might be an idea to work at the accompaniment first. Take the chords in the primo’s left hand and the secondo’s right hand; play them with a metronome set on a slow tempo, or count carefully.
  2. Add the bass note on the first beat of the bar (secondo, left hand), practising until all notes have been thoroughly digested and can be played without hesitation.
  3. Finally, add the melody, which may need some attention where fingering is concerned as the tune doesn’t always move in stepwise motion. Highlight the counter-melody in the secondo part too.

This duet can be played without any pedal, but will need plenty of colour and sound variation.

SAMSARA

One of the more difficult of the set (around Grade 4), this can be played at any speed, from Moderato to Presto. The secondo’s accompanying Alberti Bass must be light but very rhythmical, and this is combined with the primo’s rapid melodic passagework.

  1. Ensure the secondo’s lower part provides a firm first beat, after which the remaining quavers can be light, skimming the keys for a soft, even sound. The primo player will need to know the notes well in advance, as there are some tricky turns, particularly in the last bars. As always, practice bar by bar.
  2. For two players to learn to ‘place’ beats at speed, the  metronome might provide the perfect aid. Start under tempo, listening to where the beat falls, gradually learning to observe your duet partner and keep time (which is usually a slow process). Physical gestures will also help. Keep pedal to a minimum here (you actually don’t need any), and end with a full sound.

FLOATING

Another Minimalist inspired piece (around Grade 3 level). The harmony in this piece provides its wistful quality, so to begin with, I would examine the chord structure.

  1. Aim to play the chords altogether in minim beats (blocking them out), therefore two chords per bar (incorporating the accompaniment and the tune).
  2. Once the outer structure has been assimilated (this will help with fingering, and learning where to move), work at the accompaniment, ensuring all the quavers sound together; i.e. primo’s right hand & secondo’s left hand.
  3. Then add the tune, allowing it to float above other texture. Some arm weight will be necessary in order for the melody to sing above the texture; practise by employing a free, flexible wrist, and use the finger-tip, weighting the key with your wrist, arm and elbow behind the note as you play it. This take practice (and a good teacher who will show you what to do), but will be worth it in terms of sound quality.

MISTY RAIN

One of the more unusual of the set (probably around Grade 3), it requires use of harmonics to capture the misty effects of the rain.

  1. The opening chords (in both parts) must be played ‘silently’ to start with (and then held in place), so they unleash the full ‘resonance’ of the piano strings as other notes are played. Practice balancing your hand and fingers first; hover over the keys and take all the notes down, finding the ‘biting point’ or the double escapement where the sound begins. Then take notes carefully past the escapement without sounding them at all. This might need some practice. When both pianists can do this, keep the chord in place until the end of the piece (it only needs ‘playing’ once).
  2. The melodic material must be crisp, detached and light. Work at both right hand parts, playing with a legato touch at first. When notes and fingerings are secure, change to staccato. It’s easier to play if the wrist is flexible, combined with finger staccato (i.e. using finger-tips in a quick, tapping motion, keeping close to the keys). The effect of the quick staccato with the harmonic series behind it will create the misty vibe.

BLACK SQUARE

My favourite of the set! Around Grade 3 level, melodies intertwine here with a strong harmonic pattern.  The melody, which is essentially in the left hand of the primo part (as well as a counter-melody in the right hand primo), requires a full sound and careful shaping.

  1. Again, focus on flexibility in the wrist so that the fingertips delve deeply into the key in combination with weight from the arm, encouraging the melody to sing through the texture. The top line is merely delicate filigree and can be played lightly.
  2. The accompaniment should ideally be rich with minimal pedal. Aim to hold notes for their full value in the secondo (particularly when playing chords, such as at the opening), joining chords with a legato, smooth evenness. Hold notes in position until the very last millisecond, then quickly raise them all and move to the next note position (if different), and depress softly as the sound from the previous chord dies away, so as to match the sound. The join should almost be seamless, and the sound, ongoing, acting as a foil for the primo
  3. Plenty of ensemble work will need to be done in order to play beats exactly together.

ANDANTE

Another interweaving melody which moves between the parts (and is around Grade 2 level). The offbeat tune is present in the secondo right hand and primo left hand, the colouring of each part must be such that the listener is immediately aware of the syncopation.

  1. With this in mind, work at the melody lines first, counting precisely, taking them out of context and playing around with them: experiment with different touches (non-legato, staccato), followed by various accents, which should help to ‘feel’ the slightly off-beat character.
  2. The final two bars (suddenly in a new time signature: 4/4 after 3/4), contain rather unexpected note patterns which might require separate hand practice (primo & secondo right hands alone). Be sure to observe the tenuto markings

HOPSCOTCH

The first of two energetic, zippy pieces, calling for sharp articulation and tight ensemble playing. The overriding feature in this little piece (which is about Grade 2 standard) are the glissandi. They feature in the second line only.

  1. In order to grasp the feel of sliding the back of your hand across the keyboard in time (for the glissandi), start by practising running your hand (which is turned, with nails facing down on the keyboard) over the keys (using the nails to touch the keyboard, otherwise you will break your skin and bleed), and skim over two octaves at a time within the 2/4 framework. You might choose to play the intended note at the end (and F in the final bars) or leave the glissandi ‘open ended’! Either option works. Avoid ‘digging’ into the keyboard too much when skimming over the keys.
  2. Once you can glissando effectively, learn each phrase, using an extremely short, spikey touch for the staccato melody, phrasing each note so that whilst you are playing the notes in a short detached manner, fingers are not ‘rushing’ to the next beat. In other words, space rhythmically. Each two bar motif (or theme) must ‘answer’ the other.

QUICK CHAT

This is a fun piece for learning how to play as a duo in a fast tempo. As quaver passages are often played together by both primo and secondo parts, the notes must be played as if by one person.

  1. Start by playing legato, and slowly, only building speed when confident and when the parts can be securely played simultaneously. Set the metronome on a quaver beat and play with every beat, listening for where the beat falls.
  2. For staccato, practise lifting fingers cleanly off the notes, picking them up, using a combination of wrist and finger staccato.
  3. The difficulty here is playing in the same staccato manner; one pianist’s short and detached is not necessarily the same as another’s; aim to play them with identical shortness and crispness, and with a sharp attack. I find it best to play on the tips and use the top half of the finger to rapidly ‘tap’ or ‘scratch’ the key, softening the wrists after each group of four to counteract any tension.
  4. The glissandi at the end requires pizzazz and intuitive playing; work slowly only increasing tempo when quavers are aligned and the glissandi can be played quickly.

SHANTI SHANTI

A zen-inspired title and Chinese melody, this little piece is around Grade 1 level and is ideal for those starting out.

  1. The chords in both left hand parts must be soft and languid; work at taking the notes down slowly, for a shady, soft colour.
  2. The melody needs a brighter, deeper sound and must be absolutely together (it’s played by both right hands), so working at them alone will help alignment and, counting aloud will keep the rhythm precise. It can be helpful to count in ‘double’ beats when placing notes: if the melody is in crotchets (as here), then count in quavers, or even semi-quavers, for precise placing and voicing.
  3. As with all the duets, I advise working with a metronome, starting out at slow speeds, raising the tempo only when secure and reliable (and without hesitations).

The techniques suggested can be applied to many four hand (and six hand) pieces. Enjoy practising duets and relish the opportunity to work with another like-minded pianist.

SNAPCHATS was recently highly recommended by Spanish pianist, teacher and blogger Juan Cabeza Hernández, as extremely beneficial teaching material. You can read his blog post here; Best 10 Piano Teaching Resources 2016

You can find out more and purchase the SNAPCHATS score here.


 

 

 

 

Practising Duets: Part 1

This is the first of two posts addressing piano duet practice. Most students love to play duets, after all it’s one of the few times they get to work with a fellow pianist. It can be helpful for pupils to work in pairs for many aspects of piano playing – from practising scales and arpeggios, to testing each other on sight-reading, and for me, duets are an extension of this important work.

Playing with another pianist (i.e. four hands) can make the overall piano timbre feel much grander and fuller than when playing solo. And with this in mind, beginners and less experienced players can really benefit from playing four and six handed music (at one keyboard).

As a young pianist, I played a large array of duets (at every level), and had lessons as a teenager at music college in this discipline. In my twenties, I established a piano duo with a Russian friend and colleague; we played both two piano and duet repertoire; everything from Schubert’s glorious Fantasie in F minor (for duet) to Liszt’s dramatic Reminiscences de Don Juan (for two pianos). Particular repertoire favourites included Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat major and Poulenc’s superb Two Piano Concerto. We had great fun with these masterpieces. Working at two piano repertoire feels very different to playing with four hands at one piano, and it’s preferable to start with one keyboard; playing trios is becoming increasingly popular too, and is a great way to incorporate beginners into ensemble playing.

When young students (and older students!) play together for the first time, there will be a number of issues requiring careful work and preparation. From rhythm, sound and precise ensemble to pedalling (it feels so different from pedalling for one), balance and articulation. This post hopes to address a few of these concerns, arming potential duettists with various methods to practise different technical and musical elements.

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced player, it can help to begin by warming up with a few exercises together, as a duo: these exercises can help with sound production, finger and wrist flexibility and mostly importantly, will foster precise ensemble playing. They will also attune listening skills; a facet which can take time to develop. Once each pianist has learnt their own part, the work starts – playing with another certainly adds a new musical dimension, especially for the less experienced player.

Here are a few exercises for the beginning of a practice session:

The first consists of slow semibreves; play very steadily, focusing on producing a warm, full sound, using the wrist in a very flexible, loose manner, whilst keeping arms and elbows relaxed:

duet-exercise-1The Secondo (bass) or second part is just as essential as the Primo (treble) or first part; both parts  must be considered equal. Starting pianissimo, experiment with plenty of different tonal colours (an enjoyable part of the process during this first exercise). It will help you to listen to the sound produced, and learn to place the notes together at the same moment (quite a challenge!). Aim  to observe each other’s hands at the vital moment just before playing each note, and learn to place trust in one another’s physical gestures too. If you can also keep to a strict pulse (break this down into small sub-divisions i.e. try counting aloud together in quavers, for example), this will instigate precision when placing each semibreve.

The second exercise (below) focuses on prompt placing of crotchets a third apart, which will again encourage listening skills whilst building on the first exercise. It’s in the five-finger position, so is convenient and easy for beginners, but could be used for up to and including intermediate to advanced players.

duet-exercise-2The final exercise is faster and needs firmer finger technique. However, finger technique will hopefully improve when practising this seemingly never-ending pattern. Be sure to use the suggested fingering, which follows the five-finger position, and remember to decide on a place to stop too! You could also play this exercise in reverse, coming down the keyboard following a similar pattern.

duet-exercise-3Play the exercise slowly to begin with then gradually build speed when secure. Clear articulation, and completely rhythmical quavers should ideally be the primary concern.

Once assimilated these exercises can be practised using various rhythms and touches (legato, non-legato, staccato, tenuto). I hope they help pupils of all levels to focus on ensemble skills, before negotiating their duet pieces.

Other useful exercises include the 28 Melodious Studies Op. 149 by Diabelli. They offer a wealth of study material for duettists, from around Grade 2 onwards.


For more useful tips, take a look at my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO, published by Schott Music. Intended for those returning to the piano after a break, each book offers a wealth of varied repertoire from Grade 1 – 8, accompanied by copious practice tips and ideas.

Recommended Piano Resources for Spring 2017

I haven’t posted a recommended resource list for a while, but hopefully today’s group of piano related publications and courses will be of interest. As always, there’s plenty for piano aficionados of all levels and abilities, from collections and compilations to new concert studies for the virtuoso pianist, and several inspiring piano courses set in sumptuous scenery. Competition giveaways of some of those resources mentioned here will be coming soon. Enjoy!


Elementary/Early Intermediate

Play it again: PIANO – Book 1

This is a two-book piano course published by Schott Music and written by me. Book 1 will be available from April 3rd 2017 (Book 2 is scheduled to be published in June). Designed for those returning to piano playing after a break, the course would also be useful for any teenage or adult piano student requiring a selection of progressive piano pieces to either study alone or whilst working with a teacher. Book 1 features twenty-eight selected pieces from approximately grades 1 – 5 standard. Each section contains seven piano pieces, and they are categorised as Elementary (grades 1 – 2 level), Late Elementary (grades 2 – 3), Early Intermediate (grades 3 – 4), and Intermediate (grades 4 – 5). I have included a huge array of genres from Baroque music through to rock, jazz and improvisation; each level includes an arrangement and a technical study. Every piece has two pages of practice tips and suggestions, with photos, diagrams and musical examples. You can find out more and watch taster videos here, and purchase your copy here.

Diversions Book 1 & 2

Two volumes for late elementary students written by Spanish composer Juan Cabeza and published by Piano Safari. Diversions Book 1 and Book 2 contain a collection of 42 patterned etudes for piano. Each etude focuses on a single technical pattern encountered by students in the early stages of piano study, including scales, arpeggios, chords, repeated notes, intervals, and other common pianistic patterns. The patterned structures make it easy for students to decode and understand the music. Most of the pieces are transposable allowing students to assimilate each concept thoroughly. These works range in difficulty from elementary to early intermediate level. I really like Juan’s music and I know young players (and teachers) will enjoy using these pieces in both lessons and concerts. Find out more and purchase here.

48 Easy Concert Pieces

A collection of concert pieces in progressive order from fairly elementary to intermediate level.  According to publishers, Schott Music, ‘These pieces are intended to complement a piano tutorial method and are particularly suitable for performance at auditions, concerts, competitions and examinations.’ They offer totally varied repertoire in a broad selection of pieces from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern periods. It’s always useful to have compilations such as this, whether you’re a teacher or student, and this volume would make ideal sight-reading material too. The publication includes works by; Petzold, Dandrieu, Handel, J.S Bach, Haydn, Vanhall, W. A. Mozart, Beethoven and many more. Purchase your copy here.

Intermediate

The Entertainer

A new volume in the Pianissimo collection published by Schott Music; 100 entertaining pieces are suitable for intermediate players, and contain much-loved favourites such as The Entertainer, the soundtrack from Amélie, My Heart Will Go On from Titanic, Memories from Cats, My Way by Frank Sinatra, amongst others. ‘Classical Highlights’ feature Mozart’s Turkish March, Wagner’s famous Bridal Chorus, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. ‘Song Highlights’ contain catchy tunes from the areas of blues, gospel, and folk music, like Oh Happy Day, Down By The Riverside or Matilda.  A mixture of original pieces and arrangements, there’s definitely something for everyone here! Buy your copy and find out more by clicking here.

Intermediate/ Advanced

Film Themes: The Piano Collection

Film Themes: The Piano Collection, published by Faber Music, contains thirty sympathetically arranged classic yet contemporary, and ‘up to the minute’ pieces for the intermediate to advanced player. Featuring favourites from such films as Star Wars, Frozen, Hunger Games, How To Train Your Dragon and Twilight, plus several pieces from the Harry Potter film series and “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” from the acclaimed new movie La La Land.  This selection offers an excellent alternative to standard repertoire, particularly for the film buff, and I know my advanced students would love this volume as a fun alternative to traditional sight-reading material. A great addition to the student, teacher and piano lover’s library. Purchase your copy here.

Eastern Preludes

Not necessarily a new publication, but one which must be included on this list. Eastern Preludes (published by Boosey & Hawkes) are a collection of intermediate to advanced level pieces written by the outstanding educational British composer, Christopher Norton. No doubt inspired by the composer’s many visits to the East, they are sure to be favourites amongst those who seek alternative repertoire between exams or different concert repertoire material. Each one explores the rich musical landscape of the East weaving native themes from countries including China, India, Japan, Korea, and Thailand with the composer’s characteristically attractive, popular style. A useful accompanying CD features each work, and has been beautifully recorded by pianist Iain Farrington. I enjoyed exploring these pieces; they are comfortable to play and perfect for those who like to delve into various atmospheric sound worlds. Find out more and buy your copy here.

Advanced

La La Land

The music from the new hit movie. Those who loved the film will surely appreciate this piano assortment of ten numbers, published by Faber Music.  The romantic musical comedy-drama film has now won six Oscars, seven Golden Globes and six BAFTAs. Written by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, this excellent selection have all been transcribed for piano and voice with guitar chords, following the original music and keys as closely as possible. I would suggest the arrangements are generally for advanced pianists, but some are simpler, and may be suitable for those of intermediate (roughly grades 4 – 6) level. You can purchase your copy and find out more here.

Birds; Études Tableaux for piano

A new set of advanced concert studies (Grade 8 – diploma) by British writer and composer Andrew Higgins. Published by EVC Music Publications, each piece focuses on a different bird; Penguins (a study in bi-tonality and chromatics), is described by the composer as ‘a polytonal life of joie de vivre and exuberance on the one hand, and clownish clumsiness on the other’. This is followed by A Wise Old Owl (a study in control and tempo), The Swan (a study for three against twos), Albatross (a study in three-part playing), Hummingbirds (a study in flexible rhythms and rubato), and Lovebirds (a study in improvisation). All good fun and very useful for technical development. You can listen to each piece, purchase your copy and find out more here.

Alberto Ginastera in Switzerland

This new anthology (published by Boosey & Hawkes) explores the late works and life of the Argentinian composer. In 1971, Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983) relocated to Geneva to make a fresh start with Aurora Natola, an Argentinian cellist resident in Switzerland. This volume was published on the occasion of the first centenary of the composer’s birth, and the Paul Sacher Foundation seeks to retrace the previously little-known late phase of Ginastera’s life and works. Featuring six essays illuminating different facets of his late years on the basis of the surviving manuscripts, letters, and other records, this publication is a fascinating historical document and selection of piano pieces. Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Courses

Almalfi Coast Music & Arts Festival

This piano course has it all: an illustrious faculty and a plethora of performance opportunities, set in gorgeous Italian scenery. Launched in 1996, the Amalfi Coast Music & Arts Festival welcomes students and guests from all over the world for a month-long array of events. The festival celebrates its 22nd anniversary season in 2017. The piano programme runs from July 14th – 26th, with a myriad of activities on offer for pianists including individual lessons, daily master classes, workshops, and the opportunity to perform in institute recitals. The faculty includes Ian Jones (Royal College of Music), Boris Berman (Yale School of Music), Jerome Lowenthal (Juilliard School), Ursula Oppens (Brooklyn College & CUNY Graduate Center), and Steven Spooner (University of Kansas), plus many more. Find out about it and apply here.

PIANO WEEK

Organised by British concert pianist Samantha Ward, this non-residential full-time piano course and festival is set in spectacular Italian surroundings. It’s one of a whole series run in various parts of the world throughout the year, offering students lessons, performance opportunities, sight-reading classes, composition and music theory classes, plus time to practice and the opportunity to attend all faculty recitals and master classes. The upcoming course takes place in beautiful Foligno, and there are still a few places available. The faculty includes Samantha Ward, Maciej Raginia, Roberto Russo, and Mark Nixon. Running from 20th – 23rd April 2017, you can apply to attend or participate, and enjoy the new promotional video here.