Fruitful Fingering Part 2

This is the second article in my series for Piano Professional Magazine, published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association): a teacher’s publication, for which I write the technique feature. You can read the first article, here, and in Part 2, I look at different methods of applying certain fingerings, offering various options  for students.


Teachers all know the importance well-placed fingering has in the context of learning a new piece, and this fact remains true irrespective of a student’s level or ability. My previous article examined several expected fingering techniques, and in this article I will endeavour to venture a little off-piste, with a few different ideas around this vast subject. Our goal, as teachers, must be to equip our students so that they can eventually think for themselves, writing their own fingering on every score.

Firstly, I return to reiterate perhaps the most vital concept when learning to finger fruitfully, and that is the assimilation of scales, arpeggios and broken chords; if students have thoroughly learnt these patterns, then adding fingering to most piano pieces will feel simple and natural. This point cannot be stressed enough, as without these symmetrical note patterns and their fairly rigid fingerings, pupils simply won’t be able to grasp the basics of piano playing. If your student hasn’t been taking exams, it might be prudent to suggest the acquisition of a scale manual – both the ABRSM and Trinity College London publish separate volumes with all keys, scale permutations, and fingerings.

Knowing your fingering is paramount, and as a general rule, once a fingering has been chosen, written into the score and played through, it’s highly advisable not to change it. This cardinal rule certainly rings true for less experienced players. Our brains seem hard-wired to play patterns or sequences, but once these patterns are even slightly distorted, it causes us much grief and cancelling them altogether will feel very unnatural.

Practice tends to make ‘permanent’ as many teachers will attest, so aim for students to be quite sure of their finger selections before they leave the lesson. Try going through a piece slowly with them, hands separately, checking that they are actually using the fingering which has been added to the score. This will be key to successful absorption of each hand’s fingering, and will stop the inevitable corrections which will occur at the following lesson if this stage in the learning process has been side-stepped.

After advising our students to religiously stick to one fingering for their pieces (especially for any fiddly figurations), it can be extremely liberating to throw out this rule when returning to study a piece for the second or third time. This may only apply to more advanced pupils. Occasionally students will play a piece, leave it for a while, only to return at a later date to find that the fingering which once fitted like a glove, now feels less than ideal. In this case it’s time to revise the original fingering and search for something more convenient. Whilst it may appear akin to climbing Everest, a more advanced student can reconfigure passages with relative ease, especially when they are able to work out the new fingering for themselves.

Smaller hands inevitably struggle with certain elements, namely wide intervals and large chords, which can be challenging, particularly when playing extended passagework. Fingering must be very carefully applied when taking this fact into consideration. Sometimes the only option is to ‘rearrange’ passages, leaving out notes which don’t disturb the flow or the construction of a piece. Adding a spread chord where the original is too large, or rewriting chords in some cases, may provide a simple solution. Dividing passages between the hands is another beneficial tactic. It may appear as though cheating, but it can be a workable option if the sound and character of a piece remains largely unaffected.

Octaves are renowned for causing smaller hands grief, but with regular flexibility exercises and a relaxed wrist and arm, most students can handle them. There is much debate over the fingering of octave passage work. Some schools of thought are insistent on using the thumb and fifth finger for all such passages, whereas, others believe the thumb combined with a fourth or fifth finger provides a better option. Certainly when playing fast chromatic passages, the fourth is a welcome addition (and if a student has a large hand, a third finger may also be used):

This passage from Study No. 49 of Czerny’s Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740 illustrates how the fourth finger, if implemented scrupulously and only with a relaxed or loose arm and wrist, can be an excellent method of moving quickly around the keyboard.

Sliding from two black keys when playing octaves, can be a helpful way to join notes smoothly (I’ve written about ‘finger sliding’ in more detail in my previous article: Fruitful Fingering Part 1). It should also be remembered that using the thumb on black keys is now regarded as acceptable, whereas previously, this practice was sometimes considered ‘unsuitable’ fingering.

How the fingers physically play notes is another often forgotten factor when discussing fingering. I work with students until they can easily use their fingertips when playing fast figurations or scalic passage work. The tips are best incorporated via a flexible wrist and a ‘hooked’ finger position:

This fosters firmer finger and rhythmic control. However, flatter fingers can work well too, for chords, especially those on black notes, and they are generally more conducive to achieving a completely different timbre. Some impressionistic repertoire might be best played with this approach.

Two notes, one finger! An effective tactic for large chords, such as the following, which employs a spread thumb:

Chopin Prelude (Op. 28 No. 7 in A major), is easier to grasp when using the thumb over the C sharp and A sharp:

This also works for white notes:

And, for certain repertoire, playing ‘in the crack’ might be a practical alternative:

Two fingers playing the same note can have a real impact on certain passages, carrying more weight and drama, and the thumb is also able to support the other fingers creating a deep, rich sound.

The thumb might also be extended slightly when playing back notes, therefore avoiding mishaps involving slipping off or missing notes (example below, to the left):

Fingers have their own character and personality, and, again, this is a very personal element when considering how fingering might be applied to a passage. As a general rule, the thumb and possibly the third finger appear stronger than the others, perhaps due to their positioning on the hand. We aim to encourage students to ‘strengthen’ their fingers, but realistically everyone’s hand is different, and this applies to finger strength as well. I ask students to examine their fingers, observing how they work at the keyboard, deciphering which they feel is the strongest or most powerful. Once then have done this, they are in a better position to work at instigating a more secure technique; developing power in the fourth and fifth fingers especially. However, this must be done with great care, using flexibility in the wrist, arm and hand so as not to cause tension issues.

Finger pedalling is a topic which must be mentioned here. It’s not pedalling as we know it, but it does create a similar effect, as if depressing the sustaining (or right) pedal. The technique of finger pedalling is essentially the over-holding of notes i.e. holding down the keys whilst continuing to play other notes over the top (or underneath). This was a popular technique used for the harpsichord and other early keyboard instruments before the pedal was invented, and as a result it is often synonymous with Baroque music. Before the sustaining pedal (which was implemented from approximately W.A. Mozart’s time onwards), holding down the keys was the only way of sustaining the sound. The following is a well-known example:

Here, the two lower notes in J. S. Bach’s Prelude in C major (No 1 from the Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues Book 1), are held, as the top line (played by the right hand) plays the melodic material. This example has been ‘written in’, but it’s often the case that a player must use their own artistic judgement when employing this technique.

Fingering can have quite an impact on tonal balance. A suitable fingering will enhance chordal balance, and will allow melody lines to come to the forefront of the texture. Guided practice is required when voicing any chord; whilst firm fourth and fifth fingers are generally a prerequisite for melodic playing in the right hand, much suppleness in the wrist and hand will be necessary behind this firmness, supported by the Bridge position or the knuckles. Where possible, it can be practical to introduce the thumb for melodic material, even if it involves much movement around the keyboard.

Finally, if we can guide students to think about fingering before the learning process begins, they will become aware of the fundamental impact this can have on their learning capacity.

You can read the original article, here:

Fruitful Fingering Part 2


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

 

 

 

Five New Year Tips to Seriously Improve Your Piano Playing in 2019

Happy New Year! It’s January 1st 2019 and I hope you have all enjoyed a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s Eve. At the start of any new year, we make resolutions, create new goals, or perhaps re-evaluate or reflect on existing goals. It’s the perfect time to revisit our hobbies, or investigate new ones. Many have written over the past year, telling me how they have really loved learning to play the piano again, after a lapse of one or two, or indeed many, years. Today’s New Year’s post is intended for those who have taken a break from their piano playing and have decided to start playing again. It is possible to move from intrepid pianist to competent, confident player with the help of an excellent teacher and solid, regular practice.

Here are a few ideas to help your practice regime over the coming weeks. Piano practice can tend to fall into a rut and it usually requires an occasional overhaul, so that interest is kept and improvement, monitored.

  1. Regularly monitor your progress. It doesn’t matter how you do this; you might decide to write your updates in a notepad, noting what you feel has improved, or it could be that you ask for judicious feedback from your teacher, or perhaps perform regularly to fellow students, who might provide a candid opinion (this usually only works if you reciprocate the favour!). However, as a pianist it’s too easy to lock yourself away, playing only for yourself, where it can be challenging to be honest about improvements. Try to remain pragmatic about your own playing, because this is the most effective way to change for the better.
  2. Record your pieces. Recording our playing reveals far more than we might imagine. It doesn’t matter how you do this, and you may prefer to record short passages, phrases, or a few bars at a time, but as long as you listen carefully to the results, you will be able to find a starting point from which to build and improve your technique and interpretation. We rarely sound how we think we do, so it can be a shock at first, but it proffers a realistic perspective which can really help in the long run.
  3. Only play a piece through at the end of a practice session. This goes for sections or movements of works too. A common misconception when practising is that it is beneficial to perpetually play your pieces through. There is no doubt that this can be advantageous for memorisation and for structural practice, but during the early stages of learning particularly, it is generally more useful to spend time working at small sections. The ability to break pieces down, almost reconstructing them, enables our brain to think about them in a different way and can certainly aid mastery. When you’re happy with your sectional practice, you might feel it necessary to ‘play’ the piece in its entirety, either at a slower tempo or up to speed at the end of your session.
  4. Slow practice is key. Many articles sing the praises of playing slowly. But it is such an important facet that it’s definitely worth adding to your new list of practice tools for 2019. My suggestion to students is to implement several practice speeds whilst working at a piece (or a technical exercise or study). The slowest tempo must be one which works for exaggerated practice, whereby you can equally focus on both hands, fingerings, movements, notes and sound at the same time. Therefore you should ideally think about a subdivided beat (if the piece is in quavers, practice in semiquavers or even demisemiquavers, for example). The second tempo can be a little faster, allowing you to ‘move’ around the keyboard, but still keeping in check all the above technical considerations. The final tempo could be similar to the speed of the piece, but slightly slower, so that you still have crucial thinking time, for accuracy and sound.
  5. Articulation will make or break your performance. Clarity, neatness and precision in your finger work will make all the difference when it comes to clean playing. It’s vital for almost every style or genre, but of special importance in Baroque and Classical music. Clean finger work can be developed by ensuring fingers not only play every note with a full sound, but also by paying attention to the end of a note too, that is, how long you leave your finger depressing each key. If you are playing rapid scalic passages, for example, make sure notes are equal in length by employing a very firm pulse. Such articulation is more of a challenge for the weaker fingers, such as the fourths and fifths, but it can be honed with spot practice and a flexible, loose arm, wrist and hand (remembering that only the fingers and knuckles should remain firm).

I hope these ideas may inspire you to focus rigorously during your practice time, so that you make the most of your sessions irrespective of whether they are long or short. Good Luck and enjoy your piano playing.

For those returning to playing the piano, you may like to take a look at my piano course written especially for the returner. Play it again: PIANO is published by Schott Music, and currently consists of a two-book course which contains 49 graded, progressive piano pieces from the standard repertoire, as well as including many more unusual works, from Baroque through to Contemporary (also including Jazz, Blues, Rock, Improvisation, and Latin styles). Each piece has copious practice tips and suggestions, as well as a whole technique section at the beginning of each book, and a music theory section at the end of each book. Book 1 is approximately Grade 1 – 4 level, Book 2 is Grade 5 – 8 level, and Book 3 (to be published in February 2019) is Grade 8 – Associate diploma level. Find out more by clicking here, and you can purchase all the books on Amazon too.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Finchcocks: A Piano Course with a Difference

Last Friday evening I disembarked from my train at Paddock Wood station in Kent (UK), and enjoyed a meandering car journey through what appeared to be a never-ending warren of country lanes. Eventually, we turned  on to a long, narrow private road, which peregrinated around various fields before revealing, in the distance, a large, palatial mansion. The house was beautifully set, classically formed (to my eye, at least), and effectively lit. Next to the house was a much smaller building, a coach house, and this was to be my home for the next two days. My room (pictured below) was of ample proportions, tastefully decorated in rich dark colours with luxurious fabrics and an impressive fireplace; had I inadvertently stepped into a romantic Eighteenth century novel? I fully expected Mr. Darcy to sweep in and take me to dinner.

This was my introduction to Finchcocks Music. Finchcocks is an early Georgian manor house (pictured at the top). For 45 years it housed a large collection of historical keyboard instruments which was open to the public. Recently, Finchcocks was sold and has now started a new chapter, reopening as a retreat to study the piano. Piano courses are a feature most weekends throughout the year, and they are largely frequented by adult amateur pianists and piano teachers who are keen to improve their skills and meet other musically minded souls.

As piano course director it was my job to ensure participants savoured the whole experience. My course began on Friday evening and concluded at 4.00pm on Sunday, it was advertised for intermediate players (around Grade 4 – 7 of the ABRSM exam system), but most of the seven attendees were beyond this level. From all walks of life, my students clearly shared a common love for the instrument and a tremendous capacity to learn.

The course was conducted in the main house; the basement had been converted from cellars into a most attractive and unusual performance and practice space (see photo to the left, where I am coaching Finchcocks owner, Neil Nichols). There were five designated sections for solo practice; within the cellars, rooms had been created with sound proof glass doors, each one resplendent with mostly historic grand pianos. There were seven grand pianos in total, available for student use. The main space contained a concert sized historic instrument, with plenty of room for participants to sit, walk and spread out during the course. And there was even a comfortable ‘coffee area’ with several sofas, designed as a much-needed respite from the intensity of the course.

I love teaching, talking about, and writing about piano technique, and Friday evening’s class was a basic introduction, surveying wrist flexibility and motility during practice and performance. This was well received, and it certainly got participants thinking about the importance of cultivating a relaxed posture. This is the first step to overall improvement. ‘Technique chat’ continued on to dinner. The meals were enjoyed back at the coach house, and they  took place around a lavishly set table (pictured above), and consisted of a three-course meal with delicious food and copious wine, all prepared by a chef employed for the weekend.

Saturday was a full day, commencing with memorisation techniques, moving onto master classes, which continued after lunch. Course members were generally quite anxious whilst performing, but (hopefully) due to the relaxed nature of the weekend and the constantly evolving friendships forming between them, these open classes gradually became more light-hearted.

One aspect of the course that I particularly enjoyed and appreciated was the opportunity to give one-to-one lessons. Neil Nichols, who now owns Finchcocks and hosts the courses, was keen for students to have time with me on their own, rather like a private lesson. This works extremely well, and it offers the chance to address issues in a more private domain. I gave private lessons on both Saturday and Sunday during the course.

After a feast on Saturday evening, Sunday began with a morning of sight-reading; ordinarily this is seen as a dull, perfunctory element of piano playing. But I’m always keen to show that it can be fun. After waltzing through my sight-reading notes (I aim to give course members practice notes), we embarked on solo sight-reading, and, after coffee, this was followed by duets, and finally, trios or three pianists at one keyboard. The trios were definitely a highlight (see photo above), and due to the plethora of instruments, we were able to double up and have six pianists at two pianos (photo below). I find this one of the best and most engaging concepts for those wanting to improve their reading. It also encourages students to really become acquainted with the fellow course members.

After all the classes and private lessons, the course ended with a final performance of a trio by composer Mike Cornick. Coffee and a rather indulgent slice of cake closed a delightful weekend. I had made wonderful new friends and worked with some talented pianists.

Piano courses are a great way to improve many facets of music study. They seek to inspire, address technical and musical issues, consolidate learning skills and endeavour to suggest new practice ideas. My thanks to Neil and his wife, Harriet, for their superb hospitality. If you would like to study the piano in luxury at a country retreat, do check out Finchcocks. Next year’s tutors include Graham Fitch, David Hall, Andrew Dunlop, and Warren Mailley-Smith.

If you would like to attend one of my courses in 2019, the dates are as follows:

June 14th – 16th

September 6th – 8th

November 15th – 17th

I look forward to meeting you!

For a more thorough review from course participants and Jenny Maslin, who helps to run the piano courses held at Finchcocks, please click here.

www.finchcocks.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

5 Tips to Create the Illusion of Legato

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


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

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

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


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Teaching Improvisation to Groups Part 2 by Christopher Norton

Today’s guest post has been penned by renowned composer and educationalist Christopher Norton. This is the second post in a series which offers practice ideas and suggestions for those teaching group improvisation (you can read Part 1, here). Christopher’s work has, for many years, involved teaching students how to improvise using his imaginative and very popular music. Over to Chris…


Having looked at right hand chords (with a track) using root position G, first inversion G and second inversion D chords, with a bass pattern added, we can now talk about some simple techniques for right hand improvising on Samba Sand from Connections for Piano 3. Here’s the piece again:

With the track, play this left hand pattern 3 times:

Once this feels comfortable, almost automatic, you are ready to try adding right hand.

With students, I often find they are happier tapping than playing initially, so I would try tapping unaccented quavers (eighth notes!) on the right leg while playing the left hand chords:

Now for the magic moment – miss one eighth note out. For example:

Now we play right hand notes, playing the same rhythm. I suggest starting with G, A, B, C, D, but play around to see which ones sound good where! My first solution:

I’m already using some principles of melodic development – repeating a phrase with one note changed (bars 1 and 2) repeating an idea (bar 3) and having a contrasting idea (bar 4) The tune also joins the left hand rhythmically for the final bar of the phrase.

Now try missing out the 5th eighth note. Tap first:

This suggests different tunes. For example:

Notice I’ve added a low D and an E (so a sixth note) Students often do this – adding new notes – quite naturally (and so do I!). If a tune suggests itself, go for it, whether the notes are the given ones or not.

Now experiment with missing other eighth notes out to create different rhythm patterns. Always tap first, then play. And don’t be worried if slight variations happen spontaneously, while tapping and while playing. The left chord rhythms may also vary spontaneously as well…

Another useful tip: play the left hand chords and try playing right hand rhythm patterns starting on one note. G is the best starting point. Then try 2 notes (G and A) 3 notes (G, A, B) and 4 notes (I like G, A, B, D – when in doubt, keep it pentatonic!)

Here’s an example of a tune which gradually build the number of notes:

This is another principle of melodic development – playing the same rhythm with different notes. And I’ve also done a new rhythm in bar 7 and I have also repeated a pattern higher up (bars 1 and 2, then bars 5 and 6).

In the next lesson, we will look at various other right hand tricks – grace note, chords (ie more than one note at a time), pedal notes, arpeggio figures and changing direction. Lots of fun!

Until next time…

The Connections for Piano series, with tracks, are available from www.80dayspublishing.com.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Play it again workshop at Millers Music

For anyone in the Cambridge area (UK), I will be presenting a workshop at Millers Music next Friday. This free workshop is essentially for teachers, but anyone is most welcome to come along. I’ll be focusing on topics which run throughout my Play it again: PIANO course; with a brief walk-through of both books (touching on Book 3 too), followed by a practical workshop highlighting the suggested practice techniques intended for technical improvement which feature at the beginning of Book 1 and 2.

There will be plenty of opportunity for audience participation, and hopefully lots of discussion. Each audience member will be given a copy of my workshop notes detailing the considered topics, which will mostly examine the importance of cultivating a tension free technique.

The workshop will be held from 6.30-8.00pm on Friday 16th November, and you will find Millers Music in the heart of the city: Millers Music, 12 Sussex St, Cambridge, CB1 1PW, UK.

If you would like to find out more about Play it again: PIANO, which is a course for students returning to playing the instrument after a break, click here. You may also be interested in the following video, which has been recorded by piano returner Tommy, who runs a ‘piano corner’ on Youtube; this is the first video in a series which will survey each piece in Book 2.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

No Words Necessary: 12 Piano Pieces

It’s been a busy year so far, with several publications nearing completion. One new volume, about which I am particularly excited, has been released this week. It marks my debut as a composer for my German publisher, Schott Music. Whilst I already write for Schott as an author, I hadn’t previously published a book of my own compositions. The new collection is called No Words Necessary and it is a selection of twelve piano pieces for intermediate level, or for students of approximately Grades 3 – 6 standard (of ABRSM, Trinity College London or London College of Music exams).

I wrote the pieces earlier this year during my stay in Hong Kong, working as an adjudicator for the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival. Adjudicating is a demanding job, but I frequently enjoyed unusually long lunch breaks  of around an hour and a half in length. Adjudicating sessions often took place in splendid theatres with lovely well-tuned grand pianos, so I decided to put this time to good use. Within a few weeks I had written all twelve, albeit scribbled on manuscript paper as opposed to using my Sibelius software.

The pieces are characteristically tonal, with a nod to Minimalism. The title, No Words Necessary, was inspired by German poet and writer Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856):

‘Where words leave off, music speaks’

Each work is intended to evoke thoughts, emotions or images in the mind. Many are reflective in character, with melodious tunes and poignant harmonies, but there are also more energetic, lively pieces too, for those who want to get their fingers moving. When composing for students, my aim is to write in a tuneful, expressive style, which I hope resonates with pianists of all ages, levels and abilities; these works are equally suited to younger or more mature players. Each one is comfortable to learn and rarely employs large chords or overly elaborate passagework, and they are intended as concert or festival pieces, examination pieces or simply to learn and play for pleasure.

The titles are as follows:

  • Lost in Thought
  • Inflections
  • Voices in My Head
  • Pendulum
  • Phantom Whisperer
  • Dancing Through the Daffodils
  • Walking in the Woods
  • Beneath
  • China Doll
  • Balletic
  • Tinged with Sadness
  • Spiralling

Recorded at Moreton Hall School in Shropshire, and at Jaques Samuel pianos in London at the beginning of August, you can hear each piece by clicking on the links below. The book can be purchased as a hard copy or digital download (either the complete book or each piece separately), here: No Words Necessary.













My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

 

 

Structured Piano Practice for Beginners: 10 Tips

Several readers have recently written requesting a post on structured practice ideas for beginners. I scrolled through my archives and realised that I hadn’t written anything on structured practice for this vast and significant group of piano students. I’m very sorry about this, and in order to redress the balance, I hope you find the following of interest!

  1. Beginners, particularly teenagers and adults, might benefit from setting goals. Decide what you wish to achieve by next week, next month and next year. When goals are in place, you are working towards a tangible outcome. It will help focus your mind and encourage you to keep going during those less than fruitful practice sessions.
  2. Stick to that routine. Find a time of day which works for you, then you can look forward to practising at the same time everyday or whenever suits your timetable. Piano practice might not always be possible, but if you can mark it in your schedule and are keen to do it, then you’ll be sure to make it happen.
  3. Little and often can work well. A beginner really doesn’t need to practice for more than 20 – 30 minutes a day. You may find it easier to work in two sessions. Aim to practice regularly as opposed to a couple of rushed sessions before your lesson (if you have one).
  4. Studying with a teacher is much more productive than learning alone. Find a suitable teacher and a beginner’s tutor or method book which is user-friendly and well organised (your teacher will probably advise here). Use this alongside other resources; it’s best to explore a variety of material as opposed to relying on one piano method book.
  5. Try to start your daily practice with a brief memory session on note testing. Practice writing the notes on manuscript (music) paper, and follow this by naming and locating them on the keyboard. Repetition will prove key. Learning to read music is a prerequisite when studying the piano. In my piano course, Play it again: PIANO Book 1, there is a music theory section at the back of the book with note-reading and rhythmic exercises.
  6. Begin your practice with a few relaxation exercises. Relax your shoulders as much as possible, and try to ensure they don’t rise up during practice. Keep your wrists loose, and arms, light and fluid. Fingers need to be firm, but the hand, wrist and arm should ideally be loose and flexible.
  7. Rhythmic reminders are vital. Clapping or tapping on the piano lid may prove beneficial, as will counting out loud along to your playing. Always keep a steady pulse, and aim to ‘feel’ a regular beat which might be described as similar to that of a ticking clock or heartbeat. It can be helpful to clap along to either a metronome or stop watch in order to become aware of the regularity and steadiness required. Clap or tap the pulse and rhythms in your pieces before learning the notes.
  8. Find and play the notes in your piece (or pieces) without the rhythm. Learning to coordinate both hands whilst grasping note patterns can take time, so try to do this before you add the rhythm. Write your fingering into the score, and ensure you use it! Take time moving around the keyboard and aim to find the notes with your fingers before you need to play them. Name the notes as you play, and keep your wrist and hands loose and relaxed.
  9. Repetition is important when getting to grips with note patterns. When combining the notes and rhythm together you may need to work at each bar many times. Keep your fingers close to the keys, eliminating any possible errors. Set an extremely slow pulse at first. When confident, add speed and repeat the phrases using a different tonal colour (try playing softly, then much more powerfully, for example). This precludes mindless repetition, encouraging focus on dynamics, phrase shape and other important musical features.
  10. Spend a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes on each little piece (similar to those in length in a piano method or tutor book), and in that time, concentrate fully until you can play fluently. The sense of achievement will feel monumental when you can skip through your piece with no errors. Play each piece from beginning to end after your practice session. This will channel your concentration, and illustrate what needs to be done at the next session.

And finally, make a note of each practice session in a notebook. It can help to write down what was achieved and how you did it.

For more practice ideas for beginners, check out my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Piano teaching in Asia 2018

Returning from another enjoyable and successful book tour, I find myself reflecting on a perennial piano teaching issue; one which seems to occur all over the world.

This tour was the busiest yet with visits to four countries and multiple cities; Singapore, Malaysia (Melaka and Kuala Lumpur), Indonesia (Jakarta and Surabaya), and Hong Kong.  On this trip I was fortunate to have company: I gave teaching workshops alongside colleagues Samantha Ward, who is artistic director of PIANO WEEK and also a fellow Schott Music author (she was presenting Piano Junior, the new Schott beginner’s method), and Dr. Wolf-Dieter Seiffert, president of G. Henle Verlag (who spoke about Urtext editions), as part of the Arrow Vision/Schott Music/G. Henle Verlag tour, which formed the middle segment of my trip.

Whilst our workshops were open to students, teachers and parents, the majority of the audience consisted of piano teachers. It’s a real pleasure connecting with teachers around the world, sharing a few (hopefully) useful ideas, as well as highlighting the benefits of using my piano course, Play it again: PIANO. Several teachers had previously attended my workshops last year, and it was lovely to see them again. I also appreciated their feedback regarding Play it again, and it was wonderful to hear how much their students have enjoyed using the books.

Teachers are generally very receptive to this two-book course (pictured above), which, as readers of this blog will know, contains an anthology of 49 piano pieces progressing from Grade 1 – 8 level, with copious practice suggestions for every piece. I was delighted to be able to talk about Book 3 for the first time too. This new addition will focus on works of approximately Grade 8 level up to the DipABRSM diploma, and it was written due to vociferous demand from teachers! Many thanks to all who have been in contact over the past year.

At the Encore Music Centre in Melaka, Malaysia, giving a two-day workshop for piano teachers

Play it again: PIANO Book 3 will be available at the beginning of next year (2019), and it will follow the same format as Book 1 and 2, featuring a select group of pieces drawn from mostly standard repertoire with plenty of guided practice tips and advice. The practice ideas, which run throughout the books, are certainly not designed to replace teachers; piano teachers are irreplaceable. However, in my experience, students tend to ‘forget’ much of the advice we offer from week to week, therefore my suggestions, which primarily focus on breaking pieces down to enable swift, successful learning, are intended to serve as reminders and ‘extra’ help between lessons.

In Singapore and Hong Kong I gave private lessons as well as workshops and master classes. The level of playing was consistently high; many of the students were teachers, and they were nearly all advanced diploma level. This isn’t unexpected, but what I often find surprising is the amount of time I spend on teaching physical flexibility.

Physical movement at the piano is, for me, probably the most crucial factor when playing the piano, because without a flexible, relaxed technique, playing accurately and with a rich, full sound are both challenging. But, perhaps more importantly, a tight, tense technique also tends to make playing a very uncomfortable experience for the pianist.

I spend a large percentage of lesson time working with students to sort tension issues. I always pose the question: “how loose are you?” or “how loose do you feel?” as this is often the easiest way to help students understand the desired ‘feeling’ necessary in several parts of their upper torso. It’s interesting to note that tension can occur at any level or stage of piano playing, and it’s this that fascinates me. The more advanced the student, the more demanding my job! Although it isn’t a ‘job’, but rather a pleasure and privilege to help.  Advanced students might have habits which are inextricably ingrained. The fun part is being able to unravel their issues, and replace the old habits with new, healthier ones.

In Surabaya, Indonesia, with piano teachers at my workshop

Repetitive strain injury and tendonitis are just two of the conditions resulting from piano playing laced with tension. Over the past few years I have worked with students who had developed quite serious pain issues, and we carefully reconstructed their technique over a period of around twelve months (it can take less time with a very dedicated pupil). Boring and painstaking work? Actually, I find it very rewarding. Witnessing a student’s progression from pain and dejection  to mastery and confidence is very gratifying.

Working with a student at a master class in Hong Kong

There are a profusion of effective teaching methods which can be employed to reverse tension. I use one which is easy to understand, and one which emphasizes relaxation (or a ‘loose’ feeling). The tension/release concept is relatively simple to comprehend, and if it is implemented with a series of loose wrist and hand movements, which are all exaggerated to start with, improvement can be almost instantaneous. Although it can take a while for such movements to become an instinctive, natural habit.

I aim to continue my work with pupils who require such teaching, and my trip served as a vital reminder of its value. I examine the basics of flexibility in the opening section of Play it again: PIANO, Book 1, 2 and 3, and you can also watch my videos online for more ideas (see below):


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here


 

Fingering: Part 1

Today’s weekend post focuses on fingering; a topic about which I often write for the reason that I feel it’s particularly important for students of all levels. This article is the first in a two-part series written for the September 2018 edition of Piano Professional, published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association), for whom I regularly write a technique feature.


Fruitful Fingering Part 1

Fingering comes in all different guises and there is certainly no ‘one-size-fits-all-approach’; much can depend on the size, shape and disposition of the hand. However, there are certain fundamentals which might be applied to most hands, and with that in mind, some of following suggested techniques will hopefully prove advantageous for all kinds of repertoire. This is the first of two articles examining various fingering strategies and ideas which may be useful for your students.

If you use Urtext editions, fingering will have generally been written in to the score by an editor or in some cases, the composer, but irrespective of who has added the fingering, it’s always possible to change it and replace with your own. As a teacher, I often spend a significant amount of time during lessons either adding or changing fingering, and sometimes fingering may have been drafted in to the score at the very start of the learning process only to be changed after a week or two, if a more suitable one miraculously comes to light.

A crucial factor, when educating our students about the benefits of idiomatic fingering, is the practice and absorption of scales, arpeggios and broken chords. Students and teachers frequently bemoan their existence in exams, but they do serve a myriad of purposes. I have written extensively about the importance of scales as technical exercises, but another, often overlooked, factor is that by assimilating all the scale and arpeggio technical work properly, students learn ideal fingerings for much passage work.

Baroque and Classical repertoire is routinely constructed from standard scale patterns, and therefore it’s both pragmatic and practical to base fingerings for such passages on those learnt from scales. The following is a good example; hailing from the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1, the scale passage in the right hand can be clearly identified as that of E flat major (starting on the third of the scale), and if the same fingerings are employed as in the scale, the passage is that much easier to grasp:

Contrary motion scales prove a useful tool for learning symmetrical playing. If the thumbs or same fingers (in either hand) can play together when moving in the opposite direction, coordination feels comfortable. This won’t always be possible, but when our students are starting to play scales, aim to begin with simpler objectives.

Symmetry is also at work when learning arpeggio patterns. Fingering must be well-defined in arpeggios; the left hand, particularly, relies on the careful use of the third or fourth finger:

In this example, it might seem taxing to use the fourth finger on the E (the second note in the C major arpeggio), but using the third finger here, as suggested in some exam manuals, renders an awkward position for the hand. Eventually, the fourth becomes accustomed to the second note, and this helps with chordal playing too. However, when playing a major third at the start of an arpeggio, such as in D major, the third finger would be ideal:

Encouraging students to learn these patterns accurately from the start is a good plan, as it becomes tricky to change them at a later date. The brain seems hard-wired to play the first fingering pattern it learns – changing always feels alien.

Aim to play in position as much as possible. This involves limiting turning the hand, or changing hand positions. Hand turns can lead to uneven playing, especially when a melodic line is involved. Bumpy or jerky playing can happen when there are too many thumbs on the scene. If students can be coaxed into using their fourth and fifth fingers as frequently as the inner part of their hand i.e. the thumb, second and third fingers, not only will the hand be more balanced whilst playing passage work, but it will also feel more natural, with considerably less movement. In order to do this, the outer fingers will require sufficient practice, so that they are able to cope with the demands of playing crisp passage work. With this in mind, it might be pertinent to use a few daily exercises, but only with the guidance of a teacher, as it’s easy to ‘lock-up’ or become tense without cultivating flexibility in the hand and wrist when working at developing finger strength.

Know your thumbs! Thumbs can be pivotal for secure playing; knowing where they occur in both hands, and where they don’t need to occur, will create confidence. Once students are aware of thumb placement, the other fingers tend to fall in to place. Although thumbs provide stability when playing, as they tend to ‘anchor’ passage work, the challenge is to listen optimally so they do not dominate; they must ideally be tonally equal to all the other fingers, therefore we must strive to find ways to camouflage thumb ‘accents’ which can happen due to thumb physiology.

When writing fingering in the score, it can be enough to pen where thumbs arise, as opposed to marking every finger, but I still tend to write in much more fingering than this for my students. If possible, try to ensure that hands work in tandem; occasionally what seems like the best fingering in the right hand might become unworkable when both hands play together.

Repeated patterns or sequences can be an excellent way to absorb fingering quickly. Sequences of notes or note patterns may lend themselves to replica or repeated fingering i.e. the same patterns over and over again. Repetition is key here, and the ‘blocking-out’ technique can prove a suitable method of learning i.e. playing note patterns all together in one go, enabling pupils to find the notes and their corresponding fingerings at once. This can be seen in the following example, which shows two bars from the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1. The first example illustrates how the Alberti Bass pattern in the left hand appears in the score, and the second, how it might be practised (keeping the same fingering throughout):

Further to the second example, for even swifter learning, the entire bar could be played as one or two chords (where possible).

Repeated notes are a different fingering issue altogether. There are often two schools of thought; some believe it’s better to change fingers on every note during a repeated note passage, whilst others find using the same finger achieves a more pleasing result. I encourage students to try both methods, and decide for themselves. Let’s examine the following passage, which is the opening of Turina’s Fiesta Op. 52 No. 7, right hand:

Both fingerings are acceptable. By using the same finger, or the top fingering in the example, you may find that students are able to create a smoother, more even repeated note passage. For clarity and control, advocate keeping the second finger close to the keys and employ a gentle finger tapping movement.

Finger substitution is a preferred method of playing legato. It’s too easy to rely on the sustaining pedal to ‘join’ note passages. If a pianist can continually substitute or change fingers on one and the same note, fluent, smooth playing should be the happy result. Finger substitution entails holding a key down with one finger whilst quickly swapping to another finger or thumb, ensuring the same note is held for the entire procedure. This technique enables pianists to form an unbroken musical line whilst playing other note figurations or patterns underneath (or above).

Finger sliding utilizes the same finger to literally ‘slide’ from note to note. I call this the ‘illusion of legato’ and it may also be a useful technique for larger intervals too; notes don’t actually need to be next to each other to benefit from the sliding approach.

Sliding requires a very smooth manoeuvre, where the second note of any ‘slide’ must not only match the sound to that of the dying first note, but should also aim to avoid gaps in the sound between notes. Astute listening is paramount.  Students might like to work at the following exercise. After practising this exercise using the thumb, play it with the second finger, and then third finger:

Fingering is of utmost importance when learning to play smoothly, evenly and proficiently. It’s for this reason that we must offer our students a thorough grounding, so that they are eventually able to annotate scores for themselves.

Click on the link below to read the original article:

Fruitful Fingering Part 1


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.