Teaching Improvisation to Groups by Christopher Norton

My guest writer today is renowned New Zealand born composer and music educator Christopher Norton. Christopher is well-known for his Microjazz series;  a collection of jazz piano books for students of all levels which has sold well over a million copies worldwide. More recently, he has written Micromusicals for schools, and he continues to compose music in many different styles and genres. In the first of a short series of posts for my blog, Christopher sheds some light on teaching improvisation to groups. Over to Christopher…


I’ve just come back from a 2-day Keyboard Kamp (like the spelling? – I’m in North America now!) with young students from all over Canada. My brief was to teach improvisation in groups, ranging in age from around 7 years old to teenagers as old as 16. I had to decide in advance which material to use and how to use it, all without any music in front of the students (who were also sharing keyboards!) That was my choice – I have learnt that relying on students reading music can prove awkward, because in most groups music-reading ability is variable, to say the least.

I used 2 main series, Connections for Piano and American Popular Piano and used a variety of approaches. The first piece was from Connections 3 – Samba Sand. The tune employs the same three chords, three times:

Connections for Piano has backing tracks and I use these all the time when doing improv. But the first thing I did was teach 3 chord shapes, played with right hand initially, but not too low or too high on the keyboard. The chords were:

I taught each chord, one at a time, by saying the names of the notes from the bottom note – “B, D, G” was the first chord. Once everyone could play the chord comfortably, I named it “chord 1” and proceeded to spell out the next chord – “C, E, G” (‘chord 2’) The group seemed relieved to find they were playing a chord of C major!) Finally chord 3 – A, D, F#. I did quiz the group about what they thought the chords might be, then explained very quickly about the broad concept of inversions. If you haven’t noticed already, there is a first inversion of G, a root position C and a second inversion of D.

Now, with a backing track (available with all Connections for Piano pieces) I got them to play the chords, with me shouting out helpfully, in advance, what the next chord was going to be. This was taxing enough for the students, especially when the 8th bar of each phrase was a specific rhythm on chord 1:

Once the students have the chords feeling semi-automatic (with the track) they can start the improvisational aspect – chord rhythms. I suggest some repeated rhythm patterns, like:

Trying different rhythm patterns over a specific chord pattern is sufficiently taxing for a group, while still being fun.

The next thing to try is a left hand bass line, using the original piece as a template (for the teacher – the students still do it by ear). So I say, “when I say G you play this pattern”:

They learn that, then I say “if that is G, what is C?”. They hopefully find C, E, G. Then D, which has an F# (D, F#, A) Then through the chord sequence, with the track, with me shouting “G!”, “C!” etc. just before they are due to play the chord.  The whole sequence:

G / / / |C / / / | G / / / |D / / / |

G / / / |C / / / | G / D / |

(And repeat x2)

The next step is to play the 3-note chords in the right hand and the bass line in the left hand, with a variety of rhythm patterns in the right hand, including off-beat crotchets and even off-beat quavers! Reggae and ska sorted.

The next article will talk about right hand improvisation. But chord rhythms and a bass line, and using chord numbers as well as names, is a great start!

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 two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

5 Tips on Stage Presentation Part 1

Stage presentation is an important topic, not just for those who perform regularly, but also for students preparing for exams, diplomas, or school concerts and festivals. In my latest article for Pianist Magazine newsletter (which you can sign up for here), I offer the first of two articles on stage presentation, with a few ideas for honing and developing a more assured approach to performing. I hope it’s of interest. You can read the original here.


This topic might, at first glance, appear frivolous, but it’s important for many reasons, not least to illustrate how we should ideally conduct ourselves onstage. But it also helps various aspects of our piano playing, from choice programming to addressing that all-consuming issue; learning to focus whilst playing. It’s for these reasons that this ‘5 Top Tips’ article is the first of two on the subject. These tips are reminders for anyone giving concerts, taking exams or diplomas, participating in music festivals, or just playing for family and friends.

  1. Before you play a note or even prepare to play a concert, some thought must be given to programming. What will you play? Your programme choice will reveal your personality, and for an audience, may or may not attract them to your recital. A balanced programme is a good idea, but it can be more adventurous to include some Contemporary music. This is especially true when programming for a diploma exam. For a 35 minute diploma recital, why not consider adding 10 minutes of new music. It doesn’t have to be dissonant or atonal music; there are plenty of Contemporary composers who write in an essentially tonal style.
  2. When discussing your next performance, how do you feel? Excited? Fearful? Probably a mixture of the two. The best way to overcome fear is to keep exposing yourself to it; if you can perform regularly, it starts to take on an element of routine. Whilst routine shouldn’t equate to boredom, repeated performances will help to extinguish nerves, and allow you to feel more in control on stage.
  3. Another way to alleviate any potentially negative psychological aspects of performing, is to really fall in love with the piece or pieces that you intend to play. This is why it is paramount that you connect with your chosen repertoire. Ask yourself the following: why do you want to play your piece? Do you love it? How does it make you feel? If you feel a strong attachment to your repertoire, then you will be keen to communicate this with your audience, which can detract from the worry and fear associated with performing.
  4. Should we address our audience on stage? Some performers prefer to walk on stage and just play, whereas others like to talk to their audience, establishing a connection and informing them about the repertoire. I played classical recitals on cruise ship for many years, and one facet which was crucial to the success of a performance was talking to my audience. Even if you just briefly explain what you are going to play, it sets the audience at ease and, hopefully, brings them into your space.
  5. What will you wear to your concert? Attire is important, adding a sense of occasion. Comfort is crucial, and high heels may not be a good idea for all ladies! Aim to find a style which allows you to move freely, but without looking too casual. In my opinion, a concert is an event, therefore smart is the order of the day. Again, this is especially important if taking a diploma, as certain examination boards mention that suitable attire will be taken into consideration during the exam.

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

5 tips to quell a sustaining pedal addiction

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


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

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

    My Publications:

    For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


     

PIANO WEEK: What happens on a piano course?

Piano courses are becoming increasingly popular, and it’s not hard to see why. They afford students the opportunity to meet like-minded new friends, enjoy excellent tuition, fine food, and a mini ‘holiday’. If the course happens to be situated in a beautiful place, so much the better.

For the last two weeks I have been on the faculty at PIANO WEEK, an international piano school and music festival all rolled into one. It was my first experience at this event. Pianist Samantha Ward is the Artistic Director and Founder of PIANO WEEK, and her husband (also a pianist), Maciej Raginia, is the Creative Director. Since its inception around five years ago, this course has gone from strength to strength, and is attracting ever larger groups of pianists from all around the world; we were joined by pupils from Taiwan, China, Switzerland, Italy, France, the USA, and the UK.

PIANO WEEK is just that; one week of highly intense piano study punctuated with concerts and lectures. During the first week, participants were predominantly children, and in week two, mostly adults. I was the only faculty member who stayed for both weeks (other than Samantha and Maciej). The course took place at Moreton Hall (pictured below), a large boarding school in Shropshire, just a few miles from the Welsh border. This school is a great place for such an event, being fairly remote and resplendent with wonderful country scenery. The food, which was served in the school canteen, was, rather surprisingly, delicious with plenty of choice. A selection of practice rooms were available for students, with many pianos brought in especially, and the faculty were assigned their own teaching room for the duration of the week.

PIANO WEEK is produced in collaboration with Steinway & Sons, and therefore the concert hall (the Musgrave Theatre) was equipped with the most beautiful Steinway Model D instrument, which complemented the smaller Yamaha grand owned by the school. Two pianos are a great asset, allowing for two piano recitals for students and teachers alike.

Course structure is such that pupils are occupied for most of the day. My timetable was packed, the second week being particularly busy, and I was generally teaching from 9.00am to 6.00pm. The variety of lessons on offer was impressive. I gave many one-to-one and duet lessons as might be expected, but there were also sight-reading and memorization classes, stage presentation classes, as well as theory and listening lessons (Aural), and I gave a lecture for adults on fingering too.

Most enjoyable (for me) were the composition lessons; teaching a small group how to write their own piano piece, with the aim of performing it in a concert at the end of the week. I thought this a tad unrealistic, but several students were really excited about the prospect, and did play their piece in concert by the end of the course.

PIANO WEEK 1 Faculty: from left to right, Yuki Negishi-Friel, Olivia Sham, myself, Annabelle Lawson, Nico de Villiers, Samantha Ward and Maciej Raginia.

Every evening there was a faculty recital. We enjoyed an electic mix of repertoire and superb performances; these concerts were clearly a highlight for the participants. Samantha and Maciej treated us to a two-piano and duet recital during each week, and they kindly performed a movement of one of my compositions as an encore (see the YouTube link below). The ‘star’ performer at the end of week one, was American pianist Stephen Kovacevich, who played as a soloist as well as with Samantha on two-pianos (featuring works by Schubert and Debussy).

One element which marks PIANO WEEK from many other courses are the copious opportunities to perform. There are concerts on most days (with faculty attendance), providing students with several chances to play on the Steinway model D in the theatre, as well as a big recital at the end of the week. Samantha had teamed up with publisher Schott Music (who sponsor PIANO WEEK), to provide ‘Schott Showcases’, where students played pieces from various Schott publications, and Samantha and I gave books presentations afterwards (we are both Schott authors).

PIANO WEEK 2 Faculty: from left to right, Aisa Ijiri, Grace Yeo, Maiko Mori, myself, Warren Mailley-Smith, Niel Du Preez, Mark Nixon, (as well as Samantha Ward and Maciej Raginia).

Students could play their pieces in concerts as many times as they wanted, and it was great to witness their improvement. Performance practice is an important topic for pianists, and the best way to gain confidence is to play the same piece several times to an audience. The standard of playing was varied; several students were almost beginners, yet there were also those who played to an extremely advanced level, including two second year undergraduates from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. All rubbed shoulders happily, and there was a genuine sense of camaraderie, with a large cohort of repeat participants each year.

PIANO WEEK is held in several countries including Italy, Germany, Japan and China, as well as the UK. There will be a total of eight residencies from which to choose in 2019. I’m looking forward to returning next year (at Moreton Hall and Rugby School over the Summer). You can find out much more about the course, here.

The next residency will be held at Moreton Hall from the 21st – 28th October 2018, and for those interested in applying, click here.

www.pianoweek.com


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


Harpsichord basics by Katharine May

Katharine May, who is a British harpsichordist and pianist, is my guest writer today. I asked Katharine (pictured below) for some tips and guidance for those who fancy swapping the piano for the harpsichord, therefore in this post she seeks to explain a few fundamentals. Over to Katharine…


I have often been approached by pianists wishing to try their hand at the harpsichord, needing some starting points on technique and repertoire. Following on from my brief introduction to the instrument posted in 2016 (you can read this post, here), I thought I would outline some of the harpsichord basics from a practical viewpoint to give readers some confidence and knowledge in understanding this wonderful keyboard instrument.

Touch and Technique

The first, most striking aspect one notices when trying a harpsichord for the first time is the action of the quill plucking the string, and it is the control of this action which helps to determine the quality of the sound produced. Tomás de Santa Maria in c1565 wrote `although the hands strike the keys gently, they nevertheless have to strike them with a little impetuosity`. It might take a little getting used to especially if one is more familiar with the action of a piano, and all harpsichords will feel different, but the trick is to be definite with the fingers and keep them close to the keys. In the first instance, and beginning with a single register (or set of strings, which Francois Couperin recommended in his 1716L`Art de Toucher le Clavecin), try pressing a key very slowly so that you consciously feel the moment when the string is plucked. Notice how long the sound lasts when the finger is still depressing the key, and listen carefully to the moment when the tiny damper cuts off the sound as you mindfully release the key. Control and sensitivity of these movements will greatly enhance articulation nuances, and equally can sound clumsy if mismanaged.

Harpsichord technique is essentially a finger technique – the arm and shoulder are used to maintain a good hand position and help it move over the keyboard and, as Rameau advises, `no great movement should be made where a lesser one will suffice`. Pianists will also invariably notice a difference in key width, length, depth and weight as everything is on a smaller scale. For small hands, this is ideal! Octaves and wide leaps (commonplace in Scarlatti) are somewhat easier, as the distance travelled is shorter but it can also make moving in between the naturals and accidentals more fiddly. Practice some familiar scales slowly using conventional fingering to help you feel more familiar, then take this a stage further by trying some (even all!) the scales using 1-2 fingering throughout, then 1-2-3, and so on, playing as legato as possible. You`ll be surprised how different this feels especially when moving between the naturals and accidentals but it will help to make, and keep, the fingers flexible. This exercise was passed on to one of my teachers, originally from Wanda Landowska. J S Bach`s own teaching method was, apart from scale, arpeggio and ornament exercises, based on using simple pieces. Which brings me to my next topic.

Repertoire to get you going

Even if readers are highly accomplished pianists, it is best to begin with the simplest dance pieces such as minuets and gavottes. This will enable the focus to be entirely on mastering, or at least understanding the basic touch. And there are hundreds of such pieces available. Try some of the ABRSM List A choices from Grade 1 upwards until you feel reasonably comfortable with the instrument, then you could move onto the Little Preludes of Bach or a selection from the Anna Magdalena Notebook (the original manuscript of one of the pieces in this popular book is shown above). Taking things a step further, have a look at some of the 2, then 3 part Inventions which after all, Bach wrote specifically to encourage a singing style on the harpsichord. Another composer worth exploring at this stage is Henry Purcell who wrote some exquisite pieces for the keyboard which tend to get overlooked today. His many dance pieces are characterful and evocative of 17th century England, while his 8 Suites explore a variety of harpsichord sonorities, though some movements are not quite so easy to the newcomer.

Accompanying

My concluding section focuses on the art of accompanying since here lies a whole new area to explore with the rewarding benefits of being a more social pastime. Again there is a plethora of music written by a wide range of composers which is very accessible for keyboard players and instrumentalists or singers alike. Originally the accompanist or continuo player would have just a single bass line with figures (or sometimes not!) to read from. This requires a whole new skill which can be daunting for those new to this aspect.

Today, most performing editions come complete with realized keyboard parts, making life perhaps a little easier for some. However, in all my years as a continuo player I have rarely come across a realized part that sounds really stylish, so I`d like to add a few tips and suggestions to the would-be accompanist finding themselves in such a position. Firstly it might be helpful and liberating to know that realized parts usually add far too much in the right hand. As Quantz wrote in 1752 `less is more`. So the most important thing is to follow the bass line and add what you can of the right hand, avoiding playing higher than the melody line, and provide rhythmic support and stability. Adding right hand notes when there is a rest in the left hand is not usually stylish, while adding chords to every bass line note can sound too busy and detract from the solo line. This applies especially to fast movements where there might be numerous passing notes – they certainly don`t all need to be harmonized. If readers are keen to try playing from a figured bass start with a slow sonata movement (to give you more thinking time) by composers whose harmonic language is not too complicated, such as Handel or Vivaldi, and avoid Bach and Purcell until you are more confident. As before, even if you lose your way, just keep the bass line going. While important, the figures are often just giving information rather than instruction and harmony is usually implied by the solo and bass lines combined.

www.edenvalleymusic.co.uk


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

The Sustaining Pedal

I regularly write feature articles for Piano Professional Magazine published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association). The most recent, taken from the Spring 2018 Issue (Issue 47, pages 20 – 21), sheds some light on the sustaining pedal. I hope you find it of interest.


The sustaining or damper pedal is one of the most important assets for a pianist. It adds another dimension to the piano timbre, and can provide a whole variety of sound layers. The most commonly used pedal, being the furthest right of the two or three pedals on a standard upright or grand piano, it’s played by the right foot. When depressed, the sustain pedal literally moves all the dampers away from the strings, which allows them to vibrate with ease, and they will continue vibrating until the sound ceases, or the pedal is released. Look inside the instrument and watch the dampers (on a grand piano) being lifted as the pedal is depressed. Students love to do this, particularly new students, who may be unaware of how the piano works. It is well worth spending part of a lesson explaining the workings of the instrument; a whistle-stop tour, finishing with a pedal overview plus demonstrations!

The sustaining pedal began life as a hand stop, examples of which survive on some of the earliest instruments. Then a knee lever was introduced around 1765 in Germany, and whilst this was more convenient than the hand stop (which was apparently much admired by W A Mozart), the foot pedal is undeniably far easier to operate, and it was introduced sometime during the 1770s by English piano builders.

The right pedal enriches piano tone markedly, allowing a pianist to create many colours, add sonority and resonance to passages, as well as conjure shimmering, atmospheric sounds. Many believe it augments the piano sound and whilst this isn’t strictly true, it does add a fuller, more sonorous tone, which could be described as akin to playing in a church.

The most fundamental technique in good pedalling is good listening. We generally pedal with our ears, and being attentive is key, but there are a few different techniques to employ, which can be used in a whole variety of styles. One basic rule: a little sustaining pedal goes a long way. Too much will seriously ruin an otherwise competent interpretation, generally irrespective of the composer or style, which is why it’s a good idea to practice without using any, particularly when starting to learn a new piece. I encourage students to add pedal only when they have a firm grasp of their new piece and have already established solid legato fingering, joining notes with the fingers wherever possible, as opposed to relying on the sustaining pedal to do this job. Pedalling is also tricky to write in a score, as it varies constantly, depending on the venue, acoustic, piano, composer, and the list goes on.

To use the pedal, rest the heel firmly on the floor, the right foot should be at an angle of around 30 or 35 degrees. When depressing the pedal (and this applies to the other pedals as well), play with the ball of the foot (or perhaps the big toe – everyone has their own preference here) and take it down (to engage the pedal) and up (to release the sound) quietly. The foot should keep contact with the pedal as much as possible because pedal or foot tapping is not a desired effect.

The last paragraph may all seem fairly obvious, but recent adjudicating has revealed (to me at least) that these points often need reiterating. As teachers, I feel it’s our job to ensure that students are well versed in the workings of the pedal, and how it can enhance or detract from a performance. With this in mind, it may be prudent to introduce the sustaining pedal at a fairly early stage, even if just to add resonance to the final note or chord in a piece.

There are several ‘layers’ to the sustaining pedal; perhaps as many as four or five. This might be considered the ‘pedal journey’ as the dampers rise from the strings, a significant portion of this journey includes the area requiring the foot to depress the pedal as little as a quarter of an inch or even less (although this totally depends on the instrument), as the dampers just begin to rise and have ‘cleared’ the surface of the strings. This area is conducive to partial damper release and would be where such techniques as half pedalling, half damping and flutter or surface pedalling occur. When the dampers finally clear the strings completely (and the foot pushes the pedal down as far as possible), which allows a full release of sonority, the resonance grants the pianist the opportunity to use the maximum richness of colour and vibration, as well as retaining sound when fingers leave the keys. Generally, pianists move swiftly from one ‘layer’ of pedalling to another without really noticing any boundaries.

Pedalling techniques can be roughly divided into the following:

Direct pedalling; which enriches the sound in separated chords. Depress the pedal with a chord (or intended passagework) at the same time as the fingers (or a fraction after), and release the pedal with the fingers, producing a clean, clear and sonorous chordal effect, as shown in Ex. 1. Pedal markings are indicated under the score. Take the pedal down (with the Ped. sign), and where the line is broken with an upward marking, take the pedal up. Depress again, if the pedal is to be played continuously (as in Ex. 2), but if the marking stops then pedal playing must cease too. An extension to this pedalling might be rhythmic pedalling, where brief touches of direct pedalling can add rhythmic shape to chords or rapid passagework. This is also true of accents and syncopations.

Ex. 1

Legato pedalling; which is similar to syncopated pedalling, overlapping with the notes being played. This involves depressing the pedal a moment later than finger work. To practice this, play a succession of five notes (perhaps C – G in the right hand, as in Ex. 2). Start by playing middle C with the thumb, and immediately afterwards depress the pedal; now play the D (also with the thumb), and a millisecond after, release the pedal and depress again very quickly, to clear the sound of the C. This should be done quickly and seamlessly, so as to limit smudging. Pedal changes might be quick or slow depending on the speed of the piece and the number of changes needed. As a general rule, in legato or legatissimo pedalling, a new pedal should come just after each harmony change, and it’s advisable to limit the blurred or hazy sound as much as possible.

Ex. 2

Legato should ideally be all about using the fingers, as it’s primarily a finger technique; legato using the pedal is generally for added colour and sonority, or on the occasion where it’s impossible for fingers to join (i.e. in large leaps). It can also be helpful with regard to melodic inflection and projection, phrasing, articulation, and sustaining bass notes in accompaniment figures, as well as allowing unbroken sonority in accompanying figurations or chords.

Half-pedalling; consisting of a quick movement, to lose top harmonies and retain bass notes. The main aim here is to reduce too much blurring or smudging of sound. Start by checking out the instrument to see how long dampers must remain in contact with the keys before the sound stops, then practice by taking the pedal down (and up) varying amounts (but not depressing as far as the foot will go), swiftly ‘brushing’ or ‘skimming’ the dampers on the strings.

Half-damping; without engaging the pedal completely, for a light, veiled effect. Employing almost a surface pedalling, there are many variations of this movement, which will clear the sound but still provide an atmospheric haze. Several degrees of pedal release might be involved in this technique, and different repertoire and styles will determine the amount of damper release required.

Flutter, surface or vibrato pedalling; similar to half-damping, this is based on very quick, light movements, in order to reduce accumulating sound. Such pedalling is based on frequent and sometimes irregular changes, and is applied through fast passages work, scales or runs, providing weight to the sound yet ridding it of the blurring effects. Avoid depressing the pedal completely for this technique. Students might find practising with scales helpful; aim to continually lightly raise or ‘hover’ the foot in an octave scale (as in Ex. 3). As with many pedalling techniques, listening is the most important aspect, but the following pedal markings may be used to denote flutter pedalling:

Ex. 3

Finger Pedalling

This has little to do with actual pedalling, but probably should be mentioned here, due to its title and overall effect. Notes are held with the fingers in place of the pedal; akin to finger legato, but with a ‘holding-over’ effect, keeping the notes depressed with the fingers slightly longer than is usually the case. In this technique, the pedal may be employed for quick changes, however, it’s the fingers creating the illusion of pedalling.

If the foot engages the pedal before notes are played, as opposed to once notes have been played (or at the same time), a much more resonant sound ensues as all the strings resonate fully (and are already in position at the point when the dampers hit the strings), which can be ideal for a full-bodied sonority required in certain repertoire.

Between the point where the foot is completely depressed to the floor and where it first engages the pedal mechanism, there are many assorted subtleties available to pianists. Every piano is different therefore pedals all feel and sound different too. The sustaining pedal can really add dynamics and shape, due to the accumulation of sounds whilst depressed. It’s an integral aspect of piano playing and students are usually very keen to explore its possibilities. If they are encouraged to keep experimenting and they are able to attune their listening skills, they will discover a myriad of ways to enhance their piano playing.

You can read the original article, by clicking on the link below:

The Sustaining Pedal


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

 

 

A Special Faber Weekend Competition

It’s Friday and therefore time for a weekend competition. My competition this week highlights three books all courtesy of the fabulous Faber Music.

The Ultimate Piano Solos anthology is just that: a collection of fifty favourite works across many different genres arranged for the piano, for approximately Intermediate (to advanced) level. Beautifully laid out, this selection would make a superb addition to any pianist’s library, and is particularly useful for advanced players who are searching for interesting sight-reading material. It also offers plenty of ideas for those who seek party pieces too.

Included in this book are the following: Bella’s Lullaby (From Twilight), Davy Jones (From Pirates Of The Caribbean), Dive (Ed Sheeran), The Entertainer (Scott Joplin), Gymnopedie No.1 (Erik Satie), How Deep Is Your Love (Bee Gees), Karma Police (Radiohead), La Fille Aux Cheveaux De Lin (Claude Debussy), Melodia Africana 1 (Ludovico Einaudi), Moonlight Sonata (L.V. Beethoven), Pavane (Gabriel Faure), Prelude In E Minor (Frederic Chopin), A Thousand Years (The Piano Guys), Variations On The Kanon (George Winston), What A Wonderful World (Louis Armstrong), Memory (From Cats).

Arrangements provide the perfect opportunity to spend time at the piano getting to know both new and favourite tunes. The Easy Piano Series is proving popular, and I’ve two volumes to giveaway;  Film and Shows. These books are easy to read, often include words to songs plus chord indications, and are suitable for anyone from around Grade 2 – 4 (ABRSM level). Excellent as repertoire books for that ‘between exams’ stage, or for an end of term concert.

The Easy Piano Series Film features:

  1. As Time Goes By (Casablanca)
  2. City Of Stars (La La Land)
  3. Davy Jones Theme (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
  4. Hedwig’s Theme (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
  5. How Far I’ll Go (Moana)
  6. New Moon (The Twilight Saga)
  7. Not About Angels (The Fault in Our Stars)
  8. Pure Imagination (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
  9. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
  10. The Ring Goes South (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)
  11. See You Again (Furious 7)
  12. Star Wars (Main Theme) (Star Wars)

The Easy Piano Series Shows features:

  1. Breaking Free (High School Musical)
  2. Maybe This Time (Cabaret)
  3. Memory (Cats)
  4. Nowadays (Chicago)
  5. On The Street Where You Live (My Fair Lady)
  6. Someone To Watch Over Me (Oh Kay!)
  7. Summer Nights (Grease)
  8. Summertime (Porgy & Bess)
  9. Tomorrow (Annie)
  10. Wait For It (Hamilton)
  11. Where Is Love? (Oliver!)
  12. You Give A Little Love (Bugsy Malone)

I have one copy of the Ultimate Piano Solos, and one each of The Easy Piano Series Shows and Film for three lucky readers. As always, to be in with a chance of winning, please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this blog post. I will announce the winners on Monday evening (British time), so be sure to check my blog to see if you’ve been successful. Good Luck!

You can purchase the Film volume, here, Shows, here, and the Ultimate Piano Solos, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

Indian Raags for piano, by John Pitts

My guest writer today is British composer John Pitts. John has recently published  two volumes of Indian classical raags for the piano. I asked him to shed light on the rationale behind his books and explain why they might be of interest to students and teachers. Over to John…


Back in the mid-1990s I spent a year in Pakistan, where my love of Hindustani raags was born.  I bought a sitar in a music bazaar in Lahore, and had a few lessons back in London with the inspirational sitarist Baluji Shrivastav.  But over the years I have explored and composed raags mostly on my first instrument – the piano.  In 2016 I published a 258-page book – How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano – designed for anyone with a piano and an interest either in Indian classical music or in improvisation.  Early 2018 I followed this with a much shorter book  for early pianists – Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy.

The obvious question is: why?  What’s the appeal?  Why play Indian sitar music on a piano?  The short answer, in a word that keeps on cropping up, is that it’s fascinating stuff.  Plus, many of us either were the kind of kids (or have students ourselves) who spend far more time playing around on the piano than actually practising their pieces.  One of the many beauties of raags is that they begin in a way which resonates with that natural, exploratory, creative impulse.  And they introduce simple but exotic ingredients to play with, and a really satisfying framework to do it in.

The combination of rotating drone notes in a free pulse, the rich resonance of the piano with the sustain pedal permanently down, and a  melody line that uses a carefully selected Indian scale, quickly evokes an immersive eastern sound-world.  The experience will be new too.  Somewhat unique, even: improvising, initially over a free pulse, drawing exclusively from the notated material, within a framework that starts with incredibly peaceful simplicity and develops into a fabulously rhythmic and exciting drama.  Playing semi-improvised raags certainly feels very different to learning Bach or Debussy, or the ubiquitous easy listening chill-out piano pieces, or the latest pop song from the charts.  Having said that, there is a certain parallel you can draw between Indian raags and the pleasure of improvising around the 12-bar blues; where the notes of the blues scale immediately create a ‘cool’ vibe, and the clashes between the melody and the underlying harmonies are just part of what defines the style.

To be clear, raags on piano isn’t ‘fusion’; this is not a blending of two styles of music.  These books are a serious attempt to expand the historic raag tradition to a widely played European instrument.  I want to encourage  a much wider practical engagement in Indian classical music – in its sound world, structure and emotional journey.  I want pianists to have a means of accessing Indian classical music, and to experience its rich treasures by learning to perform it.

So, who are the books for?  Well, traditional raags feature highly ornate melodies,  partly improvised and partly pre-composed, within a set of conventions and a typical structure, and performances can last anywhere between 5 minutes and 2 hours. So the larger, 258-page book is for more advanced pianists.  Obviously it’s suitable for anyone interested in learning about Indian music (and those with an Indian/Pakistani heritage may have an obvious interest), or for anyone interested in improvisation generally, or for anyone looking for new concert repertoire.  But the methodology, the process, of a raag performance is so radically different from any western genre of music, that this book should be of real interest to any pianists seeking a radically new approach to music making.  The book contains the sheet music of 24 raags – much of which involves improvising using selections from the large amount of notated material on each double-page spread in front of you, with lots of written instruction and encouragement.

The ‘easy’ book, Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy, is a small collection of six Indian raags – 3 North Indian (Hindustani) and 3 South Indian (Carnatic), re-imagined for piano, and then simplified for fledgling pianists (both children and adults).  The purpose is to provide an introductory experience of classical Indian music-making in an easy, hands-on way at a piano, offering a very accessible first encounter with improvisation.  It is designed for near-beginners (pre-grade 1) through to early intermediate players (c. grade 4-5).  The first three raags are each presented in three versions; “really easy”, “easy” and “quite easy’,  so that students and their teachers can quickly find a best fit for their level, and add complexity when ready.   Each simplified raag is on a single double-page spread, featuring: the opening gestures to set the scene, the alaap (the guided, free pulse, slowly unfolding improvisation which alternates with left hand drone notes), and the gat (a pre-composed melody), an opportunity to improvise over a simple rhythmic drone, as well as a set of typical ending gestures.

There are freely downloadable recordings and videos at www.pianoraag.com where both books can be ordered.  The ‘easy’ book is also available as a downloadable digital edition, with or without a studio licence for teachers to print as needed for their students.

You can purchase How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano and Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

 

A Masterclass with Murray Perahia

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I often highlight masterclasses. Here’s a particularly interesting set given by celebrated American pianist Murray Perahia, recorded at the Paul Hall on October 12th 2017, at the Juilliard School in New York.

The participants and repertoire are as follows: Qi Xu performs the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, Shengliang Zhang performs the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17, and Yuchong Wu performs the Alemande, Courante, and Sarabande from J S Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816.

There’s so much to learn and enjoy from observing such classes. I hope you find them of interest.




My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

Playing to Your Strengths

I haven’t written many guest posts over the past six years (the length of time that I have been running this blog). There’s no particular reason for this, but when the superb writer, author, journalist, and presenter, Jessica Duchen, kindly invited me to pen a post for her excellent blog, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Published today, Playing to Your Strengths is a subject I am quite passionate about and believe it’s a most important element for any instrumentalist to consider. You can read it by clicking, here. Hope you enjoy it, and I wish you all a very happy, relaxed Bank Holiday Weekend.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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