Favourable Fingering

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

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

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

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

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my 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.



Josef and Rosina Lhévinne and the Russian Piano School

One of the joys of having pianist and piano teachers friends are the endless piano talk phone (or Skype) conversations; and by that I usually mean technique chat! There are, inevitably, disagreements; as many will know there are copious ways to play and teach the piano, but these conversations always throw up a myriad of interesting questions. It was during one such discussion that I discovered the following videos which I hope you will find of interest (I certainly did).

Josef and Rosina Lhévinne were a formidable partnership in the piano world. Both renowned teachers, Josef toured and gave many solo recitals (and two piano concerts with his wife), whilst Rosina became a celebrated teacher at the Juilliard School in New York. The two films linked here give a real insight into the Lhévinne method of teaching. In the first film, American concert pianist John Browning demonstrates elements of piano playing synonymous with the Lhévinne’s teaching, and in the second, Mrs. Lhévinne reveals details about her life and her piano teaching.  These include her pedagogical influence and her legacy (according to many of her students). A fascinating glimpse into Twentieth century Russian piano teaching.

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.


Stars of the Albion Competition 2018

On Saturday I swapped my teaching for adjudicating, spending a day in London at the Musica Nova International Music Academy situated on Cromer Road, near King’s Cross train station. This busy studio is owned (and was founded) by Russian pianist and singer, Evgenia Terentieva. As well as a music academy, providing one-to-one tuition (for children as young as three, right up to adults), the studio holds many courses (on a wide range of musical subjects, from musical theatre, to a ‘music wonderland’ programme) and a yearly competition; Stars of the Albion, Grand Prix.

The Stars of the Albion international performing arts festival & competition, now in its fifth year, joins gifted musicians and dancers from across the world. The project forms a unique bridge connecting vibrant cultures and, in particular, those of Russia and Great Britain. It aims to provide valuable opportunities for young emerging artists to perform, learn, communicate and develop.  There are many different classes open to competitors, and the event is going from strength to strength with a huge variety of disciplines and participants coming from around the globe to show case their talents.

I’ve been fortunate to be on the panel of judges for the past three years, and during this period I have observed the Stars of the Albion morph from a fairly small-scale competition, with one jury hearing all competitors, into a large-scale affair with two competitions (and two juries) running in tandem. This year I chaired the instrumental panel, working alongside (pictured below from left to right) concert pianist George Harliono (also from the UK), viola player and string teacher, Natalia Varkentin (from Latvia), and pianist and teacher, Nick Sergienko (from Canada).

The standard of playing was high, with most instrumentalists playing a well prepared programme (consisting of two contrasting works) from memory. The youngest performer was just six years old but already very accomplished, presenting Sonatina in A minor Op. 94 No. 4 by Albert Biehl and  a humorous work (Funny Puppy) by Anne Crosby. Her technical control was impressive with musicianship well beyond her years.

One reason I really love adjudicating is the breadth of works and composers offered at this type of competition. When judging festivals, set works frequently govern student (and teacher!) choices; pupils may be gearing up for an exam, so I might hear typical offerings from the ABRSM Grade 7 syllabus.

During this competition, however, we listened to a diverse collection of pieces across several instruments (clarinet, violin, piano and balalaika). The balalaika is a regular fixture in predominantly Russian contests such as this (and during my first year adjudicating at this competition, one such player won the Grand Prix award for the most outstanding performer). It’s a popular instrument and this year’s competitor had studied at the Central School in Moscow and was a touring professional (there were student, amateur and professional classes on offer). He was fantastic, and gave us rousing renditions of Vera Gorodovskaya’s Kalinka and Alexander Zigankov’s Introduction and Chardash.

I played the clarinet whilst a student, so relished hearing the beautiful Clarinet Sonata Op. 167 by Camille Saint-Saëns, having played it myself. The same participant also offered Igor Stravinsky’s exciting Three Solo Pieces (1919). Other repertoire offerings included: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance for violin, Vittorio Monti’s Czardas (violin), Suite italienne  (1932) by Stravinsky (violin), Sonatina in G HWV582 by George Frideric Handel (piano), Chaconne by Tomaso Antonio Vitali (violin), Salut d’amour by Edward Elgar (violin), Take Five by Paul Desmond (violin), Hava Nagila Trad. (violin), Sonatina in C major Op. 55 No. 1 by Friedrich Kuhlau (piano), Romance in F major by Dmitri Shostakovich (piano), Sonatina No. 3 in F major by Thomas Attwood (piano), Ragtime and Fantasy, both by Manfred Schmitz (piano duet), Children’s Corner Suite by Claude Debussy (piano) and the Nocturne in C sharp minor No. 20 Op. Posth. by Fryderyk  Chopin (piano).

Many disagree with the whole ethos behind competitions, but I feel every performer will have really benefitted from playing in this relaxed setting (irrespective of whether they won their class or not), and we hope they continue to enjoy these events, honing their playing and performing skills. A cohort of winners performed at the Gala concert and prizegiving ceremony held yesterday evening (at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre, in London). I wish Musica Nova continued success with the Stars of the Albion and I look forward to next year’s competition.

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.

Weekend competition: Learn to Sight Read by E-Music Maestro

My competition today focuses on a new set of publications from E-Music Maestro. Lean to Sight Read & Hear the Difference is a series of comprehensive sight-reading manuals for teachers and students using free QR code technology. Included in each book are 100 short pieces, in a range of appropriate keys covering a wide variety of musical styles, rhythmic patterns, time signatures, and note ranges comparable to the piano exams at that grade. At present, the books range from Grade 1 – 3 level.

There is a note for teachers at the beginning about how to use the books and an explanation of how to use the technology alongside each piece. For those who enjoy featuring tablets or phone apps in lessons, this method will certainly be of interest.The pieces are tuneful and there are tips from the Maestro ‘dog’ (a cartoon character) alongside many of the pieces. At certain intervals throughout the book (denoted by ‘sets’) there is a progress chart for students to log their sight-reading journey.

I have one copy of Grade 1 level to give away to one lucky winner. For your chance to win, as always, please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post. I will select the winner on Monday evening (British time). Good luck!

You can find out much more, here.

www. e-musicmaestro.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 Top Tips for Keeping Time

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

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

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

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

Image: Nathan Nelson/Flickr

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my 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.


Guest Post: Andreas Eggertsberger speaks out about Focal Dystonia

I first met Austrian pianist Andreas Eggertsberger in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) last November, when we were both presenting at the UCSI University Piano Pedagogy Conference. I was fortunate to catch Andreas’ fascinating presentation which focused on this little known condition. Injuries are frequently considered a taboo subject for pianists, and tend to be surreptitiously swept aside or ‘brushed under the carpet’, however, I thought many might be interested to hear his story.

I have written extensively (both on this blog and in magazine articles) about the importance of being aware of body movement, hand positions, and posture when playing the piano (it’s a subject I feel passionately about!). But, increasingly, I hear stories of pianists who can’t play anymore or those who have (and continue to) suffer terrible pain due to physical injuries sustained whilst playing. Andreas’ extraordinary journey must surely serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks this issue isn’t a serious one. Over to Andreas…

My Experiences with Focal Dystonia

Injuries often occur in the music world. Although still a taboo theme, a lot of musicians are suffering from it. While pain is something which is commonly known amongst musicians, there is another injury out there which is approaching something much subtler. It is called focal dystonia. Prominent sufferers in the piano world are pianists like Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Keith Emerson, Michele Beroff, Michael Houstoun or Hung Kuan Cheng. The principal oboist from Chicago Symphony, Alex Klein, has a long story of losing, regaining and losing his job again because of dystonia.[i] Most likely it seems that Robert Schumann was also prone to this devastating condition.[ii]

What is focal dystonia?

Dystonia belongs to the family of movement disorders. It is a neurological condition with a very broad range of manifestations. The basic underlying problem involves over-activity of the main muscles needed for a movement, extra activation of other muscles that are not needed for the movement, and simultaneous activation of muscles that work against each other.[iii] The term focal describes where just an isolated area is affected. For pianists, it usually means that one hand (in most cases, the right hand) is disturbed, although in some cases both hands are troubled by it.

Weird Movements

In the Summer of 2012, I was participating in a Summer festival in Italy. A violinist colleague and friend pointed at my left hand as I was playing the fugue from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106). She told me that she has never seen a pianist whose hands were moving so differently. She was telling me that she could hear a different colour and that there is always an issue of accuracy when she listens. Some notes got swallowed. She directed my attention to my index finger and we came to the conclusion that if it stretches that much, then I could not bring it down on the key on time. Besides that, my middle finger was curling. The ring and pinkie finger were also stretching a lot. All of this seemed to be unnatural and was causing problems. At the end, we came to the conclusion that this was a real issue for me.

Here is a recording of my playing of the fugue which made my friend so uncomfortable:

The next day I started to compare my finger movements with other pianists. I found a recording with Wilhlem Kempff and consciously compared his hands to mine:

I saw that his hands moved in the same direction. I started looking at pianist’s hands everywhere! A video of Michelangeli playing the 4th movement of the 2nd Chopin Sonata (Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35)  confirmed that hands in normal cases were mirroring each other and not going on different paths:

I started also looking at the hands of the other participants at the festival. And I could not find any pianist whose hands were heading in different directions. Everyone’s hands were moving synchronic. Mine were different. This was separating me from the rest.

I told my observations to the piano professor in the festival and expressed my concern that there might be something wrong. The reply was that I should not worry about it and just enjoy the sound. The same week I played for another teacher at the same festival and she too told me that I should not be concerned. Some great musicians make some weird movements. She gave the example of a famous violinist who held his bow quite awkwardly.

At this point I was quite skeptical towards this advice, but I was also clueless about what was really going on.

The Diagnosis

Back in Austria I had to play a recital at the festival in Gmunden. I played the whole concert with a feeling of losing control. In the intermission, I told a friend that I think that something is wrong but that I have no idea what it was. The next day he visited me in my home and I played for him. He too came to the conclusion that I have to change and this was indeed a problem.

I investigated the problem further and implemented a simple exercise comparing the right and left hand:

As I found out, I was unable to play the little exercise clearly with my left hand. I sent the video to a piano professor. He replied to me that it is normal that left and right are not equal. But was it normal that the left hand was failing basic patterns? If this was normal then Chopin would never have written a piece like the Etude Op.10 No. 12 because no one could execute it clearly if such weakness in my left hand was the normal case.

I came to the conclusion that I had to look further. One evening I was thinking about the pianist Leon Fleisher. Why could he not use his right hand for around the half of his life? As I googled his name I found out that he has focal dystonia in his right hand. And that this was a neurological condition. As I watched one of his videos, I was able to draw a parallel to my own problems:

As one can clearly see, his ring and pinkie finger were constantly curling.

I then started to read about focal dystonia. And the more I read about it the more it was clear that this was my real problem. It was a neurological issue which was often treated with botox injections and was practically unhealable. But also, that musicians could manage the condition well and came back into playing, as Michael Houstoun had done, who recently recorded Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas to great critical acclaim.[iv]

I told a piano professor in Austria about my findings and that I want to consult a neurologist. He was quite amused about it and asked me what a neurologist has to do with piano playing and scales.

Nevertheless, I went to see a neurologist who made a careful investigation. At the end, he confirmed my assumption. To really make sure that this was dystonia and no other issue I had to have a brain scan. If this was normal we can exclude all other sorts of neurological issues and focal dystonia would be confirmed.

As we assumed, my MRI was completely normal. After this process, I had a completely sure diagnosis. It was recommended that I get in touch with Dr. Altenmüller[v] who is a great scholar on this issue.

I sent Dr. Altenmüller a video and he saw the problem too and recommended to start a retraining with Laurent Boullet[vi] in Berlin.

Unfortunately, I had to leave Europe and go back to USA where I was a third year DMA candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (USA), about to play all my doctoral recitals.

Complete Breakdown

Back in Ann Arbor I told my teacher that I was officially diagnosed with focal dystonia. “Focal what?” was his reply. I told him that it was a movement disorder where people had lost their control over their hands. At the end of our conversation he told me that there are people with real serious hand problems and that this was nothing to worry about it. I should just play through it.

This plan did not work out well and after a few weeks I was in real trouble. I started having problems playing scales:

When playing with my ring and pinkie finger, the middle finger would involuntarily move to the ring finger:

The same would happen also when playing slower:

I could not feel the space between the keys anymore. As I tried out to play the last page of the first Brahms concerto (Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15), I only played wrong notes. It was impossible to play it at all:

After these recordings, I went home and I realized that I had problems opening my hand at all. I couldn’t even tie my shoes. I could not open my hand enough to hold a glass with my left hand. Focal dystonia was now causing problems in my every-day life.

Road to recovery

I had to take a break for the next few weeks. I could barely open my hand. After some time, the cramping got less and less. So, I could start to practice again. But after this experience I knew I had to begin solving it. The normal lesson was of no help and I wrote to Laurent Boullet who was offering retraining in Berlin. We made an appointment on Skype the next days. After playing for him via Skype I began to understand what was going on. My index and middle finger were compensating for the instability of my ring finger. As soon as I started to stabilize the edge of my hand the curling and stretching of my middle and index finger became less.

I also had to change the position of my wrist. Ideally the wrist should be positioned slightly under the metacarpophalangeal joint, also known as the large knuckle. When playing I consciously rested the ring finger as much as I could on the keyboard. I made sure if kept contact as much as I could with the surface of the keyboard.

A good example of the ideas which I applied to retrain is the C–minor Sonata  (Sonata in C minor, Hob. 20) by Haydn. The triplets F-Ab-Bb were unrhythmical as the second finger was hyper extending. I was playing them with the fingering 3-2-1. As I silently held down an additional key with the fourth finger the hyper extension decreased. My aim was to accomplish this without depressing the additional key. I used a combination of rotation and lateral movement towards the thumb to make the execution of the triplets effortless. I practiced this passage diligently, sometimes up to four hours a day. After 9 months, I realized that I had achieved the precision I was seeking in this passage.

I did something very similar with the passage in Beethoven’s Sonata in D minor (‘Tempest’) Op.31 No. 2. I kept the ring finger depressed while I was playing with the others. I also added some rotation on E and C#.

I made exercises to consciously use my fingers just as weight transferers. Weight cuffs (0.5kg) were worn around the wrist to help highlight the sensation in the MCP joints for providing support for the hand.

I also played with the middle and ring finger only while I stayed relaxed with the other fingers.

In scale passages, learning how to cross the fingers over the thumb while maintaining stability and flexibility in the thumb:

Over time things have changed. In 2012, I played Mozart’s Sonata KV331:

As one can see: the index finger was hyper extending already in the theme. In 2016 this had significantly changed:

It comes out clearly when comparing the third movement in both recordings. Listening to the two recordings, it is clear that the sound in the later recording has more projection and that it is more fluid. The tone has got a much more cantabile quality and the sound was generally fuller.

The way into Dystonia

As I was diagnosed with dystonia I was thinking that it was probably going on for much longer than I was aware of. Some issues in my biography started making much more sense.

As a child, I was an incredibly fast learner. After six months of learning piano I played already Wilder Reiter from Schumann’s Album from the Young Op. 68:

It was recommended that I enter the local conservatory in Linz. There I proceeded very fast again. I soon played Mozart’s Sonata in C major KV545 and Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor (‘Pathétique’) Op.13. I was practicing a lot. I was experiencing troubles with the scales in the left hand in the recapitulation of Mozart’s Sonata KV545. I solved the problem with a lot of practice. After practicing them around four hours long (voluntarily!) I could play them perfectly. Youth success continued. I won the national youth competition and a prize in Ettlingen in the international competition for young pianists. I was the youngest recipient of the Yamaha scholarship. I gave my first full recital at aged 12 and played my first Mozart concerto with the Bruckner Orchestra, aged 13. I became the youngest graduate in the history of the conservatory at the age of 15 (a record not broken till today!).

A recording of me playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is revealing some differences between the two hands.

The wrist is high and the bridge is practically not there. Even in the picture “Il vecchio castello” one can see a hand with unnatural movements – a cramped hand (from minute 7.00 onwards, for example):

In summer holidays, I often practiced up to 10 hours every day. The amount of repertoire was growing fast. Soon the index finger started to hyper extend which became one of the typical movements of my dystonia (Minute 1:10):

After graduation in Linz I went on to study in Salzburg. I was experiencing a strange feeling of playing against a wall. The teaching took place quite irregularly and I had to follow my teacher to masterclasses to have a chance to play for him. Time space between lessons was sometimes several months. When I go through the scores I now see passages in the left hand were often circled. But hardly anywhere in the right hand. The first time I gave up working on a piece happened because it was exhausting to use the left hand in the Etude Op.10 No. 12 by Chopin. In Schumann’s Kreisleriana Op. 16, my teacher asked me why I was not able to play the left hand solo passage regularly. It was recommended I practice it and play it slowly.

A quite interesting habit was the inclusion of warm up exercises. One of them was playing chromatically from C to E and back. Then from C# to F etc. While this exercise was not difficult for my right hand, my left hand often needed repetitions to play it accurately.

Later I moved to Vienna. My playing was obviously deteriorating. At the time of my master’s recital, my teacher was telling me that I should be happy when I pass at all. I was practicing English Suite No. 3 BWV 808 by J S Bach and I saw some interesting movements from fingers in my left hand. I thought of them as quite funny, even though the left hand just did what it has to do. And if there would be a problem with it, it would have been a theme in a lesson. I still had no idea that something like focal dystonia even existed. I did not connect my finger movements to any problems which occurred during this time. I had difficulty playing the first solo, a sixteenth note scale run in both hands, in the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 Op. 73, and also when playing the octaves at the end of the exposition of the Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16.

After graduation in Vienna I felt untalented and gave up playing. I studied political science in Salzburg and did not touch the piano for the next four years.

Coming back to play and finally being diagnosed

After four years of not playing at all I was curious to see what was possible. So, I started to play again. And I did nothing less than the Goldberg Variations BWV 998 by J S Bach. I learnt them again very quickly and played them in a recital. At first, piano playing felt easier. But soon I practiced left hand runs much more often again. One Sunday I practiced the 26th variation nearly the whole day, especially the left-hand passages. At the end of the session the passages nearly worked. The whole work was good enough to impress audiences and teachers. I was invited to perform at a piano conference in Serbia and had a great success with it.

I was then invited to study at the YST (Yong Siew Toh) conservatory in Singapore. In one lesson, the teacher there said that he has never seen anyone’s finger moving like this.

In 2008, I was invited to participate in an international piano competition and made it to the semifinal. After the competition, a judge came to me and told me that he expected me to get to the final. But he said that my coordination of the right and hand in the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata in C minor Op.111 was unclear. My left hand was playing in an unsteady manner and was sometimes lacking clear articulation. He seemed to be quite confused about it because it did not fit in to the impression I gave in the first round. I personally came to the conclusion that I probably was lacking in competition experience since this was my first competition for 12 years.

After that I auditioned for DMA in Ann Arbor and was taken into the programme. I was encouraged to play with more energy and to take more risks. I should play with more passion. Many of these elements I simply did with a strong will and much force. The diagnosis of dystonia came finally in 2012.


Focal Dystonia is still quite new to teachers and students. The condition as such was only recognized in the mid 1980s. My personal view is that we still have not much awareness of it. Therefore It is critical that musicians and teachers keep focal dystonia on the radar. Fortunately, the vast majority will not get focal dystonia, but people should know the signs so they can avoid the common pattern of misreading early symptoms, practicing harder, and thus cementing faulty brain connections.” [vii]

The symptoms I was developing were not perceived as dangerous for a long time. It was a time frame of around 18 years till the right diagnosis came. The seriousness of the problem was often denied or underestimated. Even as I was diagnosed with it, it was not perceived as a problem by my teacher. Managing to come clean about it took over 5 years. Comparing this fugue will show just how much has changed:

I want to offer some thoughts about how I originally got dystonia and how I think we can minimize the risk for future students:

  1. The prevention of focal dystonia starts already at the beginning. It is crucial to learn to move efficiently. “Unless the body maintains movement patterns that are biomechanically sound, the musician is at risk of injury.”[viii]
  2. In situations when we focus on the music only and on learning very fast, we might mistakenly open the door to focal dystonia. As I was starting my lessons I was going for the music and did everything which was necessary to achieve what I wanted. “When preparing for an important performance a musician will often practice without physical awareness because of focus on the music itself. Then it is easy for physical distortions to occur in order to produce a desired musical result and for these to become ingrained as a way of playing that is less than biomechanically ideal.”[ix]
  3. In my own experiences, I was encouraged to achieve a lot in the shortest amount of time. Teachers and audiences were surprised how fast I was growing. My first teacher’s idea was: the earlier, the harder, the better. As I was studying the Mozart Sonata KV545 the excessive practice of the scales and the permanent repetition led to success. In the long-term this might have taught me incorrectly. “…, incessant repetition of certain problematic passages, especially when the way of playing causes tension, can put musicians at risk. Highly motivated practisers tend not to vary the material in their practice sessions, meaning that there is too much repetition of the same physical movement.”[x]
  4. Another  point for me is that taking breaks is important. My habit of working through long sessions without breaks and repeating the same over and over was a factor which might have contributed to focal dystonia. Consciously relaxing and evaluating what was achieved will be of great help.
  5. I think another factor is the aim of perfection. Studio recordings nowadays are cut together and show often an unrealistic picture of artists. I think listening to older and uncut recordings can lead to more realistic aims for one’s own performances.
  6. Taking time to learn the fundamentals. The piano might be a quite injury provoking instrument as it is possible to produce a sound with simply depressing a key. Therefore, there is a big temptation to simply move on to the next, more difficult piece, pushing ahead.
  7. Developing both hands equally. Not every Sonata for example is challenging the right and left hand equally. Therefore, it is crucial to play etudes and other pieces which are aiming to develop both hands.
  8. Having a flexible hand position. The wrist should be constantly adjusted in order to avoid fixed hand positions.
  9. It is important for the developing artist to get regular mentoring. Having an irregular teaching schedule with lots of space between lessons makes it possible for bad practice habits settle in or to fall back into them.
  10. It is crucial that teachers and their students are aware of the lurking danger of dystonia and take issues of coordination seriously. Over time, tiny little problems can become big. There should be an atmosphere where the student can admit problems with a passage. Sometimes teachers might consider watching their students just from the right or left side and compare the finger movements of the two hands. If one hand is moving in a different direction than the other, chances are high that there is a problem developing.
  11. Students can record themselves with smartphones from the side and watch how their hands are moving. Especially virtuosic pieces with scale runs. The reason is that while playing, our eyes will be often ahead and barely get a full picture at all:

12. Rethinking our heritage: In teaching we rely on traditions. But old schools did not think about biomechanics at all. So called finger independence exercises might cause a lot of trouble because they cannot be done without tensions in the forearm.

13. Tailoring the teaching to the needs of a student. One day Richter came to Neuhaus and played the Liszt B minor sonata, S.178. There was not much to teach as Neuhaus wrote. They discussed the interpretation of some passages and the lesson was done. After that another student came in playing the same piece. Neuhaus wrote that he had to work on every bar with her.[xi] This is a great example how a teacher can adjust to the needs of a student. In my experiences, a lot of teachers just give everyone the same approach.

14. It is not about playing without tension but with the right amount of tension. We have to be aware that we release the built-up tension as often as possible.

I am convinced that we can at least minimize the risk of dystonia. It is crucial that it is recognized early as such and pedagogical intervention takes place. Although genetics play a role in the development of dystonia I am convinced that in a lot of cases focal dystonia is the result of an unfavorable use of the body. It might be of more importance how we achieve results and not just that we achieve them.

Over time I got in contact with quite a lot of dystonic musicians. I was astounded to learn just how many people knew someone who was suffering from it. Some of the pianists had won great prizes at competitions like the Cliburn, Busoni or Hilton Head. Very often it was a highly talented individual who went somehow down the wrong road. I was surprised how often I was confronted with it since having been diagnosed.

Focal Dystonia is a highly complex issue. Retraining is a complicated affair and very individual. In every case one has to find the fitting exercises. There is no way to apply the same exercises for every case. Recovering from it is possible but very time-consuming.

I hope that this essay will at least raise the awareness of this kind of problem. During my journey, I have encountered a lot of teachers who have never heard of it. I am hoping to improve this, and speak out, informing as many pianists as possible, so they may be able to avoid such issues.

You can explore Andreas’ YouTube Channel, here.

[i] http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-cso-oboe-alex-klein-denied-tenure-20170524-column.html

[ii] Altenmüller, Eckhart. Robert Schumann’s focal Dystonia https://www.karger.com/Article/Pdf/85633

[iii] https://www.datasci.com/solutions/neuroscience/movement-disorders

[iv] http://www.michaelhoustoun.co.nz/

[v] https://www.immm.hmtm-hannover.de/en/institute/people/eckart-altenmueller/

[vi] https://www.pianophysiology.com/

[vii] White, Joanna. “Musician’s Focal Dystonia: Strategies, Resources, and Hope.” Flutist Quarterly, p.33, (Winter 2017).

[viii] Wilson in de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.1, 2015.

[ix] Tubiana in de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.5, 2015.

[x] de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.13, 2015.

[xi] Neuhaus, Heinrich. Die Kunst des Klavierspiels, p.149 (1967)

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 Manchester Music Festival Young Artists Programme 2018

One aspect of blogging that I particularly enjoy is the opportunity to highlight a variety of projects, festivals and young artist programmes. The Manchester Music Festival (MMF) Young Artists Programme is one such project. Now in its second year with  American Artistic Director Adam Neiman at the helm, it offers a wonderful chance for students to immerse themselves in a whole programme of music making. Occurring annually every summer in scenic Manchester, Vermont (USA), the 2018 Young Artists Programme will take place from July 9th to August 11th 2018.

The programme is a full scholarship for those selected to attend; a five-week intensive chamber music festival for string players and pianists, aged between 18 and 26. Young artists receive daily coaching sessions by a faculty composed of world-renowned artists and pedagogues. The primary focus of the programme is to intensively study and perform chamber music at a high level, and to benefit from the outstanding musical guidance offered daily by the illustrious artist faculty.

During the course, students can expect to study several chamber works, with ensemble sizes ranging from duos to octets encompassing repertoire spanning the centuries, from Baroque to Contemporary. Groups will be selected to perform in the weekly MMF Young Artists concert series. On August 11, 2018, the young artists will participate in an orchestral concert, performing symphonic works by Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius.

Those on the programme will also have the opportunity to perform in weekly public masterclasses and take private lessons with the faculty members. In addition, they will benefit from forum discussions addressing principles of entrepreneurship and career development designed to assist them in forging successful paths as professional musicians. Each MMF Young Artist receives a scholarship providing full tuition, free accommodations, and a modest weekly stipend.

The deadline is February 18th 2018.

You can find out much more, here and apply for the programme, 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.


5 Top Tips for Piano Playing Progress in 2018


I hope 2018 is a peaceful, healthy and happy year for everyone, and I really value and  appreciate your continued support and readership.

A new year provides the ideal opportunity to work on personal development, whether that be on a spiritual, emotional or physical level. I’ll be paying more attention to some of these issues with a new yoga routine (I’m sincerely hoping to be sufficiently disciplined and motivated to stick with this programme!),  and spiritual development classes  (which I’ve already  been attending, albeit not on a regular basis).

Discipline and motivation are also prerequisites for significantly improving piano playing, and the new year is the perfect time to reassess progress. I write a ‘5 tips’ style article for Pianist magazine’s bi-monthly newsletter (you can subscribe here) and this format has proved to be a popular one, so I thought I’d adopt it for this post. The following tips are to inspire and invigorate practice routines – I hope they will precipitate enjoyable, fruitful practice.

  1. A new year equals new repertoire. It might be the prime time to explore alternative piano pieces. This could work whether you are studying for graded exams and diplomas, preparing for competitions, or simply working towards achieving smoother, more fluent playing. Begin by listening to what, on first site, may appear to be the least attractive works on various exam lists (you might never consider such options, but they could become favourites if given a chance), and then branch out further, consulting lesser known composer’s catalogues. One of my professors loved to play Victorian music (especially works by female composers), introducing a wide range of composers who otherwise I may never have become aware. Contemporary piano music continually offers interesting options too, and can really afford something different for those who fear they are stuck in a practice rut.
  2. Setting goals is another profitable new year resolution. Not everyone likes being ‘goal orientated’ but when working with my students, I find they all respond favorably when pursuing a tangible objective. Over the past year each student has had a particular objective; from playing more frequently in music festivals and concerts, to learning a suitably complicated diploma programme from memory, or even taking part in a piano course for the first time. Rapid improvement has always followed. What are your piano objectives for 2018?
  3. For those who have a tendency to skip a piano warm-up, maybe now is the time to implement this beneficial start to your sessions. Warm-ups take a few minutes, but can make the world of difference to your focus, concentration and finger power. You can read my warm-up suggestions here. Further to these ideas, if you prefer not to play exercises or scales, experiment with a few simple chords or cadences (chord progressions) very slowly with a full sound, paying attention to each finger and finger joint, ensuring they are working optimally, with the finger tips (or pads) connecting fully to each key, ready for practice. Careful practice, i.e. watching every hand and finger movement can prove exhausting, needing absolute mental absorption. This may be a new way of working for you, but it is sure to keep your attention and renew interest in the fundamental  physicality of movement needed for successful piano playing.
  4. If you have never had a desire to sit down and play a piece from memory, maybe now is the time to explore this option. Playing from memory is not necessary for most piano exams and diplomas, but it is a requirement for those thinking about auditioning for a place at a music college or working towards taking part in a piano competition. Start small; take a  short piece (just one or two pages in length) and work at memorising each hand separately, without the score. When you can play both hands through confidently (without the score), practice hands together. Learning memorisation skills will help to direct your attention to the music and to the sound you are producing, therefore sharpening your listening skills and polishing your interpretative powers too.  For more memorisation tips, click here.
  5. It might be time to seek out new pedalling solutions. The use of the Sustaining pedal (right pedal) and Una corda (left pedal) are de rigueur for pianists from elementary level right through to advanced. But how many explore the Sostenuto pedal? The middle pedal (on a grand piano) is fun to introduce. I’ve been working on implementing this pedal technique with two of my advanced pupils, working on Bartók and Takemitsu (but it can be a beneficial addition when playing french repertoire like Debussy and Ravel as well). More on this final point soon!

With some thought, you can easily add variety and new musical ideas to your practice sessions. May your year be full of piano playing progress, fun and exploration.

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 Stephen Hough

I recently discovered this interesting selection of videos (which appear on YouTube) highlighting masterclasses given by eminent British pianist Stephen Hough. They were recorded in last year (2016) at the Aspen Music Festival and School in the USA.

Featuring a wide range of standard repertoire (Including Reflect dans l’eau by Debussy (Images Book 1), the third and fourth movement of Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35 by Chopin, and first movement of Sonata in A flat major Op. 110 by Beethoven), they are performed by students at the school. As so often found when observing public classes, there is much to learn and absorb from each one. I hope you enjoy them.

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.


Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 5

Continuing with my series surveying piano exam repertoire, today’s post examines Trinity College London Grade 5. A collection of diverse and well-chosen pieces, List A comprises composers such as Richard Jones, Anton Diabelli, Moritz Vogel and Dmitri Kabalevsky!

The exercises, of which each candidate must prepare three (played alongside scales and arpeggios), can help with various technical issues within the pieces, so with this in mind, it’s prudent to select (if possible) those with similar technical and musical elements. Here’s my suggested programme, which provides a smorgasbord of mediterranean flavoured delicacies, plus five tips for those working at the pieces.

  1. Capriccio in G by Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757)

A lively, exacting work which will keep pianists on their toes. In G major (it may be helpful to refresh the scale and arpeggio at this time), Italian composer Scarlatti’s huge keyboard output (over 550 sonatas) were intended to be played on the harpsichord, and therefore demanding precise articulation. This type of precision can be a useful exercise, as mastering finger control and hand position changes helps prepare for more advanced repertoire.

  1. Chords appear at various points (Bars 1 – 2, 31 – 32, & 59 – 60). They will require some extra arm weight and sound in order to project (especially at the beginning and end of the work). There’s often much homophonic (chordal) movement in Scarlatti’s keyboard music; it might be beneficial to begin by working on these chords, balancing the hand, so the notes sound altogether (despite usually being spread or arpeggiated on the harpsichord!). Chords can provide ‘anchors’ at various points, not just proffering a richer texture, but adding shape and fostering a steady pulse.
  2. Ornaments (embellishments or added notes) are prevalent throughout this work, and for many can cause grief. when working separate hands, aim to choose fingering which accommodates the ornament (if marked), but which you can play without adding it. Then work at the entire piece (practising hands separately and together) without the embellishments (this will help awareness of the musical and dynamic shape). Add them into the piece only when you can play it sufficiently well i.e. without many hesitations or inaccuracies. If added earlier, ornaments tend to destabilise the pulse, and can cause a host of rhythmical issues. Therefore, sort this out beforehand by not playing them until confident.
  3. Ornaments occur in the right hand, and are generally mordents (a particular ornament or trill) of some kind. In the example to the left; the first mordent is sometimes known as an ‘upper’ mordent and the second (with the line through it), a ‘lower’ mordent. Underneath illustrates how they might be played. In the Trinity exam book, it’s been suggested that they might be played as triplets (three semiquavers per mordent), which works well. Try to isolate each embellishment, working thoroughly with your chosen fingers, playing heavily and deeply into the key bed. Then when you lighten your touch and play faster, they should sound and feel even.
  4. Each semiquaver pattern (group of four to every crotchet) must be even rhythmically, with plenty of clear, crisp articulation. To practice, aim to play every note with a deep touch (as already suggested for the ornaments), and ensure fingers leave notes accurately (i.e. not holding on or over lapping with the next note). Equally important is to place notes exactly. Either use a metronome, set on a semiquaver beat (when practising slowly), or count every single semiquaver aloud as you play. This should help alleviate any rushing or lingering!
  5. Good coordination is vital. There’s nothing as helpful as playing a quarter of the speed, hands together, working two (or one) bars at a time. Careful work at bars 15 – 18 (and all similar), where the left hand has rapid passage work, will be necessary. Don’t ignore staccato markings and short slurs – they contribute shape and energy.

2. Dedicatoria (from Cuentos de la juventud, Op. 1) by Enrique Granados (1867 – 1916)

A tranquil, reflective work which contrasts nicely with the Scarlatti, written by Spanish composer Enrique Granados. It hails from the set entitled Stories for the Young, and the first piece of the group is Dedicatoria.  Granados’ piano music is often complex, so it’s refreshing to hear a relatively simplistic piece which still captures his distinctive style and harmonic language.

  1. A cantabile approach will work well in the right hand, where all the melodic material is placed. There are three layers of sound here; the left hand accompaniment, the right hand ‘inner’ part and the melody, which forms the top line. I would begin by playing the top line alone, taking care to use the fingering you intend to use whan combining the two right hand parts together. Focus on producing a rich, warm sound, joining as many notes together as possible in a legato fashion (and if this isn’t possible, aim to create the illusion of legato, by holding down the note until the very last moment, matching the sound of the dying note with that of the next one.
  2. The ‘inner’ part or line can also be practised alone; try to play with a full sound until notes and fingerings are secure, and then lighten your touch keeping a firm triplet beat. Counting in three equal quaver beats per crotchet throughout can help, remembering to leave a quaver rest at the beginning of the beat (for the tune). If you practice using a firm pulse to begin with, it will feel easier to relax it when eventually adding rubato.
  3. When combining the two parts (melody and ‘inner’ parts in the right hand), aim to weight the hand towards the weaker fingers (i.e. the fourth and fifth fingers). The melody will need the support from the hand, wrist and arm, because a deeper sound is required. Experiment by moving the hand and wrist fractionally, away from the body. The middle or inner parts should ideally be much lighter, as they play an accompaniment role. The larger leaps at bars 9 & 11 might need fast-slow practice (moving much quicker than needed at first, then slowing the leap down, so it feels comfortable). Place the semiquaver (bar 10 & 12, right hand), slightly after the last triplet quaver of the inner part.
  4. The left hand must be soft, light and supportive. Smooth legato will work best, and try to keep fingers depressed until the very last possible moment, particularly when playing the minims in bars 10, 11, 12 and all similar.
  5. The sustaining pedal will add an expressive warmth and resonance if used, as directed, on virtually every crotchet beat. Observe tempo changes and strive for a really soft, distant ending.

3. Spanish Dancer (from Les Miroirs de Miró) by Edwin Roxburgh (1937 – )

Continuing with the Spanish theme, this energetic work might transport the listener to Seville for an evening of Flamenco dancing, complete with guitar effects! But for me, it represents a more serious, contemplative Spanish character.  Written by British composer Edwin Roxburgh, it requires a sure sense of pulse, which calls for a solid rhythmical grip.

  1. The triplet rhythm will probably need some attention; start by clapping the rhythm, taking the issue away from the keyboard. Place the semiquaver triplets carefully, whilst counting in quavers throughout. To play the triplets (which are in the right hand at the opening), practice the figuration (an E & B played together followed by an F) as a chord first of all, then loosen the wrist  and move (the hand and wrist) quickly from right to left (and back again), supporting the fifth finger on the E (and second finger, which will probably be used to play the B in the opening bars). Place more emphasis on the E & B and play the thumb, slightly lighter.
  2. The triplet figuration moves into the left hand from bar 3, as part of the accompaniment; in order to fully sound all three notes, without missing any out or producing a ‘jerky’ unrhythmical accompaniment, as always, play the whole accompaniment powerfully, into the key bed, then when the patterns are lightened, the triplets will hopefully sound even. Aim to play them softer than the melody.
  3. The simple but vibrant tune consists of short phrases (which are interrupted at various points with the introductory two bars, or a variation on them). Generally, the phrase develops as it progresses, making a fuller sound necessary towards the end. For example, at bar 10 – 13, which become increasingly dramatic, climaxing at the quasi cadenza (which is ad. lib, or played with a certain amount of freedom). This also happens at bars 19 – 23, perhaps reminiscent of a Spanish guitarist.
  4. In keeping with the Spanish feel, accents, pauses, staccato & tenuto markings abound and their inclusion in any performance will determine its success. With this in mind, it might be prudent to add such details in towards the beginning of the learning process, so they become a natural part of the piece, as opposed to an afterthought.
  5. The sustaining pedal should ideally be out in force here, and is a much-needed addition, amplifying the sound. But caution is required! Too much of a good thing will obscure finger work and more importantly, harmonies, and this is particularly true of the third beat of the bar (at bars 1 – 2 and the like), where the pedalling has been carefully omitted.

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.