Teaching Improvisation to Groups Part 2 by Christopher Norton

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This suggests different tunes. For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…

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


My publications:

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

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


 

Play it again workshop at Millers Music

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

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

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

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


My publications:

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

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


 

No Words Necessary: 12 Piano Pieces

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

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

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

‘Where words leave off, music speaks’

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

The titles are as follows:

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

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













My publications:

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

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


 

 

 

Structured Piano Practice for Beginners: 10 Tips

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

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

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

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


My publications:

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

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


 

Piano teaching in Asia 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Surabaya, Indonesia, with piano teachers at my workshop

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

Working with a student at a master class in Hong Kong

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

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


My publications:

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

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


 

Fingering: Part 1

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


Fruitful Fingering Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on the link below to read the original article:

Fruitful Fingering Part 1


My publications:

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

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


 

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

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


 

5 Tips 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, 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.


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

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


 

5 tips to 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.


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

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


     

PIANO 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).

www.pianoweek.com


My publications:

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

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