Playing to Your Strengths

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


My Publications:

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

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


 

Advertisements

Are you all Fingers and Thumbs?

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s e-newsletter (you can read it here) focuses on the thumb. As always, my intention is to draw attention to an area of piano playing which may benefit from concentrated practice. I notice in my own teaching that students perpetually work to achieve and maintain finger strength, but then leave the poor old thumb to its own devices. Here are five practice suggestions.


Thumbs. They might just be appendages stuck on the side of our hands, but for any pianist, they are important additions to our armoury of articulation. If used optimally, the thumb can enable easy turning (both under and over the hand) for smooth passagework, and can take the lead during chords and octave passagework, creating assured playing. Here are a few practice ideas to strengthen our thumbs.

  1. Start with a thumb exercise away from the keyboard; I like to use a circular motion exercise. Observe the three thumb joints; the first at the bottom of the thumb, next to the wrist, the second, at the thumb base, and the third, in the middle of the thumb. By moving the whole thumb in an upward (almost above the hand) then downward motion, so that the movement finishes with the thumb under the hand, whilst keeping the arm relaxed but still, you can start to loosen the fleshy areas, so that they feel pliable and soft. Aim to keep the movement flexible and free of any tension.
  2. Observe your thumb position on the keys. The thumb is naturally lower than the other fingers, and it should ideally make contact with the keys on the tip of the thumb nail; at the left tip for the right hand, and right tip, for the left hand. The nail just touching the keys. Try to avoid the whole side of the thumb flopping down on the keys, as this position makes thumb control challenging.
  3. To practice thumb positions and get the thumb moving, play a one octave C major scale ascending with the following fingering: 12121212 (right hand), 21212121 (left hand), you can then switch fingers starting with 21 in the right hand, and 12 in the left. Practising with 13131313 (right hand) can be helpful too. Ensure a flexible thumb movement every time the thumb moves over or under the hand.
  4. Now try a one octave chromatic scale using the same fingering; when you move to the black notes, try to ‘place’ the thumb tip with care as these notes are narrower therefore demanding greater accuracy. Thumbs will also need to employ a larger movement in order to negotiate these notes.
  5. Finally, practise intervals i.e. a C and E in the right hand using the third finger on the C and thumb on the E, and in the left hand, the thumb playing the C and third finger, the E. This seemingly unnatural position (practising the turning motion) will require a tension free hand so ensure the ‘fleshy’ part of your hand is relaxed as opposed to taut and ‘locked up’. When playing these intervals, sound them together as chords, and keep both notes in place whilst relaxing your hand; this is a useful preparation exercise for arpeggios. When comfortable, move on to larger intervals such as a C (played with a third finger) and an F (thumb) in the right hand.

You can sign up for Pianist’s e-newsletter, 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.


 

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.

Conclusions

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.


 

Top Tips for those returning to piano playing!

Renowned music publisher Schott Music have, this week, presented three writers in an article containing their top tips for all those returning to the piano after a break.

Published in conjunction with Pianist Magazine, I am delighted to be featured alongside Christopher Norton (composer of the well-known and much-loved Microjazz series and Micro Musicals, amongst many other publications), and Tim Richards (jazz pianist, writer and composer, and author of Exploring Jazz Piano and Improvising Blues Piano, as well as a long list of other books and compositions).

Our favourite tips and recommendations appear alongside videos and other information all designed to help students get back into piano playing and hopefully reconnect with this satisfying pastime. You can read the article here.

And you can explore my new two-book piano course intended for those returning to playing after a break, Play it again: PIANO (Books 1 & 2 are now both available), 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.

 



 

Chicken Wings

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


Chicken Wings

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

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

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

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

Read Amy’s Blog here.


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 to Aid Memorisation

Pianist Magazine produces a newsletter which wings its way into a reader’s e mail box every other month (sign up for your copy here). It’s brimming with piano news and information, as well as a few piano articles. I write a regular ‘Piano Tips’ feature, and today’s post presents the most recent, which focuses on memorisation. I’ve written about this topic endlessly (and I even give presentations on it), but hopefully, you may find the following suggestions of interest (here’s the original article).


Memorisation is a hotly debated topic in piano playing. Irrespective of whether a piano piece is to played from memory or not, the act of memorising is incredibly useful. It can help with so many facets when learning repertoire; from understanding form and structure, to fully internalizing your chosen work (both physically and mentally), and therefore ultimately presenting a more unified, considered and engaging performance.

Here are a few ideas to aid memorisation:

  1. Take the score (and a pencil) away from the piano and thoroughly study its structure, marking up important ‘landmarks’ such as its form (fugue, sonata form, ternary form, etc.), key changes, texture, chord progressions, and the like.
  2. When you begin studying a work, memorise from the outset. Resist the temptation to ‘learn the notes’, returning to memorise later. If you can do this from the very beginning, bar by bar (or phrase by phrase), learning everything from the physical ‘feel’ of note patterns, fingerings and movement, to the required sound and musical details, you’ll find it easier to remember in the long run. This is because you’re already taking the music off the page and allowing it to permeate your mind.
  3. Work without the score as soon as possible (that’s not to say you won’t return to examine it often). memorize each hand separately. This can be most beneficial, particularly regarding the left hand, which has a habit of ‘disappearing’ under the pressure of performance. Be aware of fingerings and note patterns especially, finding sign posts to jog your memory.
  4. Ensure you have sectionalised your new piece, so that you can practise from various ‘points’. You may want to divide the work into as many as ten sections (or more). Practise playing from the start of each section until it becomes second nature (totally engaging your mind and focus when doing this). If you have a slip when playing through or during performance, you can easily recover by moving quickly to the next ‘section’.
  5. Hear the piece in your head (away from the instrument) or visualise yourself sitting playing it at the keyboard. These are both useful techniques once the piece is under your fingers (and in your mind!). I find them extremely valuable tools. Sit quietly and mentally ‘play it through’ (concentrate completely so as not to miss any detail). Once you can ‘hear’ a piece from beginning to end with ease, you’re on your way to mastering (or conquering!) your memory.

For even more information on this topic, click here and 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.


.

Image link

A Weekend at Jackdaws Music Education Trust

jackdawsI had the pleasure of tutoring a second piano course at Jackdaws Music Education Trust over the weekend. Jackdaws is dedicated to improving participation in and enjoyment of music through residential and one day instrumental and vocal courses, various education projects, a Young Artists Programme, as well as performances by world-class musicians.

Piano courses, whether weekend courses or Summer schools, are proving increasingly popular with pianists of all levels and abilities (from beginners through to professionals). Jackdaws was recently voted second place in a UK Piano Course Ranking. According to the survey, those who attended such courses gave the following reasons as most important;  ‘the opportunity to work with leading teachers’ (something Jackdaws offers at every weekend course)  and the chance to gain ‘useful, critical feedback’.

Jackdaws is situated in the village of Great Elm, just outside Frome, in Somerset (UK). A picturesque venue and setting (see photo above), wonderful food (all home cooked by our chef Loo) and an excellent Steinway, make for a thoroughly enjoyable and, hopefully, informative few days.

My course focused on piano technique, sight-reading and memorisation, which are aspects sometimes forgotten or side-stepped during piano lessons, however, there was also ample time for each participant to work on repertoire too. In all, the weekend courses (which begin on Friday evenings at 6.30pm and finish at 4pm on Sunday afternoons), consist of around 12 hours of tuition, as well as a little time on Saturday afternoon to explore the surrounding area. It’s certainly a musically action packed weekend!

Course participants ranged from teenagers to the more mature, and from elementary level through to advanced; it was interesting to observe how this variety didn’t affect or impede enjoyment; the elementary students seemed to respond well to hearing advanced students perform and vice versa. By working at particular facets of piano playing, it’s possible to involve all standards and abilities, and offer a few ideas for improvement at every level.There were fewer pianists on my course this year, but those who came said they savoured the opportunity for longer one-to-one teaching sessions.

A weekend course doesn’t necessarily aim to overhaul piano playing overnight, but it can offer the possibility of change, and a realisation that certain elements can be tackled in a different way. Performance practice (i.e. the act of playing through a piece from beginning to end in front of a small audience) can be a triumph for some, and courses are useful for this aspect alone.

One of the participants on my course last year realised she needed another approach, and has since come for regular lessons; we have worked hard to alter and improve her playing, and she has just taken an ATCL diploma and is now preparing for music college and university auditions.

The prospect of meeting new and like-minded friends makes this a perfect way to spend a weekend. There are a plethora of piano courses taking place at Jackdaws throughout the year featuring a cohort of leading piano pedagogues (you can find out much more here), so you’ll no doubt find one to suit you.

www.jackdaws.org.uk

Image link


 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.


Meet the Judges Live Stream Interview

14064206_10154295173330516_9004869624879616375_nAs you may have gathered, I’m in Chicago all week adjudicating at the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition. Judging starts today, but this competition offers an impressive events roster (a fairly unique concept amongst competitions), which runs in tandem, therefore proceedings actually started last night.

Fifty-five talented pianists will play a short programme over the next two days with finals taking place on Friday (for the two-round competition) and Saturday morning (for the three-round competition). However, events kicked off last night with a ‘Meet the judges’ interview which was live streamed on Youtube. Russian/American pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski, American pianist and composer, Adam Neiman, and myself (pictured above on stage and ready to go, before the live stream event!) will adjudicate over the next few days and this interview was designed to introduce competitors to their judges and provide an opportunity to ask questions about our lives.

You can watch the whole interview (although sadly, the connection was lost at the beginning so around 10 minutes of the opening has been cut!), by clicking on the link below. You can also watch/hear every competitor on live stream by clicking on this link here. The competition starts in just a few hours, and we will be hearing around half of the competitors today. I hope you find it interesting!


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 to Improve Wrist Staccato

Wrist Staccato 1

This is the second post exploring touch and articulation. The first focused on finger staccato (you can read it here), and today I’ll try to provide a few practice ideas for wrist staccato. Wrist staccato technique is generally used to play chordal passage work or groups of two notes or more in a very short, detached manner.

A pianist friend and I were chatting recently about articulation  (we need to get out more!), discussing the whole gamut of staccato possibilities and variants. After a long pause my friend suddenly remarked, “what if wrist staccato doesn’t really exist – it seems to have been incorrectly labelled”. I’ve been pondering this ever since.   Due to the title, it’s easy to misinterpret wrist staccato as merely  the wrist in a ‘fixed’ position bobbing up and down at the end of the arm, but if this is the only physical action taken, rigidity and extreme tension will prevail. Unlike finger staccato, wrist staccato requires much more movement than just that of the wrist.

To achieve success, it really must be harnessed to a very flexible, moveable forearm, upper arm and upper torso.  As with many other techniques in piano playing, each movement benefits from being cushioned and supported by other parts of the upper body. So, in this post, I will aim to describe wrist staccato, and how to achieve it as transparently as possible.

1. As always, start with arms in a relaxed state (they should feel ‘heavy’, with muscles relaxed). This is the feeling you are trying, if possible, to replicate when playing. Practice away from the piano at first; begin with the hand in its natural position, then move it upwards using the wrist only, then downwards, with your forearm remaining fairly static, the wrist acting rather like a hinge. Gradually build up speed. The faster the speed, so the motion becomes smaller and smaller, and is eventually akin to a ‘vibrato’ action, as if shaking the hand rapidly.

2. Once the basic movement has been assimilated away from the instrument, experiment by applying it to a few chords or intervals on the keyboard. A C major triad (similar to those in the example above) might be helpful. Play hands separately at first, and as you play every chord, using a large hinge-like motion with your wrist (almost like a ‘throwing’ action), land on the chord accurately using the tips of the fingers.  After the chord has been struck, completely ‘release’ the wrist and arm, letting go of any tension, before the next chord is played. This is tricky to do at speed, so as always, slow practice can really help. As speed is built, be sure to release any elbow tension too, as this can feel uncomfortable after a while. To release muscles, swing your arm down by your side; this will serve as a reminder of the feeling of relaxation or no tension.

3. In order for the arms, elbows and upper torso to remain as free and flexible as possible (so they can support the wrist), it’s important to have an in-built ‘breathing’ space between each chord or interval. Therefore, release the upper body after every single chord. The wrist and arm will eventually become accustomed to the whole tension release method. I find it useful to make a rotational movement with the wrist too (when practising slowly) as opposed to only moving up and down, because the use of some arm weight seems to cushion the movement, providing a richer sound and freer action, in preparation for brisk tempos. Some prefer a ‘throwing’ motion, the flexibility stemming from the wrist’s release between each ‘throw’ of the hand.

4.  After a while, move from playing one chord at a time, to several on one wrist motion. An example of wrist staccato, is shown below (which is the first bar of Czerny’s Study No. 40, from The Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740):

Wrist staccato 4

This passage might be practised in the manner suggested below, the rests providing spots to release tension. During the crotchet rests in the right hand, ensure the wrist and whole arm is loose and floppy or free, before continuing, then you will know if you have released tension successfully.

Wrist staccato 3

5. Practice on passages which don’t require a large hand stretch; if octaves or big chords feel strained, choose smaller triads as in the example above. It’s important to feel comfortable, not over stretched. Also, by giving a slight accent on the first beat of a passage or group (such as the first triad in the chordal group above), it’s possible to facilitate the movement required to play all three chords in the group with ease. The action needed for the strong beat sets the motion rolling, helps to rotate the wrist, and keeps the arm and elbow soft and light too. As the wrist and arm become used to the feeling, so the breaks between each chord can be less and less, although it is always necessary to free the wrist very swiftly between groups of chords, ridding the arm of any tension before continuing.

Speed will come eventually, when the wrist and arm feel able and willing to relax the muscles between passage work, then it will be possible to play longer sections without tiring.  Once this aspect has been grasped, velocity and virtuosity will appear.


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 Practice Tips To Instantly Improve A Performance

Over the past few weeks I’ve been travelling around, teaching and adjudicating, providing the opportunity to hear a large and varied smorgasbord of piano playing. Whether pianists are young or old, beginners or very advanced players (and there has been an unusually large cohort of superb playing this year), several issues persist amongst pianists. With this in mind, my post today focuses on a few (hopefully) constructive, yet easily implemented, ways to improve piano playing, based on what I’ve witnessed.

1. Pedalling. It can be a major issue, particularly for nervous performers, because there is often a tendency to ‘ride’ the sustaining  or right pedal. It’s such a shame to work so hard with the fingers, playing accurately, and in many cases, beautifully, only to hide all this good work under a cloud of pedal. Admittedly, it’s not easy judging acoustics, especially if pianists aren’t used to the hall or piano, however, if in doubt stay away from the sustaining pedal! It can be a good idea to practice your piece completely without pedal (from beginning to end). Most of us sectionalise pieces when we practice, generally without using the pedal, and we get used to this, but try to become accustomed to playing through any piece sans pedal. Once confident with the sound, add smaller amounts of sustaining pedal (to start with), for a cleaner performance. Listening is crucial. Know the work inside out so you can think only about the sound and how the pedal changes that sound; particularly observe ends of phrases, rapid passage work and chordal passages.

2. Legato. The knock-on effect of a heavy right foot (i.e. the sustaining pedal), is often a lack of smooth, legato playing. It’s too easy to forget to join notes effectively, when the pedal is readily available to do it for us. Once students are stripped of the pedal ‘security blanket’, they can be upset by the sheer clipped, detached nature of their playing. Bypass this by preparing a piece using fluent legato fingering from the outset, adding the pedal only once notes have been fully digested. You may be pleasantly surprised by the pleasing sound of the fingers alone, once legato has been achieved. If you have already learned your exam piece, go through it without any pedal, checking you have used adequate ‘joining’ fingering, creating a smooth contour, which is usually vital in melodic material.

3. Tempo. Starting and ending in the same tempo can be an issue for some pupils, and this ties in with the problematic matter of thinking before beginning. Once seated to play, resist the urge to start at once. Instead, take a few seconds to think; ten seconds should be ample (although it will feel like two minutes!). This will not only grant time to collect thoughts, but will also allow space to set a speed which is both comfortable and realistic. Always feel the pulse, counting two bars before playing, almost as an introduction! Use this time to think about the fastest or smallest time values in the chosen work; semi-quavers or demi-semi-quavers can be negotiated with ease at a chosen tempo. Feeling the pulse religiously can also be helpful, and can stem the compulsion to rush (or slow down).

4. Body Movement. As many know, too much movement (whether swaying, nodding of the head, obsequious arm movements or moving around on the stool), can be detrimental and distracting. However, even more debilitating, is not to move at all. Rigidity causes a harsh sound and wrong notes (generally). This is a matter which can be caused by nerves, or perhaps lack of preparation. In order to play in a relaxed manner, it’s important to develop freedom in body movement and cultivate a relaxed stance at the keyboard. Start by careful observation; watch posture, hand positions and wrists, during practice. Try to focus on how you move around the piano. Basic tips are to keep shoulders down, wrists free and use arms in a way so  they transport hands easily around the keyboard. If this issue is worked on consistently and consciously in practice sessions, it will become a good habit, and one which will continue to linger in performances too, even under pressure.

5. Close to the keys. It might seem contradictory after reading tip number four, but  a good plan is to keep fingers close to the keys as much as possible, even if body movement is considerable. Whilst wrists and arms must be flexible and able to shift around if necessary, fingers and hands are best kept hovering over the keys ready for action (this may sound obvious, but many don’t adhere to it). This isn’t to suggest rigidity or keeping hands/fingers ‘in position’, but on the other hand, moving (i.e. being in place a split second before playing in order to prepare fingers) and thinking ahead all the time, particularly at the beginning of a performance, will help instil confidence and proffer accurate playing.

These points are fairly easy to effectuate; work at them one at a time, and slowly if necessary, building them into weekly practice routines. They will instantly improve piano playing, creating an assured performance.


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.