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.

 



 

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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.


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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

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 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.


10 Top Tips to help Resolve Tension

 A few days ago I published an article which was originally written for EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) last year, and was published in the Piano Professional Magazine. This article focused on resolving tension at the piano (you can read it here), and many of you have subsequently contacted me asking for a few tips regarding tension, to remember whilst practising. So here are ten reminders! I hope they might be helpful. I’ve also added them as a PDF at the end of this post, so you can print out and keep by the piano.


10 Top Tips to help Resolve Tension

 

  1. Check posture at the beginning of a practice session. Raised shoulders and tight muscles are sure signs of tension, so make a conscious effort to relax physically. As this tension is realised, the easier it becomes to correct, so be aware of how your body feels at all times.
  2. Drop both arms by your side when sitting at the piano, and remember the feeling of ‘heavy’ arms (i.e. totally relaxed). Replicate this physical stance when playing, as much as possible (at least for part of a practice session), and you will be on the way to developing a more comfortable disposition.
  3. When practising, learn to observe all hand and body movements, and by doing this you can begin to correct habits. With this in mind, memorising exercises and studies might be a good idea.
  4. Ensure wrists are always supple and pliable; they should be flexible, free and be able to move easily. Stiff, high or low wrists can cripple piano playing by seriously restricting movement.
  5. A free wrist motion is probably the most crucial of all; start by moving the wrists (not the arms or hands though) up and down, then in a circular or rotational motion. Do this away from the piano at first.
  6. Always observe fingers at the keyboard; joints must not ‘collapse’ because they need to support the fingers bestowing power and clarity.
  7. Try to ensure fingers are playing on their tips or pads. Many are not in favour of this method, but most students do respond well, and it allows them to become aware of the connection with each piano key as they play, as well as gain finger independence.
  8. Encourage finger strength by producing a large, but rich sound engaging every finger fully. Do this by working very slowly at basic exercises (like the Czerny study below). After every note, release the wrist (and tension needed to play the note) by making a circular or rotational motion.
  9. When fingers are strong, the rest of the upper torso can relax and do its job; which is to support and cushion the fingers and help to produce a warm tone.
  10. Make observation, concentration and physical focus play a vital role when developing flexibility; awareness leads to correction. Start every practice session with 10-15 minutes of technical practice. If you’re not keen on studies or exercises, try working with short pieces, or even just a few scale passages. Good luck!

Czerny 3

Click here for the PDF: 10 Top Tips to help Resolve Tension

© Melanie Spanswick


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.


Resolving Tension in Piano Playing: Article for EPTA’s Piano Professional

We all know too much tension can ruin piano playing, yet alleviating this issue generally takes time and lots of work. There are many ways of dealing with the uncomfortable, tight feeling which often accompanies a fixed, tense disposition at the piano. The following article was originally written for the Piano Professional Magazine, an EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) publication, and it first appeared in the Summer 2014 Issue (No. 35, pages 8-10). Thoughts presented in this essay are merely a few ideas or tips to consider whilst practising, or when teaching technical proficiency to pupils; to acquire assured technical skill, the best way forward is to seek a specialist teacher.


Resolving Tension in Piano Playing

There will always be an element of stress in piano playing. Public performance, on any musical instrument, requires nerves of steel as well as complete focus, discipline and concentration. However, this is substantially different from the tension that arises due to technical problems and deficiencies. Some tension is very necessary, because without it, playing would be impossible, so it’s important to be able to recognise the imperative tension from the unnecessary often detrimental type. Tension is a widespread problem in piano playing. Most professionals, amateurs and students suffer from this ailment at some time or other, and it can be very debilitating. Prolonged tension frequently causes pain which can eventually manifest as Tendonitis, Repetitive Strain Injury and at worse, can stop piano playing completely.

There are two differing types of disadvantageous tension. The first comes from negative thought processes or mental stress. Many pianists have suffered from this, and it takes lots of positive mental work to alleviate. It’s quite startling just how much our external thoughts can ruin a performance particularly amongst those who have yet to learn how to deal with anxiety. Negative thoughts can arise from peer criticism, harsh, unhelpful teaching or just self-doubt. The latter is a recurring problem and is all down to fear and the age-old question; ‘will I be good enough?’

The first line of defence when dealing with this conundrum is to tame the negative ‘inner-voice’. Recognise the mental ‘chatter’ that goes on before a performance (or perhaps on the days leading up to giving a performance). This chatter or ‘little voice’ never stops (‘what will happen if I make a mistake or my memory lets me down?’). We have all suffered. The most obvious way to remove this problem is to practice playing in front of others; whether it be one person, a small audience or large gathering, it doesn’t really matter. The most crucial factor is to get out there and play. It will be painful at first and mistakes will be made, but eventually with regular performance practice, pianists become familiar with the performing experience and as the fear subsides so too will the tension. In essence, this tension is associated with fear.

The second kind of tension is physical, and is generally caused by technical issues, which are that much harder to mitigate. Rather like mental tension, technical issues can stop successful piano playing and solving them requires professional help or regular coaching. Physical ‘tightness’ or ‘tensing up’ is even more commonplace than mental tension. It can occur for many different reasons; the most obvious is poor teaching or insufficient, sloppy practice, but physical restrictions and pain may happen due to the mental worries and negativity already mentioned above. Another possible reason is attempting to play pieces that are out of our comfort zone or technically too demanding. Challenging repertoire needs to be worked at carefully otherwise damage can easily be done to hands, arms, wrists, and fingers.

One interesting feature regarding tension is that it can occur at any stage of musical development; from beginners to advanced students. The latter are much more difficult to help because their unfortunate habits are ingrained and therefore everything needs to be re-learnt which is very challenging for the student as well as the teacher, but it can be done with hard work and perseverance.

Good piano playing all starts with proper posture and free, flexible movement. This seems very obvious but it’s frequently side-lined as playing becomes more advanced, and this is where problems often start. As we sit at the piano, our whole body must feel free. Pupils should be encouraged to sit up straight near the edge of the stool, with their body weight transferred to their feet (which are flat on the floor) aiding stability. Hips can then be used as a pivot allowing for free movement. As the hands are placed on the keyboard, the forearms should be parallel to the floor in order to promote relaxed, comfortable playing.

Raised shoulders are a real sign of stress and tension. One of the best ways to deal with this is for hands to be placed on a student’s shoulders as they play, making them aware of their movements. They will then eventually start noticing it themselves. Neck and shoulder ache are associated with this habit, so pupils will start to feel better once they begin to free themselves. We are frequently unaware of our posture because we are totally focused on the music, so with this in mind a good teacher can be extremely helpful.

The next issue is usually tight forearms; often a ‘knock-on’ effect from the raised shoulders. Pupils are, again, unaware that they are playing in a tense fashion, so one way of illustrating this is to help them relax their arms altogether. A good idea is to encourage ‘heavy arms’. Ask pupils to drop their arms down by their side (as they sit at the piano) in a ‘floppy’ state (almost like a ‘dead’ arm which should feel very ‘heavy’); they will then know how to start ‘freeing’ themselves. Unless students are made aware of the ‘correct’ feeling, they will be unable to achieve this alone. Make no mistake, this is difficult to accomplish, but can be done over time and with a good supportive teacher. Pupils may need regular prompting at every lesson for a while in order to get used to this completely ‘relaxed’ posture, because it will feel ‘strange’ and different at first; it is a habit that must encouraged regularly in order for it to become permanent.

As shoulders and arms become more supple attention can turn to the real issue which is usually weak fingers. Weak fingers provide so many physical problems and we find that tight forearms and shoulders try to compensate for this deficiency. In fact, many parts of the body will try to counteract weak fingers and it’s probably the most problematic element in piano playing.

Weak fingers (or fingers that don’t really work on their own, they are relying on other extraneous parts of the body to ‘prop’ them up) are also related to stiff wrists. Often pianists will use their whole arm in one rigid motion forgetting that a free, rotating wrist can not only really help with movement but is paramount for a good sound too. One way of dealing with these issues is to address the wrists and finger shortcomings concurrently. There are so many ways of doing this, but it can be particularly helpful to use simple Czerny exercises. The simpler the better; The 101 Exercises Op. 261 work well, for example. The first two exercises provide all the necessary notes in fact.

Figure 1

Czerny 3

The first exercise consists of groups of four semiquavers in the right hand (which run up and down the keyboard in C major) with accompanying chords in the left (see Figure 1 above). The aim here is not speed. On the contrary, the slower the better to start with until the fingers and wrists are responding correctly. Always use Czerny’s fingerings. Start with a good hand position; one useful analogy is to place your hands over your knees whilst sitting down, you will find you hand forms a ‘cupped’ shape. It’s really important to make sure that knuckles are in an elevated position, i.e. the hand isn’t collapsing (see photo below), otherwise strong fingers are impossible to achieve. Free or rotating wrists, which are not too high or low, are also crucial.

So you want to play the piano photo 5

Image: So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music.

Power and finger strength both come from a solid hand position which will then encourage each finger to play on its tip (or pad) and most importantly, on its own i.e. without relying on other muscles from other fingers or parts of the hand to help out. The joints in each finger must not collapse either, but rather, they must help the fingers attain complete independence which is the end goal.

Practice the right hand of the first Czerny study alone for a while; each note must be deliberately struck, slowly so that every finger plays on its tips and produces a good, full sound; i.e. reaching fully to the bottom of the key bed. This is not the time to play pianissimo. It’s beneficial to learn these exercises from memory, so that hand positions and movements can be properly observed during practice. Between each note, encourage pupils to ‘free’ their wrist of excess tension. An effective way of doing this is to make sure the wrist moves freely between each note so as to stop it ‘locking up’. Many cite this as rotational wrist movement.

Encourage students to move their wrists (between every semiquaver at first) in a circular motion, making sure the wrist feels relaxed or floppy (the correct sensation should be very similar to that when the arm flops down by our side; nothing must feel tight or tense). This is all especially important when dealing with the fourth and fifth fingers, which by nature are far weaker and therefore more troublesome. A sure sign of tension in the hand is when the fifth finger sticks up towards heaven. This is symptomatic of problems, but will eventually be alleviated during this ‘freeing’ process as every finger gains control and independence. As the fingers and wrists become accustomed to this motion between every note, so then this rotational movement can be eventually lengthened to every group of four semiquavers allowing for more speed.

It’s a good idea to reiterate the main issue concerning tension; whilst striking a note, tension is needed but as soon as the note has been played, that is the time to relax the hand fully. This coincides with freeing the wrist at the appropriate moment in the Czerny study as described above. By doing this, fingers will eventually become not only much stronger but also totally independent too, because their muscles are being perpetually strengthened with every practice session whilst the rest of the upper torso is learning to relax.

The second study (see Figure 2 below) focuses on the left hand and should be practised as much, if not more so, than that for the right. The left hand by nature is weaker (for most pianists) and usually needs more attention. Repeat the entire process with this second study. About twenty minutes practice per day on these exercises should be sufficient to change basic technique.

Figure 2

Czerny 5

Students must be encouraged to listen to the sound they produce and also to feel the connection between each and every struck note (and to be sure that the whole arm and shoulder is responding freely). Always observe rhythm, and metronome practice is a good idea once the fingers start to move properly. All semiquavers (or whatever passagework is being negotiated) should be played absolutely equally, which is a sign of secure strong finger motion. It will usually take a few months of slow practice before the student learns to feel relaxed playing in what is essentially a completely new and alien way. It’s at this point that speed can slowly resume.

Once fingers are independent, examine hand positions for chords, arpeggios and scales as these provide the bedrock of piano technique as well as most piano pieces. The perfect scale requires constant free rotational motion in the wrist which is all linked to the technique studied using these basic Czerny studies. The same applies to arpeggios, which demand much more movement; tense wrists stemming from weak fingers are the overriding reason why many struggle with rapid passagework such as arpeggios.

Once the fingers and wrists are working well, introduce arm weight. This should now be a fairly straightforward process because fingers and wrists are already flexible, strong and independent, so pupils will learn to harness their body weight to make not just a good, rich sound but also a full, large one too. Harsh sounds are often produced because of insufficient arm weight which can lead to ‘hitting’ the instrument resulting in limited tonal colour. Once a pupil grasps the feel for a large, warm sonority, then they will be able to hone their tonal palate accordingly.

Learning to resolve tension in piano playing is a challenge, but if taught correctly, it will lead to a confident, relaxed, comfortable technique and a much happier, contented pianist.

Read the original article here: Resolving Tension in Piano Playing


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.


15 Top Tips for Successful Sight-reading

Last weekend’s blog post featured the first article I wrote for the European Piano Teachers Association (EPTA), which appeared in the Piano Professional Magazine (Autumn 2013 edition). Continuing with this theme, the following article was published in the Autumn 2014 Piano Professional (pages 20-22). It focuses on Sight-reading. We all know how important it is to be able to sight-read fluently, yet it can often be a forgotten element. Hopefully, this article may prove useful and there is a downloadable PDF at the end (based on the article), for students. teachers or anyone wanting to work at their reading skills.


Sight-reading: the most useful tool in the box

Sight-reading is a skill of immense importance, for both pianists and piano teachers. It is often under-valued by teachers and students alike, but if worked at consistently, it’s arguably the most useful tool in a pianist’s tool box. If a pianist can read well, the whole learning process is made that much easier and quicker, and the possibilities and capacity for ensemble playing of all kinds are enormous.

Sadly for many students, sight-reading becomes the dreaded part of a piano exam; it’s often an ‘after-thought’ which is addressed a few weeks before the actual test. To really make progress with sight-reading however, it must be worked at regularly and should certainly be on the priority list ahead of exam preparations. In fact, it’s a good idea to take sight-reading out of the exam equation altogether and study this crucial pianistic proficiency as a bona-fide subject all on its own, devoting some time to it at each and every lesson (and every practice session too). Sight-reading can be a studied craft; it’s entirely possible to substantially improve reading with practice, you don’t need to be naturally gifted.

Reading at sight is, in many ways, similar to reading a book. Language is primarily constructed of words and sentences. When speech is first learnt, some words are much more difficult to assimilate and grasp than others, but after a while they become anticipated. Context becomes paramount when deciphering words and sentences. Eventually, even though some words are much more complicated than others, they are eventually expected because they’ve appeared countless times before. Any potential knowledge gaps are quickly filled in intuitively. The same pragmatic, innate approach should be implemented when learning to sight-read.

A crucial factor in good sight-reading is perspective. Pupils often survey a page of music and in an attempt to read every single note and musical sign, they forget to view the page as a whole and understand the basic context in which all the notes appear. Attaining secure sight-reading skills involves total musical understanding; it’s about decoding copious different, oscillating shapes and patterns appearing on the page and comprehending this information before playing begins. It therefore becomes crucial to know and establish which signs, notes or patterns are of importance and which are not, prior to perusing any sight-reading exercise. So with this in mind, knowledge of music theory is a must and it’s preferable to begin studying this aspect as soon as possible.

Also beneficial can be learning to sight-sing. Whilst not essential, being able to hear a melody before it is played, or knowing how a passage ought to sound can be really helpful and can act as a signpost too. Therefore some knowledge of solfège or possibly looking at the Kodály Method may be a good place to begin when embarking on a sight-reading journey. It takes time to learn to sight-sing, but rather like the sight-reading process, gradual, regular practice will proffer the best results.

Another facet which can cause unnecessary worry when learning to sight-read is the ever-present problem of wrong notes and errors. To attain a high level of accuracy and speed when reading, mistakes are essential! It’s really just part of development and growth, so playing inaccurately should not be viewed negatively; quite the contrary, because much experimentation is required when learning to read. If sight-reading can be viewed as an enjoyable (and even fun) part of a practicing regime, improvement will be that much quicker.

To cultivate secure reading, plenty of motivation and determination is necessary, so it helps if you select music you really like and enjoy. This might appear obvious, but many reading tests are somewhat dull and lacking in imagination. A never-ending supply of good quality materials is imperative and all genres must be explored; from classical right through to pop and rock. It can be in the discovery of a ‘favourite’ composer or style that reading skills really begin to flourish.

Concentration is a key component in successful reading and again, this may appear trivial and self-evident, but getting rid of unwanted or distracting thoughts is the first step to really ‘seeing’ clearly what is written on the page. Getting in the sight-reading ‘mood’ will pay dividends. A totally focused mindset is difficult to maintain, so start by looking at small sections or passages making note of any mental wandering. Learning to control and refocus attention does take discipline, but it will make sight-reading so much better and easier over time.

Another useful tip is to have a regular practice session or time assigned specifically for sight-reading. Expect to read daily (or whenever practice is done) and it will ultimately become a good habit. Keeping a practice journal can be a handy way of recording what has been played at every session, and it can be brought along to lessons demonstrating what has been achieved each week.

Remember to maintain good posture and hand positions. Uncomfortable, tense piano playing will only hinder sight-reading, and it’s all too easy to forget about posture when concentration and focus is being directed towards the music, but feeling relaxed and flexible will aid swift movement around the keyboard. So breathe deeply and calmly before playing commences and try to ensure that shoulders remain totally relaxed rather than perpetually rising rigidly.

So what are the most fruitful ways of practising sight-reading? Here are a few ideas which may prove useful:

When faced with a new piece of music, slowly observe everything on the page. The key signature is a good place to start. Decide which major or minor key can be associated with that written in the piece being surveyed (it’s always good to decipher the relative majors and minors as well), mentally imagine the sharps or flats needed to play the extract and then memorise the key and keep it firmly in mind at all times. Fingers will know where to go once the key has been firmly established. It can help to play the associated scale beforehand (or at least picture it mentally).

Quick recognition of certain note patterns, shapes, and repetitions can be a deciding factor in the success of any test. Noticing features such as chords, arpeggio figures, scale passages, and ledger line passage work, will prove extremely important. Chords can be challenging to read at first glance, therefore, remembering their patterns and shape is vital because there simply isn’t time to read every note. Being able to pin point the tonic, dominant, subdominant chords in any given key can be a huge boost to the reading process. Other features such as phrase markings, articulation and dynamics will also be relevant when skimming a score for the first time. Examining the bass clef thoroughly can be beneficial, as often the left hand drives a work. Some memory work is required in order to learn various chord patterns and note progressions, but as with many elements in music making, these will become habitual if practised consistently.

Pay special attention to any suggested fingering, as it’s best to have this element visualised before you start particularly when negotiating scales, arpeggios or any contrapuntal sections. If fingering hasn’t been determined beforehand, it will hamper the ability to move at speed.

The tempo or speed of a test must be noted, by looking at the metronome marking or speed indication, and, of course, the time signature too. This can help to gain an understanding of the character and style of the work. However, I always suggest playing well under tempo to begin with. For those with reading difficulties, employing extremely slow speeds is the key to eventually unlocking reading skills and becoming fluent.

The rhythmic structure is possibly the most important element in sight-reading. Both rhythmic patterns and the necessity of attaining a regular pulse can be problematic when reading. In order to keep time, it’s imperative to assimilate all aspects of tempo. With this in mind, it can be a good idea to separate the rhythm from the notes completely. Firstly, tap the intended pulse. Then tap the rhythm of the sight-reading test on the piano lid with both hands; the right hand tapping the notes in the treble clef and the left hand, tapping those in the bass clef. This should not prove too taxing, enabling comprehension of the speed as well as any complex note values and rhythms.

Once the rhythmic pattern has been worked out, and rhythmic co-ordination between the hands is fully understood, a steady pulse must be kept. Counting aloud can be helpful, if the beat is subdivided, but playing along to a metronome may be an even better, more reliable option; learning to ‘sit’ on the beat and not rush ahead or linger behind is also crucial. The determining factor in success here is to make sure the pulse is extremely slow. Learning to read with both hands together can be overwhelming. There is so much information to process at once; the key to perpetual motion is a very slow pulse (probably a third of the intended speed). If a pulse is always constant and steady, after a while combining and coordinating the two hands should be a relatively simple affair providing eyes are always reading ahead (usually at least half a bar). It may be necessary to start the reading process using separate hands, only combining them when each clef has been thoroughly assimilated.

Slow speeds encourage reading ahead because there is ample time to find all the notes and detail in the score. Plenty of time is of the essence (even if fast speeds are indicated). It can be helpful to count a complete bar before starting to play in order to establish the pulse (I often clap a bars rest!) and any deviation from the tempo should be discouraged. Once this has been fully understood, speed can be gradually built up over time, as reading becomes more proficient (this process can take a few months).

A slow tempo will help with the all-consuming problem of hesitations followed by total collapse. These moments cause frustration, upset and discourage sight-reading, so playing slowly bestows the confidence to build momentum and get to the end of an extract without too much grief. This latter point is arguably the most critical in good sight-reading; once a pupil has started a sight-reading test, they must never, ever stop. If hesitations are still occurring then an even slower tempo is probably required. Learning to cope with mistakes is all part of the reading experience. Continuation is so important in sight-reading and sooner or later errors will be ignored and will not distract from the overriding rhythmic and structural outline of a performance.

Musical examples or sight-reading tests must feel easy to start with, so begin with straightforward diatonic exercises. It may be necessary to start at Grade 1 or 2 even if Grade 7 is being studied. If sight-reading is all fairly simple, it’s a pleasurable painless experience. One of the many benefits of reading a whole variety of musical styles is that different genres are quickly recognised; from Classical (Baroque, Classical, Romantic etc.) through to Musical Theatre and Pop. This will prove invaluable for Aural Tests too.

When the basics have been grasped, larger chunks of music can be negotiated and there will be a familarisation with the typical patterns which occur time and again in piano music. The bigger picture will eventually be noted, focusing concentration on the main structure of a piece, whilst including more and more detail (pedalling, phrasing, dynamics etc.).

For those of a slightly more advanced level, reading hymns can be extremely rewarding and useful. Slow moving chord progressions act as the perfect foil because they assist with reading four parts (or notes) at once, as well as fostering knowledge and understanding of four-part harmony, and they also afford the chance to get to grips with a plethora of key signatures. As all church organists know, accompanying hymns is one of the best ways to learn to read because stopping isn’t an option! As with all reading, begin calmly, moving carefully from chord to chord, making note of the various chordal shapes and patterns.

Reading at sight is fundamentally giving an impression of a work, so it’s perfectly acceptable to leave out notes and other details. Bear this in mind at the beginning of each practice session. Endeavor to scan ahead fluently, playing with relatively few stumbles or hesitations using a steady, regular pulse to achieve excellent sight-reading results.

15 Top Tips To Improve Sight-Reading Skills

Music flute piano

© Melanie Spanswick


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.