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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Top Tips for Effective Memorisation: The Memory Game

Next week I’m coaching at the Overseas Masters Winter Piano Academy held at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey (UK). My classes will focus on sight-reading, studies and exercises, and memorisation. To prepare, I’ve been re-visiting notes and articles on these topics and found the following on memorisation techniques; it’s the first article I wrote for the Piano Professional Magazine (Autumn 2013 edition, Pg. 22-24), which is published by EPTA (the European Piano Teaching Association). If you teach the piano or wish to start teaching, you might consider joining this excellent organisation.

I hope these suggestions and ideas might be useful to those studying for their diplomas or teaching memorisation to students. There is a helpful PDF download at the end, with ten tips largely built on the ideas in the article.

The Memory Game

Hungarian virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811-1886) developed the concept of the solo piano recital and, as a result, the Romantic era became the golden age for the piano.

Liszt not only masterminded the solo recital but he devised how the piano was to be positioned on stage too; with the instrument side-on so that a pianist’s profile could be admired with the lid up facing the audience to ensure full volume. Crucially, he was also the first pianist to play from memory in public.

This potent combination guaranteed total devotion from his fans and more importantly set the stage for all future piano recitals. Liszt apparently often commented on the importance of playing without the score:

‘Look up and away from the keys, and you will play with greater inspiration. Neglect of this is the cause of much of the crippled playing one hears’

(Living With Liszt: From the Diary of Carl Lachmund, ed. by Alan Walker)

He benefitted tremendously from performing in this way and successfully conveyed a charismatic romantic image; one which he had worked hard to cultivate. However, for subsequent generations of pianists, who have since made the concert platform their home, playing from memory has indeed been the cause of much misery. There are, of course, pianists who find memorisation a fairly straight forward process and would indeed never want to play with the score, but for most, playing from memory can cause grief and terror.

Today’s concert pianist is expected to play their entire repertoire from memory (with the exception of complex Twentieth Century works and chamber music). Successful memorisation often eludes students and they rely on learning a work digitally, praying their hands and fingers will remember where to go during performances. This approach doesn’t bode well because stress will often intervene and cause the dreaded memory lapse.

Those taking amateur music exams are not required to play from memory but if you are preparing for a concert or music festival it’s a good idea to be brave and perform without the music as it shows you really ‘know’ your piece. There are many unexpected advantages to memorisation and perhaps one of the most important is a regular brain ‘workout’. There is no doubt that once the human brain learns to retain and process information then this generally becomes a habit and one which can be very useful in many different life situations.

Memorisation does put extra pressure on public performance. A pianist needs to develop a different kind of mind-set entirely in order to perform large concert programmes without the score accurately. If you know you are going play a piece from memory before learning begins, the best approach is to learn in a very focused way from the outset, making a conscious effort to memorise every bar, nuance and phrase as you are going along. A lot of memorisation takes place in the early learning stages as you become more familiar with a work, therefore it saves much time and energy if you are able to capitalize on this, rather than to study a piece by repeated reading and focus on memorising it at a later date.

Memorisation can be a daunting prospect particularly if you have never done it before. However, this should not deter you because it is entirely possible to develop this skill at any point in your piano playing career, and your confidence will soar when you become accustomed to playing without the score. Many find memorisation ultimately affords greater freedom.

There are so many ways to enhance your memorisation technique and if you implement many of the following suggestions, you will be well on the way to developing a reliable memory.

Here are four popular methods;

Visual memory

Try to remember what the music looks like on the page. At first you might recall certain patterns of notes, key signatures or where particular passages occur in the score. This is photographic memory. It helps to keep going through the work in your mind, first of all with the score in front of you and then without the music away from the piano. The latter is a skill that is really worth developing as it allows for mental practice which can be a very useful tool.

It’s best not to rely too much on looking at your hands as this type of memory can cause problems or memory slips during a performance if not backed up with other types of memorisation.

It might be a good idea to remember or recall the physical gestures involved in playing a piece; certain movements and finger patterns can act as a guide for example. Perhaps memorise difficult passages first then practise them as a technical exercise every day.

Auditory or Aural Memory

Listen to everything you play meticulously. This might seem an obvious instruction but many do not consciously ‘hear’ what they are playing or learning.

Most humans have the ability to remember a tune and this is really about nurturing that skill to a highly sophisticated level. As with many skills, it takes a while for the mind to assimilate all the nuances that occur in a piano piece but eventually you will learn to ‘hear’ everything you play from start to finish.

Kinesthetic or Muscular Memory

The ability to remember or recall all the actual physical sensations and movements; remembering the finger patterns and shapes as well as arm, hand or wrist motions, pedalling, note repetitions and repetitive patterns. Fingerings also really help memorisation which is one of the many reasons why fingering is such an important element in piano playing.

Play through the piece each hand separately without the score; this is especially helpful for the bass or left hand. Practising and concentrating on the left hand really is a crucial part of developing piano technique so it may be beneficial to always practice the left hand first and commit it to memory securely at the same time.

You could trust your instincts and try to play a work through in the dark; can you feel your way around the instrument and play everything precisely? This is a challenge but good fun too; it’s quite difficult just to find the correct place to start your piece.

Intellectual Memory

Undoubtedly the most important element in your memory armour; it involves total ‘immersion’ in the score. You must know your piece backwards.

Look out for typical signs in the music that will ‘jog’ your memory; key changes, chord progressions, scale passages, large leaps, dynamics etc. All these elements will support successful memorisation.

Thoroughly study the structure of a work and assess the style. The way it has been constructed, particularly harmonic structure as this helps with the sound as well. To do this you need to have studied music theory so that you are familiar with four-part harmony, chord progressions, cadences, key changes and counterpoint etc. It can help to break down complex florid or rapid passagework into chords or make a skeleton of the harmonic pattern in a movement or work, so that harmonic progressions are realised and assimilated.

My tips and suggestions:

Visualisation can be a useful tool or method. This is the ability to form mental pictures of events, images or situations. Aural visualisation is sometimes known as the ‘inner ear’ which allows a pianist to hear how the melody, harmony, dynamics and all details found in the music, will sound, in other words, ‘predicting’ the sound before it actually happens. If the ‘inner ear’ is working well, then the pianist’s fingers know what they must do in order to produce the sound. This technique can be especially effective and has been used by many artists, not only musicians. Sit quietly and imagine playing the whole piece through from beginning to end; see every hand position or movement, in effect ‘watch’ yourself play the piece. You might be surprised at just how much concentration this involves. Some find it helpful to see themselves actually sitting on the stage or wherever the performance will take place.

The trick to successful memorisation is thorough structural knowledge of a piece combined with a strong awareness of the musical or expressive qualities. Emotional connections seem to really aid memory (I have found this to be the case not only with my own playing but also with that of colleagues and students too).

Hearing the music in your mind really helps, especially focusing on the way it affects you emotionally. By learning and thinking in this way you will never forget any detail in your piano piece. Learn to play from the heart; the music needs to be part of your soul. Musicianship and interpretation play a vital role in memory but they are frequently over looked. Ostensibly, the concept behind this is that you will be so focused on the expressive and interpretive qualities that your mind won’t be overly concerned with memory or the detrimental thoughts of a possible lapse. This last point can be imperative as it’s connected to many aspects of performing; a positive mind-set really does help when memorising. An ‘I can’ attitude goes a long way, so try to quell the negative mental chatter or the ‘inner voice’ that can frequently undermine a performance.

Even after methodical analysis and careful preparation, it’s still possible to get into a muddle on stage. Nerves can sabotage practice and preparation so what do you do when a memory slip occurs? Whatever happens, don’t stop playing. Some pianists have the ability to extemporize or improvise when they lose where they are in the score until they are able to ‘find themselves’.

The majority of classical pianists don’t improvise, so an effective strategy is to make sure that you know your piece in sections and are able to ‘jump’ quite cleanly from one passage or ‘section’ to another. Try to memorise in small sections, passages or ‘chunks’ (the more sections you break the piece into the better and you are completely free to break the work down as you wish); learn the piece so you know each section thoroughly. If a memory slip does occur then you won’t be too flummoxed and will be able to keep playing to the end of the work. It’s not advisable to ‘go back’ and play the elusive passage again as this just encourages another slip and may make you even more frustrated. Once it has gone from your mind it doesn’t usually miraculously reappear a few minutes later, so it’s best to move on and finish the piece in a convincing way. Also, be able to pick up the piece from anywhere, so that if you do have a memory lapse you will always be able to keep going. It might be an idea to try to completely eradicate the slip from your mind too otherwise you will be constantly thinking about it for the rest of the performance.

I use the following strategy in my memorisation classes and students have found this helpful:

  1. Listen to the work before you start learning it and observe the score carefully. Be aware of how the work makes you feel and spend time focusing particularly on interpretation.
  2. Take a short passage (perhaps a four bar phrase or a line or two of a piece) and start by memorising the left hand on its own, and then the right hand. Be able to play them through accurately without the music, noting all the unusual features (i.e. large leaps, scale passages etc.). Also pay special attention to fingerings as they can be very useful as a memorisation aid. When you have done this you may find it beneficial to reverse the roles and play the left hand line with the right hand and vice versa. This allows your mind to really know the shape of the musical lines rather than only relying on digital learning which can be dangerous. Practising a line of music with one finger at a time can be advantageous too.
  3. Then play the passage hands together using the score at first then taking it away as soon as possible. Observe which passages you find difficult to recall. Work thoroughly on those areas (by repeating as well as mentally finding patterns to remember). Most passagework has some unusual feature which will help act as a ‘signpost’. The more ‘signposts’ you can find the better.
  4. Sing the melodies in your piece and then play them with and without the accompaniment so that you become even more aware of the musical structure. Another valuable exercise at this point may include playing the accompanying material in a piece from memory or playing the accompaniment with the bass line first (if there is one) and then with the melody line. It can be helpful to do all this at slow speeds allowing your mind to digest the musical lines and phrases.
  5. Work the passage up to tempo with a metronome but without using the score. It’s really important to emphasize how repetition really does assist memory. As mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to play the piece or the sections within your piece without the score as soon as possible so that your fingers and brain accustom themselves to this swiftly.
  6. Repeat steps 2 – 5 on other sections of the piece.
  7. Practice other pieces before coming back to test your memory during practice sessions. You will probably find that you can’t remember every detail at this stage. Memory takes time and persistence so just keep working on it.
  8. Test your memory on the same passages the next day (and on consecutive days) before resuming working on other sections in the piece.

Once you have committed your piece to memory, work at it backwards, i.e. playing and analysing the last phrase first. Learning backwards can really work well and professionals sometimes employ this method.

Young children will generally memorise far more easily than adults, and we all have highly individual ways of remembering music. The success of memorisation is normally just persistent practice and sometimes it’s necessary to have a memory lapse or a stumble under pressure whilst playing in public, because only then do we realise what we must do to safeguard our memory for the next performance. Don’t expect to memorise in one practice session either, memory takes time and work, so divide your piece into small sections or passages and you will make progress every day. Good luck!

Ten Top Tips for Effective Memorisation

So you want to play the piano photo 5

© Melanie Spanswick

My publications:

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

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

Between the Notes

‘Music is the space between the notes.’

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

I’ve been busy adjudicating over the past few days. It’s totally inspiring work which allows time for reflection; when young pianists (and older pianists!) play in a festival setting it proffers the chance to sit back and evaluate many issues in performance practice.

The Horsham Performers Platform is a fantastic music festival which provides ‘ a safe, friendly and encouraging atmosphere for musicians of all ages and standards to perform.’ It is a non-competitive festival where a range of performers receive feedback and plenty of encouragement but without any class winners. The set-up is almost akin to an amateur performers platform. Founded in 2009 by violinist Rachel Ellis, pianist Rosemary Hensor, and  ‘cellist and StringBabies founder, Kay Tucker (you can enjoy my interview with Kay here), this type of festival is becoming increasingly popular. It certainly builds confidence in young players; I was able to see this first hand because I also adjudicated last year, where many returning players were now far more accomplished both technically and in terms of confidence on stage.

An overriding issue which was reiterated many times over the course of the festival (and at previous festivals at which I adjudicated earlier in the year), is the need for breathing space during performance. This is seemingly such an obvious point, but it’s one which is challenging to put into practice. Space can be created in many ways, but it’s vital, both in approach to a performance or actually between notes and phrases of a piece.

Creating space isn’t about changing the pulse in a piano piece, using copious ritenutos (or accelerandos)  or using excessive rubato (pulling the time), but rather giving a small amount of time to breathe; this provides the audience with the opportunity to savour each note, each phrase and enjoy the music. It isn’t just the audience that benefits here either, all performers require time to refocus and process musical thoughts during their performance. This space is even more crucial for less experienced or anxious performers because if they can ‘build-in’ space into musical phrases, they will be able to control their playing so much better, discouraging the ever-present problem of rushing or ‘speeding up’; an issue which so often affects even the most talented young players. Public performance of any kind is all about control and focus, so if you are able to develop a way of creating more ‘thinking’ or ‘breathing’ time, then the level of your performance skills will increase dramatically.

Apparently Winston Churchill regularly inserted ‘pauses’ into his speeches and he even calculated the exact time or length of each break! Here are a few ideas to help create breathing space in piano playing;

1. Whilst learning a new work ensure each phrase is not only given its full length, but also a very slight space between each one. The length of space will totally depend on the speed of the piece, but even if it’s just an extra second, this allows every new phrase to be introduced properly with an expansive sense of time and without any sense of rushing or hurrying (a problem which can kill musicianship).

2. Before starting to play any work, always count a bar in your head (at the intended tempo). This focuses the mind and gives the audience a sense of expectation. It  will help determine the speed from the outset as well (it’s amazing how many performers start at an ‘unexpected’ tempo) and it can also establish a certain sense of calm.

3. Space can be created within each phrase. If a work consists of a series of large chords and they are given slightly more time to sound than usual (we are talking nanoseconds here!), this allows them to reverberate, resonate, and reach their full measure of expression. A performance will suddenly take on a new level of musicianship and sensitivity, if each and every note is ‘placed’ carefully.

4. Staccato (or short, detached) notes especially need to be given full space or time. If you have a group of staccato or non-legato crotchets, each one will be articulated quickly (i.e. leaving the key bed swiftly), but there must still be a clear ‘space’ between one sound and the next particularly in slow music, otherwise the beat or pulse will be perpetually unstable and there will be a sense of rushing throughout. As mentioned above, every note must be placed with care.

5. Extra time between movements of pieces and especially at the end of a work, generates an atmospheric quality perpetuating the expression in the music; it allows the emotion to linger in a positive way, for moments beyond the expected time.

6. It is said that pauses can make a musician, so with this in mind, build in a clear sense of space when playing any work. This also applies to use of the sustaining pedal, which should generally be used sparingly to enhance the piano sound rather than obscure it. Clean pedalling will also encourage breathing space between chords and thematic material.

7. What feels like a slow tempo or long pause to a performer, is often interpreted  quite differently by the listener. It’s true to say that a performer in a state of focus, concentration and stress, perceives speed to be slower than it really is; we often play much quicker than we intend. So with this in mind, longer pauses or gaps between sound are sometimes a good idea and again, can be addressed during practice time.

8. Pianists needs to remember to breathe too! An obvious point, but occasionally performing can be overwhelming and fear takes hold. Young pianists do sometimes forget to breathe literally. Alleviate this issue by always breathing deeply when practising and perform frequently in front of an audience (or small group). Experience is crucial when learning to play in public.

The more space created generally, without disturbing the pulse, the more beautiful and harmonious the performance. This is a subject worth musing for any performer because it really can make all the difference.


My publications:

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

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

Absolute Articulation

I have spent much of the last month adjudicating at various amateur music festivals around the country. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable job; I get to visit all different parts of the UK, and also hear a wide variety of piano playing. Standards vary of course, from young, inexperienced beginners to incredibly accomplished performers. Whilst it’s my job to mark (or judge) the competitors, I’m also able to comment on their playing in a fairly detailed manner, via a written mark form and verbally at the adjudication.

Contrary to popular belief, most of these young players (and some not so young; there are always adult amateur classes at most festivals!), are very happy to receive feedback and constructive criticism. Care is needed when discussing any negative traits, particularly in a public forum, but nevertheless, it can be a great way for pianists to obtain an unbiased appraisal of their work. Where possible, I try to give helpful practice tips and advice. At a couple of the recent festivals, I also gave short workshops at the end of classes; these are hopefully useful, partly because the entire audience can benefit from what is essentially a public lesson.

One major issue, cropping up with absolute regularity, through a whole gamut of piano playing, irrespective of standard or ability, seems to be that of articulation. I never cease talking about this subject. Perhaps it’s just me, but I believe this aspect to be one of the most crucial elements in good performance practice. Without it, a successful performance is virtually impossible, especially when a pianist reaches diploma level and beyond. In fact, the more advanced the player, the more important the subject of articulation. It is one of the main reasons why the Baroque and Classical repertoire remains the most challenging.

In many ways, articulation is like speech and diction; some clearly pronounce or ‘articulate’ words, often with a staccato or ‘short’ effect, enunciating every syllable, whilst others tend to ‘slur’ their words together, in a rather lazy legato manner with little differentiation of colour, tone or intonation from one word to the next. This can result in a merging together of words and sometimes whole sentences, rendering them incomprehensible! This can happen in piano playing too.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Articulation refers to the musical performance technique that affects the transition or continuity on a single note, or between multiple notes or sounds.’ Good articulation generally stems from total rhythmical control, allowing each note to be played with equal value whilst employing a variety of different effects or touches, and this in turn comes from finger control. Crisp, clear finger work, particularly in rapid passages, all depends on how fingers are, in a sense, programmed.

Articulation also implies different touches; staccato, legato, marcato, and even martellato too, but in this instance, I’m referring to the lack of precision between each beat; it’s all very well playing rhythmically on the main beat, but then what happens within each beat? Frequently, groups of quavers or semiquavers (and demisemiquavers) are rushed or played unequally.

Arguably, one of main the differences between the amateur and professional pianist comes down to articulation; professionals generally articulate with a total accuracy and almost mechanical regularity, allowing for a convincing interpretation.

So, how do we learn to play notes crisply, evenly and with the utmost precision? Here are a few practice tips which may be helpful:

  1. Effective articulation must be instigated from the outset, so when looking at a new piece for the first time, be quite clear on your fingering for both hands, particularly if rapid passage work and ornaments are involved (secure articulation is vital when negotiating trills, turns and mordents etc.). It may be a good idea to write all the proposed fingering into your score before learning begins. If the fingering isn’t completely assimilated, then haphazard, unrhythmical playing could become a problem.
  2. The slower you practice, the easier it will be to play smoothly, rhythmically and also to listen to what is actually being played. This might sound obvious, but it’s all too easy to switch off and ‘imagine’ what we are playing; the reality can be somewhat different. Listen to the clarity of your finger work, and the ‘space’ between each note. Ask yourself, are all the notes in this phrase really equal or are some being rushed, or perhaps being played too slowly?
  3. For total precision, count each and every beat out loud (even if you are playing semiquavers), when you play to your own (equal) counting, it becomes quite obvious if the passage work is clear and in time.
  4. Flexible wrists can help with clear articulation, allowing for free hand and finger movement. Separate motions (or movements) can be really useful when staccato and non-legato touches are involved. Pay special attention when you need to turn the hand, or place the thumb under the hand in running passages. This is where problems can occur, and where ‘bumpy’ or jerky sounds will hamper a run or group of notes played at speed.
  5. It can be very beneficial to practice with a powerful heavy sound (this can help with clarity and also to develop stronger fingers), the weight of each finger being evenly placed and transferred from one note to the next. Use proper arm-weight and play on the fleshy part of the finger-tip. After a while, when you return to playing ‘lightly’ with less force, you should find it easy to articulate each note; each fast passage or run will feel more comfortable and manageable.
  6. If you have the time and inclination, practice each phrase with many different touches, from legatissimo to staccatissimo. When you return to playing the particular phrase ‘normally’, there should be a real improvement in clarity.

Ideal repertoire on which to practice perfecting articulation are works from the Baroque and Classical period (as well as using technical exercises), especially less demanding, smaller pieces, such as those from the Anna Magdalena Notebook,  the Eighteen Little Preludes and the slightly more intricate  Inventions and Sinfonias BWV 772 – 801 , all composed by J.S. Bach. Less complicated pieces by Handel, C.P.E Bach, Scarlatti can also be useful as can the Sonatinas of Clementi and Kuhlau.

For articulation inspiration, the performance linked below offers a stunning example of the wonderful combination of technical clarity and musical mastery. It’s played by celebrated Canadian pianist, Janina Fialkowska, who is, incidentally, the next interview guest in my Classical Conversations Series.

My publications:

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

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


Structuring Your Piano Practice

Practice Makes Perfect

This week’s piano post has been suggested by many of you; ‘structured practice for the more advanced pianist’ has been whirling around my inbox recently. I have written about it several times for beginners, but it does take on a different mantle for those of you who have clearly passed that stage. Piano practice has frequently been cited by pupils as the main reason for wanting to quit, after all it can be boring even when the piece being studied is a favourite. However, without sufficient practice, the piano is a challenging instrument to tackle indeed (it is that with practice too). So the conundrum is how to make practice more compelling and possibly less work, or rather involve a shorter practice time as well as making progress. Here are some tips and ideas for those from around Grade 6-8 level and above.

Always warm up. Many don’t believe in this, but it does help free your muscles and make you feel better too; it can provide mental stimulation for your practice session. Many eminent pianists have mentioned the importance of doing this (see my interview series where I chat to many pianists about their practice regimes and techniques). It doesn’t need to be longer than a few minutes, but it is best to start very slowly building up speed, working your fingers to the full, producing a large sound. Scales are good for this as are Czerny or Hanon studies. Both hands should work equally well during warm ups; avoid a ‘dragging’ left hand.

How many pianists actually do any technical work? If you can work on your technique in the right way (it’s best to be guided here by a good teacher who knows how to teach technique), you will find your pieces much easier to play. When you start doing technical work make sure your shoulders are down with no tension in your upper body, then work on simple studies for a further 5 or 10 minutes, this can really help with weak fingers especially the fourth and fifths. When doing this type of work, watch your hands and fingers and try to avoid the ‘collapsing hand’ syndrome. Knuckles should protrude rather than buckle! There are lots of elements to focus on here; developing strong fingers and crucially a free wrist, agility and speed,  and producing a good sound, so this should stop your mind wandering and not knowing what or how to practice next (this is a really common complaint amongst young or inexperienced pianists and is how boredom sometimes sets in).

After 10/15 minutes (or a lot longer if you have ample practice time) of warm-ups and technical work, you are now ready to work at your pieces. When asked, many pupils have no idea where to start beyond playing the pieces through and perhaps going over sections that have caused concern. How about starting with the left hand? In my opinion it’s possibly more important than the right, because it often contains fast-moving accompaniment and needs to cover a large amount of keyboard. It often provides the key to the harmonic structure and many stylistic features too.

After working out the fingering, rhythm and notes, try dividing your piece in sections (look for any obvious repeated passage-work or structural signposts as this speed up learning). Practice the left hand in each section until you can play fluently and from memory. Then work at the right in the same way because this will really help when you start playing hands together, and you will know the piece in a much more detailed, thorough way.

If the piece being studied is fairly complicated, then work at very small sections without pedal (as this will just mask errors at this stage), and with the metronome if possible. Even if the piece you are studying isn’t particularly difficult, you will find there are so many benefits from practising in this fashion. Once you can play fluently, using a metronome is always a good idea for a while at least. The more you focus on small passages, the better you will know the work. Work at several pieces concurrently, frequently swapping them around so your mind is constantly challenged and engaged.

Another consideration is the sound being produced; think about the type of sound you want for each piece because then it will be much easier to ‘produce’ it at the keyboard. This is a personal element, but it does go hand in hand with dynamics, expression and phrasing too. Musical concerns need working on at the same time as the technical issues; always be aware of the stylistic traits of composers, their genres or the historical periods from which your piece hails, as this will affect the way you play it.

Working in detail as suggested above could take hours, but it’s easy to put a time frame on it by deciding what you want to achieve when you sit down for each practice session. Be realistic and try to resist the temptation to set lots of goals for every session. One suggestion is to divide a work into four (or perhaps more) sections; work at the last two sections meticulously one day, and the first two the next (I prefer working backwards but you don’t have to!). If you can train yourself to really think about what you are doing during practice sessions you will achieve so much more in a shorter time frame (sounds ridiculous, but wasting practice time is sadly very easy to do).

This method eliminates the desire to just play pieces through. You could finish your practice session with some sight-reading; not everyone’s favourite thing, but necessary all the same. If you don’t have any suitable material just get hold of a hymn book (with four-part harmony) or some Bach Chorales; these are great for reading and are tuneful too. As with all sight-reading practice, start slowly and do not stop.

Finally, remember that concentration is the key factor so the minute your mind starts to wander stop practising and go and do something else! The more you focus, the quicker your practice session will fly by and the more you will achieve. Train your mind to think clearly at all times and enjoy.

My publications:

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

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


Fifty Shades of Pianism

Tonal colour is a glorious and important aspect of piano playing. Irrespective of standard, all pianists need this skill which allows them alter or grade piano sound; it’s often known as shading or colouring. This adds variation to the music but it also demonstrates an understanding for the composer and a ‘feel’ for the work and style too. There is nothing quite as monotonous and dull as limited tonal contrasts in any piece of music, so it’s a good idea to experiment with sound variation from the outset.

When you start learning a piece, make a note of all the composer’s markings. Look for dynamics (how loud or soft you need to play), watch out for articulation marks (different touches) and pedalling, because they will all contribute to the overall sonority of the work. Do this from the beginning rather than waiting until you have ‘learnt the notes’, because your brain will then easily remember the feeling of playing at a certain volume or with particular articulation and phrasing. This in effect speeds up the learning process, as well as implementing character and design.

Once you have a feeling for the work and the approximate volumes of sound required, then you can really think about musical interpretation and how you wish to perform the piece. This is all tied in with the markings on the score and the form of the work. If you are playing a sonata movement, for example, you will be playing the same material twice (the form normally being that of exposition, development and recapitulation; the exposition and recap usually consisting of similar material) so you will need to consider varying the interpretation accordingly (if that is appropriate).

One technique that can be useful is to experiment with piano timbre and sonority away from playing a piece. You can do this by using studies (possibly Hanon or Czerny, or whatever your teacher recommends) or you can try it out on a Bach Chorale (anything similar to a hymn) or chord progressions. I have practised this technique simply by using the same chord over and over again.

Start off by playing as softly as you can; you will probably need to experiment depending on the type of piano or keyboard you are playing. Try to play the chord evenly i.e. taking all the notes of the chord down at the same time so each note produces the same volume of sound (the opposite of voicing a chord where certain notes need more colour and volume than others). Balancing chords in this way, making sure all the notes sound properly, takes some practice and is made easier by using a free, relaxed wrist action. Once you have got the hang of this (with the help of your teacher) then start off playing as softly as you dare, increasing the volume with each chord you play. You can stop when you reach the most powerful fortissimo possible.

To play the chords with a rich full sound, use your whole arm making certain you have a flexible upper torso. The example below is just one idea; block chords such as these provide the opportunity for a wall of sound, but there are many variations on this theme:

Experimental chords

Resist the temptation to ‘hit’ the notes or chords as you approach the fortissimos as this will produce a forced, percussive sound. There may be works that require a harsh sound, but it’s best to start off producing a rich warm sound whilst experimenting in this way.

Begin by playing these chords without the sustaining pedal making them really legato (smooth) then add the pedal for a completely different sonority. Another idea is to practice them using the una corda (left pedal) without the sustaining (or right) pedal. The una corda changes the timbre substantially providing a different layer of sound. This technique is useful too in some works.

Not quite fifty shades, but you can work at as many chordal dynamic variations as your imagination permits! There are infinite possibilities between these markings. Practice regularly before introducing ‘shades of pianism’ into your piano pieces for a more varied and convincing performance.

My publications:

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

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


Guest Post: Are you all fingers and thumbs?

Piano summer schools are a great way to enjoy an intense learning experience and there are a fair few to choose from around the UK and abroad too. So in my guest post today,  concert pianist and teacher Christine Stevenson talks about the Walsall Piano Summer School, where she has been coaching for many years. Over to Christine.

Summer School. It’s almost a contradiction in terms, isn’t it – who wants to go to School in Summer?

Well, lots of pianists, it seems! The Summer School for Pianists has been running for many years, and this year it moves to a new location at The Performance Hub on the Walsall Campus of the University of Wolverhampton, from 17th-23rd August 2013.

My association with it goes back a while, arriving very much as ‘the new girl’ – newly-graduated and newly-married – invited to give classes and lessons in a year when the other tutors included Denis Matthews, Phyllis Sellick, Bryce Morrison, Katharina Wolpe and Geoffrey Pratley.  ’And you’ll give us a recital as well, won’t you,’ said the then Director, the late Phyllis Mellor, to all the staff. Gulp – so no pressure, with a Who’s Who of the UK’s finest pianist-teachers as colleagues and an audience full of pianists…

The years pass, staff come and go (including me, as I disappeared for a while when my family was young) – but the Summer School for Pianists continues to flourish and evolve under the leadership of the current Director, Wendy Wyatt,  attracting a loyal following each year while welcoming newcomers and making them feel very much at home. This year there are seven classes, with tutors James Lisney, Natasa Lipovsek, Karl Luchtmayer, Lauretta Bloomer, Neil Roxburgh, Graham Fitch and me. And yes, we’ll each be giving a recital; our programmes range in repertoire from Rameau and Bach/Liszt to Britten, taking in all the usual composers en route, plus a few rarities from Ries, Alkan and Vaughan Williams.

Students receive usually three slots per week in their allotted class, and there are opportunities to visit other classes. Private lessons with the tutors can be arranged, observers are welcome, and short ‘taster’ visits are possible. There are other musical activities on offer, student concerts, and plenty of socialising. It’s an inspiring and stimulating week for all of us.

 There are just three places left in the classes for this year’s course, and ample room for observers – come and join us! Full details can be found on our website – http://www.pianosummerschool.co.uk , and we’re on Facebook  https://www.facebook.com/SummerSchoolForPianists and on Twitter @pfsummerschool. So we’re not all fingers and thumbs, we’re just happily digital. In every way!

You can read Christine’s blog here.

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

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


Coaxing the fourth and fifth fingers into action

So you want to play the piano photo 5

‘My little finger just won’t work on its own’; how often have I heard this phrase from disgruntled piano students? Too often is the answer. Pupils invariably spend so much time focusing on and looking at the music on the desk, that they forget all about posture and technique.

One of the major technical obstacles when developing a piano technique is allowing all fingers to work equally and properly from the knuckles. This takes time, a lot of energy and practice in the right direction. Many think scales will adequately help fingers to work equally but this is usually not to the case. Scales do help finger independence but they don’t help all fingers – the poor old fourth and fifth fingers are normally left to limp along on their own.

The fourth and fifth fingers are always the weakest in both hands but especially in the left hand. If they don’t play alone i.e. independently of the other three (or thumb and two fingers) then playing becomes uneven and haphazard to say the least. Rapid passage work can become unrhythmical. Tone production suffers too.

So what can be done to aid this problem? Firstly, arms and wrists need to be very flexible and ‘free’. This can take months of practice  – many students find tension really hinders their playing, sometimes leading to pain or worse, repetitive strain injury. Tension is necessary in order to play at all, but it’s the wong kind of tension that stops fingers and wrists from working properly. It can take lots of time correcting tension problems. However, by working on fingers individually whilst ‘freeing’ the wrist simultaneously, the weaker fingers begin to work. It does take time but once understood, pupils are so pleased to feel more in control when executing fast  passage work particularly.

If you want to start improving the technique of your fourth and fifth fingers, then begin by allowing your whole arm to become a dead weight, hanging totally free by your side. Once it feels totally relaxed you will know how it needs to feel when you play. When working on strengthening fingers, try to use a rotating wrist motion every time you play a note with a different finger, so in effect, you are disengaging (or freeing) your wrist so as to stop any tension which may result when playing from one finger to another. Problems begin when students keep stiffness or continue to be tense when playing from one finger (or note) to the next without letting go of the tension in between. Tension is only required at the moment of impact. Try this at very slow speeds especially when working at the fourth and fifth fingers.

Allow the fingers to play on their ‘tips’ which generally produces better results than flat fingers (although many prefer to play the latter way) and make sure you go down to the bottom of the key bed so as to produce a rich full sound.  In a sense, you are using arm weight to play each finger via a freely rotating wrist. It takes a while to get used to this motion but once each finger has learnt to play from the knuckles on its own, using the weight of the entire arm behind it, but without any tension in the wrists, then your fingers will begin to gather some strength.

Tone production and finger strength are very much linked and it’s a good idea to work at this with very simple studies – Czerny’s  Exercises Op. 101 or perhaps The School of Velocity Op. 299 are both excellent; you could actually use any piece which features scalic passage work. These are easy enough not to disturb concentration allowing pupils to focus purely on the technical task in hand – it’s also much more effective if studies are learnt from memory, so students are free to observe their physical movements. The wrist really needs to be totally flexible at all times as do other parts of the body especially arms and shoulders (shoulders are usually raised when they are tense).

Twenty to thirty minutes of concentrated slow practice per day should be all that is needed on studies in order to start improving finger strength and create a relaxed hand and wrist action. It’s important to emphasize that any technical improvement takes time and patience.  Playing in a different way will feel completely alien at first but it will be worth it in the end!

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

My publications:

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

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