5 Tips for Practising without the Piano

I regularly contribute to Pianist magazine’s newsletter, which wings its way into our inbox every other month. My article always takes the form of ‘5 tips’ and last month’s were designed for those who fancy taking their practice away from the instrument. I hope they are of interest.


Practising away from the instrument can be a beneficial practice technique. Taking the music off the page is a most valuable facet for any pianist. If you’re able to hear it, imagine playing it, and visualise or recall any passage, you are more likely to be at ‘one’ with the music, thereby producing a performance of integrity and musical depth.

1 Instigate a happy positive mind-set before practice begins; it’s amazing the effect this can have on learning capacity. Before practice commences, aim to sit at the instrument with a relaxed posture; shoulders down, hands hanging freely by your side, breathing slowly, and thinking positively.

2 Consider the piece you are about to practice; how does it make you feel? Feelings take on a new meaning when practising away from the keyboard, and this may be what produces deeper expressivity. As you observe the score, note what happens in each hand; the movements, fingerings and gestures required to play the patterns. It can be particularly helpful to pay special attention to the left hand here too. Aim to do this without the piano.

3 Some find it helpful to write the piece out on manuscript paper (recalling it from memory). As you work at the piano, begin to test your memory during practice sessions; by repeatedly returning to the same phrases and passages over a period of time, the thought responses become stronger and clearer. Now do this away from the instrument, hearing each passage in isolation.

4 Play the piece through in your mind. The effort and assimilation required can come as quite a shock, but once accustomed to the relevant mind-set needed, a calmness and stillness is acquired, and it becomes possible to ‘think’ through the music increasingly accurately. And you can do this anywhere at any time!

5 Visualise watching yourself play your piece at the keyboard, as an image in your mind. It can be a good idea to envisage every detail; fingerings, movements, and everything necessary to play the piece from beginning to end successfully.

If you can work at some of these suggestions frequently, memory and visualisation skills associated with practising away from the keyboard will gradually develop, and this method could eventually become a worthwhile part of a practice session.

You can read the original article here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising 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 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

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Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 4

Today I am continuing my series on selected exam repertoire. I’ve chosen three complimentary pieces from the ABRSM Grade 4 list (taken from the main syllabus (shown to the left), as opposed to the alternative syllabus) and have offered five practice tips for each one, as well as a recording (taken from the many on YouTube).

A list: A 1, Minuet and Trio (Second movement from Sonata in A flat, Hob XVI: 43) by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Austrian composer Haydn wrote over 60 piano sonatas, and this work is thought to date from 1771 – 1773. The Minuet and Trio forms the second movement of this Classical sonata, and the genre was originally intended as dance music.

  1. Why not begin practice with the scale and arpeggio of A flat major (key of both the Minuet and Trio)?; observe the fingering carefully (which is rather different to that of the standard pattern) particularly noting the position of the fourth finger, sinking into the keys as you circumnavigate four flats.
  2. This elegant piece requires a fairly strict pulse, with a bouncy, precise dotted quaver/semiquaver upbeat. For ease and accuracy, it’s a good plan to count in semiquavers throughout the Minuet, ensuring the fourth semiquaver (of the dotted quaver/semiquaver pattern) is placed exactly on the fourth beat within each crotchet.
  3. The ‘wedge’ marks in the opening phrase signify staccato, therefore crisp enunciation throughout the first 2 bars is ideal. The first beat of the bar (in bars 1 & 2), is the most important note in the motif, so allow a deeper sound and slightly longer touch for these notes. The second and third beat (of a bar) in a minuet should be lighter than the first, proffering the three-in-a-bar dance feel; aim to lighten crotchets on these beats in every bar, for example in bar 3. However, bars 13 -15 need a stronger touch, as do the third beats from bars 18 – 20.
  4. The ‘drop-roll’ technique (where the hand and wrist sink into the first note of a pair, rolling upwards and off the second note, to make elegant pairs of slurred or joined notes) can be useful for phrased crotchets at bars 3, 10, 11, and 14 – 16, 19, 20 and 21.
  5. The Trio should be a complete contrast to the Minuet, with softer, more delicate dynamics. Keep the left hand in the background, but ensure it is even both rhythmically and tonally; practise by using a heavy touch to start with, playing deep into the key bed, securing fingerings and note patterns, then lighten for even quavers. The right hand melody needs much more colour, so balance accordingly, ‘leaning’ into the appoggiaturas (at bars 23, 29, 33, 35 and 39) for additional expressivity.


List B: B 2, The Merry Peasant (No. 10 from Album for the Young, Op. 68) by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

German composer Robert Schumann wrote the Album for the Young in 1848 in less than a month, and there are 42 pieces in this beautiful collection. Set in F major, the joyous romantic nature of this work contrasts well with the controlled phrasing required in the Haydn.

  1. Why not start by working at the right hand alone; secure the fingerings and hand position changes and then play each chord (which forms the accompaniment here, as the melody is predominantly in the left hand), with a full tone, moving slowly from one to the next, taking note of the movements necessary to find the chords with ease. Chords containing black notes need a slightly different hand position i.e. moving inwards, over the keys, placing the hand so it guides the particular finger to the intended black note. Being in position to play any chord well beforehand is the surest way of attaining accuracy.
  2. As it provides the melody, the left hand will probably require much slow, solid work. Aim to find the notes without adhering to a rhythmic pulse to begin with; this allows plenty of time to locate notes and hand position changes.
  3. The left hand pattern at bar 3 might need some careful manoeuvering; practice the thumb turning under the hand carefully (bar 3, beats 1 & 2 – 3), with a completely relaxed hand (and thumb joint), so the thumb can easily turn underneath (without any strain) to reach the interval. It can help to practice a slightly larger interval at first, so the smaller one (written in the piece) feels more comfortable. Isolate this bar, working at this pattern slowly. Similarly, the triad at the beginning of bar 2  (beats 1 & 2, left hand), can be played as a chord, and then, in order to play in time and with a full tone (as this is the climax of the phrase), swivel the wrist freely (using a lateral motion) to guide fingers and the thumb to the correct position.
  4. Rests must not be ignored in this piece. Those in the right hand (in bars 1 & 2, for example), are to be ‘counted’, so as to ‘place’ each chord accurately (and lightly), giving shape to the melody line.
  5. When the melody appears in both hands together (last beat of bar 8 – 12, and last beat of 14 – 18), the right hand can assume prominence. Practice the top musical line (or texture) on its own (with the fingering to be used when playing both lines together), and then the lower part (chords). When combining, ensure the outer parts of the hand (and 4th & 5th fingers in particular), are well supported, in order to bring the tune to the fore. Very little rubato is required in this work, with the exception of a small ritenuto at the end.


List C: C 1, Uzbuna (from Na velikom brodu) by Bruno Bjelinski (1909 – 92)

Always one to choose unusual repertoire, I’m drawn to this piece, which is fun to play with interesting harmonies and rhythms. It makes for a good contrast with the Haydn and Schumann too. Bjelinski was a Croatian composer who apparently studied law and composition. This piece comes from his collection, On the Great Ship, composed in 1961.

  1. Excellent articulation will bring this work to life. The pairs of slurred notes (in the right hand)  with a staccato marking on the second quaver, can be taken out of context and practised, perhaps using the drop-roll technique. Resist the temptation to rush the second quaver, picking fingers up swiftly after all staccato quavers particularly, giving the necessary spikey quality this piece demands.
  2. The rapid semiquaver passagework in the right hand (bars 13 – 22), will benefit from heavy, slow finger work; try to rotate the wrist after each group of four semiquavers, alleviating or releasing any tension. When finger touch is lightened, crisp, even notes should prevail.
  3. The left hand tune often uses black notes (for example, at bar 12). Keep fingers close to the keys, over the notes, and experiment by using flatter fingers, which can provide plenty of grip (if played at a suitable angle), adding a different tonal colour.
  4. Bars 28 – 31 contains three parts (or musical lines); work at each one separately, especially those in the right hand (practising with the fingering to be used when both parts play together). Keep the top line (minims) as legato as possible, so the sound is almost unbroken, contrasting with the highly articulated melody line in the lower right hand part.
  5. The pulse will need some special attention; not only must there be a very incisive rhythmic beat throughout, but semiquavers should also be even and accurately placed. The accent markings can be helpful here; short, sharp accents (of which there are many in this piece), can define and add shape.

My Books:

For much more information about practising 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 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 2

Today’s blog post continues my piano exam repertoire selection and tips series by exploring the Trinity College London Grade 2 exam.

There’s a wide range of choice on this syllabus with a very definite emphasis on the living composer. I have chosen three pieces which contrast in style and genre. For me, this is an important criteria; these tests provide an excellent opportunity for those wishing to become acquainted with various styles  and different historical periods. It can be a fun and worthwhile exercise to put this all into context, therefore why not take time to explore a composer’s background and output too? I’ve added a performance of each piece from the many on YouTube.

  1. Ländler by Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

A notoriously difficult composer to tackle, Austrian master Franz Schubert has written some of the most lyrical music of all time (particularly his songs (or Lieder), of which there are over 550). This little piece is typical of his style, with a flowing, simplistic melody, and dance-like bass. Set in triple time, it is the perfect example of a folk dance.

  1. It might be beneficial to begin with the scale and arpeggio of G major, due to the many arpeggio-based figurations in the right hand. These note patterns fit comfortably under the hand; each bar can be isolated and worked at separately. Use fingering which allows for the hand turns; it’s easier to play such passage work ‘in position’.
  2. When playing passagework like that of bar 1, ensure all notes are sounding equally. This will be important for both the tone and the rhythm. To play bar 1 evenly, roll the hand and wrist slightly to the right to easily accommodate and support the fourth and fifth fingers (which will play the Ds and E in bar 1, beat 1 – 2), then roll to the left when playing the Bs and G (beats 2 – 3). This is known as lateral wrist motion, which supports the fingers. Aim to apply such movements for all similar figurations.
  3. Turning the right hand will be necessary; at bar 3, the hand will turn on beat 1 (C with a 3rd finger to the D with a thumb). This may come as a surprise after the relatively easy movement required in the previous two bars; when playing slowly, exaggerate the movement when turning, using a large hand and wrist rotation. When played at tempo, the turn will use a much smaller movement, but should feel easier and smoother.
  4. Try to keep all right hand passagework legato, breaking very slightly at the end of each phrase mark. During the second and third line, pairs of slurred notes (bar 10, beat 1) might need a drop-roll lift, before short detached staccato quavers. Although short, these should ideally be kept in character with the expressive dance-like feel, therefore a softer approach to staccato will work well here.
  5. The left hand can be practised a chord per bar, to assimilate hand positions and fingerings. The bass dotted minim (bottom of the chord at bar 9) must be held throughout each bar during the last two lines. Ensure the left hand plays these notes as legato as possible, and aim to use sustaining pedal sparingly. When working hands together, practice a bar at a time, stopping over the bar line (on the first beat of the next bar) which can be helpful for continuity.


2. Willow, tit-willow (from The Mikado) by Arthur Sullivan (1842 – 1900), arranged by Janet and Alan Bullard

A delightful arrangement of an expressive song from the much-loved comic opera written by British composer Arthur Sullivan. In the opera, the song is sung by Ko Ko and is all about an unhappy bird who dives to his death into a river. This piece provides a good opportunity to explore soft colours and musical expressivity.

  1. The dotted crotchet beat (6/8) might need some work, particularly as there are a few tricky corners and many rests  requiring careful counting. Perhaps start by clapping the rhythm of each hand separately (whilst counting aloud), and then clapping both hands together; the right hand clapping the top line, and the left hand, the bottom. Particular ‘spots’ to watch out for are bars 3, 7 and 15 -18, where semiquavers and rests must be all in their rightful place.
  2. Work at the left hand first, and ensure dotted minims (in bar 1 and 5) are held whilst the notes above are legato and smooth. The same applies for all held bass notes at bars 2, 4, 6, and 8. The left hand chords should ideally punctuate and support the melody in the right hand, so aim to move from one chord to the next smoothly. Fingering and easy, flexible hand and wrist movements will be important in this regard.
  3. The melody might need some slow practice in order to grasp the turn (bar 2, beats 1 – 2), which must be smooth without any sense of jerkiness or unevenness. The A (bar 2, beat 1), needs more colour, dying away on the D (Bar 2, beat 2). Each semiquaver group (for example, bar 3 – 4), calls for a drop-roll movement; where pairs of slurred quavers require a very legato drop then lift on the second note of the pair.
  4. Where the dotted quaver-semiquaver pattern occurs in bars 9 -14, counting in semiquavers can help for precision and poise. The una corda will be effective for the last two bars (as indicated). Keep the sustaining pedal to a minimum, and observe the rest at bar 14.
  5. Tonal colour will determine a successful performance. Try tapering off the sound at the end of a phrase. It can also help to play passages at varying dynamic markings exploring what works before making a final decision. Generally, a crescendo to the middle of a phrase (with a decrescendo towards the end) will highlight the musical line effectively.

3. The Swing Detectives by Ben Crosland (1968 – )

An energetic, dramatic swing piece for all those who enjoy a romp around the keyboard. Written by British educational composer Ben Crosland, this fast-moving piece with heavy accents and insistent rhythm is a lively contrast to the Schubert and Sullivan; those who love jazzy styles will certainly appreciate its colourful harmonies.

  1. In order to understand the swing style, it might be a good plan to practice thinking and counting the triplet beat as per directed at the top of the score. The quavers – in both hands in the first bar (an F sharp and G (bar 1, beat 1)), would be played as a crotchet – quaver pattern; think about counting in three quaver beats, then give the F sharp the value of a crotchet (or two quavers), and the G, a quaver. Add the suggested marked accent onto the F sharp, and lighten the G (you can apply this technique to all quaver passages). This should provide the necessary ‘laid back’ swing feel.
  2. Coordination between the hands will be important in the first and last line particularly. When practising hands together, experiment by using different rhythms, accents, and touches, listening carefully to each note as its played. Take the notes down absolutely together, slowly at first; it can help to play the left hand with more power than the right (and vice versa!), as the left hand can sometimes feel weaker.
  3. The left hand chords from bars 5 – 7 and 9 – 11 might need some attention, as the hand moves out of position and ‘jumps’ fairly quickly. Isolate the chords, and move very swiftly, working at the leaps alone, before playing each passage; first of all, move much quicker than necessary, then work slowly, leaping further than needed i.e. an octave lower than written. When playing at the suggested tempo with the written notes, chords and fingerings should be more comfortable.
  4. Left hand chords in the second and third line are effective if played with non-legato (or slightly detached touch), and the tenuto markings at bars 8, 10 and 11 will add an emphasis needed for this style.
  5. The key to a successful rendition is an incisive, regular pulse. If you count every beat, syncopations, such as those in bar 12 and 16 will be accurate and full of energy. Ensure szforzandos such as those in bars 12 and 16 are given a real kick too!

For more information on other posts in this series, please click here.


My Books:

For much more information about practising 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 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Guest Post: 11 ways to kick start your practice routine

Happy World Piano Day! Today’s guest writer is Evgenia Chudinovich (GéNIA). GéNIA (pictured below) has written for my blog before (you can read her very popular article here), and she is a highly experienced pianist, teacher, author, composer, and creator of Piano-Yoga®. Here, she offers some practice tips for those in need of some inspiration!


Have you ever had the familiar feeling that you really would like to do something but you just do not have the time for it? If only! In reality, very secretly, you know that you have the time, however you just cannot bring yourself into doing something.

I have news for you! For a start, thousands, it not millions of people, have had this feeling at least once in their life. It does not matter if it was about piano practice or learning a foreign language or simply starting a regular exercise regime. You know you want it, you even know need it, but still something is holding you back.

So what shall we do it about it? How do we start?

In this article I am going to concentrate on piano practice, however these tips can be applied to anything! Here are 11 ways to get back to your piano practice:

  1. Establish a routine. This is absolutely essential, as without a routine there will be no continuous progress. The routine can start from 10 minutes daily to an hour a day. All you need to do is to establish the constant time (or times if you have a patchy schedule) and stick to it. For example 10 minutes in the morning always at 8 am, or in the evening, or 3 days a week in the morning and 3 days a week in the evening according to your availability.
  2. Plan in advance. Try to think in weeks and months, rather than from day-to-day, unless it is absolutely impossible for you to know what your week looks like. Your body will get used to doing the same thing at the same time, and at some point, it will start ‘asking you for it’ rather than you making yourself do it.
  3. Use an alarm. This is a very simple trick but it works wonders. Put the stop time, and do not think about the time until the alarm sounds. You can start with short sessions rather than longer ones, so start with 10 – 15 minutes, and then slowly increase the time to 30 minutes or 45 if you like.
  4. Establish a specific goal. Why are you learning the piano? I understand that you want to learn to play, but you need to ask yourself why you want to learn to play: Is it because you want to impress others, or just play for yourself, or both? Then ask yourself what would symbolise the achievement of this goal? For example giving a private concert performance or sitting at the piano and playing ‘Clair de Lune” to yourself when you feel like it; it can be anything, however please be specific. Once you have a goal, it is much easier to start practicing!
  5. Start with small steps. Let’s say that you have established a goal and please be as ambitious as you like, as it is very important! However it is also important to be realistic by not putting yourself under too much pressure in attempting to achieve the goal, so you don’t feel inadequate and stressed. Therefore if your goal is too ambitious (like learning to play the original ‘Claire de Lune’ whilst you only know how to play piano with your right hand), establish gradual steps that would help you to achieve it. For example, with regard to ‘Clair de Lune’, it can be achieved by doing several graded exams before you tackle this piece, or you can choose a different way by learning how to play with the left hand first, then how to play pieces with lots of flats, proceed with learning how to play fast by concentrating on piano technique, and so on.
  6. If this is available to you, learn from a professional. In every area, whether this is music, languages, dance, or yoga, you can save yourself a lot of time, and achieve things quicker, by receiving guidance from a reputable professional. Ideally it is good to have regular contact with such a person, hence weekly lessons with the piano teacher is a norm, and most recommended. However not everyone can afford it. This is where many make a mistake, as they think there is no point in having lessons at all, if they cannot commit to weekly sessions. However, a professional can help you on many levels: from establishing your goals to highlighting your weaknesses and creating a programme that will help you to achieve your goal faster. Therefore even bi–weekly, monthly or occasional lessons will be always better that no lessons at all.  On this note I would like to caution my readers, as these days there is a lot of information available on the internet, and you need to make sure that you learn from someone who is qualified, rather than someone who speaks and looks nice, makes funny jokes and makes it look easy. Please do your research before you find the right teacher. You can also read my blog How to find the right teacher for you.
  7. Create ‘tests’. These are very important, as they will keep you focused. From time to time – for example every 4 weeks – create a test. It can be either doing a small recording and assessing it, or playing for a friend or even playing for a group of people or your teacher. By preparing every step you will be advancing and learning. Do not get discouraged if some ‘tests’ do not go the way you want them to, as we learn from our mistakes as much, if not more, then we learn from our achievements.
  8. Keep a diary of your practice routine. I always have a folder with notes on my piano. Write down a date, and jot down what you would like to do and achieve next in your playing, as, when you start your practice next day, it will be easier to pick up from where you left off.
  9. Be clever with the time management of your practice. Of course, if you are a beginner, and have only one piece of music to play, it is easier to concentrate during your practice. I personally encourage my students of any age and level to do piano exercises regularly. Franz Liszt spent many hours a day doing his. If it was good for Liszt then it is definitely good for everyone aspiring to play well. Therefore, make sure that you plan the time to do some scales and/or exercises, in addition to the pieces that you are working on. If you work on more than one piece and have more than 10 minutes to practice, then divide the time into sections, according to the pieces that you are playing plus exercises (if you decide to do them), and set the alarm for each section of your practice. When the alarm goes off, stop working on what you have been working on, and write down in your practice diary what is left to achieve, or what you would like to concentrate on next. Then move on to the next piece. If you prefer to concentrate on one piece per day, then make sure that you alternate the pieces together with the days.
  10. Always, always, always: try to imagine the end result of what you are trying to achieve. At the beginning of your practice, or after the exercises section, close your eyes and imagine how you would like to play a piece which you are working on. Let your senses guide you. If you want to imagine yourself playing at the Wigmore Hall or Carnegie Hall or in a really cool jazz club, or just in front of a group of friends at the dinner party, go for it! You can do it, and in reality you never know what can happen in life, so never say never. Be inspired by your own desire, as this would make your practice more genuine and sincere.
  11. Be consistent. You won’t always feel like practicing. On some you would feel like you really want to play and on others, it would be like ‘No Way’! In the latter case, gently acknowledge that today may not be the best of your days, but please do still try and play, even though you don’t feel like doing it. It will still pay off.

I hope that you enjoyed these tips! Let me know how you get on, either through my website www.piano-yoga.com or through my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pianoyogaeducation. And if you wonder if I ever have days when I do not feel like practice, the answer is ‘Yes, sure!’ What do I do? Go through the 11 tips listed above 🙂

GéNIA


My Books:

For much more information about practising 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 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

The Art of Polyphony: 12 Top Tips

Today’s post features an article I wrote for Piano Professional Magazine (an EPTA or the European Piano Teachers Association publication). It was published in June this year, and focuses on a few practice suggestions for counterpoint (or polyphony). There are so many different ways to work at this demanding style, and my thoughts are based on my own approach. I’ve included a link to the original article at the end of the post, and a downloadable PDF with twelve tips for students, teachers or anyone who loves practising the piano. Hope you find it helpful.


Polyphonic writing has been a popular compositional technique in Western music for over six centuries. It’s a method of writing favoured by a vast collection of composers, irrespective of their style and genre. Responsible for producing some of the most complicated, intense and beautiful music ever known to man, it’s a form which piano students must grasp thoroughly, as otherwise progress in piano playing will be challenging; at every stage of pianistic development and at virtually every music exam, pupils are expected to perform a piece constructed in this manner.

Polyphony may also be referred to as counterpoint (or contrapuntal style), alluding to the texture, or construction of a piece. According to the Oxford Dictionary, Polyphony is:

‘The style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other’

The art of playing many lines of music at the same time can cause a myriad of issues for students, and the study and practice of this genre requires a very different approach to that of a texture consisting of a melody and accompaniment (known as Homophonic style).

Countless composers from the whole spectrum of Western music have employed contrapuntal techniques; from Beethoven to Bartók, and Busoni to Shostakovich. However, arguably the greatest and most prolific era of this style occurred during the Baroque period (approximately 1600 – 1750). J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) was of colossal importance in the Baroque period’s golden polyphonic era, and his music provides a fundamental element in today’s piano repertoire.

Polyphony emerges in many guises and forms; from preludes, fugues, suites, and dance movements, to appearances in concerto movements and sonatas. In the Baroque period (and earlier), these pieces would have been played on completely different instruments; the harpsichord, organ and clavichord. The clavichord was, by all accounts, J. S Bach’s favoured instrument for performing his keyboard music. The possibility to vary the sound and colour, coupled with a slightly more responsive feel, undoubtedly played a significant factor. This provides insight into the performance of Bach’s music; and whilst much of his work may be described as generally highly rhythmic with continuous repeated patterns, it requires a level of musicianship, depth and commitment rarely witnessed in other genres.

How do we help students overcome the difficulties beset in the polyphonic style? Here are a few suggestions:

Learning any polyphonic work will require a substantial amount of analysis or study especially at the start; it can be helpful to take the score away from the piano. The linear element is the main focus in contrapuntal music, therefore the following observations will be vital; the shape and construction of each melodic strand within the contrapuntal texture (especially the thematic material), the key (particularly key changes), cadential points, how the melodic material develops, changes, or migrates throughout the piece.

Counterpoint usually consists of two or more lines or strands of material, and if a work such as a fugue is to be studied, three or four lines of texture will be evident. Once the score has been ingested, it can be useful to lay each part out on a separate stave, separating the textures, allowing complete understanding of where the music is going. I find absorption of each part is quicker this way.

Here is the opening of the Fugue in E major from Book 1 of the Forty Eight Preludes and Fugues by J. S. Bach. The three parts or musical lines of this (three-part) fugue have been separated, making it clear to see each subject entry (the subject is the main theme of the work):

Polyphony 1Students might find it beneficial to write the whole fugue out in this manner. It’s important to note each entry of the subject particularly, as this guides interpretation and also dictates articulation as well. In the example above (Fugue in E major), I’ve marked the subject and it’s three entries at the beginning (A1, A2, and A3) in each part. I encourage pupils to do this throughout a work, every time each entry appears (writing a piece out in this way assists with memory and really ‘knowing’ a piece).

Once the melodic material has been marked up and each strand of music has been grasped, work through the piece deciding how the texture will be divided between the two hands; sometimes two parts can be taken with either the left hand (LH) or right hand (RH), but occasionally the most convenient interpretation will see the subject, and subsequent material (often a countersubject, or an ‘answer’ to the subject), divided between the hands.

Taking the fully digested score to the piano, now is the time to mark up the most ideal fingerings. This will take time and will involve working hands separately, carefully observing comfortable hand positions, and the necessary movement needed to play each entry with a warm sound and varied tonal colour. This may involve certain hands movements, and a ‘leaning’ on particular fingers in order to create the desired sound within each strand or line of music. Aim to write as much in the score as possible; this will serve as an important prompt until the piece is really learnt.

Returning to the three-part score (which has now been written out), ask students to play each voice (each musical line) separately (using the correct fingerings, which may feel tricky at first). This could be extended to other thematic material too, disentangling various strands of texture, providing a feel for the musical content as a whole, whilst getting to grips with the various shapes and patterns within the piece.

Rhythm plays a paramount role in any contrapuntal work. In some cases, the pulse can be relaxed a little, taking slight ritenutos into consideration (mostly in improvisational passagework or at the end of a piece), but whilst playing fugues, dance movements and the like, a very firm rhythmic inner pulse is the secret to the ideal rendition. Encourage students to sub-divide the beat and count in semiquavers (or the smallest rhythmic denomination within a piece). A metronome can help, but I find counting every note (regularly and throughout the piece), the surest way to develop a reliable inner pulse.

Each hand will require a huge amount of practice on its own. It’s generally acknowledged that separate hand practice yields the best results, however, polyphonic music commands slow, pedantic, laborious work in this way, often for a substantial period of time (especially if a student hasn’t played much of this genre previously). The key to mastering polyphonic music is extremely slow practice. The slower, the better. Each hand must know what it’s doing to the point that it can, not only play fluently (free from hesitations and with all correct rhythms), but is totally independent of the other hand, and as though the patterns and shapes could almost be played by rote, without too much thought (so as to allow focus on purely musical concerns).

In order to comprehend patterns and chord structures, it may be wise to develop a variety of methods to enable pupils to learn quickly. The following example (from the Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Book 1 of the ‘48’), the Prelude is understood swiftly by first of all ‘blocking out’ the semiquaver patterns like this, from bars 1 – 4 (it’s possible to work through a large section of the piece in this way):

PolyphonyThis can be followed by practising the necessary movements, when playing as written; ensure the wrists are free, flexible, and a lateral wrist movement is in place, with the wrists and hands moving inwards from beats 1 to 2 (bar 1), and outwards again from beats 2 to 3 (especially in the RH), in order to coax a richer, fuller sound on the outer melodic line, lightening the inner parts, as highlighted here with the use of accents (bars 1 & 2):

Polyphony 3Outer fingers (often fifths), will benefit from playing deep into the key bed, employing the fingertip, which will gradually encourage them to gain strength and produce a larger sonority.

Students sometimes find the inclusion of multiple touches helpful in a work such as the Prelude; slow non-legato, dotted rhythms and accents on different beats of the bar, especially on unexpected beats. Experiment by using accents on beats two and four; both pertaining to the crotchet beat as well as the second and fourth semiquaver, within each crotchet beat (if the speed is very slow), which can be amazingly effective, and will definitely help with any coordination issues.

When practising hands together, assume one beat at a time to begin with, placing each note carefully and with focus, being mindful of the rhythm, as well as notes and fingerings. Mastering a fugue, beat by beat can certainly pay dividends, and when learning bar by bar (after each beat has been successfully negotiated), always stop over the bar line (or over onto the next beat if practising in crotchet beats). This will help with continuity, as it’s vital to be able to ‘pick up’ from any spot within the piece.

Now that your student is playing their fugue (or any polyphonic work), slowly and accurately, try suggesting they sing one voice (or line) whilst playing other linear textures at the same time. This might sound perfunctory and out of character (for this style), but by returning to the original concept of thinking about each strand in a polyphonic work’s texture, the act of playing one part and singing another can be very useful, and will cement learning.

Memorization is not necessary for those taking higher graded exams or some diplomas, but the act of remembering and ingesting all the information in a contrapuntal piece will only aid fruitful learning. Assimilating where subject entries occur, whether by singing, playing, tapping the pulse, or becoming acclimatised to the muscular movements (or a mixture of all the above!), within a piece, will eventually result in being able to remember the score, and most pupils find this valuable, even if they don’t plan to play from memory. Focused practice of any kind for long periods of time, tends to assume this outcome.

Articulation and ornamentation in polyphonic music can be a minefield, and are often deemed personal taste. Generally, we are not privy to any Renaissance or Baroque composer’s intentions; phrase markings, any accentuations or rhythmic inflections can be difficult to gauge, particularly if (as is often the case) nothing has been written in the score.

The following favoured practices may be taken into consideration: notes with longer time values, such as minims, crotchets, quavers, are effective when played non-legato (or slightly detached), whilst semiquavers and shorter note values, are best played legato. However, there are many exceptions to these ‘rules’. In order to interpret any polyphonic material, a degree of ‘separating’ notes will be necessary, and there are many varying degrees of separation, from staccato and staccatissimo, to tenuto or portamento. Appropriate touches will depend on many components including speed, character, harmonic context, and rhythmic patterns.

Ornaments are best left out when learning a work, as they tend to disturb the pulse, and can be the cause of hesitations and uncertainties. Eventually, most pupils will feel the pulse and play seamlessly, and as this happens, embellishments can be gradually introduced. In order to produce even, rhythmic ornaments, suggest students practice the intended embellishment incredibly slowly, powerfully, with finger strength (and a free wrist and arm). Once the pattern has been studied and can be played with ease, lighten the touch to reveal even, added notes. Then insert them at the appropriate place within the piece, slowly building speed until they feel and sound comfortable and natural.

Colour and voicing will become a deciding factor in the success of a performance. This is an issue which can be resolved from the outset (as can articulation), if tonal importance and rhythmic clarity is instigated when playing each melodic strand separately at the beginning of the learning process. Ensure melodic material such as a subject (in a fugue) is always clearly enunciated on every entry, and the accompanying material is sub-ordinate. Deciphering where textures rise and fall will be a consideration too; one tip is to allow a (very) slight hiatus after a climax, so the music is given time to breathe, and doesn’t feel rushed (but don’t be tempted to use rubato!).

Resist the urge to pedal with alacrity. Frequently depressing the sustaining pedal will merely smudge and obscure the numerous lines of music, which must ring out, allowing the listener to hear the textures clearly. The sustaining pedal may be used sparingly, to highlight specific points in the score, and to provide resonance. Tonal clarity, rhythmic precision and above all, musical integrity, will ensure a beautiful performance of any polyphonic piece.

Suggested Further Reading:

Keyboard Interpretation: Howard Ferguson (OUP)

Ornamentation; a Question and Answer Manual: Valery Lloyd-Watts, Carole L Bigler, Willard A Palmer (Alfred)

Downloadable PDF: The Art of Polyphony: 12 Top Tips

The Art of Polyphony: original article as it appeared in Piano Professional Magazine


 

 

 

 

 

10 Top Recommended Piano Resources for July 2016

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Summer is upon us and this month’s selection of piano resources features a new online method, an exam syllabus, a useful App, and a new edition of an educational masterpiece. Hope you find them helpful.


Beginners and Elementary

Interactive Piano Method®

13575745_1648752375446722_3149223656312773678_oAmerican teacher, composer and arranger Carol Matz, has written an Interactive Piano Method®. It is a new and unique method which includes Lesson Books with directly corresponding online materials. Students can access the online activities on their own and get instant feedback on their answers. Each level includes a Lesson Book, Online Activities, PDF Downloads (Performance Pieces, Activity Sheets, Sight-Reading, etc.), as well as MP3 teacher duet accompaniments. The Lesson Book is also provided as a downloadable PDF which can be printed and/or used on a tablet (such as an iPad, etc.). The online activities can all be done on a computer or tablet and include ear training, theory, virtual flashcards, note spelling, and more. For a limited time, teachers can submit a request for a free level here, and you can find out more here.

Video Lessons from Hal Leonard

indexThe Hal Leonard video lessons are intended to complement the Hal Leonard student piano library. They are free and introduce pupils and teachers to the All-in-one piano lessons book. American Author Barbara Kreader (one of four authors who co-wrote this series of books) presents each video, often working with one of her students. There are twelve videos in this mini series, lasting around 5 minutes each. They are correlated to specific pages and pieces within the first book and will no doubt be very beneficial to all those who use or are considering using this method. Watch here.

Technical Exercises and Rote Pieces

Tech-Rote-Book-Cover-1024x796The Technical Exercises & Rote Pieces book, published as part of the Piano Safari method series written by Katherine Fisher and Dr. Julie Knerr, is designed to supplement any standard piano method. It contains pattern-based pieces and exercises designed to be taught by rote. Students are encouraged to regularly listen to the audio recording of each piece as they work through the book. As a result, their ears will already be accustomed to the style, articulation, tempo, phrasing, and dynamics necessary for musical performance. The audio recording is available as a CD or Digital Download. Find out more and purchase here.

Intermediate Level

Rock & Pop Studies

RockThis volume includes 80 progressive piano studies and exercises for all those interested in learning to play rock and pop. Published by Faber, and written by British authors Lucy Holliday and Oliver Weeks, each study within this book focuses on particular styles, exploring the various technical elements associated with them; syncopation, varying bass lines, gospel chord progressions, classic rock arpeggios, and twelve-bar blues are all featured. The styles covered include Motown, metal, the blues, soul, funk, ska, reggae, disco, country, indie, dance, classic rock, and synth pop. There are practice tips for every exercise with many suggested further listening ideas too. This publication would suit a pianist approaching intermediate level (Grade 4-5). Find out much more here.

Sheets Zwei

005007d2-62b1-473e-9821-88c5c341d756Sheets Zwei is the second in a series of bespoke art music books by the German composer and performer, Nils Frahm, published just this week by Manners McDade. Featured artwork, by his father Klaus Frahm, comes from a series of photographs of barns, abandoned buildings and other rural artifacts taken in Portugal during Nils’ childhood. Containing ten of Nils’ piano works, the volume also includes some simple ideas to transform any piano into a Una Corda (similar to a prepared piano), the piano commissioned by Nils from master piano builder, David Klavins. An easy listening, Minimalist style which is sure to appeal intermediate level players everywhere. Find out much more here.

From Elementary to Advanced

ABRSM New Piano Syllabus

Piano Exam Pieces 2017 & 2018, non-CD editionThe ABSRM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), the British music examination board, have just published their new piano exam syllabus for 2017-2018. Released just this weekend, the books (8 in all) each contain a selection of nine pieces from Grades 1 to 7 and 12 pieces at Grade 8, covering lists A, B & C. Meticulously edited and presented, these volumes comprise a rich and very varied repertoire from which to create an interesting, diverse programme for an exam or concert. Each volume includes helpful footnotes and syllabus information, and can be purchased as a book only or a book & CD package. The recordings are also available as downloads here.  Even if you’re not planning to take an ABRSM piano exam, the selected repertoire can be a great way to get to know new repertoire. Find out more here.

Mikrokosmos

ut50411.141030As a committed Bartók lover, I’m a huge fan of this wonderful pedagogical masterpiece which has just been republished in a new edition. Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos is available in three volumes published by Wiener Urtext. Together these volumes cover all the ABRSM graded levels (from grade 1 to grade 8) and this makes them indispensable for piano students. They give an all rounded technique for players of virtually any standard. They also contain several additional pieces published for the first time, and include useful notes on study and interpretation, with a glossary of expression markings in several languages. For further information and a video please click here.

Online

Newzik

GetAttachmentThumbnailNewzik is a universal sheet music reader app available for the iPad & iPhone.  It allows musicians to manage, read and annotate all musical scores with ease. All the sheets, tabs, chords, audio & midi files or videos can be accumulated, stored and organized in a single tablet. You can turn pages automatically with a hands free Bluetooth foot pedal too. For more information click here. Watch the demo video here, or try it for free here.

Festivals

Around the Globe Piano Music Festival

GlobeAround the Globe Piano Festival is a competitive festival held in London in November 2016, aspiring to promote worldwide classical and contemporary music. The aim is to encourage students of all ages to learn new repertoire in various styles including contemporary and jazz music. Selected works include a wide range of piano music from around the world, much of which is not regularly performed, contributing to our multicultural British society. To obtain a brochure, enter the festival and find out more, click here.

Competitions

NTD International piano competition

10557537_306949402817928_459061284752850702_oFor piano competition lovers, the 4th NTD International Piano Competition will be taking place from Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, 2016 in New York. The Competition will consist of one qualification round and three live competition rounds: Preliminary, Semifinal, and Final. Pianists aged between 16 to 48 are encouraged to apply. Gold, Silver, and Bronze prize winners (maximum prize $10,000) will also receive professional recording and concert opportunities. The event will be broadcast on television and online, hosted by New Tang Dynasty (NTD) Television. You can apply Online by July 31, 2016. Find out more here, or e-mail for more information here: piano@globalcompetitions.org


 

 

A few thoughts on the ‘Una Corda’

20160503_193712_resizedI’ve previously written about the Sustaining or Damper pedal here on this blog; it’s the foot pedal farthest to the right on a piano, irrespective of whether there are two or three pedals (grand pianos tend to have three whereas uprights often have two). You can read my post about the Sustaining pedal here. Today, I have focused on the left pedal, played by the left foot (as indicated in the photo above).

The Una Corda is also known as the sordino, left, muting or soft pedal, and when written on the score, is a direction for this pedal to be depressed.  Una corda means ‘one string’. By depressing the Una corda, the whole action and keyboard shifts to the right (on a grand piano), allowing the hammers to strike one string fewer than usual, therefore reducing the sound and resonance. Whilst the use of this pedal does reduce the sound, it also changes the character, adding a somewhat muted or muffled effect. On an upright piano, the left pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings (as opposed to shifting them), shortening the stroke and reducing the sound but not really changing the timbre. Therefore, much is dependent on the type and quality of the instrument regarding the effect of this pedal.

Liszt Dante SonataComposers occasionally request the addition of the Una corda, as the photo above demonstrates; Hungarian Romantic Franz Liszt’s (1811 – 1886) instructions (at the bottom of the stave) in a slow, expressive passage in the monumental Dante Sonata (Après une Lecture de Dante S. 161 No. 7). However, many composers do not or have not marked its use in their scores, thus relying on a performer’s discretion and personal taste. When Una corda (or UC) is marked, depress the left pedal, lifting it when you see the marking, Tre corde (three stings; or TC): Due corde is another direction, and this refers to the left pedal being partly depressed.

Rather like the Sustaining pedal, the Una corda is multi-layered. It’s possible to take the pedal down various degrees in order to achieve a profusion of divergent sounds. This will be challenging on an upright piano (as mentioned above), as the Una corda on these instruments tends to just make the overall effect softer, but on a grand, the changes are both effective and understated.

To become accustomed to the left pedal, aim to experiment with a few scales. Start by putting your heel firmly on the floor with your body weight behind it. Then prepare to play the pedal with the ball (top of the ball) of your foot (towards the big toe). When depressing the pedal, observe just how little movement is necessary for the sound to change, usually from a distinctive, brilliant tone to a softer, muted one. You could try touching the pedal lightly at first, graduating to full use of the pedal, from the top to bottom of a four octave scale.

Practice taking the Una Corda pedal down and then raising it varying degrees, concentrating on the colour and (probably to a lesser extent), the volume change.  This can be a both interesting and helpful exercise. On some pianos, it can change the sound from quite penetrating or percussive, to a warmer, richer hue.

A couple of other general suggestions for the una corda include employing it for accompaniment figures. This involves depressing the pedal where an accompaniment figure occurs (often in the left hand), and then raising the pedal for the melody notes. Considerable skill is required for this exercise, which should ideally be practised with exact application; the overall semblance is one of a hazy, subtle, perhaps slightly unfocused sound for the accompaniment figures, with a brighter, fuller, more colourful melody, soaring above.

Try using the una corda to add a muted sonority to trills and ornaments; particularly long trills in higher registers on the keyboard. If the left pedal is applied towards the end of a fast trill, it can give the ornament a distinctly less sonorous, iridescent tone.

Application of the una corda depends entirely on the context of the music. Its use is sometimes thought controversial in early music (where it’s often assigned to replicate the ‘echo’ effects demanded of the harpsichord), and any pedal employment should ideally be carefully considered; if used sparingly, it can add tremendous impact to a performance.


You can find out about and purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music, here.

Top Recommended Piano Resources for November 2015

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Another month has passed and it’s nearly Christmas! November’s resources include the usual range of piano related fare; music for beginners, elementary and intermediate pieces for you or your students, piano games, books, competitions and an online resource offering a 10% discount to all my readers! Read on to find out more….


Beginners and Elementary:

My Piano Trip To London 2

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My Piano Trip To London 2 is the second volume for beginners by composer and publisher Elena Cobb. It consists of trios (three pianists at one piano) in a collection of original compositions and some arrangements (of traditional tunes) for various levels. Young (and older!) learners love playing duets and trios; it’s a great way to understand and experience ensemble playing and it allows beginner pianists to enjoy the possibility of producing an instantly larger sound. The book is packed with fab facts, interesting tips and plenty of impressive illustrations. Great for those teaching or playing in a class situation too. Listen to all the pieces and get your copy here.

Ornament Moves

OrnamentStepsSkips

The latest worksheet to emerge from Susan Paradis‘ ever popular piano teacher and student blog is this one, featuring Ornament Moves (pictured above). A Christmas worksheet aimed at reviewing steps and skips; you can either print the sheet or download to your tablet. It helps beginners learn about skipping notes, and reinforces their appearance on the stave. Students need only ‘tick’ the correct answer – so it’s a handy resource for teachers especially. You can print, download and find out much more information about Susan’s blog here.

Improve Your Sight-reading! A Piece a Week

A piece a week

A Piece a Week is a welcome new addition to the Improve Your Sight-reading series by Paul Harris, published by Faber Music. The series isn’t actually sight-reading as such (although could be a perfect supplement to the more advanced player’s sight-reading practice session); it is designed to encourage elementary players to literally learn one piece every week. The volume, which can used alongside Paul’s original Improve Your Sight-Reading! series, contains a selection of short pieces starting with simpler tunes, gradually increasing in difficulty (two books exist at present – for Grade 1 and 2). Paul’s introduction explains all the essentials, and the concept of learning different notation and varied pianistic textures week by week is very beneficial, and eventually reading at sight will become easier and more manageable. Find out more and get your copy here.

Practice Games

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Practice Games have been devised by the Take Piano Lessons website. The website offers 20 fun and educational games for children as well as many ideas for piano recitals too. The suggestions involve traditional style games such as Jenga, Twister and Flash cards, which have all been given an appropriate musical ‘twist’. You can find out much more about them here. The recital ideas essentially revolve around theming concerts by including various favourite characters and traditional stories. All suggestions are free and you can find out much more here.

Intermediate:

I Saw Three Ships

I-Saw-Three-Ship-for-piano-by-Alsion-Mathews

Composer Alison Mathews has written this effective piano arrangement of the classic tune. Intermediate players will enjoy the rippling, imaginative accompaniment which lies comfortably under the hands. Great for anyone of around Grade 5 or 6 standard, and useful sight-reading material for more advanced players. You can listen to this piece and get your copy here.

The Wheels of Time Piano Duet

The-Wheels-Of-Time-Piano-Duet-By-Heather-Hammond

Heather Hammond has featured frequently on my resource list. Her piano (and woodwind) compositions are popular around the world and, earlier this week, Heather’s music was performed at Steinway Hall in a concert for composers (held by EVC Music Publications). The Darina Piano Duo played this energetic, pulsating arrangement of Heather’s solo piece (watch their performance here), The Wheels of Time (already featured on this list). This duet is a showstopper and around Grade 4-6 level. Purchase your copy here.

Vladimir’s Blues

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I recently discovered this haunting piece by German-born British composer Max Richter. It’s probably around Grade 6 level (intermediate) and is a reflective, meditative, essentially Minimalist work, which would work perfectly (in my opinion) in a cinematic setting. Written in 2004, the piece comes from Richter’s album, The Blue Notebooks; each work forming a series of ‘interconnected dreams’. Vladimir refers to the writer Nabokov, who, like Richter, was fascinated by butterflies. The oscillating pattern in the right hand is apparently a nod to Chopin and are akin to the fluttering of wings in slow motion.You can listen to the piece here and purchase here.

Books:

Making the Tailcoats Fit

Making Tailcoats fit

This is the first ever biography on the life of pianist, conductor, composer and Oscar-winner Richard Hageman. Dutch-born RIchard Hageman (1881 – 1966) toured the US at the beginning of the twentieth century as accompanist to the French cabaret singer Yvette Guilbert. For years he conducted the Metropolitan Opera in New York, performing with such musicians as Enrico Caruso and Sergei Rachmaninoff.  Writing duo, South African-born pianist Nico de Villiers and Dutch journalist Asing Walthaus, have unearthed a wealth of remarkable facts about Hageman from archives and newspapers, making this a fascinating read. You can find out much more here, and purchase a copy here.

Online:

iPiano

iPiano Screenshot

iPiano is an innovative online platform which allows students to learn to play the piano at their own pace. Created in a linear lesson series, iPiano can apparently take total beginners through to a level where they can confidently read music and play the piano. iPiano also offers a cover series which shows students how to play their favourite pieces as well as a series teaching students how to write and compose their own music.  As a special introduction to iPiano, my readers are being offered a 10% discount on all memberships. Just type in the word ‘MELANIE’ at the checkout! Enjoy! Find out more here.

Competitions:

International Piano Competition For Young Players

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Competitions aren’t usually a remit on this list, but I couldn’t resist mentioning this one (initiated by publishers, Edition HH and the Windsor Piano School), to be held next year; the winners receive cash prizes and a recital opportunity in Oxford at the Holywell Music Room on July 10th 2016. The competition is open to pianists between the ages of 5 – 18 living anywhere around the world (there are three categories) and entered by submitting a video of specific repertoire. You can find out much more here.


It’s all in the Preparation 4: 5 Top Tips

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This is the final post in my series providing a few suggestions and tips to help prepare piano pieces. As I’ve already written in my earlier three posts, practising and preparing often causes issues, purely because there are many strategies or methods which are missed or not applied, particularly during the early stages of learning. If this happens, it can be troublesome re-learning parts of a piece, especially fingering or rhythmic issues. You can read the previous posts by clicking on the respective titles below:

It’s all in the Preparation: 5 Top Tips

It’s all in the Preparation 2: 5 Top Tips

It’s all in the Preparation 3: 5 Top Tips

This post deals with interpretation, providing a few thoughts and ideas which can be employed in most pieces and genres.

Now you have the notes in place, and can play your piece fairly well technically (i.e. without hesitations or errors), you can begin to turn your attention to actually playing  the music. As you become increasingly proficient at assimilating notes, rhythm and playing fluently, you’ll be able to combine technical issues and interpretation concurrently. But for now, it is probably more effective to deal with the technical issues first, as suggested in my earlier posts.

1.  Returning to the first post (where I mentioned the structure of a piece), now rethink your piece from the viewpoint of familiarity, re-evaluating its form. Virtually every piano piece has some kind of structure (how it has been constructed). Where and how melodies (or passagework) repeat, how the textures change (or remain static), how the harmonic language affects the work, how many keys the piece passes through, will all have an impact on deciding the dynamics and how they will develop throughout (what passages will need more sound, colour, etc.). Look for the focal point/s of the piece, and think about how you will build climaxes. It’s easier to do this once the piece has been thoroughly ingested, and you may be surprised by how your ideas or viewpoint has changed from when you first examined the music (the ‘pre-learning’ stage).

2. When thinking about phrase structure; decide where the tops of phrases (or where the climactic points) occur, and practice changing the sound, going from p (soft) to loud (f) and back again, within each phrase (it can be useful to write this on the score too). This is a valuable exercise, even if a work doesn’t need large variation in sound. It’s particularly important if the texture is complex, as with Baroque contrapuntal works such as fugues, or Twentieth Century pieces, which can often contain thick chordal passagework. Greater arm weight and a firm touch will control both the quality and quantity of sound.

3. There is a distinct difference between rubato and slowing down at the end of a section or the whole piece (generally termed ritenuto or rallentando), The latter is a common occurrence in many styles/genres whereas the former will need careful thought and planning. Too much rubato (or rhythmic flexibility within a phrase), can change the character of a work considerably, and can also be totally inappropriate for certain styles. Unless specified in the score, rubato should be used sparingly, even in Romantic period works, and (in my opinion) changing the sound and colour is preferable to varying the speed for expressive effect. This is worth bearing in mind as you work at your piece.

4. Pedalling is another vital aspect which will undoubtedly affect the way a piece is played. Depending on the genre/style piano works nearly all require some sustaining (or damper/right) pedal, even if only at the ends of sections, phrases or to enrich cadences. In Baroque and Classical style works we use it sparingly, and generally it’s best not to cover fast passagework with lots of pedal. This changes with Romantic and especially Impressionist styles, but it’s always beneficial  to practice without any pedal at all (so you can really ‘hear’ what is being played), adding pedal tastefully. The Una Corda (left pedal) is used infrequently, but can mute and dampen the sound to great effect. For more pedalling ideas click here.

5. Finally, an interpretation must be YOURS and true to you and you only. I believe a pupil must have an opinion about a piece, and should ideally know how they want to play it. Even younger, less experienced pupils can do this. Teaching technique is fun, and it’s relatively easy to show pupils how to phrase, and play musically or stylistically appropriate, but at the end of the day, if a student is shown exactly how to interpret every piece they play, then it’s not from their heart or soul. To find inner meaning and expression in a work, try to explore the piece fully. Find out more about the composer. What state of mind was he/she when it was written? How is the piece placed in their overall output? And finally how does it make you feel? Angry, sad, happy, joyous, or perhaps, it provides a sense of serenity and peace?

Over to you. I hope you find some of these tips helpful, and they encourage you to enjoy exploring many different facets of your piece.

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.

Image from Shutterstock

It’s All In The Preparation 3: 5 Top Tips

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This is the third post in my series intended to help those who would like a few tips on how to prepare and practice piano pieces from the very beginning. It can be beneficial to have a strategy, or ‘tried and tested’ method which can be used on a whole range of pieces and genres. The first two posts examined elements for consideration at early stages of the learning process; the first post dealt with pre-practice preparation (you can read it here), and the second looked at separate hands practice (you can read it here). This post will survey ways of playing and practising hands together.

By now you are familiar with your chosen piece. You have marked up the score and have worked at it hands separately in various guises. So now it’s time to take the plunge and work hands together.  Here are a few ideas:

1. Depending on your level of fluency, a good way to start practising your piece both hands together, can be to assess the rhythm and pulse. Tapping the pulse and rhythms (both hands; the right hand tapping the top and left hand tapping the bass line) will help to solidify the tempo, pulse and rhythmic patterns in your mind. Work on rhythms line by line  (or bar by bar if you prefer), tapping about a third of the intended speed to start with, building up until you can tap a page at a time up to tempo, followed by complete sections and finally the whole piece. Add the metronome if necessary, however, developing your own reliable pulse is preferable. This should help with co-ordination.

2. Play the right hand material  (just one bar at a time), and then the left hand (which can serve as a useful reminder of the separate hand patterns). Follow this by playing both hands together with accurate slow, deliberate rhythmic patterns. You may need to play one bar at least 10/20 times at a very slow speed to really get the hang of how hands fit together, technically and rhythmically. When practising, always continue to play over the bar line (as opposed to stopping at the end of a bar). I work with students on much smaller areas, examining perhaps just one beat at a time. Often it’s necessary to break beats down too, particularly if a crotchet beat, for example, contains four semiquavers, played with both hands, in different or changing directions, such as this:

Article for Monday example

The bracket indicates a potentially awkward passage which may require careful attention (and very exact fingering), or segregated, targeted work. Taking the notes out of context (and without adhering to any rhythm), can be a good way to asses the movements and coordination needed for smooth playing. Now try changing the articulation (if your piece is legato, try playing non-legato then staccato etc.). You could also experiment with varying tonal control; play deep into the key bed on the tips of your fingers with a powerful, full sound, and then pull back and play the same passage lightly – you will see the difference in evenness and coordination immediately.

3. Within each bar, try to asses problem areas or difficulties, essentially be your own teacher! (although it’s not a good idea to learn alone, as this can lead to many technical deficiencies). Really listen carefully and attentively to everything you play, and when practising aim to ‘think through’ passages; focusing on the left hand line (even when playing hands together), then the right hand line. Look for elements such as rapid passage work or awkward rhythmic patterns, which will need very slow work; practising in patterns, rhythms, and as well as with various articulation can help (as described in tip 2). Other problematic areas include jumps or leaps of any kind. Spot practice is also required here; take technical issues out of context and work on them alone as this usually encourages a greater knowledge of a work. This is especially true of chords or chordal passages; work slowly positioning chords (with the correct fingerings), moving from one to another, mentally making note of the changes, until they become a habit. Also make sure sufficient arm weight is used here, to cushion the sound.

4. Watch your movements when starting to play hands together. Aim to move your arms laterally, freely and easily, supporting the wrists and fingers. Working at this element hands together takes a lot of concentration, and it also requires mindful, conscious practice. Beware of tension as you work slowly, and even more so as the tempo is raised. How does your body feel? Do you feel tight and uncomfortable, are shoulders raised? It can help to observe your hands and their positions, so you may need to memorise note patterns in order to do this.

5. A particularly useful tip is to land on a note (or group of notes) as quickly as possible, and before it/they need to be played, essentially ‘arriving’ too early. To produce a good sound, each note requires proper preparation. This usually involves preparing arm weight as well as the required touch, so the quicker you can ‘land’ on a note (without actually playing it) and be in the ideal position to play it, the better the tone quality. This is particularly true in fast pieces. To prepare, practice moving between notes as swiftly as possible, landing in the correct position ahead of playing, with accurate fingering, but try not to ‘cut’ beats as a result, the endings of notes are as important as the beginnings. Quick, light lateral arm movement is necessary, as is quick mental preparation and coordination.

Work bar by bar and line by line, making every minute you are at the piano, count. In the next post, I will provide a few tips for acquiring a beautiful sound and dynamic colour. Happy practising!

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.