9 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.

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.

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


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.


 

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.


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.


 

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:

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’.  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:

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

EditionHHtop

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.


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.


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

Shutterstock Background Piano Music for Website

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.

Image from Shutterstock


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.


 

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!


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.


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

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Last week I offered a few tips for those about to prepare a piano piece. These tips were primarily concerned with pre-practice elements (you can read them here), and today’s post proffers a few more ideas which I hope may be of interest.

Once you’ve marked up your score and have studied its structure, it’s time to get practising.

1. Much has been written about practising hands separately to start with, and there’s no doubt this is the way to go, particularly with complicated works such as a fugue or sonata, but how practice is actually done in this respect can make all the difference. Depending on level and standard, try to familiarize yourself with note patterns. It can be helpful to ‘speak’ the names of each note at first (bar by bar) and then find the corresponding keys on the keyboard. This might sound very basic, but so many pupils suffer from being unable to ‘find’ notes quickly, and this hampers ability to spot note patterns and position changes.

2. Take one line at a time (first right hand then the left) playing and mentally digesting every note, using correct fingerings, but without adhering to the pulse or rhythm. This should allow space to find all the notes, and even more importantly, be aware of hand position changes (which will be especially necessary if large leaps and chords are an issue). Work bar by bar at first, then line by line. If you practice bar by bar, aim to stop on the first beat of the following bar as opposed to the end of the one you are practising, as this will make continuity that mush easier when playing the whole line (or piece). Pay attention to the sound you are making, and aim to produce a rich timbre on every note. Conjuring a large sound at the start of practice, will make it easier to pull back and change the tone quality later (i.e. playing softer, lighter etc.). At this stage of practice, check how your body feels; do you feel suitably relaxed and free when playing? Try to ensure easy movement around the keyboard at all times, banishing any tightness or tension.

3. Now turn your attention to the rhythm. Find a steady practice tempo (usually no faster than a third of the intended speed), and set about ‘feeling’ the pulse. The quickest way to do this is by using a metronome. Once you are aware of the beat and are firmly ‘sitting’ on the pulse i.e. not rushing or pulling back too much, but simply ‘predicting’ accurately where the beat will fall, tap the rhythm of the piece or first page of the piece, if it is lengthy, with both hands; the right hand tapping the rhythm of the treble, and the left hand tapping that of the bass. This can help with understanding the rhythm and how the two musical lines interact and fit together.

4. Play through small passages hands separately (i.e. a couple of bars at a time); find all the correct notes (as before) but now play in time too. Much is made of counting (and it’s crucial in the early stages of learning a piece), but if you can learn to count aloud with a rhythmical, steady beat whilst playing, you’ll find keeping time is that much more accurate. Sub-dividing the beat can be beneficial as well. Eventually elongate practising in passages, so that you can play through the whole piece separate hands, in time (albeit slowly) with the correct notes. It might be necessary to repeat passages many times. I cannot stress enough the need to pay careful attention to the left hand; both the notes and the rhythm. The bass clef or left hand musical line drives a piece and to perform with real confidence and poise, this must be known as well (or even more so) than that of the right hand.

5.  In order to achieve an even tone, experiment by playing each hand with various touches (legato, non-legato, staccato etc.), thus helping to alleviate bumpy phrasing and uneven sound. When working hands separately, be aware of structure and phrasing. Sometimes, this element is completely forgotten what with attention being focussed on correct notes, movements and rhythm, but if you can achieve a beautiful sound and cantabile line, with effective phrasing and shaping whilst playing separate hands, then when hands are combined, the overall result could be spectacular.

You’re now ready to put the hands together, and I will publish these tips next week. Happy practising!


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.


 

It’s all in the Preparation: 5 Top Tips

Preparation is key when it comes to learning your piano pieces. Some exam boards (such as ABRSM) have made the selection process easier by providing recordings of all works  for every grade (including alternative pieces), enabling pupils to choose their favourites effortlessly. Once a programme has been decided, the hard graft commences and the earlier stages of practice and preparation are vital; how pieces are scrutinised, sectionalised and savoured can make all the difference, in terms of both mental and physical command. Here are a few ideas to mollify the transition from unknown quantity to a much-loved party piece.

1. On selecting a piece, start delving into its historical background; information on the period, composer and context within which the piece is placed is not only helpful and interesting, but can also provide interpretation clues too. If you’ve selected a Baroque piece, for example, it might be an idea to listen to the work on the instrument it would have originally been performed (organ, harpsichord, clavichord etc.). It helps to know why a composer wrote a piece as well.

2. Take a pencil and mark up your score. Know the structure. Your piece’s musical form will generally depend on its complexity (or grade). Small pieces could feature Ternary form  or A-B-A (where the first section (A) is repeated at the end after a second section (B)), or Binary form, A-B (which features two differing but related musical ideas). Advanced works might take the form of a prelude, fugue, suite, sonata etc. Whatever the form, be aware of its significance and more importantly, how it affects the piece and ultimately, the interpretation. You might want to think about some of the following: how many times does the thematic material (or melody) appear or repeat? Is it in a different key? Is it exactly the same or does it evolve, change or is it inverted? There are a multitude of possibilities. By marking the changes, and mentally drawing attention to them, the next step will be to interpret them with a variety of different dynamics and phrasing.

3. Now you know how it’s constructed, examine the texture of your piece (how melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material  are combined).  Textures favoured by composers include counterpoint or polyphony (several different lines of music sounding altogether) as is often the case in Baroque music; homophonic style (chordal); or a melody with accompaniment (which could be featured in either hand). Again, take a pencil and mark signposts; if you’re playing a fugue, be sure to highlight the subject (theme) in all its guises. If it’s a Classical piece, chord progressions may be key, or perhaps melodic variation will be important.

4. If your piece is tonal (in a key), working out chord progressions can significantly help in the learning process, as demonstrated by the image above (which is an example of Schenkerian Analysis). Other prominent aspects can include key changes, cadences or chromaticism. Perhaps a passage which migrates to another part of the  keyboard entirely from previous sections, or passages where textures completely metamorphose. Note rhythmic patterns too. How do they change, develop or synthesize? Accents, tempo changes and stylistic markings provide cues and clues. Get busy with your pencil.

5. Finally, add in all necessary fingerings (the more the better) and pedal markings. Use fingers astutely, taking into account phrasing, legato, staccato, and other musical terms and touches. Fingerings are best learnt from the outset as changing them can become problematic, and akin to re-learning or correcting habits. Aim to use the sustaining pedal sparingly, and learn how it feels and sounds without any pedal first.

Now you are ready to start practising! My next post will yield a few tips on the next stage of preparation – learning the notes.


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.


A few thoughts on Ornaments

The subject of Ornaments (embellishments or musical flourishes) has cropped up several times over the past few weeks, both in my student’s lessons and whilst writing the Piano Notes for the ABRSM 2015/6 piano syllabus published by Rhinegold. I’ve been contributing to the Piano Notes Series for many of the Grade 1 – 3 pieces, and several A list works contain ornaments of some kind. They decorate a melodic line, colouring it, usually by the addition of quick notes around a ‘central’ note, adding beauty and variation.

There are a myriad of ways to interpret these ornaments, (trills, mordents, turns and the like) depending on the period of the work, the composer and character of the piece. The actual interpretation doesn’t normally pose many issues, as pupils will generally be advised how to play them by a teacher, if not, the internet provides an excellent source of information and there are plenty of publications dealing with this subject too. It’s the physical aspect of incorporating them which seems to cause the grief, and for some students, Ornaments can become a real nemesis, instigating stumbles and hesitations. A good plan is to learn to assimilate and feel comfortable playing ornaments as soon as possible, because they appear from the very beginning of a pianist’s journey.

So how to practice embellishments with secure, reliable results? Here are a few ideas which have recently helped my students to overcome potential issues.

  1. Many don’t like excluding ornaments when first learning a piece, but this can be helpful in order to get a sense of the outline, structure and more importantly, grasp the pulse firmly. The last point is a crucial one because adding ‘extra’ notes really can destabilise the rhythm for many pupils, particularly inexperienced players.
  2. Once the pulse has been grasped, write the ornament clearly into the music. This shows exactly how it must be played, and will help to eradicate any uncertainties, illustrating just how the extra notes will easily ‘fit in’. Many aspects of piano playing are physiological, and it seems once the notes are in the score, they become part of it rather than a scary added ‘extra’.

A small section of a Baroque work with a trill such as this:

Baroque trill 1

Might be written out and interpreted like this, which is definitely easier and clearer to play and comprehend:

Baroque trill 2

3.  Some find it useful to sing the melody with the ornament/s – this facilitates good rhythm and an awareness of the musical line. Try doing this away from the piano too, but be sure to set a strict pulse and adhere to it. ‘Speaking’ the ornament out loud seems to clarify rhythmically ‘even’ playing.

4.  When it comes to practising, fingering will be paramount. Most teachers will have good suggestions, however, one facet which can become problematic is evenness, not just rhythmically, but tonal clarity too. To help with this, start by isolating the ornament. Mentally embed the fingering by using active, strong fingers, repeating the pattern a few times. I’ve written about employing physical flexibility, particularly in faster passage work, copiously on this blog! In ornaments, however, it is essential. Allowing the wrist to move rotationally between every note, each finger thus sinking into the key producing a heavy, rich (and necessarily loud tone), can be a fruitful way to work (practice the ornament this way both slowly and up to speed). Make sure your upper body feels relaxed between every note. No tension at all! Now lighten the trill (or whatever ornament is being worked on), using less movement and sound, to reveal a clear, even, rhythmical and hopefully, expressive ornament.

5.  Other viable practice methods include working in dotted rhythms and reverse dotted rhythms (just on the ornament). Using staccato or detached touches seems to work effectively too. This also builds on the idea of using a ‘heavy’ touch, but the fact that the notes are shorter, emphasises articulation and a crisp rhythm.

6.  Once the trill in question has been learnt thoroughly, try to visualize playing it in one motion or movement, this shouldn’t be too challenging once point number 4 has been fully digested.

7.  Now incorporate the ornament into the phrase; watch out for dynamic markings, the embellishment should add to the melody, so expressive colour and musical shape will be important.

8.  Finally, add the left or right hand (depending on which contains the trill), balancing the sound and listening carefully because the ornament must be part of the texture rather than a feature.

There are many other ways of practising these sumptuous  decorations, and with a little thought and work, they will become a beautiful part of the melodic line, and a positive addition to any 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.


Some thoughts on ‘practising’ during piano lessons

There are so many different ways of constructing a piano lesson, and of course, every teacher has their own approach or method. It will also depend on the student. Are they preparing for an exam? Are they working on improving their technique? Perhaps taking a theory exam? Or just starting to learn? There can be many elements to tackle in one lesson too, and this alone can be challenging for any teacher. What do they focus on first?

It’s interesting just how many teachers prefer to avoid teaching beginners, but surely a good teacher should be able to tackle every level of development and the first stages are regarded by many as the most crucial. Mistakes at the beginning can lead to all kinds of bad habits. Habits that can be hard to eradicate at later stages. The majority of my students are fairly advanced, however, I do teach a few beginners because this elementary stage serves as a useful reminder, providing helpful insights into the learning process, and as teachers we never stop learning.

Beyond the scales, sight-reading, studies and pieces most usually worked on during lessons, is the concept of understanding completely what a teacher implies. How this is reinforced can make the difference between a week of constructive practice or a week of misunderstanding. Working at issues until the proverbial penny drops can be a tireless exercise, but for the student, there is no doubt this is the only way to achieve real progress. Showing or instructing students to do something is quite separate from actually sitting there with them until they can do it with ease. In some cases it can be favourable to work through an entire piece, ‘practising’ with a pupil, but this can take lots of time!

It’s really akin to ‘learning to practice’ during the lesson. I know some will feel this to be a time waster, and certainly if lesson time is at a premium then only a small amount of this type of work can be done. For some students though, it can form a crucial part of the lesson, irrespective of their level. Whether working on a whole piece, page of music or just a few bars, once pupils actually see what is necessary in order to master certain sections of a piece they then have a much greater chance of working through the designated piece alone and consequently getting it right. Structured work such as this can really improve a pupil’s playing too. If technical difficulties can be completely surmounted during the lesson, this can bestow real confidence and motivation.

It’s  often necessary to break a piano piece down totally; write in all the fingering, work out a suitable method for keeping time (and staying in time), playing extremely slowly hands separately whilst employing a free hand/wrist/arm action, and deciding on phrasing and the use of sound, all before playing hands together (I’ve written about breaking a work into sections several times on this blog). Technique is generally easier to grasp if practised hands separately to start with, and then worked at bar by bar. This approach requires a very vigilant teacher, one who is not afraid to reinforce detailed work during each lesson, constantly refocusing a pupil’s attention and encouraging them to try again and keep working on passages many times, whilst always illustrating, demonstrating and keeping the student’s interest in order to obtain the desired outcome. After a reasonably short time, pupil’s normally get the feeling for what’s required for success in a particular passage, whether musically of technically. Discipline is crucial as it’s too easy to gloss over difficulties, never really conquering tricky passages, therefore giving the dreaded ‘approximate’ rendition.

The difference practising in a lesson can make to a student is tremendous; it actually enables them to envisage mastering a piece relatively easily. If they can learn via a tried and tested method during the lesson, then the chances are it will be easy to apply this to the rest of the piece. It’s always a better plan to make sure a student has thoroughly assimilated what has been discussed in the lesson, but if this is not worked at meticulously during the lesson time, the discussion will have been in vain.  Students do need to work through piano pieces methodically, and for some, providing a ‘plan of action’ is the only way, otherwise progress is not only slow but also very haphazard, frustrating and upsetting; it’s possible to really make a difference to technical and musical grasp by applying a very detailed approach to practising during lesson time.


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.


Perfect Hand Positions

If you read my post on Perfect Piano Posture, you will now know how to find the best playing position at the piano, or at least you’ll know what to be aware of when you’re sitting at the instrument. Today I will take a look at what constitutes the perfect hand position. This is just as important as posture and without it, progress will be difficult.

Firstly, put your hands on the keyboard and check that your forearms are roughly parallel to the floor (this is the best way to tell if you are sitting at the right height). You will be aware that you need to cup your hands in some way in order to play with any finger strength. You don’t want to encourage flat fingers or a flat hand either, so one of the best ways to allow freedom in the arms and hands is to assume your hand is grasping an orange (the orange being on the palm of your hand!) and then let go of the imaginary orange so that your hands are almost ‘cupped’ (when you go to play it will look like an upside down cup!). A little like the picture below:

So you want to play the piano photo 5

You’ll notice that in this ‘cupped’ position each finger is able to work ‘on it’s own’ independently of the hand. It is important that the fingers move on their own, i.e. they don’t rely on hand muscles when they move. It’s more effective if the fingers work on their ‘tips’ too so that each one is encouraged to play cleanly and accurately (as I’m showing above).

Fingers should be able to work freely from the knuckles, you can see them in position in the photo above too. Finger strength is paramount when developing piano technique, so hand positions should merely encourage this. A flat or slightly inverted hand seems to stop each knuckle and the surrounding muscles from building up any strength so be mindful of this when developing your ideal hand position. This last point is especially important when focusing on the fourth and fifth fingers – it’s all too easy to leave them out and a good hand position really helps them find their strength. High wrists tend to encourage tension and rigidity so with this is mind, it’s better to allow the wrists to sit in a low relaxed position as above.

Whilst the photo may give the idea of one rigid hand position, this is not true at all because it is merely a starting point; the hand and wrist should be flexible and free at all times so the fingers can move easily and quickly, guided by an agile, light arm and hand. Tension in the hand should be stopped as soon as possible as this will only impede movement. The more motion and movement made by the hands and wrists, the freer and more comfortable your hand positions will feel. Lateral wrist motion is particularly important in ensuring flexibility. So don’t allow your hands to be stiff or ‘stuck’ in one position. Try to develop a completely relaxed feeling when focusing on your hand positions. As always, a good teacher will help in this direction enormously as it’s a tall order improving aspects of piano technique alone. Good luck!

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.