Structured Piano Practice for Beginners: 10 Tips

Several readers have recently written requesting a post on structured practice ideas for beginners. I scrolled through my archives (you can browse them here) and realised that I hadn’t written anything on structured practice for this vast and significant group of piano students. I’m very sorry about this, and in order to redress the balance, I hope you find the following of interest!

  1. Beginners, particularly teenagers and adults, might benefit from setting goals. Decide what you wish to achieve by next week, next month and next year. When goals are in place, you are working towards a tangible outcome. It will help focus your mind and encourage you to keep going during those less than fruitful practice sessions.
  2. Stick to that routine. Find a time of day which works for you, then you can look forward to practising at the same time everyday or whenever suits your timetable. Piano practice might not always be possible, but if you can mark it in your schedule and are keen to do it, then you’ll be sure to make it happen.
  3. Little and often can work well. A beginner really doesn’t need to practice for more than 20 – 30 minutes a day. You may find it easier to work in two sessions. Aim to practice regularly as opposed to a couple of rushed sessions before your lesson (if you have one).
  4. Studying with a teacher is much more productive than learning alone. Find a suitable teacher and a beginner’s tutor or method book which is user-friendly and well organised (your teacher will probably advise here). Use this alongside other resources; it’s best to explore a variety of material as opposed to relying on one piano method book.
  5. Try to start your daily practice with a brief memory session on note testing. Practice writing the notes on manuscript (music) paper, and follow this by naming and locating them on the keyboard. Repetition will prove key. Learning to read music is a prerequisite when studying the piano. In my piano course, Play it again: PIANO Book 1, there is a music theory section at the back of the book with note-reading and rhythmic exercises.
  6. Begin your practice with a few relaxation exercises. Relax your shoulders as much as possible, and try to ensure they don’t rise up during practice. Keep your wrists loose, and arms, light and fluid. Fingers need to be firm, but the hand, wrist and arm should ideally be loose and flexible.
  7. Rhythmic reminders are vital. Clapping or tapping on the piano lid may prove beneficial, as will counting out loud along to your playing. Always keep a steady pulse, and aim to ‘feel’ a regular beat which might be described as similar to that of a ticking clock or heartbeat. It can be helpful to clap along to either a metronome or stop watch in order to become aware of the regularity and steadiness required. Clap or tap the pulse and rhythms in your pieces before learning the notes.
  8. Find and play the notes in your piece (or pieces) without the rhythm. Learning to coordinate both hands whilst grasping note patterns can take time, so try to do this before you add the rhythm. Write your fingering into the score, and ensure you use it! Take time moving around the keyboard and aim to find the notes with your fingers before you need to play them. Name the notes as you play, and keep your wrist and hands loose and relaxed.
  9. Repetition is important when getting to grips with note patterns. When combining the notes and rhythm together you may need to work at each bar many times. Keep your fingers close to the keys, eliminating any possible errors. Set an extremely slow pulse at first. When confident, add speed and repeat the phrases using a different tonal colour (try playing softly, then much more powerfully, for example). This precludes mindless repetition, encouraging focus on dynamics, phrase shape and other important musical features.
  10. Spend a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes on each little piece (similar to those in length in a piano method or tutor book), and in that time, concentrate fully until you can play fluently. The sense of achievement will feel monumental when you can skip through your piece with no errors. Play each piece from beginning to end after your practice session. This will channel your concentration, and illustrate what needs to be done at the next session.

And finally, make a note of each practice session in a notebook. It can help to write down what was achieved and how you did it.

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

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


 

5 tips to quell a sustaining pedal addiction

It’s a common tendency for students to rely too much on the sustaining (or right) pedal; whether aiming to create smooth legato lines or add resonance, the pedal can have an intoxicating effect. We use a little, and then before we know it, every bar is drenched! The article below is one I wrote for a recent Pianist Magazine newsletter, and I hope the five tips are helpful and of interest. You can read the original article, here.


The sustaining or right pedal can sometimes become an addiction. As an adjudicator, I have heard it being used or ‘ridden’ (as some say!) with alarming alacrity. From the very first note of a piece through to the final chord, students often tend to deploy a heavy right foot as though operating a car accelerator. However, if used with a little restraint, it can add a wonderful resonance and warmth to the overall piano sound. Here are a few ideas to think about when honing pedalling skills:

  1. A little sustaining pedal goes a long way. Practise playing your piece through without any pedal at all for a while. This will secure a clearer interpretation, and will allow you to become aware of legato lines, crisp articulation, and more importantly, assess your legato. If you’ve already been pedalling a piece for a while, it can be a shock to hear clipped melodies (and accompaniment figures) on removing the pedal. Unless your piece is full of large intervals or leaps which are impossible to join via the fingers, aim to use your fingers to create legato as opposed to employing the right pedal.
  2. The most important tool for good pedalling is good listening. This may be done away from the keyboard at first, hearing a work in your head, and then being able to decide where the sustaining pedal might ‘add’ to the sound of a particular passage. Too much pedal can result in unclear harmony and obscured passagework. You may need to experiment widely for the desired effect, and become accustomed to releasing the pedal much more often than previously.
  3. The amount of pedal necessary in any piece will change depending on the piano and a venue’s acoustic, therefore assume an open mind when deciding how long to keep the pedal depressed in a particular bar or passage. It can even be a good idea to incorporate use of the pedal in different ways during practice sessions, with the foot depressed for a fraction longer (or perhaps, shorter) than marked on the score. Again, let your ear be the guide.
  4. Another beneficial skill is the use of partial pedalling. Half-pedalling, half-damping, and flutter (surface or vibrato) pedalling all involve the similar technique of only depressing the pedal, and therefore the foot, a fraction, sometimes as little as an eighth of an inch (depending on the piano). Flutter pedalling is the most widely used, where the foot rapidly oscillates up and down, constantly clearing the sound. The art of using this technique will involve engaging the pedal quietly, literally shaking the foot, avoiding any damper noise. Such application will be dependent on the style of music and your ear.
  5. Occasionally, the sustaining pedal can be replaced by finger pedalling. In some genres, particularly Baroque, it can be beneficial to ‘overlap’ the fingers i.e. keep the keys depressed for longer than written in the score, so the sound runs over into that of some succeeding notes. This offers a similar sustained effect to the right pedal. It is, however, easier to control the release of sound this way, and it generally provides less ‘smudging’ than the sustaining pedal.

    My Publications:

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

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


     

New Piano Courses at Finchcocks

I’m very fortunate to love my work, and one particularly enjoyable aspect is the opportunity to direct piano courses and workshops. I’m writing this post whilst relaxing  in my accommodation in Shropshire (just a few miles from the Welsh border), where I’m working for two weeks at PIANO WEEK, an international piano festival and Summer school (more about this wonderful venture in another post). It’s a demanding and packed schedule working with pianists of all ages, but already I have made some firm friends and we have had a lot of fun.

This work is most rewarding and I was delighted to be invited to direct several piano courses at Finchcocks. For those who have yet to discover this innovative selection of piano courses, you can find out much more about them by clicking here.

Finchcocks is a stately manor house (pictured above) in Kent (UK) offering regular piano weekends for pianists of all levels, ages and abilities. The manor house, which has been recently renovated, has been hosting weekend courses throughout the past year (featuring popular tutors such as Graham Fitch, David Hall, and Dr. Mark Polishook). Designed as bespoke weekends, they feature luxurious accommodation, superb cuisine, plenty of friendly, encouraging piano tuition, and excellent practice facilities; in short, a marvellous ‘first piano course’ for those slightly intrepid pianists who fancy taking the plunge but are perhaps a little apprehensive.

My course will be held from December 7th – 9th 2018. It is intended for Intermediate pianists, or those of around Grade 4 – 7 level (ABRSM level). The course commences on Friday evening at 7.00pm, with some helpful tips for improving piano technique. Simple exercises for honing flexibility will be implemented and each course member will have the chance to try them out both at and away from the piano! This class will be followed by dinner.

Saturday will begin with a sight-reading workshop, offering some useful practice ideas, with lots of hands on participation. A master class will provide the opportunity to play your pieces and receive beneficial practice suggestions, and after lunch there will be time for private practice with some individual tuition with me. Before dinner, the group will reconvene for a listening seminar, which might provide food for thought and, hopefully, some interesting dinner conversation!

On Sunday, we’ll begin with a memorisation workshop, followed by a duet session (a highlight, for sure). The weekend closes with casual duet, trio and solo performances from course members. This could be the perfect course for those who want a gentle nudge back into the world of piano playing, but it may also be a useful, instructive performance platform for the more serious student preparing for a piano exam.

You can find out more about the course and book your place, here. Three further courses have been planned for 2019, for those unable to attend in December.

www.finchcocks.com


My Publications:

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

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


 

 

Harpsichord basics by Katharine May

Katharine May, who is a British harpsichordist and pianist, is my guest writer today. I asked Katharine (pictured below) for some tips and guidance for those who fancy swapping the piano for the harpsichord, therefore in this post she seeks to explain a few fundamentals. Over to Katharine…


I have often been approached by pianists wishing to try their hand at the harpsichord, needing some starting points on technique and repertoire. Following on from my brief introduction to the instrument posted in 2016 (you can read this post, here), I thought I would outline some of the harpsichord basics from a practical viewpoint to give readers some confidence and knowledge in understanding this wonderful keyboard instrument.

Touch and Technique

The first, most striking aspect one notices when trying a harpsichord for the first time is the action of the quill plucking the string, and it is the control of this action which helps to determine the quality of the sound produced. Tomás de Santa Maria in c1565 wrote `although the hands strike the keys gently, they nevertheless have to strike them with a little impetuosity`. It might take a little getting used to especially if one is more familiar with the action of a piano, and all harpsichords will feel different, but the trick is to be definite with the fingers and keep them close to the keys. In the first instance, and beginning with a single register (or set of strings, which Francois Couperin recommended in his 1716L`Art de Toucher le Clavecin), try pressing a key very slowly so that you consciously feel the moment when the string is plucked. Notice how long the sound lasts when the finger is still depressing the key, and listen carefully to the moment when the tiny damper cuts off the sound as you mindfully release the key. Control and sensitivity of these movements will greatly enhance articulation nuances, and equally can sound clumsy if mismanaged.

Harpsichord technique is essentially a finger technique – the arm and shoulder are used to maintain a good hand position and help it move over the keyboard and, as Rameau advises, `no great movement should be made where a lesser one will suffice`. Pianists will also invariably notice a difference in key width, length, depth and weight as everything is on a smaller scale. For small hands, this is ideal! Octaves and wide leaps (commonplace in Scarlatti) are somewhat easier, as the distance travelled is shorter but it can also make moving in between the naturals and accidentals more fiddly. Practice some familiar scales slowly using conventional fingering to help you feel more familiar, then take this a stage further by trying some (even all!) the scales using 1-2 fingering throughout, then 1-2-3, and so on, playing as legato as possible. You`ll be surprised how different this feels especially when moving between the naturals and accidentals but it will help to make, and keep, the fingers flexible. This exercise was passed on to one of my teachers, originally from Wanda Landowska. J S Bach`s own teaching method was, apart from scale, arpeggio and ornament exercises, based on using simple pieces. Which brings me to my next topic.

Repertoire to get you going

Even if readers are highly accomplished pianists, it is best to begin with the simplest dance pieces such as minuets and gavottes. This will enable the focus to be entirely on mastering, or at least understanding the basic touch. And there are hundreds of such pieces available. Try some of the ABRSM List A choices from Grade 1 upwards until you feel reasonably comfortable with the instrument, then you could move onto the Little Preludes of Bach or a selection from the Anna Magdalena Notebook (the original manuscript of one of the pieces in this popular book is shown above). Taking things a step further, have a look at some of the 2, then 3 part Inventions which after all, Bach wrote specifically to encourage a singing style on the harpsichord. Another composer worth exploring at this stage is Henry Purcell who wrote some exquisite pieces for the keyboard which tend to get overlooked today. His many dance pieces are characterful and evocative of 17th century England, while his 8 Suites explore a variety of harpsichord sonorities, though some movements are not quite so easy to the newcomer.

Accompanying

My concluding section focuses on the art of accompanying since here lies a whole new area to explore with the rewarding benefits of being a more social pastime. Again there is a plethora of music written by a wide range of composers which is very accessible for keyboard players and instrumentalists or singers alike. Originally the accompanist or continuo player would have just a single bass line with figures (or sometimes not!) to read from. This requires a whole new skill which can be daunting for those new to this aspect.

Today, most performing editions come complete with realized keyboard parts, making life perhaps a little easier for some. However, in all my years as a continuo player I have rarely come across a realized part that sounds really stylish, so I`d like to add a few tips and suggestions to the would-be accompanist finding themselves in such a position. Firstly it might be helpful and liberating to know that realized parts usually add far too much in the right hand. As Quantz wrote in 1752 `less is more`. So the most important thing is to follow the bass line and add what you can of the right hand, avoiding playing higher than the melody line, and provide rhythmic support and stability. Adding right hand notes when there is a rest in the left hand is not usually stylish, while adding chords to every bass line note can sound too busy and detract from the solo line. This applies especially to fast movements where there might be numerous passing notes – they certainly don`t all need to be harmonized. If readers are keen to try playing from a figured bass start with a slow sonata movement (to give you more thinking time) by composers whose harmonic language is not too complicated, such as Handel or Vivaldi, and avoid Bach and Purcell until you are more confident. As before, even if you lose your way, just keep the bass line going. While important, the figures are often just giving information rather than instruction and harmony is usually implied by the solo and bass lines combined.

www.edenvalleymusic.co.uk


My Publications:

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

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


 

Mindfulness in Music: Notes on finding life’s rhythm, by Mark Tanner

My guest writer today is pianist, composer, author, adjudicator, and music examiner, Mark Tanner. Mark has penned a wealth of piano and music related publications, including The Mindful Pianist (published by Faber Music in 2016), and numerous educational compositions (many of which have been featured on various exam syllabuses). Today, he provides an insight into his new book, Mindfulness in Music: Notes on finding life’s rhythm (published by Leaping Hare Press), which can be purchased here. Alternatively, you can pop by this blog next week and take part in my weekend competition, where I will be giving away a couple of copies. Over to Mark…


We talk a great deal about music – the role we think it plays in our lives, its seemingly endless capacity to rejuvenate, stimulate and orientate us. But we’re increasingly at risk of thinking of music as a utility or commodity – something that’s been created to tick a box perhaps, or to help us fulfil a particular function in our lives. Some of us look for music to be purposeful – or indeed to help us to be more purposeful in whatever activities we happen to be engaged in. We jog with headphones on, wait for an elevator to the accompaniment of tinny pop tune cover versions, and sit in the sauna to a backdrop of synthetic flutes and wind chimes. This resignation to the idea of ‘functional’ music seems to have become entangled with how we consume it – sometimes unthinkingly or with a sense of entitlement. Streaming music seems strangely out of kilter with the devotion shown by those who created it in the first place, drip by drip. Music on tap potentially leads to a lack of excitement and engagement – that feverish sense of anticipation we once felt as we put on a new CD is now more likely to resemble a lucky dip in Apple Music. Music might be something we sit down to listen to, but just as easily it will underscore some everyday activity such as fixing a broken toaster or waiting for someone to answer the phone about an electricity bill. One might be tempted to contrast this with music enjoyed in an earlier point in time, where the very notion of recordings would have seemed about as likely as Donald Trump becoming President. In taking music for granted we underplay its marvellous, mysterious qualities – we become harder to please, harder to be moved or exhilarated by sound, perhaps to a point where the beauty of a musical moment escapes our attention altogether. Today music all too easily blurs into ‘muzak’, which is a perilous place for us to have arrived at, since we feel robbed of choosing how, what and (perhaps even more importantly) when we listen. Listening and hearing are quite separate things of course; for me, this superabundance of music is the very antithesis of mindfulness, for we feel cajoled into consuming music instead of drawn in by its powers of intoxication. We can even feel that there is only a single, acceptable response to certain sounds, or that our emotions are in some way being manipulated to someone else’s ends. Advertising would be largely impotent without music, and yet ironically the music used is virtually always rendered anodyne in the process. Potentially, our dispassionate receptivity music leads to mindlessness, not mindfulness. This burden of choice, or else its polar opposite – no choice at all – also discourages us from pausing to reflect; we forget how to be thrilled or devastated by a musical experience. The flip-side of this is true when playing the piano of course, or perhaps especially when teaching it. The knowledge that an exam is on the horizon might help someone to concentrate on improving, but will it necessarily help them to notice what in the music is truly of value? Music exams, competitions and festivals, though hugely advantageous to many learners, unwittingly contribute to this regrettable commoditisation and compartmentalisation of music. Perhaps this is all rather inevitable and not worth getting distressed about; yet for me, the listener forms a key point in the triangle that starts with creation and ends with an emotion beyond the realm of words. Listening can even be said to be creative in and of itself, but only if we are alive to what it is trying to say to us.

I wrote Mindfulness in Music: Notes on finding life’s rhythm in 2017 as part of an ongoing series of around 30 beautifully presented hardback books published by Leaping Hare Press. I recall first noticing the series a few years ago as a table display in my local Waterstones and was immediately enticed by their craftsmanship; they really are things of beauty. Topics so far go from bread-making to bereavement, surfing to singing, Einstein to cycling! The book came out in April 2018 and was discussed in my interview with Tom Service on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Music Matters’ a couple of days later. The publishers wanted me to sum up in a concise, easily grasped way the essence of mindfulness and indeed the essence of music. There is surely no expectation of the need to be an expert in meditation, mindfulness or indeed music in order to gain something of value from such experiences – in the same way, one doesn’t need to be a virtuoso to enjoy playing the piano, or a graduate in music to enjoy listening to it being played. Music is always of the moment, even when it takes on epic proportions, such as a Wagner opera or Strauss tone poem. Perhaps Erik Satie had a rather important point to make when he penned his exquisite piano miniatures – for he achieved that impossibly difficult thing as a composer: to beckon the listener into a perfumed musical moment that seems to have already started before we’d even tuned in. Satie’s music, a little like the minimalist movement that followed a few decades later perhaps, rarely appears preoccupied by grandiose machinery, development or architecture – the music is there to be savoured, rather like caviar, truffles or a fine cognac. Deeply meaningful music does not, therefore, need to be large-scale or impressively ambitious in order to make its mark.

“Mark Tanner has written a mindfulness manifesto for music”

Tom Service, BBC Radio 3 ‘Music Matters’

It seems those who love music, or indeed use it in a more sophisticated way – either by learning about it or even earning money from it – become especially prone to this habit of picking away at the minutiae of surface details. It’s as though we imagine ourselves to be Michelangelo, putting the final touches to the Statue of David when we practise a few bars of intensely tricky music on the piano. Music students may feel a certain satisfaction from having put into words the cleverness bound up in, say, a Mahler symphony or lengthy Miles Davis jazz piece. And rightly so, for music’s narrative journey, or ‘story’, is frequently complex and deserving of that extra bit of attentive thinking, or even, dare I say it, analysis. The question here is at what point should we just let the music go its own way, unjudged, unevaluated? This is not a contradiction, more a conundrum, for there are times when we need to scrutinise, and others when we can just wallow and enjoy. As a pianist and composer, I find this question strikes at the heart of all I do, for I’ve spent many hours pouring over recapitulations in Mozart concertos, or else looking for ways to extend a simple tune that has just landed in my head. And yet, in the end, I know that this type of detailed work is only valuable because it allows me to tap into, and hence express the music’s bigger picture so that others are able to gain something from it.

When I wrote The Mindful Pianist for Faber in 2016, as part of the ongoing EPTA Piano Professional series, I dug deep into what we as pianists are attempting to achieve when we are playing; I broke this difficult subject down into four main areas: focus, practise, perform, engage. In essence, I was wanting those who love the piano to view what they do from a subtly different perspective, not just to grind away for days on end in an unwinnable bid to out-manoeuvre Beethoven, or conquer Ravel. I commissioned  perspectives from 25 well-known pianists, composers and teachers, and the ultimate aim was to provide an original way ‘in’ to the craft of piano playing, not just to offer a raft of tips on how to practise (though the book hopefully achieves that, too!). The book is unapologetically pianocentric – it’s my sincere attempt to embody the idea that we need to play and think about piano music in a thoughtful, mindful way in order to do it, and ourselves, justice.

“invigorating and thought-provoking”

Martino Tirimo

In this latest publication I assume no preexisting knowledge base or skill-set. It’s not written for aficionados or those in the know. Nor am I focusing exclusively on piano music. There are chapters on music as meditation, the rhythm of life, sound and sensuality, the language of music, parallel universes (how music can inhabit multiple meanings for us simultaneously) and the art of possibility – how the reader might acquire the confidence to sing in a choir, take up an instrument later in life or become a valued member of the musical community. I also take a closer look at what, if anything, we mean by ‘talent’ in music, what tone-deafness is, or indeed is not. I unpack the notion of perfect-pitch to see whether it really adds much to what proficient musicians might achieve, and offer 20 activities designed to help us all to resonate more enjoyably with everything from the sound of a squeaky gate to a love song by Elton John.

“Mindfulness in Music is both informative and thought-provoking – a fascinating read on many levels”

Julian Lloyd Webber

The ‘point’ of music – in virtually any way I consider to be realistic or meaningful – is surely  to connect with our human urge to feel emotion. It’s amusing to me that we talk about the Romantic period as driven by passion, feelings and expression, as if this has not always been the case, both before and since the 19th century! Sometimes we feel an impulse to re-connect with a particular song or piece of music in order to help us to relive a moment; in this respect, nostalgia in music is every bit as powerful as looking at sepia photographs or blowing dust from the yellowing pages of an old book. Come to think of it, the antiquity of Classical music perhaps renders all of our listening and playing experiences potentially nostalgic? I’ve always felt that music is all ‘ours’ – in other words, humans created it for the wonderment of other humans – and to this end the book sets out to scratch a little beneath the surface of what we thought we already knew. Let’s not forget that the world was making its own music millions of years before our distant ancestors began drumming away on stretched animal skins or experimenting with echoes in forests, and there is perhaps no greater music than silence, itself an endangered species. Becoming more aware of how we engage with music, and indeed what constitutes music in the first place (isn’t a waterfall music, or a storm reverberating through a valley?) is how we will gain more from it. I ask, in the book, “how can we be interested in the sound of nature if we are not intrigued by the nature of sound?” Can elephants really listen with their feet, for example, and why is it we cannot hear the deafening ‘songs’ of whales when we are ashore? These and other questions are not intended to be semantic or philosophical for their own sake, but seeded here and there within its pages to help place our enjoyment of music in a sharper spotlight, irrespective of what kinds of music we enjoy listening to or playing. Spirituality, in these terms, becomes more about the relationship we have with music directly – and a world that is forever teeming with sound – not necessarily tied to any god or religion.

As pianists, most of us grow used to grappling with music that was etched onto manuscript centuries ago. We take for granted that our playing skills need to be entwined with an ability to read music and make sense of heady things such as structure, harmony and counterpoint. This all too easily leads us to the numbing conclusion that music is only there to be sifted and sorted through, organised and fiddled with, until it finally submits to all our tireless thrashing about at the keyboard. If, on the other hand, we can learn to take a helicopter view of the music we love from time to time, even when we are doing battle with the intricacies of a Bach fugue or scrabbling around with fistfuls of notes in Debussy, we will access it from a more immediately rewarding place. And by doing this, not only will we derive more from the experience itself, we may also have more to ‘say’ when we sit down to play.

Mindfulness is concerned with self-compassion, i.e. forgiving ourselves for making mistakes and playing imperfectly. It’s also about savouring the here-and-now, not over-reaching, over-thinking or over-analysing. These things just throw a spanner in the works and at the same time distract us from noticing, savouring, enjoying and simply ‘being’. We can have an eye to the future prospect of playing to others, or perhaps taking an exam, without feeling fatigued by ‘end-gaming’, as Alexander would have put it. But it is also about positioning ourselves right at the centre of the musical experience. Though I am not a Buddhist, I find the notion of playing music as a ‘practical meditation’ utterly irresistible. We are engaging with the finest of art-forms – “the word music, after all, comes from ‘muses’ – the daughters of Zeus – to crystallise the purist conceivable artistic aspirations of the gods”, to quote from my own introductory text. It’s interesting that music has the power to realign us as well as fortify our daily lives, but more than this, musical experiences are valuable because they remind us of who we are, and this might even help us to become better versions of ourselves.

Mindfulness in Music, Notes on finding life’s rhythm, by Mark Tanner (Leaping Hare Press).



My Publications:

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

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


 

Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 4

Surveying the syllabus for Trinity College London exams Grade 4 (2015 – 2017), I’m happy to find a more eclectic mix of repertoire than that of the lower grades. From Haydn and McMillan to Gounod and Köhler, there’s definitely something for everyone in this collection, and the pieces are also segregated into groups; ‘A’ and ‘B’ (in a manner not dissimilar to the ABRSM A, B & C lists). Pupils and teachers can choose one piece from list A and one from list B, with a third from either list.

One aspect I particularly like about Trinity College exams, is the concept of a candidate presenting one of their own pieces (as the third piece option). Surely an imaginative and forward-thinking idea which can only encourage composition, and hence invite students to delve deeper into the compositional and analytical process of piano writing. As always, I’ve added a recording for each chosen piece (selected from one of the many on YouTube).

Here are my selections and practice tips:

  1. Allegro Moderato (first movement from Sonatine, Op. 300) by Louis Köhler (1820 – 1886)

A lovely tuneful movement in a Classical style, German composer Köhler is known for his sonatas and sonatines for young players. This work, in the key of G major, is bright, breezy, with a darker central section in E minor, and it offers many useful piano techniques: staccato combined with legato, left hand melody, short slurs and plenty of dynamic variation too.

  1. After learning hands separately, making sure all fingerings, notes and rhythms are fully understood and absorbed, continue by practising the left hand accompaniment alone. This is not dissimilar to an Alberti bass (a broken chord or arpeggiated accompaniment figure), and will benefit from slow, solid heavy fingerwork, before lightening your touch and adding speed. it’s important to keep the thumb light (as nearly always with this compositional technique), placing a slight emphasis on the lower notes, as this will help to shape the bass line.
  2. Similarly the right hand chords (bars 8 – 12 and 31 – 35) need to sound altogether but must also be light and soft, allowing the left hand to ‘speak’. Practice ‘balancing’ each chord i.e. taking each note down with a firm finger supported by the hand, aiming to use a soft, loose wrist whilst balancing each note, so they all sound absolutely together. This skill takes time to master, so keep working at it slowly (it’s easier to be guided by a teacher).
  3. When practising the melody line, note every phrase climax, and then grade sound accordingly. Staccato notes within a phrase (bar 1, in the right hand, for example), should ideally not be too short, but rather elegant and carefully graded. The slur markings at bars 6 – 7 and 29 – 30 (also in the right hand), need a ‘drop-roll’ technique (sinking the hand and wrist into the first note, and lifting up and forward on the second), plus an added tenuto (on the first note) and staccato (after the second note of each slur) for extra ‘leaning’ or accentuation. The left hand tune (bars 8 – 12 and 31 – 35) must soar above the right hand, with a fulsome forte (loud), and marcato (marked) touch.
  4. Coordination between the hands could be an issue here (bars 8 – 12 and 31 – 35). In order to alleviate any potential problems, start by working on one crotchet beat at a time (hands together), slowly assimilating the necessary movements between the hands. Bar 6 – 7 might be one such area (for example), where the left hand plays legato quavers whilst the right hand is in the midst of drop-roll slurring coupled with tenuto and staccato. By isolating each beat, and taking them out of context, playing a quarter of the intended speed, time is given to ‘feel’ the movements and the differing articulations needed. This technique might also be required for note patterns such as those at bars 8 – 12, where the left hand is the star, and bar 22, where passage work is in unison. When learned, practice playing through to a slow pulse, and then varying rhythms, touches and volumes between the hands, in order to gain control and become really fluent.
  5. Left hand accompaniment such as that at bar 14 (where minims must be held for their full length), and bar 17-18 (where the left hand contains a double note pattern and tenuto  markings), must be practised with extra care. A steady pulse should prevail, with sudden dynamic contrasts adding shape and colour.


2. Garden Path by Elissa Milne (1967 – )

There’s much to enjoy in this piece by Australian composer Elissa Milne. A reflective tranquil mood is offset with ‘blues’ inflections and an atmospheric resonance created by the inclusion of the sustaining pedal. This provides an excellent contrast to the first piece.

  1. Balance between the hands will be crucial. Left hand chords must be soft and light, particularly at the opening, and played as legato as possible. Time spent working at each hand separately will secure confidence around the keyboard. Work at taking each chord (in the left hand) down into the key bed slowly, balancing the sound and making sure each note is in unison. Now grade the sound (a little more on the crotchet than on the minim in each bar, for example, in bars 1 – 4, 5 – 7, and 9 – 12). The larger leaps (in the left hand) on the second page, might benefit from the notes being located on the keyboard and played much quicker than necessary, then when they are played at the suggested tempo, they will hopefully feel easier.
  2. The right hand melody contains an important technical element: holding the first beat of the bar and colouring it with sufficient sound so as to join smoothly and ‘match’ the sound of the next note (often a triplet or the third beat (in many bars)). To produce the deeper sound, play with the flatter part of the finger tip, and use plenty of weight from the arm (via a relaxed wrist, loose arm and elbow), playing into the key bed. By doing this a warm cantabile tone should emerge; the sound should hopefully be cushioned (avoiding ‘hitting’ the key from above, which produces a harsher, thinner sound), and will ‘ring out’ for longer.
  3. The triplet figures are another technical issue for many. Aim to play three quavers in the time it usually takes to play two, by practicing counting a regular (even) ‘three’ beats out loud; experiment by clapping the rhythm to begin with. Then place  it in context, in its place on the last beat of the bar (of bars 1, 3, 5, 9, 11, 13, 19, 21, 23, 27 and 29). To do this, clap all three crotchet beats in each bar, but sub-divide each one equally into three, whether there’s a triplet on the beat or not (in other words, for practice purposes, clap a triplet on every beat). If you can do this for the first two lines of music, keeping a strict pulse, when you actually play the notes as written, the triplet should fall into place and the rhythm will hopefully feel natural.
  4. The effective addition of the chromatic scale in the right hand at bars 13 – 14, and 31 – 32 offers the chance to either learn the expected fingering (as written for scales), or the fingering suggested at bar 13, which uses a 4th finger (instead of the traditional 1, 2 & 3).
  5. Chords (for example, at bars 15 – 16 and 17 – 18) should ideally be graded carefully, with the top line at the forefront of the texture (the 4th and 5th finger might need some extra support from the hand and arm here), and as legato as possible. Experiment with the sustaining pedal, which is used (as directed) for every bar, to add resonance, and when confident, relax the tempo adding appropriate rubato.


3. Matsuri (Japanese Festival) by Michael McMillan (1980 – )

Full of vibrant colour and rhythmic energy, this work is fun to play and compliments my selected pieces from lists A and B, nicely. Composer Michael McMillan has created the Japanese ‘sound’ with open fifth intervals in the accompaniment and a colourful offbeat, quirky melody.

  1. The left hand accompanies throughout, often with staccato quavers a fifth apart. It’s relatively to easy to learn the fingerings and positions for bars 1 – 9, but its essential for the hands to remain flexible and relaxed. Tension can rear it’s head if the wrist and arm remain ‘locked’ in position. Alleviate this by encouraging the wrist to keep moving freely, finding places to rest the wrist, so any stiffness can be ‘released’ (many find it best to do this at the end of a bar, or possibly after a four bar phrase). Practice by leaving small gaps at first (stop playing and take a short rest), and as the wrist becomes accustomed to the break (or muscle release), the gaps will become increasingly shorter, until they are imperceptible.
  2. Minims in the left hand at bars 10 – 19 must be held for their full value. Aim to practice this bass line on its own, holding down the note until the very last possible moment before finding and playing the next one. The crotchet/quaver pattern above each minim, requires a firm first note and much lighter second (quaver).
  3. The right hand melody should ideally be very rhythmical, with little opportunity for tempo ‘changes’. With this in mind, start by setting a slow speed on the metronome (probably a third or quarter of that intended), and work through learning all fingerings and position changes. In bar 3, the 4th finger will need to be strong, so ensure a deep touch (using the finger tip), supported by the hand and arm (try to move the hand slightly to the right and away from the body supporting the weaker part of the hand).
  4. Articulation will be crucial, and to create the sharp, fairly clipped sound, observe all staccato and tenuto markings closely; the offbeat right hand fifths in bar 2 and bars 18 – 19 will need a steady, solid and rhythmical left hand in order to ‘bounce’  with characterful colour.
  5. The three and four parts spread between the two hands from bars 10 – 17 are probably the most complicated in the piece. Work a bar (or beat) at a time, first combining the two outer parts (bottom note with the tune), then the inner parts, before playing together. The last line of this piece is fun to play; every semiquaver must be equal rhythmically, so try to avoid rushing the second and fourth beat of each crotchet (it can help to accent these when practising).

For more information on this series, click here.


My publications:

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

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


 

 

 

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 publications:

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

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


 

9 Tips for Piano Exam Success in 2017

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire is a new series on my blog, which will begin in earnest next week. Today’s post is in preparation, offering a few practice ideas to make piano exam study a more fruitful and rewarding affair.

Some of you have written (over the past year or so) requesting information about piano exam programmes and how best to select and practise various pieces, so I hope this series of posts might be helpful and of interest. Choosing appropriate pieces from any syllabus is always a major consideration; an important part of exam preparation is deciding which set works combine effectively, offering an attractive, interesting programme whilst also displaying your particular strengths.

I’m going to focus on two exam boards: ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London (starting with the old syllabus (2015-2017), moving to the new one over the coming months). Every post in the series will feature three pieces (for each grade) which complement one another, are fun to play, and supply engaging technical and musical demands.

These pieces are usually contrasting in style and character, which is an element I will emphasise in my selections. These selections are merely personal preferences, because all works within the syllabus lists have already been carefully chosen to present engaging programmes. My objective is to provide a few tips and practice ideas for the chosen three pieces (much of which can be transferred to other repertoire too), and I hope you find these helpful and informative.

Before I launch into the repertoire, I offer a few suggestions for those preparing for piano exams. Whether you’re a young student taking Grade 1 or a mature student taking Grade 8, there are many ways of making sure you achieve your goal. Here are a few practice ideas to utilize during the months leading up to the big day.

  1. A piano exam practice schedule is a good idea. It doesn’t need to be fanatically followed, but if you can make a promise to yourself to practice little and often, your playing will immeasurably improve. Decide just how much time you can devote to piano playing every week; it might be 20 minutes per day, or 20 minutes twice per day. The regularity of your practice is important, as is focused, mindful concentration. Five days per week is optimum, and it can be useful to work in two sessions as opposed to one.
  2. Include all exam elements in each session. Piano exams normally consist of three pieces, scales & arpeggios (or technical exercises), sight-reading and aural (there are other options too, for some exam boards). Aim to include all (or at least three of the four tests) elements at every practice session, perhaps working with a stop watch or clock, so you don’t spend too much time on one area.
  3. A set routine can be profitable. During the practice session try to establish a ‘rota’; perhaps start with sight-reading and follow this with scales and technical work at every session. By doing this, you will quickly cover two important parts of your exam whilst you are still fresh and able to fully concentrate. Leave the set pieces until later in the practice session.
  4. Sight-reading usually requires your full attention, and although it might seem tedious and onerous, if you can regularly devote time to it, improvement will be significant and will make all other piano endeavours feel easier. Ten minutes at the beginning of every session is ideal.
  5. Moving onto scales, arpeggios and technical work, you may need a quick pause between sight-reading and scales; it’s best to take regular breaks. If you’re preparing for a higher grade exam (Grade 6 or above), you might need to practise scales and arpeggios in rotation, as aiming to include all in one session can prove taxing and take too much time. Work out a timetable whereby all technical  work is practised thoroughly, allowing you to concentrate fruitfully on each one.
  6. Set pieces; each piano piece may also benefit from a rotational approach, particularly if they are advanced and complicated. It’s a better plan to practise slowly and assiduously as opposed to skimming over lightly, which may necessitate working at a smaller amount of material at each practice session.
  7. Performance goals. Once the pieces are within your grasp i.e. you can play them through slowly, aim to finish the final practice session of the day with a ‘play-through’ of at least one piece. This can be a valuable exercise to gauge your progress, note what has been achieved weekly (or daily), and become accustomed to establishing the mental thought process required to think from beginning to end without any breaks or hesitations.
  8. Time keeping. A worthwhile exercise is to play each piece slowly with a metronome. Set the metronome to a very slow speed and go through your piece, playing along precisely to the electronic pulse. This can highlight any technical problems, as well as instilling accurate pulse-keeping, and it will also consolidate fingerings, notes and rhythms. Many find it beneficial to ‘play through’ a work slowly, devoid of emotional content, proffering the space and time to think about physical movement around the keyboard i.e. how flexible, relaxed and comfortable you feel whilst playing each piece (for me, a really important aspect of piano playing).
  9. Aural. Surprisingly, it is possible to practice parts of this element on your own. Singing can be done at the piano, testing yourself on the expected patterns, such as intervals and scalic movement (I provide my students with various intervallic ‘tunes’). You can even play (and sing) the actual singing tests yourself. This is also true of cadences and any chord progressions; you can ‘learn’ how they sound whilst playing. More tricky tests such as recognising styles of music should ideally be honed over a period of time; YouTube provides all the music you’ll ever need in order to become familiar with how various genres ‘sound’.

These ideas can be easily implemented. Piano exams can be daunting, but if prepared carefully and not left until the last-minute, they offer much enjoyment and the perfect opportunity to really improve your playing.

The first post in my new series will feature the ABRSM Grade 1 piano exam. You can find out more about Grade 1 here.


My publications:

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

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


Practising Duets: Part 1

This is the first of two posts addressing piano duet practice. Most students love to play duets, after all it’s one of the few times they get to work with a fellow pianist. It can be helpful for pupils to work in pairs for many aspects of piano playing – from practising scales and arpeggios, to testing each other on sight-reading, and for me, duets are an extension of this important work.

Playing with another pianist (i.e. four hands) can make the overall piano timbre feel much grander and fuller than when playing solo. And with this in mind, beginners and less experienced players can really benefit from playing four and six handed music (at one keyboard).

As a young pianist, I played a large array of duets (at every level), and had lessons as a teenager at music college in this discipline. In my twenties, I established a piano duo with a Russian friend and colleague; we played both two piano and duet repertoire; everything from Schubert’s glorious Fantasie in F minor (for duet) to Liszt’s dramatic Reminiscences de Don Juan (for two pianos). Particular repertoire favourites included Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat major and Poulenc’s superb Two Piano Concerto. We had great fun with these masterpieces. Working at two piano repertoire feels very different to playing with four hands at one piano, and it’s preferable to start with one keyboard; playing trios is becoming increasingly popular too, and is a great way to incorporate beginners into ensemble playing.

When young students (and older students!) play together for the first time, there will be a number of issues requiring careful work and preparation. From rhythm, sound and precise ensemble to pedalling (it feels so different from pedalling for one), balance and articulation. This post hopes to address a few of these concerns, arming potential duettists with various methods to practise different technical and musical elements.

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced player, it can help to begin by warming up with a few exercises together, as a duo: these exercises can help with sound production, finger and wrist flexibility and mostly importantly, will foster precise ensemble playing. They will also attune listening skills; a facet which can take time to develop. Once each pianist has learnt their own part, the work starts – playing with another certainly adds a new musical dimension, especially for the less experienced player.

Here are a few exercises for the beginning of a practice session:

The first consists of slow semibreves; play very steadily, focusing on producing a warm, full sound, using the wrist in a very flexible, loose manner, whilst keeping arms and elbows relaxed:

duet-exercise-1The Secondo (bass) or second part is just as essential as the Primo (treble) or first part; both parts  must be considered equal. Starting pianissimo, experiment with plenty of different tonal colours (an enjoyable part of the process during this first exercise). It will help you to listen to the sound produced, and learn to place the notes together at the same moment (quite a challenge!). Aim  to observe each other’s hands at the vital moment just before playing each note, and learn to place trust in one another’s physical gestures too. If you can also keep to a strict pulse (break this down into small sub-divisions i.e. try counting aloud together in quavers, for example), this will instigate precision when placing each semibreve.

The second exercise (below) focuses on prompt placing of crotchets a third apart, which will again encourage listening skills whilst building on the first exercise. It’s in the five-finger position, so is convenient and easy for beginners, but could be used for up to and including intermediate to advanced players.

duet-exercise-2The final exercise is faster and needs firmer finger technique. However, finger technique will hopefully improve when practising this seemingly never-ending pattern. Be sure to use the suggested fingering, which follows the five-finger position, and remember to decide on a place to stop too! You could also play this exercise in reverse, coming down the keyboard following a similar pattern.

duet-exercise-3Play the exercise slowly to begin with then gradually build speed when secure. Clear articulation, and completely rhythmical quavers should ideally be the primary concern.

Once assimilated these exercises can be practised using various rhythms and touches (legato, non-legato, staccato, tenuto). I hope they help pupils of all levels to focus on ensemble skills, before negotiating their duet pieces.

Other useful exercises include the 28 Melodious Studies Op. 149 by Diabelli. They offer a wealth of study material for duettists, from around Grade 2 onwards.


My Publications:

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

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


5 Top Tips to Aid Memorisation

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


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

Here are a few ideas to aid memorisation:

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

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


My Publications:

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

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


.

Image link