Practising Duets: Part 2

Wishing all my readers a very happy and restful Bank Holiday weekend!

In Part 1 of today’s post (which you can read here), I suggested some warm-up and practice exercises for students prior to working on repertoire. This post offers various practice ideas for duos. These are described via my collection of little duets, SNAPCHATS.

Snapchats Front Cover SNAPCHATS are a useful teaching resource for pupils between Grades 1 – 4 (ABRSM). They consist of 11 extremely short works (8 – 10 bars in length), which can be easily negotiated by less experienced players. They might be a good choice for festivals or recitals; pairing two of them together also works well. One aspect I was keen to explore when writing, was to include several different techniques and piano sonorities, which may be new to players of this level.

The title Snapchats was derived from the social media platform, but the pieces are not specifically related to each other and have eclectic titles. I love harmony, and this is often my primary focus, however, there are a few tunes, with a nod to Minimalism too!

I’m going to do a quick ‘tour’ of each piece, exploring a few of the piano techniques employed, with two or three suggested practice tips. I’ve included a video of each work, some performed by myself and British pianist Nick van Bloss, with two duets played by young students Arthur and Alex Anderson (who performed them at a recent concert).

SUTRA

The first piece (which is around Grade 2 ABRSM level) is calm and tranquil, as the name suggests, yet it must be precise rhythmically or the meditational (or chanting) character will be lost. Chords in the secondo (lower part) are answered with notes ‘ringing’ out above, in the primo. There are several technical aspects here:

  1. Once chords have been negotiated in the secondo part (this could be a new challenge for the inexperienced), experiment by playing them legato (i.e. going from one chord to the next, without any gaps in the sound), voicing the top note. The primo octave pattern, meanwhile, must be placed very rhythmically on the 2nd and 3rd beats of the bar, with a tenuto touch (first line) yet slightly staccato touch (second line), and with some directional colour, precipitating the musical line and how it develops in subsequent bars.
  2. I would encourage players, to count in quavers throughout until they can convey the chanting successfully.
  3. The repeat can be played pianissimo, dying away at the end. It might be fun to add Sustaining pedal too – one pedal per bar encapsulating all the harmonies.

DATE IN MIND

This Minimalist inspired piece (which is around Grade 3 level) focuses on an Alberti Bass secondo accompaniment with a chordal primo (often in intervals of 3rds & 6ths).

  1. The secondo part weaves its way through various chordal patterns and should ideally be light, yet appropriately colouring (or emphasising) various points in the score, particularly in the bass, which provides the all-important bottom of the harmony. Examine the bass line alone, and focus on incorporating it with the primo (i.e. practice the secondo left hand with both hands in the primo part).
  2. Primo players might like to highlight the top line, separating it (tonally) from the other notes in each chord. To do this, weight the hand towards the right or weaker side (that of the 4th & 5th fingers), moving the arm and wrist accordingly.
  3. I would work very slowly with young players, taking a bar at a time, ‘fitting’ each beat together (rather like a jigsaw puzzle), ensuring each quaver in the secondo is exactly ‘placed’ with the melody in the primo).

LIGHT

Probably amongst the simplest of all the pieces in Snapchats (Grade 1 level), Light would be suitable for those who have less experience playing duets. A simplistic tune is accompanied by chords.

  1. Chords must all be placed together which is quite challenging here, as they occur on the second (or weaker) beat of the bar. Therefore, it might be an idea to work at the accompaniment first. Take the chords in the primo’s left hand and the secondo’s right hand; play them with a metronome set on a slow tempo, or count carefully.
  2. Add the bass note on the first beat of the bar (secondo, left hand), practising until all notes have been thoroughly digested and can be played without hesitation.
  3. Finally, add the melody, which may need some attention where fingering is concerned as the tune doesn’t always move in stepwise motion. Highlight the counter-melody in the secondo part too.

This duet can be played without any pedal, but will need plenty of colour and sound variation.

SAMSARA

One of the more difficult of the set (around Grade 4), this can be played at any speed, from Moderato to Presto. The secondo’s accompanying Alberti Bass must be light but very rhythmical, and this is combined with the primo’s rapid melodic passagework.

  1. Ensure the secondo’s lower part provides a firm first beat, after which the remaining quavers can be light, skimming the keys for a soft, even sound. The primo player will need to know the notes well in advance, as there are some tricky turns, particularly in the last bars. As always, practice bar by bar.
  2. For two players to learn to ‘place’ beats at speed, the  metronome might provide the perfect aid. Start under tempo, listening to where the beat falls, gradually learning to observe your duet partner and keep time (which is usually a slow process). Physical gestures will also help. Keep pedal to a minimum here (you actually don’t need any), and end with a full sound.

FLOATING

Another Minimalist inspired piece (around Grade 3 level). The harmony in this piece provides its wistful quality, so to begin with, I would examine the chord structure.

  1. Aim to play the chords altogether in minim beats (blocking them out), therefore two chords per bar (incorporating the accompaniment and the tune).
  2. Once the outer structure has been assimilated (this will help with fingering, and learning where to move), work at the accompaniment, ensuring all the quavers sound together; i.e. primo’s right hand & secondo’s left hand.
  3. Then add the tune, allowing it to float above other texture. Some arm weight will be necessary in order for the melody to sing above the texture; practise by employing a free, flexible wrist, and use the finger-tip, weighting the key with your wrist, arm and elbow behind the note as you play it. This take practice (and a good teacher who will show you what to do), but will be worth it in terms of sound quality.

MISTY RAIN

One of the more unusual of the set (probably around Grade 3), it requires use of harmonics to capture the misty effects of the rain.

  1. The opening chords (in both parts) must be played ‘silently’ to start with (and then held in place), so they unleash the full ‘resonance’ of the piano strings as other notes are played. Practice balancing your hand and fingers first; hover over the keys and take all the notes down, finding the ‘biting point’ or the double escapement where the sound begins. Then take notes carefully past the escapement without sounding them at all. This might need some practice. When both pianists can do this, keep the chord in place until the end of the piece (it only needs ‘playing’ once).
  2. The melodic material must be crisp, detached and light. Work at both right hand parts, playing with a legato touch at first. When notes and fingerings are secure, change to staccato. It’s easier to play if the wrist is flexible, combined with finger staccato (i.e. using finger-tips in a quick, tapping motion, keeping close to the keys). The effect of the quick staccato with the harmonic series behind it will create the misty vibe.

BLACK SQUARE

My favourite of the set! Around Grade 3 level, melodies intertwine here with a strong harmonic pattern.  The melody, which is essentially in the left hand of the primo part (as well as a counter-melody in the right hand primo), requires a full sound and careful shaping.

  1. Again, focus on flexibility in the wrist so that the fingertips delve deeply into the key in combination with weight from the arm, encouraging the melody to sing through the texture. The top line is merely delicate filigree and can be played lightly.
  2. The accompaniment should ideally be rich with minimal pedal. Aim to hold notes for their full value in the secondo (particularly when playing chords, such as at the opening), joining chords with a legato, smooth evenness. Hold notes in position until the very last millisecond, then quickly raise them all and move to the next note position (if different), and depress softly as the sound from the previous chord dies away, so as to match the sound. The join should almost be seamless, and the sound, ongoing, acting as a foil for the primo
  3. Plenty of ensemble work will need to be done in order to play beats exactly together.

ANDANTE

Another interweaving melody which moves between the parts (and is around Grade 2 level). The offbeat tune is present in the secondo right hand and primo left hand, the colouring of each part must be such that the listener is immediately aware of the syncopation.

  1. With this in mind, work at the melody lines first, counting precisely, taking them out of context and playing around with them: experiment with different touches (non-legato, staccato), followed by various accents, which should help to ‘feel’ the slightly off-beat character.
  2. The final two bars (suddenly in a new time signature: 4/4 after 3/4), contain rather unexpected note patterns which might require separate hand practice (primo & secondo right hands alone). Be sure to observe the tenuto markings

HOPSCOTCH

The first of two energetic, zippy pieces, calling for sharp articulation and tight ensemble playing. The overriding feature in this little piece (which is about Grade 2 standard) are the glissandi. They feature in the second line only.

  1. In order to grasp the feel of sliding the back of your hand across the keyboard in time (for the glissandi), start by practising running your hand (which is turned, with nails facing down on the keyboard) over the keys (using the nails to touch the keyboard, otherwise you will break your skin and bleed), and skim over two octaves at a time within the 2/4 framework. You might choose to play the intended note at the end (and F in the final bars) or leave the glissandi ‘open ended’! Either option works. Avoid ‘digging’ into the keyboard too much when skimming over the keys.
  2. Once you can glissando effectively, learn each phrase, using an extremely short, spikey touch for the staccato melody, phrasing each note so that whilst you are playing the notes in a short detached manner, fingers are not ‘rushing’ to the next beat. In other words, space rhythmically. Each two bar motif (or theme) must ‘answer’ the other.

QUICK CHAT

This is a fun piece for learning how to play as a duo in a fast tempo. As quaver passages are often played together by both primo and secondo parts, the notes must be played as if by one person.

  1. Start by playing legato, and slowly, only building speed when confident and when the parts can be securely played simultaneously. Set the metronome on a quaver beat and play with every beat, listening for where the beat falls.
  2. For staccato, practise lifting fingers cleanly off the notes, picking them up, using a combination of wrist and finger staccato.
  3. The difficulty here is playing in the same staccato manner; one pianist’s short and detached is not necessarily the same as another’s; aim to play them with identical shortness and crispness, and with a sharp attack. I find it best to play on the tips and use the top half of the finger to rapidly ‘tap’ or ‘scratch’ the key, softening the wrists after each group of four to counteract any tension.
  4. The glissandi at the end requires pizzazz and intuitive playing; work slowly only increasing tempo when quavers are aligned and the glissandi can be played quickly.

SHANTI SHANTI

A zen-inspired title and Chinese melody, this little piece is around Grade 1 level and is ideal for those starting out.

  1. The chords in both left hand parts must be soft and languid; work at taking the notes down slowly, for a shady, soft colour.
  2. The melody needs a brighter, deeper sound and must be absolutely together (it’s played by both right hands), so working at them alone will help alignment and, counting aloud will keep the rhythm precise. It can be helpful to count in ‘double’ beats when placing notes: if the melody is in crotchets (as here), then count in quavers, or even semi-quavers, for precise placing and voicing.
  3. As with all the duets, I advise working with a metronome, starting out at slow speeds, raising the tempo only when secure and reliable (and without hesitations).

The techniques suggested can be applied to many four hand (and six hand) pieces. Enjoy practising duets and relish the opportunity to work with another like-minded pianist.

SNAPCHATS was recently highly recommended by Spanish pianist, teacher and blogger Juan Cabeza Hernández, as extremely beneficial teaching material. You can read his blog post here; Best 10 Piano Teaching Resources 2016

You can find out more and purchase the SNAPCHATS score 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.


For more useful tips, take a look at my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO, published by Schott Music. Intended for those returning to the piano after a break, each book offers a wealth of varied repertoire from Grade 1 – 8, accompanied by copious practice tips and ideas.

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


For lots of information on memorisation and much more, check out my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?

For useful piano repertoire, check out The Faber Music Piano Anthology, containing 78 pieces from around Grade 2 – 8, selected by me.

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Recommended Piano Resources for November 2016

Badge Graphics Draft 3In the run up to Christmas, many of us are on the lookout for gift ideas for friends, family, piano teachers, students and piano lovers everywhere. I hope this fairly substantial selection will inspire a host of piano related shopping. As usual, there’s something to interest all levels. I’ve made a few exciting composer discoveries (which is always fun); today’s list features a historical novel, a new piano method, a practice notebook, a Children’s piano concerto, and new compilations, as well as publications from our favourite publishers. Enjoy!

Beginners/Elementary

Piano Junior

ed_13801-heumann_648_This new method published by Schott Music consists of a series of books (8 books in total) and has been written by German pedagogue and composer, Hans-Günter Heumann. I was a consultant on this method, and it has been exciting to see the finished product. PJ is a robot who is the main ‘character’ (he has a friend called ‘Mozart’ the dog too!) in this tutor series for youngsters (age 6 and above). Piano Junior is designed as a ‘fun and interactive’ piano method, starting with black notes, employing innovative, user-friendly graphic notation before introducing white notes, traditional staves, clefs and time signatures. In addition to each book, there is also extra material on the website, which includes videos, audio demos and play-alongs for all the pieces, as well as downloadable rhythm checks, workouts, sight-reading exercises and other resources. Find out much more here and purchase here.

My Practice Palette

my-practice-palette-coverWritten by British teacher Roberta Wolff, this book can be enjoyed in paperback or e-book version and is designed to assist students and teachers in their quest for effective practising. My Practice Palette  is essentially a notebook which aims to educate parents, teaches, and students about how to practise while eliminating the need for teachers to write practice notes. This is done by teaching practice methodology and metacognition. Roberta recommends using My Practice Palette from grades 1-5. Teachers can also work through the Practice Palette during lesson time. The benefits of this are, no extra time is required for planning, and teachers can be spontaneous yet easily keep track of a student’s progress. It’s certainly a colourful volume and would no doubt encourage those who might otherwise find practising dull. Find out more and get your copy here.

14 Easy Pieces for Piano

lane_richard_14_easy_pieces_for_piano_pno73American composer Richard Lane (1933 – 2014) has written a group of charming little pieces for those of around Grade 1 level (ABRSM). I discovered Richard’s music through the ABRSM list C pieces (for 2017/8), whilst writing the Piano Notes series (due to be published by Rhinegold in January). These works, which are published by Swiss publisher BIM Editions, are tuneful, attractive and all feature particular technical elements (important for teaching repertoire). Duets, an arrangement and original pieces all feature in this volume. Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Star

9781848499249This is a new series published by the British examination board, ABRSM, for beginners (or for those up to prep test level). There are three books in the series, each containing new arrangements and original pieces written by a host of different composers and teachers, all associated with the popular British exam board. The volumes include solo pieces and duets, offer a mix of styles, plus fun extension activities and plenty of illustrations. There are 74 pieces in total, written by 20 composers including Christopher Norton, Paul Harris, Mark Tanner and Mike Cornick, and children will love the tuneful simplicity of the pieces; this is certainly useful teaching material. Find out more and purchase here.

Intermediate

Piano Concerto No. 1 For Children

pno18-chkolnik_concerto_for_children-web

An interesting discovery, written in 1993 by Russian composer Ilia Chkolnik and published by BIM Editions, in their Junior Series. Piano concertos written solely for children are becoming increasingly popular, with many, particularly Russian composers, highlighting this potential gap in the market. This score has an orchestral reduction (or second piano part), and at first glance, could be mistaken for advanced level. However, it consists of idiomatic, essentially tonal writing and lasts just 11 minutes. There are three movements, two fast outer sections, and a beautiful slow movement, which reminds me of Shostakovich’s Second Concerto in F major Op. 102. Teachers looking for varied contemporary repertoire will enjoy this piece. To hear, find out more and purchase, click here.

Intermediate to Advanced

My First Chopin

ed_22459_1-ohmen_648_

A new publication from Schott Music, compiled by German pianist and pedagogue, Wilhelm Ohman. This collection of 20 pieces lies well within the capabilities of the advanced player, and contains some of Chopin’s best-loved works including a group of Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas and Nocturnes. These genres are popular amongst students, and with the Raindrop Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6, Waltz in B minor Op. posth. 69 No. 2, Mazurka in B flat major Op. 7 No. 1, Nocturne in C sharp minor No. 20 Op. posth., Funeral March (from Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35), to name a few favourites. An excellent addition to any student’s library. Find out more and purchase here.

The Piano Playlist

ed_13860-turner_648_

A large selection of 50 popular classical pieces arranged by British arranger and editor Barrie Carson Turner, and published by Schott Music. Arrangements have always been a favourite with pianists, and this offers a comprehensive list of music across several centuries, all transcribed for intermediate up to advanced players. From opera arias (Habanera from Carmen by Bizet, Nessun Dorma from Turandot, and O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schicchi both by Puccini), to ballet numbers, famous gems from orchestral works (Ode to Joy (Beethoven), The Swan (Saint-Saëns), Adagietto (Mahler’s 4th Symphony)), to piano concertos, instrumental music and  arrangements of piano pieces. My choice piece is When I am Laid in Earth from Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. This is a beneficial volume for those wanting to discover some of the best-loved works in the Classical repertoire. It would also serve as excellent sight-reading material. Find out more and purchase here.

The Ultimate Easy Piano Songlist

e20016ac-d186-4c15-a350-c7c3873fd590A new publication from Faber Music. Containing 45 arrangements of best selling songs, this will please those who enjoy a wide variety of pop and easy listening music. Numbers from artists such as Adele, Cilla Black, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Rea, Michael Buble, Eagles, One Direction, Wham!, Nina Simone, Muse, Vera Lynn, David Bowie, Justin Beiber, Jamie Cullum, and Radiohead, to name a few. This is designated ‘Easy Piano’ but few elementary pianists will manage these arrangements; I would suggest intermediate level as minimum. Complete with lyrics and chord indications, this is a lovely volume, and would make a perfect stocking filler! Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Collection by Jevdet Hajiyev

indexThe first book of a special centenary edition of selected piano works inspired by Azerbaijani traditional music, written by Azerbaijani composer, Jevdet Hajiyev (1917 – 2002). This volume is published by EVC Music Publications, in a project commissioned by the Muradov family archive. For intermediate to advanced level players, this book will be a useful addition to any piano teacher, advanced student or keen amateur’s piano library. With the expected Russian inflections, this music is generally tonal but with a direct influence of Twentieth Century masters such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich (Jevdet Hajiyev’s teacher). Some pieces are short (such as those from Musical Sketches), whilst the Scherzo and Sonata are more substantial. Listen to the music, find out more and get a copy here.  

Online

Flowkey

flowkeyFlowkey is a piano learning-app geared for all levels, whether beginner or advanced. It’s also a useful music education tool for parents, teachers, and adult learners, as it’s easy to get started. A wide spectrum of music is covered, from classical music to pop songs. You can apparently practice interactively and receive instant feedback; progress can be tracked and piano lessons are also on offer, in the form of various courses. Flowkey is partnered with Yamaha, and can be easily connected to digital pianos. Find out much more here.

Books

Ghost Variations

getattachmentthumbnailThis is the latest novel by British author, writer, and critic Jessica Duchen. Whilst not strictly focused on the piano, it is a very interesting musical tale. Jessica tells the true story of Hungarian-born violinist Jelly D’Aranyi’s quest to recover Robert Schumann’s forgotten violin concerto. It’s also the story of an aging woman in a world which is becoming progressively more hostile. Jelly negotiates her way through the changing world of 1930s London. War is ever-present, and the heroine has to come to terms with her fading powers and upcoming young stars such as Yehudi Menuhin. As a woman, she faces the ultimate decision, choosing between music or love.  Find out more here and buy your copy here.


You can find out more about my new Faber Music Piano Anthology here.

And my beginner’s guide, So You Want To Play The Piano? here.

Around the Globe Piano Music Festival 2016

around-the-globeSituated on the perpetually busy Talgarth road, to the West of London, Colet House is the home of the Study Society. Behind a perfunctory, inconspicuous door, lies a rather grand entrance hall which deftly transports visitors to a bygone era. I love places like this; the mystery behind the facade, the labyrinth of small passageways leading to endless, voluminous rooms, faded elegance hinting at the romance of yesteryear, dusty chandeliers, torrid tales and clandestine affairs. My imagination fires on all cylinders.

To the left of the hall, an impressively large room complete with white pillars, a sturdy wooden floor and gleaming Yamaha grand piano, provided a fine venue for an innovative music festival which took place over the weekend. The Around the Globe Piano Music Festival, was founded by  pianists and pedagogues Marina Petrov and Maya Momcilovic Jordan. This festival is an annual event created for junior and adult pianists of different levels, including professionals. There is no age limit, and the categories represent various musical genres including classical, contemporary and jazz.

The focus is primarily to promote contemporary piano composers from all around the world, particularly those who are less well-known in the UK (although there were classes featuring standard repertoire too). The concept of encouraging young pianists to perform new music, learn about modern composers and have a better understanding of the diverse musical trends throughout different world regions, is one which certainly resonates with me. In my experience, students respond very well when presented with works by living composers; interest is piqued by the idea of a composer who is still ‘alive’, and therefore potentially contactable, thus establishing a tangible connection. Most immediately reach for their phones, eagerly searching Google for more information.

I had the opportunity to listen to many classes, and one of the most appealing aspects was the variety of music on offer. Some composers were new names (Vera and Vasilije Milankovic, Peter Ozgijan, Trevor Hold, and a few competitors played their own works too), but the chosen pieces clearly spoke volumes to their performers such was the level of committment and musicianship. The general standard was very high throughout, which was duly noted by adjudicator, Tau Wey.

Marina had kindly introduced her pupils to my music, and they subsequently chose to include Ocean Surge and Seahorse Dream (from Piano Waves) in a couple of classes.  These little pieces (for intermediate level students (around Grades 5/6)) have proved popular amongst those entering music festivals, and at this festival they were played with panache and flair. It’s a privilege for a composer to hear divergent interpretations, and Piano Waves are fairly free in this respect. Edan Finan gave a serene and beautifully judged account of Ocean Surge in the Western European Composers Class, and he graciously allowed me to film his performance (which you can watch by clicking on the link below).

It was heartening to observe large audiences, mainly consisting of parents, teachers, siblings and friends, supporting the performers. Music festivals such as this provide immense value; introducing new music, offering a performance platform for less experienced players, building confidence, as well as bestowing generally useful, helpful feedback. Long may this tradition continue, and congratulations to Marina and Maya for their judicious programming.

You can find out much more about this event here.

Find out more about Piano Waves here.


 

5 Top Tips To Improve Your Listening Skills

226I occasionally contribute to Pianist magazine’s newsletter (in addition to writing a ‘how-to-play’ article in the magazine), which pops into a subscriber’s e mail box every other month. It’s full of interesting articles, competitions and everything piano! If you would like to subscribe, click here.

The most recent newsletter article contains 5 tips designed to cultivate and improve our listening skills, and I thought it may be of interest to readers; hope you find them useful.


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We might think we hear what we play, but often our attention is focused elsewhere; finding notes, reading the score, pedalling – the list is endless. But when we are finally able and ready to concentrate on the sound we produce, we can really elevate our piano playing.

1. Begin with a few single notes, hands separately. Play each note softly at first, listening to and noting the sound as it dies away. Only play another note once the sound from the previous note has ceased.

2. Now play single notes with greater sonority, but this time don’t allow the tone to die completely, instead sound a further note and ‘match’ the timbre and dynamic to that of the dying first note. This requires careful listening and will attune the ears.

3. Experiment with chords (perhaps a C major triad in both hands). Start pianissimo, and build to fortissimo through a series of 8 or 10 chords. Each one must be placed more powerfully than the last, again fine tuning listening skills.

4. We can learn to hear our own playing when we release ourselves from looking at the score. Once learnt thoroughly, if possible, play through a passage from memory, and when secure, you are free to listen to every note with a clearer perspective. Now record yourself, checking whether the performance is the same as you imagined you heard whilst playing it.

5. Aim to observe the way your body moves; a flexible wrist, arm, and upper torso has an important impact on tonal quality, and by moving freely and encouraging flexibility, you can expect to hear a warmer, richer sound.

By implementing a few of these suggestions, you will hopefully unlock the key to ‘hearing’ with a sharpened perception.

Read the original article here.


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The Mindful Pianist: An Interview with Mark Tanner

4f07a817201ecThe Mindful Pianist is a new book written by British pianist, author, teacher, composer, researcher, examiner and adjudicator,  Mark Tanner (pictured above). This volume forms part of EPTA‘s (European Piano Teachers Association) Piano Professional Series, and is published by Faber Music. I invited Mark to answer twelve questions about his life and diverse career as a musician.  Here are his thoughtful, erudite responses (in italics). I hope you enjoy reading as  much as I did.


You’ve enjoyed a varied, eclectic career; performing, writing, editing, composing, teaching, researching, and working as an examiner and adjudicator. How is your time divided between these different pursuits?

I’ve evolved what musicians often like to call a ‘portfolio existence’ – partly out of necessity, but mainly in response to my varied interests, many of which I’ve been lucky to watch blossom over the years.

My performing career has spurred off into many directions. Appearances include five solo recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and St John’s Smith Square, along with many other appearances up and down the country as soloist, in concertos and with a variety of ensembles. A venue close to my heart is St George’s Bristol, where I have appeared with Allan Schiller, Richard May, Gillian Poznansky and Michael Langdon-Davies – I’ve also made several recordings there. Recitals on cruise ships continue to form an important part of my life, too – I’ve given over 300 recitals on all of the Cunard, P&O and Saga ships, many of which have been with my partner, flautist Gillian Poznansky, with whom I have also recorded a couple of CDs.

I have made an especial feature of British piano music, with recordings, recitals and broadcasts of previously unrecorded music by York Bowen, Peter Wishart (I later edited Wishart’s entire output of piano music for Edition Peters), John McLeod (various premières in the presence of the composer, including live on BBC Radio 3), Graham Lynch and Graham Fitkin. Performing – and indeed the whole process of gearing up for recitals and recordings – has always fed naturally into my professional life. I went through a phase of playing piano/keyboards for musicals, pantomimes and backing well-known comedians in cabaret, which has certainly stood me in good stead when it comes to living off my wits (a surreal engagement in more recent times involved playing on a dummy piano to ‘accompany’ Susan Boyle for her guest appearance on the X Factor). Although these days there tends to be extended periods during which I allow practising to slip, I can’t really imagine a life without the challenge of new repertoire.

Teaching seems always to have played a role in my musical life. Any aspiring professional musician who is not prepared to consider a certain amount of teaching is probably being rather unrealistic. Moreover, teaching is a way of tapping into the realities and passions of others. For some sixteen years I was Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset. Teaching in a public school environment carried with it all kinds of parallel activities (I was head of squash, umpired the 2nd cricket team, edited the school magazine, became deputy house master of a boys’ boarding house, as well as the usual musical activities such as running bands, doing bits of conducting and putting on musicals, carol services and so on). I have enjoyed teaching privately too, as well as at summer schools. These include the Chetham’s International Piano Summer School, Jackdaws Educational Trust and Dillington House in Somerset, Maryland College in Woburn, the Farncombe Estate in Gloucestershire and the National Young Pianists at Uppington School. Commitments at home and abroad have always discouraged me from taking on regular work at higher education establishments, though I do pop up at various colleges and universities from time to time, to give recitals and masterclasses, and also to talk with students about career paths. These days, I give occasional consultation lessons, the odd Skype session (perhaps in a student’s run-up to a diploma or recital), though I can’t usually offer the kind of continuity most pianists seem to need.

Composing continues to play a very robust role in my musical life. Stimulated initially by an interest in obscure contemporary piano music, I found myself partly switching tactic as far as my own compositions are concerned. This triggered what would turn out to be a very fruitful ongoing relationship with Spartan Press, an enterprising publishing company based in the Highlands of Scotland. For Spartan, I have now composed, transcribed and arranged over 60 volumes of music, roughly half of which is for piano, the remainder for a variety of other instruments and voices. Writing music for the ‘educational’ milieu requires a sensitivity to what is practical, not merely an idea of how one might like a particular piece to sound. This has undoubtedly tugged me towards a more pragmatic way of thinking and writing, which is no bad thing, for a piece is ultimately more likely to hit the mark as regards general appeal and approachability.seascapes

It was gratifying to have my ‘Scapes’ piano series (published in five volumes) shortlisted for a recent Music Teacher Award, and indeed to follow the progress of around 20 pieces onto the current syllabuses of ABRSM, TCL and LCM. I continue to get lively responses via my website (www.marktanner.info) regarding the five piano pieces featuring on the TCL syllabus. It is in the very nature of writing educational music that composers keep their fingers crossed every time a new syllabus launch is in the offing. My Lullaby for Prince George (a grade 5 piece composed for Pianist Magazine) captured the attention of Classic FM a couple of years back; this spike in interest certainly heightens the presence of a composer (incidentally, the Lullaby, along with Nocturne for Princess Charlotte, is now published in a volume entitled Sleep Tight).

I am particularly pleased with a recent five-volume series of piano pieces, which I ended up calling Listen to the World – it taps into all kinds of ‘sound-moods’, which range from Bangkok Busker to Air Balloons over Albuquerque. I like to think I have remained fairly true to the philosophy of my first series of published books – Eye-Tunes – which evolved over a few years into a twelve-volume set comprising exactly one hundred pieces; from these, I went on to cherry-pick some arrangements for flute and piano, which became Creature Comforts and Flute Pastilles. As a spinoff from my ‘usual’ approach to composing, I enjoyed putting together a four-volume series of Elizabethan pieces from the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Pieces – intriguing miniatures, which seemed to be screaming out for a contemporary face-lift; I called it A Renaissance Keyboard Anthology. This later prompted me to compose a one-off set of quirky pieces in response to the originals, which I called The FitzTanner Collection.

Writing has always been something which gives me terrific pleasure and satisfaction. I wrote my PhD thesis on the performance history of Franz Liszt, and this spawned various articles in scholarly journals, published both in the UK and US. I then enjoyed writing several hundred articles and reviews for International Record Review, Classical Music, International Piano and Musical Opinion. For Pianist Magazine, I have written two dozen feature-length ‘masterclass’ articles, which cover aspects of piano playing such as rubato, improvisation, holding momentum, pedalling and so on. I was pleased recently to take on the role of Guest Editor for EPTA’s flagship Magazine, Piano Professional.

Examining for ABRSM is by its very nature hard work. It involves a lot of traveling around, plus an amount of administration and organisation, not to mention sitting behind a desk for six or more hours at a time, scribbling like a crazed man. The challenge of examining is to listen intently to what is happening, while keeping in mind the previous item about which you will probably still be writing! In the UK, I usually examine for about a fortnight in each of the three sessions, which is the maximum I can tuck in due to other commitments. Though I live in the South West, some of this will end up being in London, as I am on the Examiner Training Panel, which takes prospective examiners from interview on through a rigorous process leading to (hopefully) the finished article.

I find the international side of examining tremendously rewarding, though challenging work. There can be language difficulties to overcome, hassles with getting to and from obscure venues, issues with food (‘examiner’s tummy’ is an irksome topic all to itself) and of course the accumulation of tiredness, which can take a lot out of you as you move from one city or country to the next, perhaps leaping across time-zones. I have conducted several diploma-only tours to Hong Kong and Singapore, though most of my ‘solo’ tours these days involve a mix of grades, diplomas and teacher seminars. Each year I take on two lengthy international tours, which has proved to be an excellent way of seeing the world. Examiners get ‘under the skin’ of a foreign place in ways the holiday-maker is less likely to, and I find this an immensely rewarding experience – though undoubtedly the most fatiguing work I have ever done. I have undertaken over 30 international tours, to five continents (alas, we don’t examine in South America, as yet). These have taken me to the snow-topped Himalayas, the dreamy coasts of New Zealand, the stunning Swiss Alps, eerily abandoned South African diamond mining towns, Kathmandu (I happened to be working there just a fortnight before the major recent earthquake), all over the Far East many times, several trips to the USA and Canada, and (a particular favourite) India. I’ve just returned from an extended tour of South Korea and Japan, and am about to depart for New York and Princeton – next year I’ll be in Turkey and Sri Lanka.

I also undertake annual Presentation Tours for ABRSM, which involves making whistle-stop fortnight-long trips all over China (as many as a dozen internal flights), explaining to teachers how the exam system can be of help to them, providing a ‘system’ for serious study as well as fostering the simple joy of learning. I occasionally get involved with other aspects of ABRSM too, such as co-writing the Teaching Notes, an informative book to accompany the latest piano syllabus, and composing bits and pieces for various ongoing projects/syllabuses. One such project, which has just come into fruition actually, is the Piano Star series: three ‘repertoire’ books leading from pre Prep Test to about grade 1, containing solo items and duets. I also spend the equivalent of about a fortnight per year working for ABRSM’s Reading Panel, which forms part of the organisation’s ongoing quality control machine; we provide forensically detailed critiques (and of course positive feedback!) to support examiners in their quest to write helpful, consistent, well-matched comments.9781848499249

Adjudicating for the British and International Federation of Festivals is another strand of my work which I find very rewarding. Festivals in the UK tend to happen in March and November (when I’m invariably examining overseas), so I would generally expect to manage only perhaps a week or two of adjudicating each year. That said, I have adjudicated many of the festivals in the south of England, plus a sprinkling further north; this year I adjudicated the Singapore Festival of Performing Arts, with a few masterclasses and one-to-one lessons bolted on for good measure. I have adjudicated the EPTA Piano Competition several times, and this year also judged the National Composer’s Competition.

An important distinction between examining and adjudicating is the nature and depth of feedback. In a festival, it is often entirely appropriate (and sometimes specifically expected) that the adjudicator will get up onstage and offer help and advice on how to improve what was just heard. In an exam, by stark contrast, there is no provision for feedback ‘in the moment’ – just the comments given on the mark form, which is really the only lasting evidence that the exam ever actually took place.

If you were to pick one (or perhaps two!), which has been the most rewarding and satisfying, and why?

The first time we accomplish something important, I guess we tend to etch it into our memory and accord it a certain fondness. My first solo performance was at Bristol’s Colston Hall, aged 11 (the Bristol Evening Post described me as “the intrepid Mark Tanner” – I seem to remember getting lost walking off stage…) and this was followed shortly after by my first BBC TV appearance as semi-finalist in a piano competition called Major-Minor, adjudicated by Sir David Willcocks. My inaugural live BBC Radio 3 broadcast, in which I included a previously unknown work by Constant Lambert and a piece of my own, would certainly rank as a seminal moment, as would my Wigmore Hall debut. Completing my PhD, while simultaneously teaching full-time and establishing myself on the playing circuit, was an especially important five-year period for me, especially since it opened my eyes to the prospect of a side career in writing, from which I continue to gain a great deal of satisfaction.

You spend much time in the Far East presenting and lecturing for ABRSM, what differences have you noticed in the approach to teaching and playing in that part of the world, or are they very similar to those in the West?

Well, this a question I am often asked, and to which I doubt if I’ve ever given a fully honest answer! My feeling, having examined something in the region of 20,000 candidates all over the world, is that every examining day brings with it the potential for something memorable. In truth, examiners get to experience the full gamut of possibilities (in terms of playing quality) on virtually every tour they undertake. They also get to experience a very occasional tragic or humorous event, which may well turn out to be something they can dine out on for years to come. From my personal experience, the ‘average’ playing one hears in Cardiff will probably shake out as similar to that experienced in Dhaka or Helsinki, though as you might imagine, the extremes of the playing one encounters overseas can be an entirely different matter. As far as I can detect, the teaching in foreign countries (gauged purely in terms of the outcome of an exam) is every bit as effective as we would expect to find here in the UK – sometimes more so.

Many young students (including mine!) have loved playing your piano compositions (which have been published worldwide, and feature in a plethora of exam syllabuses), when did you start composing educational piano pieces? How would you describe your style?

I studied composition at college – my first ever piece was a full-blown orchestral work actually, which I’d probably shy away from doing today – and it would be fair to say that this angle of my life has grown exponentially over the last decade or so. Composing is something I can do while I’m sat on deck sipping a mocktail on the Queen Mary 2, or squeezed into the corner of a Starbucks in San Francisco, so I suppose this might explain why I have enjoyed devoting more and more of my time to this line of work.index

As far as style goes, I’m a bit hard to pin down. I have always been interested in jazz and lighter styles (I was an avid fan of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Uriah Heep in my teens), though of course my training as a concert pianist took me down myriad complex routes, too. In truth, I tend to allow a part of my imagination to run riot while I’m engaged in a particular project. So, by way of example, I’m mid-way through a five-volume piano series called Jazz Hands, which regularly ventures off-piste into more impressionist and even minimalist territory, and I have composed a series of study books for tackling the ABRSM Quick Study called Know the Score, which has helped a variety of instrumentalists to engage more fruitfully with this component of the DipABRSM. My two volumes of folk song arrangements came about as a natural consequence of a CD I recorded with veteran bass-baritone, Michael George, and these again encouraged me to dip my toe into an array of contemporary styles. I love playing around with different textures and re-working familiar structures and progressions until they yield something new and intriguing. Many TCL grade 6 pianists will have enjoyed thrusting their way through The Wit and Wisdom of the Night, a Bernstein-esque little ditty, or finessing The Owl and the Pussycat (a TCL grade 1 piece which is over before it’s begun). The style of these two examples could hardly contrast more, it now occurs to me (The Owl and the Pussycat is more reminiscent of Haydn than Bernstein). Apart from Mozart and Chopin, whose styles were pretty much in place from the earliest age, style seems generally to be a continually moveable feast (Stravinsky is an excellent example of a composer who was forever reinventing himself). The minute we attempt to define style, it has already begun to morph into something else. Composers, not unlike artists in my experience, can be a little disingenuous in that we wish to be regarded as ‘individual’, while at the same time often enjoy dabbling in genre-crossing. Besides, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a little derivative as a composer. Improvisation of course ties in inextricably with composition (the latter in some senses emerging as a ‘formalisation’ of the former), though the miracle of composing amounts to a coming together of real experiences in resonance with imagined ones.

When composing, what aspects are, for you, key? Do you hear the piece in your head before writing, or do you prefer working it all out at the piano?

An excellent question, which I shall proceed to dodge, strategically. In the same way that some Beatles melodies foreshadowed the lyrics, and others the reverse, I tend to respond to the moment and then run with it. There have been times when, for example sitting next to an elderly gentleman tapping his stick on the New York subway, I have found myself itching to compose a piece using an unusual 15/8 rhythm. But there are also occasions – for example, when I am getting close to finishing off a book pitched at a particular grade – where a more pragmatic approach proves necessary in order to hit the brief. For a piano piece to be fully pianistic, it would be silly not to road-test it thoroughly, sat at the instrument, or in the case of a violin or flute piece, to run it past an expert. Composers generally write pieces in order to coax a strong emotional response from the player and listener, not simply to be ‘clever’. This requires an appetite for new ideas, though in reality some of these may be partially preconceived. Ultimately one must trust in one’s musical intelligence.

mindfulI  thoroughly enjoyed reading your new book, The Mindful Pianist, which has just been published by Faber Music, and is part of the ongoing Piano Professional Series (published by EPTA or the European Piano Teachers Association). ‘Mindful’ piano playing has become fashionable, why do you feel it’s important?

The whole mindfulness platform brims with potential; it can be of great value to musicians of all persuasions. To say that mindfulness has enjoyed a recent resurgence (I’d entirely agree – everything from macramé to bread-making and surfing) is perhaps a bit like saying that religion has grown in popularity. In truth, mindfulness is probably as old as human thought, though it evidently came of age through the earliest Buddhist teachings.

Musicians, and perhaps pianists in particular, often become side-tracked by their longer-term ambitions – for example, an upcoming exam or public performance – and though entirely understandable, such preoccupations tend to uproot our sense of the present moment. We end up overthinking, over-reaching, over-compensating and over-reacting to aspects of our musical lives lying some way off in the future, instead of focussing on what is happening right now, sat at the piano. This remarkably simple starting point is nevertheless the trigger for my book – we need to learn how best to harness all this energy and ‘spend’ it where it will be most likely be of optimum value. From here, pianists can gradually home in on the practicalities of learning and evolving, attending to details and working up a really compelling performance.

The Mindful Pianist is split into four broad areas of study: focussing, practising, performing, engaging. Each area challenges the reader (who might be a seasoned pianist, or perhaps a keen amateur) to reappraise what they are doing and head off the blight of performance anxiety. Occasionally, it seems the teacher can unwittingly contribute to a less than robust approach also, perhaps by glossing over the specific needs of the individual student, or else by over-emphasising a particular facet of playing and skimming over others. The role of the teacher, as I reinforce more fully in the book, is to teach the pupil to teach himself, so that every practice session becomes a self-taught lesson. If we are not encouraged to take responsibility for our practising and performing, we can never fully flourish.

Did you re-exam you own approach to the piano when writing this book, or are the ideas mostly derived from your work over time as a teacher?

The book is most definitely a coming-together of different strands of my teaching (and of course thinking) over thirty years, and feeds directly into the whole conundrum of piano playing. Though piano playing is a fine motor skill, I feel it ought not be segregated too far from the broader objectives of teaching and learning. Analytical approaches (I go into these in some depth in the book, and offer some innovative models) are examples of how the enlightened teacher can trigger a creative response from their pupils. Teachers of course learn all the time from their pupils’ mistakes, not to mention their own.

The book is peppered with quintessential advice and suggestions from other piano teachers and pianists, which adds a richness, emphasizing your fundamental points. In your own education, which teachers have been an important influence, shaping your teaching and playing?

The power of a teacher to help you learn is, I believe, inextricably tied to your own capacity to respond and adapt. This is why we feel more tuned in to certain approaches and correspondingly switched off by others. Nonetheless, I like to feel I have gained as much from participating in masterclasses with pianists such as Peter Donohoe, as I have from my ‘regular’ teachers, who have included Gwyn Pritchard, Geoffrey Buckley, Philip Martin and Richard McMahon. They each played to their strengths as pianists (and in Gwyn’s and Philip’s case, as composers, too) as much as their qualities as teachers, which explains what I was able to take away from those lessons. Gwyn first opened my eyes to the value of thoughtful, methodical practising; Geoff endlessly impressed me with his extraordinary repertoire and powers of recall; Philip had me rolling around in fits of laughter (while gently nudging me to tackle some mammoth pieces); and Richard showed me what it is to be a resourceful ‘virtuoso teacher’ (as Paul Harris optimistically coined it in his book by the same name).

sp1297You teach many advanced adult students (at Chethams Summer School, Jackdaws Educational Trust, EPTA, and other educational institutions), how do their issues differ from those of the younger piano student?

Adults present a wholly different set of challenges for the piano teacher. Just as children are not small adults, adults are not big children; we so easily overlook this stunningly obvious observation. Younger players abound in energy, confidence and a gung-ho approach (not universally, but often, in my experience), while adults not infrequently fall victim to their own idiosyncratic psychological foibles. One manifestation of this (which, again, I tackle briefly in the book), would be choosing repertoire – for the physical capacity to play Rachmaninov is a quite different matter from the desire to do so; unfortunately, overstretching our capabilities can have a profoundly negative outcome over the longer term. Piano playing is hard enough without adding to the difficulties by persevering with repertoire which lies beyond our scope. Similarly, the acquisition of a reliable technique is but one among many equally worthy elements of successful piano playing. While stretching ourselves to the next level is always a commendable goal, arguably we will reach grade 6 more efficiently by first working up a clutch of grade 5 pieces to a good level, rather than by toying around ineffectually with a bunch of grade 7 pieces.

In summer schools, teachers routinely encounter a startling range of promising students – youngsters who can whizz through the Emperor Concerto without turning a hair, or older teenagers who are already able to improvise in any style from Scriabin to Coldplay. But there will be others for whom piano playing seems to have become all about persisting with a couple of pieces with which they feel a certain bond or kinship; this bittersweet tussle can endure for decades and is not always the most profitable use of their time, I’d suggest. The younger player could undoubtedly learn from his more senior counterpart, whose grasp of the musical landmarks in a piece may well be more sophisticated; conversely, the older pianist might take a leaf out of the teenager’s book as regards holding momentum and generally ‘going for it’. Knowing oneself is key to honing an approach that will prove fruitful over the longer term.

Another thing occurs to me regarding the adult learner, which is that teachers all too easily become counsellors or armchair psychologists – I am sure many teachers of adults will be familiar with the student who spends the first 45 minutes of an hour’s lesson discussing Brexit or Fracking, as if compelled to stave off the moment when they sit squarely at the piano, by which time the next pupil can be already be heard parking his car outside…

sp1180What advice could you bestow to the many pianists preparing to take performing and teaching diplomas, particularly regarding programming?

Mm…this is a knotty one. For a performing diploma, I would usually recommend a less-is-more approach. My father has a saying: “Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it”. In other words, why open yourself up to the possibility of demonstrating what you cannot do? Playing from memory, when this is not something that comes naturally to you, would be a prime example. If there is an own-choice component (as is the case for all three of the established ABRSM diplomas, and indeed the new ARSM, which is exclusively concerned with performing), then this is most definitely something worthy of serious consideration.

In general, my advice would be to put your best foot forward – start and end your programme with a strong item you know you can play exceedingly well (even if a noisy demonstration suddenly starts up on the street outside – which happened to me once in a St John’s Smith Square recital). Don’t feel hidebound by tradition, convention or chronology – it’s ok to end with Bach, so long as your choice ‘works’ – and by the same token you might consider launching your recital with Shostakovich. Pace yourself, both as regards the mental and physical stamina demanded by the occasion. Listen at least as intently as the examiner will be, and if something goes astray, airbrush out the memory in an instant – don’t let it snowball into a series of debilitating calamities.

For teaching diplomas, my best advice would be to know your stuff inside out. Many candidates sidle into an exam room with what looks like a shopping trolley brimming over with books they’ve borrowed; but when asked to put their hands on something specific, let’s say a grade 4 piece with issues of pedalling, they find themselves completely scuppered. Better, in my opinion, to bring in two handfuls of material with which you are wholly familiar, so that you can dip into it at a moment’s notice, even when under exam pressure. In the viva voce, take your time and answer the question. If you slip off topic too frequently, your examiner will be bound to lower his/her opinion of you. When you speak, aim to form sentences which have a beginning, middle and end; stick to your guns and think ahead to where you’d like to steer the topic next. Doing this will place you more in control of what is being discussed; from here you will be more able to reveal those little nuggets of information you’ve stored away.

In a few words, can you sum up the most crucial aspects of mindful piano playing; ones which students can immediately implement into their practice routine?

Start each session with something you can already play quite well, and finish with something you can play even better. In the middle part of your practice session (which in the majority of cases ought not to exceed an hour or so at a time), be prepared to fulfil a series of small, achievable objectives – tick these off one by one in your mind. If you are not measurably better after your practising, you cannot claim to have been working very effectively. Breathe calmly, pause for thought and reflect on what just took place at regular intervals. Think clearly about what you are broadly hoping to achieve for each task – then pursue it with confidence, courage and determination. Shake things up a bit when you are getting bored or restless, and in general, work from the back of a piece to the front, especially if it happens to be a large-scale work, for example a sonata or concerto. Queue up the bits of a piece which are giving you the most trouble and deal with each ‘quarantined’ passage one at a time, thoughtfully and methodically. Resist the temptation to pound away at something difficult, getting faster and faster as you do so; instead, isolate the problem, rather as a surgeon might, and deal with it mindfully: less haste, more speed. Record yourself practising from time to time, to gain a more ‘fly on the wall’ perspective, and take all opportunities to play for others, especially if your ultimate goal is to perform in some kind of ‘event’. Finally, practise practising, then practise performing – these are two quite distinct modes of working, each of which requires a specific mental outlook.

Most musicians in today’s world find social media a vital ‘tool’, however, you have successfully managed to side-step this marketing device, was this a conscious decision? Do you feel it isn’t as important as many might have us believe?

Twitter is something I am beginning to get to grips with, at long last, though I have been less enamoured by Facebook so far; I may well give in soon though. As with any form of communication, or networking, my feeling is that we shouldn’t bother to proclaim things unless we feel confident they are worth hearing; otherwise, we end up contributing to a bottomless quagmire of trivial nonsense. I also feel that if we do not impose a restraining order on our social media activities they can end up draining away every spare moment in our lives. On balance though, we cannot hope to gain advantage from social media if we are not prepared to take an active role. With this in mind, I have begun to add a series of ‘how-to’ videos to my Twitter feeds. I now have two: @MarkTannerPiano and @MindfulPianist.  It strikes me that we all use social media in different ways in order to accomplish different objectives. It falls upon each of us to decide where the useful stuff turns the corner into banality.

You can explore Mark’s music here, and purchase The Mindful Pianist, here.


Weekend Competition! Safari by June Armstrong

safari-cover-238-236-225-light-backgroundMy competition this weekend features a new collection of beginner to pre-grade one piano pieces written by composer June Armstrong.

Safari consists of 23 elementary pieces and follows the course of a day in Africa, starting with African Dawn and ending with Night Sky with Stars.  You can meet all the animals along the way – gazelles, flamingos, lions, giraffes, hyenas, monkeys, elephants and many others, as well as a myriad of atmospheric scenes such as Mountain Mist and Mirage. To listen to every piece click here.

This selection contains a distinctly appealing atmospheric sound, and one which I think both adult and child beginners will enjoy. A wide range of piano techniques are introduced, and therefore these little pieces form excellent teaching material.

I have two signed copies of this volume to give away, so please leave your comments in the comment box at the end of this post, and I will select two winners (and announce them on this blog, so stay tuned!) on Sunday evening (British time). If you would like to purchase Safari, you can do so here.


10 Top Tips To Pass Your Piano Exam

So you want to play the piano photo 5As the new term gets underway, many will be preparing for music exams at the end of the year and the aim of this post is to provide a few extra pointers and ideas for last-minute preparations.

Once the pieces have been learnt, scales, arpeggios and technical work is all in place, and the dreaded sight-reading and aural tests have finally been understood, how can students feel motivated and keep improving right up until the last moment?

Here are a few suggestions for the final four weeks before a piano exam.

  1. Start by knowing all about your piano pieces; really understand their background, the context in which they were written, and that of the composer. You might be surprised  by how this knowledge affects the way you play a piece.
  2. Ensure you can play the left hand of each piece alone (preferably from memory). Left hand practice will have a substantial impact on continuity and will hopefully stem the dreaded curse of the ‘stumble’ or hesitation.
  3. When secure, play each piece through at least once a day, from the beginning to the end without stopping, eliminating errors. It can be helpful to play through under tempo at the start of the day (and with a metronome), and then later in the day, play through at the expected speed. When playing under tempo, I would play without the sustaining pedal too, as this tunes our ears to what fingers are actually doing.
  4. A week or so before your exam, arrange two or three play-throughs. These don’t need to be formal: perhaps one at your teacher’s studio, in front of other students, and another amongst family or friends. They need to make you feel ‘on edge’ and slightly out of your comfort zone, but they shouldn’t feel terrifying.
  5. Before you play any piece through, take a few seconds to think about how you are going to begin: set the tempo, think about how the piece makes you feel, and also about the sound you are aiming to produce. This will contribute to making a confident, secure impression as opposed to a shaky, unsure opening.
  6. Aural tests can take a while to sink in and become comfortable. Listen to every genre of Classical music, so that you are well aware of stylistic trends. This will be especially useful for the last test in ABRSM exams, and it will also help to distinguish the pulse, be aware of the beat (i.e. clapping) and  enable you to sing the musical lines (you must be able to hear the lines before you can sing them, so perpetual listening will be crucial).
  7. Scales and arpeggios (or technical work) are much more fun and palatable if you can find a piano playing friend to work with (perhaps your piano teacher has students who are of a similar level to you). However, you don’t have to be the same level. Test each other on scales and arpeggios; if you have two keyboards or pianos, play the same (or different) keys one after another as a quick fire test, and you could even play them together slowly (I used to do this and really enjoyed it). It’s amazing how effective this kind of focus can be.
  8. Ensure ample sight-reading material (there are many books available for various grades, and piano anthologies can be useful too) and make sure you manage at least 10 minutes a day (depending on your level). After you’ve prepared the piece in your mind (looked at the key, fingering, hand position changes and rhythm etc.), set the metronome on a very slow beat and play along to it, resisting the urge to stop and correct yourself.
  9. Define the order of your exam. Most boards allow you to start with either scales or pieces, and it can help if you make a firm decision before you enter the exam room. I advise pupils to begin with scales – they are great for a warm-up, allowing you to become acquainted with the instrument.
  10.  The day before, test yourself by doing a mock exam (you could do it on your own, or invite a crowd!). Play the pieces, all the scales, a piece of sight-reading (one which you haven’t seen before), and go through the Aural tests (using the many apps or audio versions available). This should help settle nerves and provide a feeling of security.

Good luck!


For lots of information on piano exam preparation plus plenty more, check out my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?

For sight-reading material or for alternative repertoire, check out The Faber Music Piano Anthology, containing 78 pieces from around Grade 2 – 8, selected by me.

Image from So You Want To Play The Piano? ©Alfred Music

The Power of Repetition

Finding the appropriate practice tool for a specific issue can, as we all know, be a matter of trial and error. When all the usual methods have been exhausted or have perhaps already been overused, it’s time to experiment with new ideas and find a fresh approach in order to nail that awkward passage.

Recently, I’ve been working with a couple of students who are both preparing Mozart’s Sonata K. 311 in D major. The first movement can be deceptive, with many rapid passages containing unforgiving twists and turns in the right hand particularly. Changing fingers at speed can be a major challenge for many, especially during the trills, which whilst look similar, in fact require different fingering depending on the succeeding note  patterns.

There are  many ways to finger an ornament, but copious hand rotations, or thumbs set under or over the hand often need a different practice regime, so that fingers are literally programmed to play the pattern accurately every time. If this doesn’t happen, then hesitations or a slowing down (or destabilising) of the tempo may occur. Here’s a notorious spot for some (bars 35 – 36):

New Mozart exampleIt’s the second time this trill appears (first time is at bar 31), and the material following the ornament takes a different turn (than that after the first time), hence the unexpected finger change at the end (turning the hand over the thumb to play a 2nd finger), which can sometimes upset the flow (the following is only a suggested trill interpretation):

Mozart 1Here, I normally suggest applying many different touches (non-legato, staccato etc.), followed by different rhythms (dotted rhythms, triplet figures and the like), and a whole array of accents (I love using accents for practising purposes), as well as playing in various octaves around the keyboard (I could go on here, but you get the picture!). However, occasionally further detailed work is necessary.

This is when we turn to the repetition method. A successful ornament demands strong independent fingers; ones which will work very quickly,  cleanly, and rhythmically. If trills are becoming sluggish, slower than necessary, or notes are not fully sounding or are unequal, try the following suggestion.

The ornament must be isolated and taken out of context. Banish any sense of rhythm or pulse and just focus on the notes, working at the right hand. Start by playing the pattern in double notes. Follow this with triplets:

Mozart 2And finally you could try playing four semiquavers per note! Make sure you use the fingers with which you will play the ornament. Always practice slowly to begin with and, most importantly, free of any tension. With this in mind, you may need to ‘bounce’ the hand after each note (at first), especially at the beginning of each beat (to free the wrist), so that it doesn’t ‘lock up’.

Now experiment with accents; start with one on the first beat of every group, then on the second beat. Follow this with accents on beats 1 and 3 of every note group (for the triplet group). Add speed gradually until you can play quite fast and with a warm sound. Ensure each note is completely even tonally and rhythmically (whilst you are not yet adhering to the pulse, the notes must still be equally played). You could also try using dotted rhythms on each repetition, whether two, three or four notes are being played.

Once you’ve mastered this, return to playing the ornament as written. Lighten your finger touch and, hopefully, the practice repetitions will enable an even trill (fingering, notes, rotations) with all notes clearly articulated and fully sounding. Try now to combine the trill with the left hand.

You might require a fair amount of practice in order to become acquainted with the feeling of repeating the notes with flexibility (the wrist must always be free of tension and ideally should move after every quaver beat, albeit imperceptibly). Playing the repetitions with the left hand semiquaver pattern might also be beneficial (at very slow speeds), enabling perfect placing of each note.

Repeating notes in a pattern can be successfully applied to all tricky passages and ones which combine both hands too; if there is a unison pattern of quavers or semiquavers, this may be a useful way to help coordination. Happy practising!

Here’s Daniel Barenboim’s interpretation of Mozart’s Sonata in D major K. 311: