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.


 

Advertisements

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 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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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 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.


management-training-skills

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.


Image link

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.