How loose are you? Piano teaching in Asia

Returning from another enjoyable and successful book tour, I find myself reflecting on a perennial piano teaching issue; one which seems to occur all over the world.

This tour was the busiest yet with visits to four countries and multiple cities; Singapore, Malaysia (Melaka and Kuala Lumpur), Indonesia (Jakarta and Surabaya), and Hong Kong.  On this trip I was fortunate to have company: I gave teaching workshops alongside colleagues Samantha Ward, who is artistic director of PIANO WEEK and also a fellow Schott Music author (she was presenting Piano Junior, the new Schott beginner’s method), and Dr. Wolf-Dieter Seiffert, president of G. Henle Verlag (who spoke about Urtext editions), as part of the Arrow Vision/Schott Music/G. Henle Verlag tour, which formed the middle segment of my trip.

Whilst our workshops were open to students, teachers and parents, the majority of the audience consisted of piano teachers. It’s a real pleasure connecting with teachers around the world, sharing a few (hopefully) useful ideas, as well as highlighting the benefits of using my piano course, Play it again: PIANO. Several teachers had previously attended my workshops last year, and it was lovely to see them again. I also appreciated their feedback regarding Play it again, and it was wonderful to hear how much their students have enjoyed using the books.

Teachers are generally very receptive to this two-book course (pictured above), which, as readers of this blog will know, contains an anthology of 49 piano pieces progressing from Grade 1 – 8 level, with copious practice suggestions for every piece. I was delighted to be able to talk about Book 3 for the first time too. This new addition will focus on works of approximately Grade 8 level up to the DipABRSM diploma, and it was written due to vociferous demand from teachers! Many thanks to all who have been in contact over the past year.

At the Encore Music Centre in Melaka, Malaysia, giving a two-day workshop for piano teachers

Play it again: PIANO Book 3 will be available at the beginning of next year (2019), and it will follow the same format as Book 1 and 2, featuring a select group of pieces drawn from mostly standard repertoire with plenty of guided practice tips and advice. The practice ideas, which run throughout the books, are certainly not designed to replace teachers; piano teachers are irreplaceable. However, in my experience, students tend to ‘forget’ much of the advice we offer from week to week, therefore my suggestions, which primarily focus on breaking pieces down to enable swift, successful learning, are intended to serve as reminders and ‘extra’ help between lessons.

In Singapore and Hong Kong I gave private lessons as well as workshops and master classes. The level of playing was consistently high; many of the students were teachers, and they were nearly all advanced diploma level. This isn’t unexpected, but what I often find surprising is the amount of time I spend on teaching physical flexibility.

Physical movement at the piano is, for me, probably the most crucial factor when playing the piano, because without a flexible, relaxed technique, playing accurately and with a rich, full sound are both challenging. But, perhaps more importantly, a tight, tense technique also tends to make playing a very uncomfortable experience for the pianist.

I spend a large percentage of lesson time working with students to sort tension issues. I always pose the question: “how loose are you?” or “how loose do you feel?” as this is often the easiest way to help students understand the desired ‘feeling’ necessary in several parts of their upper torso. It’s interesting to note that tension can occur at any level or stage of piano playing, and it’s this that fascinates me. The more advanced the student, the more demanding my job! Although it isn’t a ‘job’, but rather a pleasure and privilege to help.  Advanced students might have habits which are inextricably ingrained. The fun part is being able to unravel their issues, and replace the old habits with new, healthier ones.

In Surabaya, Indonesia, with piano teachers at my workshop

Repetitive strain injury and tendonitis are just two of the conditions resulting from piano playing laced with tension. Over the past few years I have worked with students who had developed quite serious pain issues, and we carefully reconstructed their technique over a period of around twelve months (it can take less time with a very dedicated pupil). Boring and painstaking work? Actually, I find it very rewarding. Witnessing a student’s progression from pain and dejection  to mastery and confidence is very gratifying.

Working with a student at a master class in Hong Kong

There are a profusion of effective teaching methods which can be employed to reverse tension. I use one which is easy to understand, and one which emphasizes relaxation (or a ‘loose’ feeling). The tension/release concept is relatively simple to comprehend, and if it is implemented with a series of loose wrist and hand movements, which are all exaggerated to start with, improvement can be almost instantaneous. Although it can take a while for such movements to become an instinctive, natural habit.

I aim to continue my work with pupils who require such teaching, and my trip served as a vital reminder of its value. I examine the basics of flexibility in the opening section of Play it again: PIANO, Book 1, 2 and 3, and you can also watch my videos online for more ideas (see below):

 

You can watch all four videos in this series by clicking here. Huge thanks to my publisher Schott Music for their fantastic worldwide support. I look forward to next year’s Far Eastern adventures.


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.


 

Fingering: Part 1

Today’s weekend post focuses on fingering; a topic about which I often write for the reason that I feel it’s particularly important for students of all levels. This article is the first in a two-part series written for the September 2018 edition of Piano Professional, published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association), for whom I regularly write a technique feature.


Fruitful Fingering Part 1

Fingering comes in all different guises and there is certainly no ‘one-size-fits-all-approach’; much can depend on the size, shape and disposition of the hand. However, there are certain fundamentals which might be applied to most hands, and with that in mind, some of following suggested techniques will hopefully prove advantageous for all kinds of repertoire. This is the first of two articles examining various fingering strategies and ideas which may be useful for your students.

If you use Urtext editions, fingering will have generally been written in to the score by an editor or in some cases, the composer, but irrespective of who has added the fingering, it’s always possible to change it and replace with your own. As a teacher, I often spend a significant amount of time during lessons either adding or changing fingering, and sometimes fingering may have been drafted in to the score at the very start of the learning process only to be changed after a week or two, if a more suitable one miraculously comes to light.

A crucial factor, when educating our students about the benefits of idiomatic fingering, is the practice and absorption of scales, arpeggios and broken chords. Students and teachers frequently bemoan their existence in exams, but they do serve a myriad of purposes. I have written extensively about the importance of scales as technical exercises, but another, often overlooked, factor is that by assimilating all the scale and arpeggio technical work properly, students learn ideal fingerings for much passage work.

Baroque and Classical repertoire is routinely constructed from standard scale patterns, and therefore it’s both pragmatic and practical to base fingerings for such passages on those learnt from scales. The following is a good example; hailing from the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1, the scale passage in the right hand can be clearly identified as that of E flat major (starting on the third of the scale), and if the same fingerings are employed as in the scale, the passage is that much easier to grasp:

Contrary motion scales prove a useful tool for learning symmetrical playing. If the thumbs or same fingers (in either hand) can play together when moving in the opposite direction, coordination feels comfortable. This won’t always be possible, but when our students are starting to play scales, aim to begin with simpler objectives.

Symmetry is also at work when learning arpeggio patterns. Fingering must be well-defined in arpeggios; the left hand, particularly, relies on the careful use of the third or fourth finger:

In this example, it might seem taxing to use the fourth finger on the E (the second note in the C major arpeggio), but using the third finger here, as suggested in some exam manuals, renders an awkward position for the hand. Eventually, the fourth becomes accustomed to the second note, and this helps with chordal playing too. However, when playing a major third at the start of an arpeggio, such as in D major, the third finger would be ideal:

Encouraging students to learn these patterns accurately from the start is a good plan, as it becomes tricky to change them at a later date. The brain seems hard-wired to play the first fingering pattern it learns – changing always feels alien.

Aim to play in position as much as possible. This involves limiting turning the hand, or changing hand positions. Hand turns can lead to uneven playing, especially when a melodic line is involved. Bumpy or jerky playing can happen when there are too many thumbs on the scene. If students can be coaxed into using their fourth and fifth fingers as frequently as the inner part of their hand i.e. the thumb, second and third fingers, not only will the hand be more balanced whilst playing passage work, but it will also feel more natural, with considerably less movement. In order to do this, the outer fingers will require sufficient practice, so that they are able to cope with the demands of playing crisp passage work. With this in mind, it might be pertinent to use a few daily exercises, but only with the guidance of a teacher, as it’s easy to ‘lock-up’ or become tense without cultivating flexibility in the hand and wrist when working at developing finger strength.

Know your thumbs! Thumbs can be pivotal for secure playing; knowing where they occur in both hands, and where they don’t need to occur, will create confidence. Once students are aware of thumb placement, the other fingers tend to fall in to place. Although thumbs provide stability when playing, as they tend to ‘anchor’ passage work, the challenge is to listen optimally so they do not dominate; they must ideally be tonally equal to all the other fingers, therefore we must strive to find ways to camouflage thumb ‘accents’ which can happen due to thumb physiology.

When writing fingering in the score, it can be enough to pen where thumbs arise, as opposed to marking every finger, but I still tend to write in much more fingering than this for my students. If possible, try to ensure that hands work in tandem; occasionally what seems like the best fingering in the right hand might become unworkable when both hands play together.

Repeated patterns or sequences can be an excellent way to absorb fingering quickly. Sequences of notes or note patterns may lend themselves to replica or repeated fingering i.e. the same patterns over and over again. Repetition is key here, and the ‘blocking-out’ technique can prove a suitable method of learning i.e. playing note patterns all together in one go, enabling pupils to find the notes and their corresponding fingerings at once. This can be seen in the following example, which shows two bars from the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1. The first example illustrates how the Alberti Bass pattern in the left hand appears in the score, and the second, how it might be practised (keeping the same fingering throughout):

Further to the second example, for even swifter learning, the entire bar could be played as one or two chords (where possible).

Repeated notes are a different fingering issue altogether. There are often two schools of thought; some believe it’s better to change fingers on every note during a repeated note passage, whilst others find using the same finger achieves a more pleasing result. I encourage students to try both methods, and decide for themselves. Let’s examine the following passage, which is the opening of Turina’s Fiesta Op. 52 No. 7, right hand:

Both fingerings are acceptable. By using the same finger, or the top fingering in the example, you may find that students are able to create a smoother, more even repeated note passage. For clarity and control, advocate keeping the second finger close to the keys and employ a gentle finger tapping movement.

Finger substitution is a preferred method of playing legato. It’s too easy to rely on the sustaining pedal to ‘join’ note passages. If a pianist can continually substitute or change fingers on one and the same note, fluent, smooth playing should be the happy result. Finger substitution entails holding a key down with one finger whilst quickly swapping to another finger or thumb, ensuring the same note is held for the entire procedure. This technique enables pianists to form an unbroken musical line whilst playing other note figurations or patterns underneath (or above).

Finger sliding utilizes the same finger to literally ‘slide’ from note to note. I call this the ‘illusion of legato’ and it may also be a useful technique for larger intervals too; notes don’t actually need to be next to each other to benefit from the sliding approach.

Sliding requires a very smooth manoeuvre, where the second note of any ‘slide’ must not only match the sound to that of the dying first note, but should also aim to avoid gaps in the sound between notes. Astute listening is paramount.  Students might like to work at the following exercise. After practising this exercise using the thumb, play it with the second finger, and then third finger:

Fingering is of utmost importance when learning to play smoothly, evenly and proficiently. It’s for this reason that we must offer our students a thorough grounding, so that they are eventually able to annotate scores for themselves.

Click on the link below to read the original article:

Fruitful Fingering Part 1


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.


 

A Piano Day at Ackerman Music

For those based in the South East of England, I will be presenting a workshop at Ackerman’s music shop in Hove, East Sussex, on Thursday 16th August (later this week). This workshop, which is primarily for piano teachers, spotlights several Schott publications: Play it again: PIANO and Piano Junior, the new piano tutor method written by Hans-Günter Heumann.

My workshop will focus on helping students develop flexibility (as featured in my piano course, Play it again: PIANO), and will be particularly useful for alleviating tension at the piano. There will be plenty of demonstration and an opportunity for attendees to try out various exercises. I will be joined by pianist, teacher and author, Samantha Ward, who will present Piano Junior, Schott’s new interactive beginners method. And there will also be a chance to explore Casio’s Hybrid instruments. Lunch and refreshments are provided. The event begins at 11.00am and will finish at 4.00pm; it will be held at Ackerman’s Music Shop, 163 Portland Road, Hove, East Sussx, BN3 5QR. You can find out more and get tickets by clicking here. I look forward to meeting you!


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.


 

The Sustaining Pedal

I regularly write feature articles for Piano Professional Magazine published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association). The most recent, taken from the Spring 2018 Issue (Issue 47, pages 20 – 21), sheds some light on the sustaining pedal. I hope you find it of interest.


The sustaining or damper pedal is one of the most important assets for a pianist. It adds another dimension to the piano timbre, and can provide a whole variety of sound layers. The most commonly used pedal, being the furthest right of the two or three pedals on a standard upright or grand piano, it’s played by the right foot. When depressed, the sustain pedal literally moves all the dampers away from the strings, which allows them to vibrate with ease, and they will continue vibrating until the sound ceases, or the pedal is released. Look inside the instrument and watch the dampers (on a grand piano) being lifted as the pedal is depressed. Students love to do this, particularly new students, who may be unaware of how the piano works. It is well worth spending part of a lesson explaining the workings of the instrument; a whistle-stop tour, finishing with a pedal overview plus demonstrations!

The sustaining pedal began life as a hand stop, examples of which survive on some of the earliest instruments. Then a knee lever was introduced around 1765 in Germany, and whilst this was more convenient than the hand stop (which was apparently much admired by W A Mozart), the foot pedal is undeniably far easier to operate, and it was introduced sometime during the 1770s by English piano builders.

The right pedal enriches piano tone markedly, allowing a pianist to create many colours, add sonority and resonance to passages, as well as conjure shimmering, atmospheric sounds. Many believe it augments the piano sound and whilst this isn’t strictly true, it does add a fuller, more sonorous tone, which could be described as akin to playing in a church.

The most fundamental technique in good pedalling is good listening. We generally pedal with our ears, and being attentive is key, but there are a few different techniques to employ, which can be used in a whole variety of styles. One basic rule: a little sustaining pedal goes a long way. Too much will seriously ruin an otherwise competent interpretation, generally irrespective of the composer or style, which is why it’s a good idea to practice without using any, particularly when starting to learn a new piece. I encourage students to add pedal only when they have a firm grasp of their new piece and have already established solid legato fingering, joining notes with the fingers wherever possible, as opposed to relying on the sustaining pedal to do this job. Pedalling is also tricky to write in a score, as it varies constantly, depending on the venue, acoustic, piano, composer, and the list goes on.

To use the pedal, rest the heel firmly on the floor, the right foot should be at an angle of around 30 or 35 degrees. When depressing the pedal (and this applies to the other pedals as well), play with the ball of the foot (or perhaps the big toe – everyone has their own preference here) and take it down (to engage the pedal) and up (to release the sound) quietly. The foot should keep contact with the pedal as much as possible because pedal or foot tapping is not a desired effect.

The last paragraph may all seem fairly obvious, but recent adjudicating has revealed (to me at least) that these points often need reiterating. As teachers, I feel it’s our job to ensure that students are well versed in the workings of the pedal, and how it can enhance or detract from a performance. With this in mind, it may be prudent to introduce the sustaining pedal at a fairly early stage, even if just to add resonance to the final note or chord in a piece.

There are several ‘layers’ to the sustaining pedal; perhaps as many as four or five. This might be considered the ‘pedal journey’ as the dampers rise from the strings, a significant portion of this journey includes the area requiring the foot to depress the pedal as little as a quarter of an inch or even less (although this totally depends on the instrument), as the dampers just begin to rise and have ‘cleared’ the surface of the strings. This area is conducive to partial damper release and would be where such techniques as half pedalling, half damping and flutter or surface pedalling occur. When the dampers finally clear the strings completely (and the foot pushes the pedal down as far as possible), which allows a full release of sonority, the resonance grants the pianist the opportunity to use the maximum richness of colour and vibration, as well as retaining sound when fingers leave the keys. Generally, pianists move swiftly from one ‘layer’ of pedalling to another without really noticing any boundaries.

Pedalling techniques can be roughly divided into the following:

Direct pedalling; which enriches the sound in separated chords. Depress the pedal with a chord (or intended passagework) at the same time as the fingers (or a fraction after), and release the pedal with the fingers, producing a clean, clear and sonorous chordal effect, as shown in Ex. 1. Pedal markings are indicated under the score. Take the pedal down (with the Ped. sign), and where the line is broken with an upward marking, take the pedal up. Depress again, if the pedal is to be played continuously (as in Ex. 2), but if the marking stops then pedal playing must cease too. An extension to this pedalling might be rhythmic pedalling, where brief touches of direct pedalling can add rhythmic shape to chords or rapid passagework. This is also true of accents and syncopations.

Ex. 1

Legato pedalling; which is similar to syncopated pedalling, overlapping with the notes being played. This involves depressing the pedal a moment later than finger work. To practice this, play a succession of five notes (perhaps C – G in the right hand, as in Ex. 2). Start by playing middle C with the thumb, and immediately afterwards depress the pedal; now play the D (also with the thumb), and a millisecond after, release the pedal and depress again very quickly, to clear the sound of the C. This should be done quickly and seamlessly, so as to limit smudging. Pedal changes might be quick or slow depending on the speed of the piece and the number of changes needed. As a general rule, in legato or legatissimo pedalling, a new pedal should come just after each harmony change, and it’s advisable to limit the blurred or hazy sound as much as possible.

Ex. 2

Legato should ideally be all about using the fingers, as it’s primarily a finger technique; legato using the pedal is generally for added colour and sonority, or on the occasion where it’s impossible for fingers to join (i.e. in large leaps). It can also be helpful with regard to melodic inflection and projection, phrasing, articulation, and sustaining bass notes in accompaniment figures, as well as allowing unbroken sonority in accompanying figurations or chords.

Half-pedalling; consisting of a quick movement, to lose top harmonies and retain bass notes. The main aim here is to reduce too much blurring or smudging of sound. Start by checking out the instrument to see how long dampers must remain in contact with the keys before the sound stops, then practice by taking the pedal down (and up) varying amounts (but not depressing as far as the foot will go), swiftly ‘brushing’ or ‘skimming’ the dampers on the strings.

Half-damping; without engaging the pedal completely, for a light, veiled effect. Employing almost a surface pedalling, there are many variations of this movement, which will clear the sound but still provide an atmospheric haze. Several degrees of pedal release might be involved in this technique, and different repertoire and styles will determine the amount of damper release required.

Flutter, surface or vibrato pedalling; similar to half-damping, this is based on very quick, light movements, in order to reduce accumulating sound. Such pedalling is based on frequent and sometimes irregular changes, and is applied through fast passages work, scales or runs, providing weight to the sound yet ridding it of the blurring effects. Avoid depressing the pedal completely for this technique. Students might find practising with scales helpful; aim to continually lightly raise or ‘hover’ the foot in an octave scale (as in Ex. 3). As with many pedalling techniques, listening is the most important aspect, but the following pedal markings may be used to denote flutter pedalling:

Ex. 3

Finger Pedalling

This has little to do with actual pedalling, but probably should be mentioned here, due to its title and overall effect. Notes are held with the fingers in place of the pedal; akin to finger legato, but with a ‘holding-over’ effect, keeping the notes depressed with the fingers slightly longer than is usually the case. In this technique, the pedal may be employed for quick changes, however, it’s the fingers creating the illusion of pedalling.

If the foot engages the pedal before notes are played, as opposed to once notes have been played (or at the same time), a much more resonant sound ensues as all the strings resonate fully (and are already in position at the point when the dampers hit the strings), which can be ideal for a full-bodied sonority required in certain repertoire.

Between the point where the foot is completely depressed to the floor and where it first engages the pedal mechanism, there are many assorted subtleties available to pianists. Every piano is different therefore pedals all feel and sound different too. The sustaining pedal can really add dynamics and shape, due to the accumulation of sounds whilst depressed. It’s an integral aspect of piano playing and students are usually very keen to explore its possibilities. If they are encouraged to keep experimenting and they are able to attune their listening skills, they will discover a myriad of ways to enhance their piano playing.

You can read the original article, by clicking on the link below:

The Sustaining Pedal


My Publications:

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

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


 

 

 

Indian Raags for piano, by John Pitts

My guest writer today is British composer John Pitts. John has recently published  two volumes of Indian classical raags for the piano. I asked him to shed light on the rationale behind his books and explain why they might be of interest to students and teachers. Over to John…


Back in the mid-1990s I spent a year in Pakistan, where my love of Hindustani raags was born.  I bought a sitar in a music bazaar in Lahore, and had a few lessons back in London with the inspirational sitarist Baluji Shrivastav.  But over the years I have explored and composed raags mostly on my first instrument – the piano.  In 2016 I published a 258-page book – How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano – designed for anyone with a piano and an interest either in Indian classical music or in improvisation.  Early 2018 I followed this with a much shorter book  for early pianists – Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy.

The obvious question is: why?  What’s the appeal?  Why play Indian sitar music on a piano?  The short answer, in a word that keeps on cropping up, is that it’s fascinating stuff.  Plus, many of us either were the kind of kids (or have students ourselves) who spend far more time playing around on the piano than actually practising their pieces.  One of the many beauties of raags is that they begin in a way which resonates with that natural, exploratory, creative impulse.  And they introduce simple but exotic ingredients to play with, and a really satisfying framework to do it in.

The combination of rotating drone notes in a free pulse, the rich resonance of the piano with the sustain pedal permanently down, and a  melody line that uses a carefully selected Indian scale, quickly evokes an immersive eastern sound-world.  The experience will be new too.  Somewhat unique, even: improvising, initially over a free pulse, drawing exclusively from the notated material, within a framework that starts with incredibly peaceful simplicity and develops into a fabulously rhythmic and exciting drama.  Playing semi-improvised raags certainly feels very different to learning Bach or Debussy, or the ubiquitous easy listening chill-out piano pieces, or the latest pop song from the charts.  Having said that, there is a certain parallel you can draw between Indian raags and the pleasure of improvising around the 12-bar blues; where the notes of the blues scale immediately create a ‘cool’ vibe, and the clashes between the melody and the underlying harmonies are just part of what defines the style.

To be clear, raags on piano isn’t ‘fusion’; this is not a blending of two styles of music.  These books are a serious attempt to expand the historic raag tradition to a widely played European instrument.  I want to encourage  a much wider practical engagement in Indian classical music – in its sound world, structure and emotional journey.  I want pianists to have a means of accessing Indian classical music, and to experience its rich treasures by learning to perform it.

So, who are the books for?  Well, traditional raags feature highly ornate melodies,  partly improvised and partly pre-composed, within a set of conventions and a typical structure, and performances can last anywhere between 5 minutes and 2 hours. So the larger, 258-page book is for more advanced pianists.  Obviously it’s suitable for anyone interested in learning about Indian music (and those with an Indian/Pakistani heritage may have an obvious interest), or for anyone interested in improvisation generally, or for anyone looking for new concert repertoire.  But the methodology, the process, of a raag performance is so radically different from any western genre of music, that this book should be of real interest to any pianists seeking a radically new approach to music making.  The book contains the sheet music of 24 raags – much of which involves improvising using selections from the large amount of notated material on each double-page spread in front of you, with lots of written instruction and encouragement.

The ‘easy’ book, Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy, is a small collection of six Indian raags – 3 North Indian (Hindustani) and 3 South Indian (Carnatic), re-imagined for piano, and then simplified for fledgling pianists (both children and adults).  The purpose is to provide an introductory experience of classical Indian music-making in an easy, hands-on way at a piano, offering a very accessible first encounter with improvisation.  It is designed for near-beginners (pre-grade 1) through to early intermediate players (c. grade 4-5).  The first three raags are each presented in three versions; “really easy”, “easy” and “quite easy’,  so that students and their teachers can quickly find a best fit for their level, and add complexity when ready.   Each simplified raag is on a single double-page spread, featuring: the opening gestures to set the scene, the alaap (the guided, free pulse, slowly unfolding improvisation which alternates with left hand drone notes), and the gat (a pre-composed melody), an opportunity to improvise over a simple rhythmic drone, as well as a set of typical ending gestures.

There are freely downloadable recordings and videos at www.pianoraag.com where both books can be ordered.  The ‘easy’ book is also available as a downloadable digital edition, with or without a studio licence for teachers to print as needed for their students.

You can purchase How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano and Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy, 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.


 

 

A Masterclass with Murray Perahia

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I often highlight masterclasses. Here’s a particularly interesting set given by celebrated American pianist Murray Perahia, recorded at the Paul Hall on October 12th 2017, at the Juilliard School in New York.

The participants and repertoire are as follows: Qi Xu performs the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, Shengliang Zhang performs the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17, and Yuchong Wu performs the Alemande, Courante, and Sarabande from J S Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816.

There’s so much to learn and enjoy from observing such classes. I hope you find them of interest.




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.


 

A Royal Double Bill

I live in Windsor, which is situated in Berkshire, around 20 miles to the west of London. I settled here four years ago and it’s a delightful place. However, this week my small town has become the centre of the universe (or so it seems), and it’s been almost impossible to walk out of the front door without bumping into a camera crew. The impending Royal Wedding is certainly a much-anticipated event, and I wish the royal couple every success for their future married life. But if your interest in this regal occasion has already waned somewhat, you might like to take a look at this concert, to be held on the same day at 7.00pm in London.

The Around the Globe Piano Festival, organised by Marina Petrov and Maya Jordan, is a wonderful music festival and concert series which fervently supports Contemporary composers.

The Festival is held in the Autumn every year and is open to all levels and abilities. I adjudicated at the 2017 festival and thoroughly appreciated the wide variety of repertoire on offer. The standard of performance was also extremely high, and winners are invited to perform at various concerts arranged throughout the year.  I’m honoured to be amongst the group of Contemporary composers whose music features on the syllabus.

The piano recital on Saturday showcases winners from last year’s festival, including children, adult amateurs and professional pianists. A diversity of styles pervades, from classics to modern, including compositions written by a host of innovative composers including Lola Perrin, Lindsey Berwin, Vera Milanković and myself. Guest pianist Olga Dudnik will perform the captivating “Jewish Suite” written by prominent Serbian composer, Aleksandar Vujić. You can book your tickets via the Around the Globe Piano Festival’s  website, or alternatively you can purchase them at the door. Hope to see you there!


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.


 

The 70th Hong Kong Schools Music Festival

Returning from my latest trip to Asia this week, I reflected on another thoroughly enjoyable sojourn to my favourite part of the world. I visited Asia twice last year and have a further trip planned later in 2018.

There are so many wonderful facets to my visit that it can be hard to put into words.  Three spring to mind;  kindness, respect and commitment. When it comes to music and the arts, this part of the world must surely lead the way in the Twenty-first century. A voracious capacity to learn, digest, and comprehend, students are attentive and highly motivated, whether they be teachers or pupils. Suffice to say that it’s a way of thinking which completely resonates with my beliefs and my teaching.

During the first three and a half weeks of the trip I worked for the Hong Kong Schools Music Association as an adjudicator (I then gave a series of workshops and master classes for Schott Music). This year marked the 70th Hong Kong Schools Music Festival and therefore many celebrations ensued, not least a bevy of dinners, presentations, gifts, and general merriment. I worked for the Hong Kong Schools Music Association in 2013, doing exactly the same job, so I knew what to expect and was aware of just how gruelling it can be; it’s a baptism of fire for first time adjudicators.

For readers wondering about the job of an adjudicator, it is essentially competition judging. I am an adjudicator affiliated to the British and International Federation of Festivals in the UK; an organisation to which adjudicators are connected (after a selection process), and where music festivals (there are over 350 in the UK) can approach adjudicators to ‘judge’ their music festivals. We listen to groups of students through various classes, write our comments on mark forms, offer marks to participants, and finally, select a winner of each class. In the UK, these  festivals are fairly understated affairs lasting up to a few days featuring small instrumental classes, both competitive and non-competitive.

However, in Hong Kong, this job is on a completely different scale; classes of fifty instrumentalists lasting for three hours are the norm. Adjudicators will listen to selected pieces, usually three or four set works per exam grade; the festival runs in tandem to the UK graded examination system, plus diploma classes, and we might hear the same class (or set work) five or six times over the course of the festival. I heard a particular Grade 4 class ten times; let’s just say I know William Gillock’s Carnival in Rio rather well! The ability to think and write quickly is of essence; therefore as the student starts to play, one must start writing, and finish writing and marking as the student gets up to bow at the end. When adjudicating short grade one or two pieces, there really isn’t time for more than three or four sentences.

Students tend to make the same errors during the course of a piece, so the challenge becomes how to write eloquently yet with a different inflection for every performance. A divergent selection of classes were on offer to all adjudicators; most days I adjudicated two three hour classes and we worked six days per week, occasionally there were three sessions per day (nine hours of adjudicating), and I heard a large collection of piano music generally taken from standard repertoire. But there were a few Contemporary choices too, and some glorious Chinese works by previously unknown (to me) composers.

I particularly enjoyed the diploma classes; Debussy’s Préludes were on offer here, (for the Debussy celebrations this year; it’s 100 years since the composer’s death in 1918) with a wide-ranging group selected from both books.  Participants could choose two contrasting Préludes for their performance. The Grade 8 classes were also fun; I relished the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117 No. 1 in E flat major.

For me, the most memorable class was the Junior Scholarship Final held on a Saturday afternoon at the Tom Lee Academy Hall. Three adjudicators worked together for this final, and we heard five outstanding young pianists (aged around 11 – 13 years). Two set works were followed by a piece of the competitor’s choice with each programme lasting around 15 minutes. Exciting and beautifully committed playing emanated from these talented young players, and it was a treat to hear and judge them (I know my colleagues both felt the same too). The winners, placed first, second and third, were awarded trophies (as pictured above) and prize money.

Rules and regulations abound in Hong Kong, and adjudicators and competitors must adhere to strict criteria; there was a whole manual of do’s and don’ts. One, perhaps surprising, rule for all those playing in the piano solo classes, was memorisation. Students had to play their pieces from memory. Some do struggle with this element, but on the whole I found it a remarkable achievement. Whether you agree with memorisation or not, the fact remains that it affords students a much deeper understanding of a piece, and offers a taste of how it feels to be a professional i.e. in an exposed situation, alone on a stage without the score.  I also adjudicated at several duet classes, which were engaging and, again, Debussy was on the menu, alongside a few other favourites. Several competitors chose to play these classes from memory too.

I stayed in a lovely hotel in Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island, and was fortunate to be treated exceptionally well; for the majority of sessions, adjudicators are chauffeured to venues (although going on the MTR, or underground, to a venue was always an adventure), and we worked alongside a whole team of professionals from the Association.

A fond memory was judging my only non-piano (and non-competitive) class of the festival in Ho Man Tin on Kowloon; a group of special needs students prepared traditional and world music in small ensembles and choirs. Their obvious love for music and desire to communicate was infectious and moving. I concluded that you haven’t lived unless you’ve heard Frere Jacques sung in Chinese!

Some facts and figures: during the 2018 festival, over 131,000 competitors performed. There were fifty-one adjudicators on the Adjudicating Panel (coming from all over the world), working in over fifty venues throughout Hong Kong.

I adjudicated a total of 1549 students over 39 classes during the three and a half week period, and the venues were usually small theatres such as those pictured above. And I met some fascinating new friends. I want to say a huge thank you to all my assistants who made each day a pleasure, and to my fellow adjudicators, who have not only inspired me to be better at the job, but have also become friends.

Whilst this job is hard work, the rewards are immense; staying in a vibrant city with fellow musicians can be a welcome change to working alone  (as many freelancers do) in the UK. I enjoyed the warmer climate, the chance to sample Chinese and Asian cuisine,  several concerts at the Hong Kong Performing Academy of Arts (opposite my hotel!), and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. I loved taking copious Star Ferry trips across the water to Kowloon, offering simply the best view of the city.

Many say that children are forced to play an instrument in the Far East and that may be true (but then I was forced to study maths at school, a subject which I loathed). Maybe these young pupils don’t love practising, playing or performing at all, and they might choose never to play again when they are finally allowed to quit. But, every classical concert I attended was full, (and I went to a variety of professional recitals during the course of the trip) and, contrary to the UK, where classical concerts often suffer sparse audience attendance (and are usually frequented by older people), in Hong Kong the whole family go together, and I witnessed scores of children and young people all enjoying classical music. Surely this is the reason we encourage children to learn about music? So they can enjoy it in all its forms and learn to appreciate live performance. I can’t wait to return to Hong Kong soon.

Hong Kong Schools Music Association


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.


 

 

 

 

Guest Post: Andreas Eggertsberger speaks out about Focal Dystonia

I first met Austrian pianist Andreas Eggertsberger in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) last November, when we were both presenting at the UCSI University Piano Pedagogy Conference. I was fortunate to catch Andreas’ fascinating presentation which focused on this little known condition. Injuries are frequently considered a taboo subject for pianists, and tend to be surreptitiously swept aside or ‘brushed under the carpet’, however, I thought many might be interested to hear his story.

I have written extensively (both on this blog and in magazine articles) about the importance of being aware of body movement, hand positions, and posture when playing the piano (it’s a subject I feel passionately about!). But, increasingly, I hear stories of pianists who can’t play anymore or those who have (and continue to) suffer terrible pain due to physical injuries sustained whilst playing. Andreas’ extraordinary journey must surely serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks this issue isn’t a serious one. Over to Andreas…


My Experiences with Focal Dystonia

Injuries often occur in the music world. Although still a taboo theme, a lot of musicians are suffering from it. While pain is something which is commonly known amongst musicians, there is another injury out there which is approaching something much subtler. It is called focal dystonia. Prominent sufferers in the piano world are pianists like Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Keith Emerson, Michele Beroff, Michael Houstoun or Hung Kuan Cheng. The principal oboist from Chicago Symphony, Alex Klein, has a long story of losing, regaining and losing his job again because of dystonia.[i] Most likely it seems that Robert Schumann was also prone to this devastating condition.[ii]

What is focal dystonia?

Dystonia belongs to the family of movement disorders. It is a neurological condition with a very broad range of manifestations. The basic underlying problem involves over-activity of the main muscles needed for a movement, extra activation of other muscles that are not needed for the movement, and simultaneous activation of muscles that work against each other.[iii] The term focal describes where just an isolated area is affected. For pianists, it usually means that one hand (in most cases, the right hand) is disturbed, although in some cases both hands are troubled by it.

Weird Movements

In the Summer of 2012, I was participating in a Summer festival in Italy. A violinist colleague and friend pointed at my left hand as I was playing the fugue from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106). She told me that she has never seen a pianist whose hands were moving so differently. She was telling me that she could hear a different colour and that there is always an issue of accuracy when she listens. Some notes got swallowed. She directed my attention to my index finger and we came to the conclusion that if it stretches that much, then I could not bring it down on the key on time. Besides that, my middle finger was curling. The ring and pinkie finger were also stretching a lot. All of this seemed to be unnatural and was causing problems. At the end, we came to the conclusion that this was a real issue for me.

Here is a recording of my playing of the fugue which made my friend so uncomfortable:

The next day I started to compare my finger movements with other pianists. I found a recording with Wilhlem Kempff and consciously compared his hands to mine:

I saw that his hands moved in the same direction. I started looking at pianist’s hands everywhere! A video of Michelangeli playing the 4th movement of the 2nd Chopin Sonata (Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35)  confirmed that hands in normal cases were mirroring each other and not going on different paths:

I started also looking at the hands of the other participants at the festival. And I could not find any pianist whose hands were heading in different directions. Everyone’s hands were moving synchronic. Mine were different. This was separating me from the rest.

I told my observations to the piano professor in the festival and expressed my concern that there might be something wrong. The reply was that I should not worry about it and just enjoy the sound. The same week I played for another teacher at the same festival and she too told me that I should not be concerned. Some great musicians make some weird movements. She gave the example of a famous violinist who held his bow quite awkwardly.

At this point I was quite skeptical towards this advice, but I was also clueless about what was really going on.

The Diagnosis

Back in Austria I had to play a recital at the festival in Gmunden. I played the whole concert with a feeling of losing control. In the intermission, I told a friend that I think that something is wrong but that I have no idea what it was. The next day he visited me in my home and I played for him. He too came to the conclusion that I have to change and this was indeed a problem.

I investigated the problem further and implemented a simple exercise comparing the right and left hand:

As I found out, I was unable to play the little exercise clearly with my left hand. I sent the video to a piano professor. He replied to me that it is normal that left and right are not equal. But was it normal that the left hand was failing basic patterns? If this was normal then Chopin would never have written a piece like the Etude Op.10 No. 12 because no one could execute it clearly if such weakness in my left hand was the normal case.

I came to the conclusion that I had to look further. One evening I was thinking about the pianist Leon Fleisher. Why could he not use his right hand for around the half of his life? As I googled his name I found out that he has focal dystonia in his right hand. And that this was a neurological condition. As I watched one of his videos, I was able to draw a parallel to my own problems:

As one can clearly see, his ring and pinkie finger were constantly curling.

I then started to read about focal dystonia. And the more I read about it the more it was clear that this was my real problem. It was a neurological issue which was often treated with botox injections and was practically unhealable. But also, that musicians could manage the condition well and came back into playing, as Michael Houstoun had done, who recently recorded Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas to great critical acclaim.[iv]

I told a piano professor in Austria about my findings and that I want to consult a neurologist. He was quite amused about it and asked me what a neurologist has to do with piano playing and scales.

Nevertheless, I went to see a neurologist who made a careful investigation. At the end, he confirmed my assumption. To really make sure that this was dystonia and no other issue I had to have a brain scan. If this was normal we can exclude all other sorts of neurological issues and focal dystonia would be confirmed.

As we assumed, my MRI was completely normal. After this process, I had a completely sure diagnosis. It was recommended that I get in touch with Dr. Altenmüller[v] who is a great scholar on this issue.

I sent Dr. Altenmüller a video and he saw the problem too and recommended to start a retraining with Laurent Boullet[vi] in Berlin.

Unfortunately, I had to leave Europe and go back to USA where I was a third year DMA candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (USA), about to play all my doctoral recitals.

Complete Breakdown

Back in Ann Arbor I told my teacher that I was officially diagnosed with focal dystonia. “Focal what?” was his reply. I told him that it was a movement disorder where people had lost their control over their hands. At the end of our conversation he told me that there are people with real serious hand problems and that this was nothing to worry about it. I should just play through it.

This plan did not work out well and after a few weeks I was in real trouble. I started having problems playing scales:

When playing with my ring and pinkie finger, the middle finger would involuntarily move to the ring finger:

The same would happen also when playing slower:

I could not feel the space between the keys anymore. As I tried out to play the last page of the first Brahms concerto (Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15), I only played wrong notes. It was impossible to play it at all:

After these recordings, I went home and I realized that I had problems opening my hand at all. I couldn’t even tie my shoes. I could not open my hand enough to hold a glass with my left hand. Focal dystonia was now causing problems in my every-day life.

Road to recovery

I had to take a break for the next few weeks. I could barely open my hand. After some time, the cramping got less and less. So, I could start to practice again. But after this experience I knew I had to begin solving it. The normal lesson was of no help and I wrote to Laurent Boullet who was offering retraining in Berlin. We made an appointment on Skype the next days. After playing for him via Skype I began to understand what was going on. My index and middle finger were compensating for the instability of my ring finger. As soon as I started to stabilize the edge of my hand the curling and stretching of my middle and index finger became less.

I also had to change the position of my wrist. Ideally the wrist should be positioned slightly under the metacarpophalangeal joint, also known as the large knuckle. When playing I consciously rested the ring finger as much as I could on the keyboard. I made sure if kept contact as much as I could with the surface of the keyboard.

A good example of the ideas which I applied to retrain is the C–minor Sonata  (Sonata in C minor, Hob. 20) by Haydn. The triplets F-Ab-Bb were unrhythmical as the second finger was hyper extending. I was playing them with the fingering 3-2-1. As I silently held down an additional key with the fourth finger the hyper extension decreased. My aim was to accomplish this without depressing the additional key. I used a combination of rotation and lateral movement towards the thumb to make the execution of the triplets effortless. I practiced this passage diligently, sometimes up to four hours a day. After 9 months, I realized that I had achieved the precision I was seeking in this passage.

I did something very similar with the passage in Beethoven’s Sonata in D minor (‘Tempest’) Op.31 No. 2. I kept the ring finger depressed while I was playing with the others. I also added some rotation on E and C#.

I made exercises to consciously use my fingers just as weight transferers. Weight cuffs (0.5kg) were worn around the wrist to help highlight the sensation in the MCP joints for providing support for the hand.

I also played with the middle and ring finger only while I stayed relaxed with the other fingers.

In scale passages, learning how to cross the fingers over the thumb while maintaining stability and flexibility in the thumb:

Over time things have changed. In 2012, I played Mozart’s Sonata KV331:

As one can see: the index finger was hyper extending already in the theme. In 2016 this had significantly changed:

It comes out clearly when comparing the third movement in both recordings. Listening to the two recordings, it is clear that the sound in the later recording has more projection and that it is more fluid. The tone has got a much more cantabile quality and the sound was generally fuller.

The way into Dystonia

As I was diagnosed with dystonia I was thinking that it was probably going on for much longer than I was aware of. Some issues in my biography started making much more sense.

As a child, I was an incredibly fast learner. After six months of learning piano I played already Wilder Reiter from Schumann’s Album from the Young Op. 68:

It was recommended that I enter the local conservatory in Linz. There I proceeded very fast again. I soon played Mozart’s Sonata in C major KV545 and Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor (‘Pathétique’) Op.13. I was practicing a lot. I was experiencing troubles with the scales in the left hand in the recapitulation of Mozart’s Sonata KV545. I solved the problem with a lot of practice. After practicing them around four hours long (voluntarily!) I could play them perfectly. Youth success continued. I won the national youth competition and a prize in Ettlingen in the international competition for young pianists. I was the youngest recipient of the Yamaha scholarship. I gave my first full recital at aged 12 and played my first Mozart concerto with the Bruckner Orchestra, aged 13. I became the youngest graduate in the history of the conservatory at the age of 15 (a record not broken till today!).

A recording of me playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is revealing some differences between the two hands.

The wrist is high and the bridge is practically not there. Even in the picture “Il vecchio castello” one can see a hand with unnatural movements – a cramped hand (from minute 7.00 onwards, for example):

In summer holidays, I often practiced up to 10 hours every day. The amount of repertoire was growing fast. Soon the index finger started to hyper extend which became one of the typical movements of my dystonia (Minute 1:10):

After graduation in Linz I went on to study in Salzburg. I was experiencing a strange feeling of playing against a wall. The teaching took place quite irregularly and I had to follow my teacher to masterclasses to have a chance to play for him. Time space between lessons was sometimes several months. When I go through the scores I now see passages in the left hand were often circled. But hardly anywhere in the right hand. The first time I gave up working on a piece happened because it was exhausting to use the left hand in the Etude Op.10 No. 12 by Chopin. In Schumann’s Kreisleriana Op. 16, my teacher asked me why I was not able to play the left hand solo passage regularly. It was recommended I practice it and play it slowly.

A quite interesting habit was the inclusion of warm up exercises. One of them was playing chromatically from C to E and back. Then from C# to F etc. While this exercise was not difficult for my right hand, my left hand often needed repetitions to play it accurately.

Later I moved to Vienna. My playing was obviously deteriorating. At the time of my master’s recital, my teacher was telling me that I should be happy when I pass at all. I was practicing English Suite No. 3 BWV 808 by J S Bach and I saw some interesting movements from fingers in my left hand. I thought of them as quite funny, even though the left hand just did what it has to do. And if there would be a problem with it, it would have been a theme in a lesson. I still had no idea that something like focal dystonia even existed. I did not connect my finger movements to any problems which occurred during this time. I had difficulty playing the first solo, a sixteenth note scale run in both hands, in the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 Op. 73, and also when playing the octaves at the end of the exposition of the Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16.

After graduation in Vienna I felt untalented and gave up playing. I studied political science in Salzburg and did not touch the piano for the next four years.

Coming back to play and finally being diagnosed

After four years of not playing at all I was curious to see what was possible. So, I started to play again. And I did nothing less than the Goldberg Variations BWV 998 by J S Bach. I learnt them again very quickly and played them in a recital. At first, piano playing felt easier. But soon I practiced left hand runs much more often again. One Sunday I practiced the 26th variation nearly the whole day, especially the left-hand passages. At the end of the session the passages nearly worked. The whole work was good enough to impress audiences and teachers. I was invited to perform at a piano conference in Serbia and had a great success with it.

I was then invited to study at the YST (Yong Siew Toh) conservatory in Singapore. In one lesson, the teacher there said that he has never seen anyone’s finger moving like this.

In 2008, I was invited to participate in an international piano competition and made it to the semifinal. After the competition, a judge came to me and told me that he expected me to get to the final. But he said that my coordination of the right and hand in the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata in C minor Op.111 was unclear. My left hand was playing in an unsteady manner and was sometimes lacking clear articulation. He seemed to be quite confused about it because it did not fit in to the impression I gave in the first round. I personally came to the conclusion that I probably was lacking in competition experience since this was my first competition for 12 years.

After that I auditioned for DMA in Ann Arbor and was taken into the programme. I was encouraged to play with more energy and to take more risks. I should play with more passion. Many of these elements I simply did with a strong will and much force. The diagnosis of dystonia came finally in 2012.

Conclusions

Focal Dystonia is still quite new to teachers and students. The condition as such was only recognized in the mid 1980s. My personal view is that we still have not much awareness of it. Therefore It is critical that musicians and teachers keep focal dystonia on the radar. Fortunately, the vast majority will not get focal dystonia, but people should know the signs so they can avoid the common pattern of misreading early symptoms, practicing harder, and thus cementing faulty brain connections.” [vii]

The symptoms I was developing were not perceived as dangerous for a long time. It was a time frame of around 18 years till the right diagnosis came. The seriousness of the problem was often denied or underestimated. Even as I was diagnosed with it, it was not perceived as a problem by my teacher. Managing to come clean about it took over 5 years. Comparing this fugue will show just how much has changed:

I want to offer some thoughts about how I originally got dystonia and how I think we can minimize the risk for future students:

  1. The prevention of focal dystonia starts already at the beginning. It is crucial to learn to move efficiently. “Unless the body maintains movement patterns that are biomechanically sound, the musician is at risk of injury.”[viii]
  2. In situations when we focus on the music only and on learning very fast, we might mistakenly open the door to focal dystonia. As I was starting my lessons I was going for the music and did everything which was necessary to achieve what I wanted. “When preparing for an important performance a musician will often practice without physical awareness because of focus on the music itself. Then it is easy for physical distortions to occur in order to produce a desired musical result and for these to become ingrained as a way of playing that is less than biomechanically ideal.”[ix]
  3. In my own experiences, I was encouraged to achieve a lot in the shortest amount of time. Teachers and audiences were surprised how fast I was growing. My first teacher’s idea was: the earlier, the harder, the better. As I was studying the Mozart Sonata KV545 the excessive practice of the scales and the permanent repetition led to success. In the long-term this might have taught me incorrectly. “…, incessant repetition of certain problematic passages, especially when the way of playing causes tension, can put musicians at risk. Highly motivated practisers tend not to vary the material in their practice sessions, meaning that there is too much repetition of the same physical movement.”[x]
  4. Another  point for me is that taking breaks is important. My habit of working through long sessions without breaks and repeating the same over and over was a factor which might have contributed to focal dystonia. Consciously relaxing and evaluating what was achieved will be of great help.
  5. I think another factor is the aim of perfection. Studio recordings nowadays are cut together and show often an unrealistic picture of artists. I think listening to older and uncut recordings can lead to more realistic aims for one’s own performances.
  6. Taking time to learn the fundamentals. The piano might be a quite injury provoking instrument as it is possible to produce a sound with simply depressing a key. Therefore, there is a big temptation to simply move on to the next, more difficult piece, pushing ahead.
  7. Developing both hands equally. Not every Sonata for example is challenging the right and left hand equally. Therefore, it is crucial to play etudes and other pieces which are aiming to develop both hands.
  8. Having a flexible hand position. The wrist should be constantly adjusted in order to avoid fixed hand positions.
  9. It is important for the developing artist to get regular mentoring. Having an irregular teaching schedule with lots of space between lessons makes it possible for bad practice habits settle in or to fall back into them.
  10. It is crucial that teachers and their students are aware of the lurking danger of dystonia and take issues of coordination seriously. Over time, tiny little problems can become big. There should be an atmosphere where the student can admit problems with a passage. Sometimes teachers might consider watching their students just from the right or left side and compare the finger movements of the two hands. If one hand is moving in a different direction than the other, chances are high that there is a problem developing.
  11. Students can record themselves with smartphones from the side and watch how their hands are moving. Especially virtuosic pieces with scale runs. The reason is that while playing, our eyes will be often ahead and barely get a full picture at all:

12. Rethinking our heritage: In teaching we rely on traditions. But old schools did not think about biomechanics at all. So called finger independence exercises might cause a lot of trouble because they cannot be done without tensions in the forearm.

13. Tailoring the teaching to the needs of a student. One day Richter came to Neuhaus and played the Liszt B minor sonata, S.178. There was not much to teach as Neuhaus wrote. They discussed the interpretation of some passages and the lesson was done. After that another student came in playing the same piece. Neuhaus wrote that he had to work on every bar with her.[xi] This is a great example how a teacher can adjust to the needs of a student. In my experiences, a lot of teachers just give everyone the same approach.

14. It is not about playing without tension but with the right amount of tension. We have to be aware that we release the built-up tension as often as possible.

I am convinced that we can at least minimize the risk of dystonia. It is crucial that it is recognized early as such and pedagogical intervention takes place. Although genetics play a role in the development of dystonia I am convinced that in a lot of cases focal dystonia is the result of an unfavorable use of the body. It might be of more importance how we achieve results and not just that we achieve them.

Over time I got in contact with quite a lot of dystonic musicians. I was astounded to learn just how many people knew someone who was suffering from it. Some of the pianists had won great prizes at competitions like the Cliburn, Busoni or Hilton Head. Very often it was a highly talented individual who went somehow down the wrong road. I was surprised how often I was confronted with it since having been diagnosed.

Focal Dystonia is a highly complex issue. Retraining is a complicated affair and very individual. In every case one has to find the fitting exercises. There is no way to apply the same exercises for every case. Recovering from it is possible but very time-consuming.

I hope that this essay will at least raise the awareness of this kind of problem. During my journey, I have encountered a lot of teachers who have never heard of it. I am hoping to improve this, and speak out, informing as many pianists as possible, so they may be able to avoid such issues.

You can explore Andreas’ YouTube Channel, here.

[i] http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-cso-oboe-alex-klein-denied-tenure-20170524-column.html

[ii] Altenmüller, Eckhart. Robert Schumann’s focal Dystonia https://www.karger.com/Article/Pdf/85633

[iii] https://www.datasci.com/solutions/neuroscience/movement-disorders

[iv] http://www.michaelhoustoun.co.nz/

[v] https://www.immm.hmtm-hannover.de/en/institute/people/eckart-altenmueller/

[vi] https://www.pianophysiology.com/

[vii] White, Joanna. “Musician’s Focal Dystonia: Strategies, Resources, and Hope.” Flutist Quarterly, p.33, (Winter 2017).

[viii] Wilson in de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.1, 2015.

[ix] Tubiana in de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.5, 2015.

[x] de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.13, 2015.

[xi] Neuhaus, Heinrich. Die Kunst des Klavierspiels, p.149 (1967)


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.


 

The Manchester Music Festival Young Artists Programme 2018

One aspect of blogging that I particularly enjoy is the opportunity to highlight a variety of projects, festivals and young artist programmes. The Manchester Music Festival (MMF) Young Artists Programme is one such project. Now in its second year with  American Artistic Director Adam Neiman at the helm, it offers a wonderful chance for students to immerse themselves in a whole programme of music making. Occurring annually every summer in scenic Manchester, Vermont (USA), the 2018 Young Artists Programme will take place from July 9th to August 11th 2018.

The programme is a full scholarship for those selected to attend; a five-week intensive chamber music festival for string players and pianists, aged between 18 and 26. Young artists receive daily coaching sessions by a faculty composed of world-renowned artists and pedagogues. The primary focus of the programme is to intensively study and perform chamber music at a high level, and to benefit from the outstanding musical guidance offered daily by the illustrious artist faculty.

During the course, students can expect to study several chamber works, with ensemble sizes ranging from duos to octets encompassing repertoire spanning the centuries, from Baroque to Contemporary. Groups will be selected to perform in the weekly MMF Young Artists concert series. On August 11, 2018, the young artists will participate in an orchestral concert, performing symphonic works by Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius.

Those on the programme will also have the opportunity to perform in weekly public masterclasses and take private lessons with the faculty members. In addition, they will benefit from forum discussions addressing principles of entrepreneurship and career development designed to assist them in forging successful paths as professional musicians. Each MMF Young Artist receives a scholarship providing full tuition, free accommodations, and a modest weekly stipend.

The deadline is February 18th 2018.

You can find out much more, here and apply for the programme, 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.