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.


 

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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.


 

Approaches to Staccato Playing

I’m a regular contributor to Piano Professional (the British European Piano Teachers Association (EPTA) magazine); I really enjoy writing for this publication, which focuses on providing piano teachers with helpful information. The following article was written for Issue 43 (published earlier this year), and examines various approaches to staccato. I hope it’s of interest.


When it comes to tackling articulation, there are numerous different touches to embrace, but the most crucial to master are legato and staccato. Staccato (or short and detached), tends to be ignored as lessons commence, perhaps due to the fact that some exam boards only require staccato scales above certain grades, therefore short, spikey playing is generally limited to a few notes or phrases in certain pieces at the beginning. This is possibly adequate for Grade 1, but if pupils can acquire a feel for the quick release of the keys and highly developed reflexes necessary for staccato technique, it will certainly prove beneficial even for relative beginners.

Legato generally poses few problems for students; it may take a little practice to become accustomed to the ‘overlapping’ of notes or ‘walking’ over the keys in order to join them smoothly, but most find the task surmountable fairly quickly. Legato scales can therefore be easily grasped. This is often not the case with staccato; crisp, short passage work at speed rarely feels comfortable (especially in the beginning), hence staccato scales are frequently taken at much slower tempos than intended. Scales are only one small facet of acquiring an effective staccato technique, but they can provide a convenient vehicle for those getting to grips with detached playing.

There are many variations on the staccato theme, including ‘close-to-the-keys’ staccato, finger staccato, wrist staccato and whole-arm staccato. Each touch demands a different technique and therefore a different body movement or motion. Making progress can take time and patience, because excellent coordination is a prerequisite. Tension can also be an overriding concern, sometimes irrespective of standard, and it can ruin the best of intentions. Economy of movement is essential, as is an inbuilt flexibility, so practising fruitfully, in small but regular sessions is probably the best approach. Aim to encourage students to work little and often, with a totally focused mind-set, building up muscle power and flexibility.

How do we help students conquer thorny issues associated with short, detached playing? Each staccato technique requires a multifarious perspective, so let’s look at them individually.

Finger staccato is the most commonly used for rapid passagework. When working at any new motion or technique with pupils, it’s helpful to ask them to drop their arms by their side at the start of practice sessions, as well as after practising a repeated movement, for a minute of two. If they can assimilate the feeling of ‘dead’ or heavy arms (which is my terminology, but really this only means a totally relaxed upper body), they will learn just how relaxed and ‘free’ they should ideally feel when playing. It can also help students become aware of any tension building as they work, and it provides a default relaxation position to assume after engaging muscles.

Finger staccato implies that only the fingers should move. However, if the arms and wrists remain completely static, tension will quickly arise, rendering fast movement challenging. Ensure complete freedom in the upper body.   If you can replicate this feeling when playing, flexibility won’t be an issue. As with many technical challenges, focus on how your body feels when playing, not just on what is being played.

Practice rapid finger movement away from the piano. Fingers should work from the knuckles, without much assistance of muscles in the hand or wrist, and every joint must be complicit; they need to move independently, making sure the first two joints of each finger particularly (nearest the fingertip), are ‘active’. Aim for a very swift finger motion; encourage fingers to make tapping movements or a quick, sharp pulling ‘inwards’ of each finger (towards the palm of the hand). This can be built up, so work in short bursts for a minute or so at a time, returning to dropping arms by your side at the end of each brief session.

As with most techniques, starting slowly often produces the best results. It can be useful to use heavy finger strokes to begin with; playing deeper (in to the key bed), forcefully and with strong fingers (in order to strengthen them).  It’s important to pay attention to how every note ends. Think spikey, pithy, sharp, and extremely short. Combine this with a free wrist at all times; letting go of tension in designated places.

Once heavy movements have been grasped and they feel comfortable, lighten the touch, using the fingertip (or top/pad of the finger), and aim to acquire a ‘scratch’ or flicking motion, so every note can remain incredibly short and effectively sounded. Once the finger has ‘flicked’ it will usually draw inwards (as already mentioned), almost into the palm of the hand, but best not to allow it to go too far, as quick finger changes necessitate fingers to resume the usual position promptly. When playing a whole scale or passage using finger staccato, it can be beneficial for the hand to employ a very slight ‘bouncing’ motion, allowing flexibility, but keeping the flow.

Practice passage work in different rhythmical groups; groups of four semi-quavers can be accented slightly on every first beat of the group, to improve co-ordination (if hands are playing together). Practice assorted strong beats (or accents), so all fingers can attain control, making it possible to achieve totally even playing, both rhythmically and tonally. Every time the thumb turns under (or the hand turns over it)  in a passage, encourage the wrist to use a small rotational or circular movement, providing a place to release any tension caused by the incessant ‘picking up’ finger motion necessary for finger staccato. Even when using a ‘scratch’ or flicking technique, fingers still need a ‘picking up’ movement, which after a while, becomes tiring. If tension does build, stop immediately, and only practice a few notes or a group of notes at a time. Divide passages into small sections, building up as and when strength is acquired.

If fingers consistently key-bed whilst practising slowly, the less the eventual effort when playing fast, light and crucially, detached.

For close-to-the-keys’ staccato, fingers need hardly leave the keys; they are really playing ‘in position’, and on the surface of the keys. Close-to-the-keys staccato is generally used for certain effects and isn’t as widely employed as finger staccato. Allow fingers to assume their positions over the keys (do this by placing fingers over notes from C-G in the right hand, using the thumb on C, as if playing the first five notes of a C major scale, but with fingers 1-5). Practice each finger separately at first, playing deep into the key bed with each finger, again employing the ‘scratch’ movement (build in a slight break between each note). Using a free wrist will help here. Once the fingers have played heavy, but short notes, lighten the touch considerably, and aim for a very quick movement with each finger making an upward (as opposed to inward) motion. This will encourage speed, rapidly moving onto the next note, taking less time and effort than downward movement. Repeat this with the left hand (also starting in a five-finger position).

Due to the title, it’s easy to misinterpret wrist staccato as merely the wrist in a ‘fixed’ position bobbing up and down at the end of the arm, but if this is the only physical action taken, rigidity and extreme tension may prevail. Unlike finger staccato, wrist staccato requires much more movement than just that of the wrist.

To achieve success, it really must be harnessed to a very flexible, moveable forearm, upper arm and upper torso.  As with many other techniques in piano playing, each movement benefits from being cushioned and supported by other parts of the upper body.

Practice away from the piano at first; begin with the hand in its natural position, then move it upwards using the wrist only, then downwards, with your forearm remaining fairly static, the wrist acting rather like a hinge. Gradually build up speed. The faster the speed, so the motion becomes smaller and smaller, and is eventually similar to a ‘vibrato’ action, as if shaking the hand rapidly.

Once the basic movement has been assimilated (by both hands) away from the instrument, experiment by applying it to a few chords (or single notes to start with) on the keyboard. Play hands separately at first and as you play every chord, using a large hinge-like motion with your wrist (almost like a ‘throwing’ action), land on the chord accurately using the tips of the fingers. After the chord has been struck, completely ‘release’ the wrist and arm, letting go of any tension, before the next chord is played. This is tricky to do at speed, so as always, slow practice can help. As speed is built, be sure to release any elbow tension too, as this can feel uncomfortable after a while. To release muscles, swing your arm down by your side; this will serve as a reminder of the feeling of relaxation with no tension.

In order for the arms, elbows and upper torso to remain as free and flexible as possible (so they can support the wrist), it’s important to have an in-built ‘breathing’ space between each chord, therefore, release the upper body after every single one. The wrist and arm will eventually become accustomed to the whole tension/release mechanism. I find it useful to make a rotational movement with the wrist too (when practising slowly) as opposed to only moving it up and down, because the use of arm weight seems to cushion the movement, providing a richer sound and freer action, in preparation for brisk tempi. Some prefer a ‘throwing’ motion, the flexibility stemming from the wrist’s release between each ‘throw’ of the hand.

After a while (and when the feeling of freedom has been honed), move from playing one chord at a time, to several using one wrist motion. An example of wrist staccato, is shown below (which is the first bar of Czerny’s Study No. 40, from The Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740):

This passage might be practised in the manner suggested below, the rests providing spots to release tension, and build stamina. During the crotchet rests in the right hand, ensure the wrist and whole arm is loose and floppy or free, before continuing, then you will know if you have released tension successfully.

Practice on passages which don’t require a large hand stretch; if octaves or big chords feel strained, choose smaller triads as in the example above. It’s important to feel comfortable, not over-stretched. Also, by giving a slight accent on the first beat of a passage or group (such as the first triad in the chordal group above), it’s possible to facilitate the movement required to play all three chords in the group with ease. The action needed for the strong beat sets the motion rolling, helps to rotate the wrist, and keeps the arm and elbow soft and light too. As the wrist and arm become used to the feeling, so the breaks between each chord can be less and less, although it is always necessary to free the wrist very swiftly between groups of chords, ridding the arm of any tension before continuing.

Speed will come eventually, when the wrist and arm feel able and willing to relax the muscles between passagework, then it will be possible to play longer sections without tiring.  Once this aspect has been understood, velocity and virtuosity should miraculously appear.

Fore-arm, whole-arm or elbow staccato are probably used less frequently than the other types examined so far, and are generally in more advanced repertoire. As the titles suggest, considerable body movement is necessary, and in order to really understand and make use of these techniques, the arm-weight concept (i.e. employing weight from the upper torso whilst playing passages via flexibility in the wrist) needs to be secure, and wrist staccato must also be completely integrated. When playing staccato passagework with the whole upper body, we should ideally still be flexible between notes and chords, so when delivering short but hefty chords or octaves, a warm, controlled sound emanates. These staccato techniques are generally used for slightly slower figurations; those with which will be enhanced by a powerful sonority. Practising with added ‘breaks’ in the score, as has been suggested for wrist staccato above, can also be beneficial.

Within this framework, there are countless effects required when playing staccato, depending on the composer, stylistic traits and character of a piece, but these practice ideas will hopefully provide a veritable starting point. If pupils are introduced to basic staccato playing from the outset, they will be able to build and develop this technique alongside their legato playing.

Suggested advanced repertoire featuring staccato:

Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 3 in E flat major; Scherzo (2nd movement) by Ludwig van Beethoven, Andante & Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14 by Felix Mendelssohn, Puck Op. 71 No. 3 and March of the Dwarfs Op. 54 by Edvard Grieg, Polichinelle Op. 3 No. 4 by Sergei Rachmaninov, Étincelles Op. 36 No. 6 by Moritz Moszkowski, Étude Op. 23 No. 2 by Anton Rubinstein and Gnomenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes) from 2 Konzertetüden, S.145 by Franz Liszt.

You can read the original article here:

Approaches to staccato playing


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.


 

 

Top Recommended Piano Resources for September 2016

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September brings a bumper crop of new publications and resources which I hope you will find of interest. A selection of beginner’s volumes, great little elementary pieces, anthologies and fascinating piano related books as well as a novel, which should provide reading and playing material for the new school term. Enjoy!

Beginners and Elementary

The Lang Lang Piano Method Volumes 4 & 5

lang-langEarlier this year The Lang Lang Piano Method (volumes 1, 2 & 3), written by Chinese star pianist Lang Lang, was launched by Faber, and now volumes four and five have been released. A cartoon Lang Lang appears throughout these books providing encouragement, taking young pianists step by step through every section.These books build on the learning process already established in the first three publications, introducing new keys, rhythms, extending technique through repertoire which includes original pieces and famous tunes. Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Piccolo

heumannThis is a new collection of 111 original easy piano pieces published by Schott and collated by the excellent German composer, teacher and arranger, Hans-Günter Heumann. Including popular repertoire as well as many less known works, over 60 composers from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern periods are featured. This books comes from the Pianissimo series, designed as an introduction to the collection, Für Elise. You can find out much more and purchase here.

Piano Train Trips

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Piano Train Trips is the first book written by Spanish pianist, teacher and composer Juan Cabeza. The book includes 18 Études  and 9 Exercises with duet accompaniment, downloadable audio recordings of the pieces and play-along accompaniment for the exercises. Each étude covers a particular technique: scales, intervals, arpeggios and chords, which are all presented in an original and attractive way. They are fresh, modern and exciting pattern-based pieces. These pieces can be enjoyed by children or adult students, and are of a late elementary level. The book is available for Europe here and a digital edition can be purchased here. Soon, It will also be released  in the US by Piano Safari (pianosafari.com) and a German edition will be published by zauberklavier.de.

Sonorous

sonorousNew this past month,  Sonorous is an original collection of Piano Solos by Colombian pianist and educator Harold Gutiérrez. The books take students from beginner to intermediate level (Book 1), and intermediate to advanced level (Book 2) adopting the 21st century view of music education, in which enjoyment of performance is first and foremost. Each piece presented in this book has been composed as complementary material for young players and their teachers, encouraging students to perform and experience their musical achievements on stage. There are two books in the series so far, and the first is designated ‘for little hands’ with plenty of interesting melodies and technical exercises at the end of the book. You can find out much more, hear some of the pieces, and purchase here.

Safari

safari-firstA collection of 23 pieces by Irish composer June Armstrong. Intended for elementary level students, June’s music is predominantly educational with emphasis on interpretative qualities, engaging a pupil’s imagination. This is certainly evident in these works, which rely heavily on atmospheric harmonies. Safari charts the course of a day in Africa, starting with African Dawn and ending with Night Sky with Stars.  Meet all the animals along the way – gazelles, flamingos, lions, giraffes, hyenas, monkeys, elephants and many others. Pieces often use specific hand positions, suitable for less experienced players. You can hear each piece here, and find out more and purchase here.

Elementary to Advanced

The Faber Music Piano Anthology

faber-piano-anthologyContaining 78 piano pieces, this large volume is suitable for those from Grade 2 – 8 (elementary to advanced), and has been designed as a gift book; a luxury hardback edition featuring high-quality premium paper and ‘The Concerto’ linocut cover image by Cyril Edward Power. Published by Faber, it has been compiled by myself and will hopefully interest a variety of levels and abilities. Many pieces are very well-known penned by the great composers, but there is also a cohort of less familiar works (and composers). From late Renaissance music through to mid to late Twentieth century, piano lovers can enjoy reading through (and learning) a much-loved repertoire of core pieces. Out later this month, you can find out more and purchase here.

Intermediate to Advanced

Russian Folk Tunes

russianPublished by Schott and containing 25 traditional tunes, this book is sure to be popular with all those who appreciate and enjoy playing traditional music. A selection of melodies including Russian folk tunes, Russian Gypsy music and Russian Jewish music, as well as folk music from the Ukraine. The pieces have been edited and arranged by British bandoneonist, composer and arranger Julian Rowlands, who performs them on an accompanying CD. There is also a brief history of Russian music as well as notes on the pieces (which are also available in French and German). The arrangements are from approximately Grades 4-8 level. You can find out more and purchase here.

Blues, Boogie and Gospel Collection

bluesA new collection published by Schott, written by British jazz composer and writer Tim Richards. This volume contains 13 original works for piano by Richards and 2 arrangements (a traditional song and another by Jelly Roll Morton). There are copious interpretation, technique, theory and performance notes, accompanying each piece and a helpful CD of all the pieces (played by Tim). Chord symbols are provided to aid improvisation, and in my opinion, the volume complements other books in the series; Improvising Blues Piano, Exploring Latin Piano and Exploring Jazz Piano (all Richards’ publications). For more and to purchase click here.

Books

The Mindful Pianist

mindfulWritten by British pianist, teacher, writer and composer Mark Tanner and published by Faber in conjunction with EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association), this book is sure to be a winner for all pianists, presenting a fresh perspective on playing and performing. Applying the concept of mindfulness to the piano, this text explores the crucial connection between mind and body: how an alert, focussed mind fosters playing which is more compelling, refined and ultimately more rewarding. It also tackles the issues encountered by pianists when practising, performing, improvising and preparing for an exam too. Drawing on the expert advice of 25 leading pianists and educationalists (I’m delighted to be amongst those mentioned!), this unique book offers a wealth of exercises and musical examples to help every player succeed in becoming a Mindful Pianist. Out later this month, you can pre-order here.

The Steinway That Wouldn’t Budge

budgeA delightful little book written by British piano tuner Peter Tryon (cousin of concert pianist Valerie Tryon) and published by Austin Macauley. This volume is essentially an autobiographical tale of a life spent tuning the pianos of those in East Anglia (in rural UK). It’s full of anecdotal tales from boyhood piano lessons and moving pianos in all kinds of situations, to ghostly tunings (my favourite stories!), there is much to enjoy in this publication. You can purchase it for kindle and as a hard copy, on Amazon here.

Moscow Nights

moscowA thick non-fiction volume written by British historian and biographer Nigel Cliff, and published by Harper Collins, this book tells the story of Van Cliburn, who, as a young pianist from Texas in 1958, travelled to Moscow to compete in the First International Tchaikovsky Competition.  An unknown pianist, Van Cliburn was not the favourite to win, indeed a Russian had already been selected, but his playing captivated the nation. The novel brings together the drama and tension of the Cold War era, with a gifted musician  whose music would temporarily bridge the divide between two dangerously hostile powers. You can find out more and purchase 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.


 

 

 

Do Piano Exams Matter?

i-can-do-itOn returning from my holiday, I enjoyed reading Rosie Millard’s recent interesting and thought-provoking article in The Telegraph deliberating over the benefits of music exams (you can read it here). She labels herself a ‘pushy’ parent, although I don’t find her approach particularly ‘pushy’. I think her concerns are fairly natural amongst parents who want their children to succeed; indeed this approach could be applied to ballet, chess, maths and a whole host of other activities so often undertaken by children.

Many feel music exams are irrelevant, outdated and have little to do with being able to play an instrument. This view is surprisingly prevalent in some unsuspecting circles; there are piano teachers who don’t enter students for exams, believing them to be totally unnecessary. Certainly, exams are not for everyone and, as Rosie points out, they definitely aren’t for the faint hearted! Hours of work, dedication, motivation, and perseverance are necessary – and that’s just to obtain a pass! Some talent is also required beyond a certain level too.

On a personal note, I loved taking piano exams; they gave me a sense of achievement and a feeling of advancement in my playing. I took Grades 2, 5, & 8 (if my memory serves correctly!), but I found them fun. And those I teach also enjoy working towards them (I never push students to take exams).

One of the main issues amongst those who don’t favour an exam system, seems to be the limitations of the syllabus (usually irrespective of the board taken; whether ABRSM, Trinity College, London College of Music etc.); three pieces, a group of scales, sight-reading and aural must generally be negotiated and this can take time to assimilate (sometimes it can take years, depending on the student). Many students (and their teachers) would rather work at a larger group of pieces, learn a more varied repertoire, skip scales (or exercises) and never really have to be put through the trauma associated with sight-reading (or aural). I can certainly empathise with this view, especially for those who want to play for pleasure.

Playing the piano should be for enjoyment, shouldn’t it? Yes, it should. And for some this means a challenge. For those who want to improve their playing, with the intention of reaching new levels of technique and musicianship, and receive a measured view of their progress, an exam may be a great option.

Yes, the syllabus could be viewed as narrow, but then it isn’t meant to be the only course of study; the concept surrounding piano exams is to work at the exam syllabus in conjunction with a whole host of other piano material, forming a broader musical base. Moving from one piano exam to the next (without learning anything else in-between) is not a sound method of progress, as most already know.

The thing about dedicating much time and effort to just a few demanding pieces is that whilst this may seem dull, perfunctory and limited, after working at them correctly (this is vital, so please find a good teacher who can teach the necessary technique required to play everything demanded in the syllabus), students should have acquired new technical (and musical) skills. These skills can then be applied to a multitude of piano pieces, thus encouraging an increasingly higher standard of playing. For many, the whole point of an exam is to overcome or surmount new difficulties.

When there is a deadline, an impending performance and a marking system for that performance, most pupils are motivated to work. They want to go beyond that particular grade or level. That’s not to say this level can’t be achieved by not taking an exam, but they do seem to afford the fundamental carrot. And a good mark provides a very satisfying sense of achievement, as well as the motivation to continue playing.

I’ve been working with several piano professors and university faculty members over the past few months (worldwide), frequently enquiring about entrance audition standards and procedures for their respective university or conservatoire, as well as the selection process for their piano majors (a subject which fascinates me). On  asking which group of students consistently offers the highest level of playing at audition, the answer has (more often than not) been those pianists who have adhered to an examination system, particularly the British system (i.e. ABRSM, Trinity  College London, or London College of Music exams, which can all be undertaken worldwide).

The main reason for this appears to be that these students have frequently taken diplomas (which can serve as excellent preparation for a prospective conservatoire student), are used to presenting recital programmes, and have a more reliable technical grasp due to regular technical exercise practice (of which scales and arpeggios play an important part). These young piano majors intend to be professionals,  and should therefore not be compared to those who play for pleasure, however, the ideology is exactly the same; formal exams can foster a high standard of playing.

No exam system is (or will ever be) perfect, but in my opinion, if you or your child wishes to improve, and learn to develop the required focus, discipline and performing skills needed to do well, working at a piano exam or diploma, as part of a rounded musical education,  might be an excellent way to proceed.

For more information about the British Music Examination Boards, please visit the links below:

ABRSM

Trinity College London

London College of Music

Victoria College

National College of Music & Arts

RockSchool


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.


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Piano Magic

Piano Magic Cover Last Saturday my latest piano compositions were published (by EVC Music Publications Ltd.). Piano Magic is a set of 10 pieces for the elementary pianist (around Grade 1 or 2 level of the ABRSM music exams), and they evoke a colourful fantasy world of witches, ghosts, wizards and fairies. Designed for the young pianist (although older pianists may enjoy them too!), these pieces hopefully offer a chance to get to grips with various technical and musical challenges, particularly staccato, syncopation, the sustaining pedal, quick coordination between hands and complete use of the whole keyboard.

The pieces are 16 bars in length and are all quite different in character. You can hear them by clicking on the links below and you can purchase the book 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.


 

So You Want To Play The Piano? The winners are….

Published by Alfred MusicMany thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition.

This week’s winners are:

Gloria Pevy and Mary Loy Pa.

Congratulations! Please send your addresses via my contact page on this blog.

There are more competitions and giveaways coming very soon. If you would like to know more about my book So You Want To Play The Piano? you can do so here, and if you would like to purchase a copy, you can do so on Amazon here and from the Alfred website 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.


 

Weekend Competition: So You Want To Play The Piano?

It’s time for the Weekend Competition, and this week I am offering my own book, So You Want To Play The Piano? as the prize. I haven’t offered this publication as a competition prize so far on this blog, and some readers have been kindly asking where it can be purchased.

I’ve made a short video which you can watch below, describing the book and why it might be a useful addition to any prospective piano students library. It may also be of interest to parents, those who already play or are self-taught, and even a helpful resource for teachers too.

You can find out more about the book here, and purchase it from Alfred Music’s website here or from Amazon here. However, I have TWO copies to give away this weekend, so to be in with a chance of winning, just leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post and I will pick the two winners on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

So You Want To Play The Piano? – The Reviews

‘This is an excellent book, a first-class introduction and guide to those wishing to learn the piano, full of sensible and practical advice and very well written by an experienced pianist and teacher. Nor is it confined to young people and children – the adult beginner is also considered. Among the subjects it covers are: how to find the perfect instrument; what to look for in a teacher; supporting a child who is learning; preparing for exams; and much more. It is completely up to date and is enthusiastically recommended.’

Robert Matthew-Walker (Musical Opinion)

‘This is an excellent book for anyone who is interested in piano lessons for themselves or a family member. It is extremely comprehensive and includes everything you could possibly want to know about piano lessons. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book quite like this, and anyone considering piano lessons should use this book as a resource.’

Susan Paradis – US Blogger, piano teacher and educational expert. Read the whole review here.

‘The book is geared towards parents and/or students that may be new to the piano lesson experience. But it includes much more than I expected from a “parent or student guide”. For this reason, I would recommend that teachers even have a copy of it in their studio if you have an area for parents to sit while their child is having a lesson.’

Jennifer Foxx – US Blogger, piano teacher and educational expert. You can read the whole review here.

‘My first thought as I read this was ‘why hasn’t anyone written this before?’ It’s full of great advice for anyone wanting to take up the piano, anyone with children about to start to play, or even piano teachers at the start of their career. How on earth did the aspiring pianist manage without a clear volume on how to find the perfect instrument, what to look for in a teacher, things to bear in mind beyond playing the right notes, and how to support a child who is learning? Melanie Spanswick’s book delivers all this and more.’

Fiona Lau (Music Teacher Magazine)

‘This book is un-putdownable because Melanie says everything I have been wanting to say for a long time. I have come across lots of talented young pianists, and I often say to myself ‘if he/she had been taught properly at the beginning, he/she would be a much higher level by now.’ Melanie’s friendly and approachable but ‘no messing about’ direct mannerism is perfect for all piano enthusiasts. This is the kind of book we all need by the side of the piano! It has all kinds of information we need.’

Noriko Ogawa (Japanese International Concert Pianist)


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.


Recommended Piano Resources for March 2016

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As March draws to a close, here’s a round-up of useful piano resources. Hopefully there’s something for everyone including a new piano method, a sight-reading collection, piano pieces, as well as a tempting piano course and an inaugural piano festival. Enjoy!


Beginner/Elementary

Lang Lang Piano Method

Lang LangNew to the market this month, the Lang Lang Piano Method (published by Faber Music), consists of five volumes and is designed to take youngsters from the very beginning to around Grade 1 level (ABRSM exams). The brightly coloured publications feature a cartoon character of the Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang, and take beginners (the method is aimed at those between the ages of 5 – 10 years) on a journey of piano discovery.  Musicianship is developed through theory quizzes and games, as well as the chance to hear Lang Lang playing a range of piano repertoire. The books are accompanied by online audio tracks, including performances of the concert pieces by the popular piano star himself. Find out more here and purchase copies here.

Funkey!

Funkey

Banishing onerous sight-reading tests will be simple courtesy of this series! Written by British teacher Lindsey Berwin and published by Kevin Mayhew, the set consists of five books, and level 1 begins at approximately Grade 1 ABRSM standard. Each short piece is designed to develop a students awareness of key. A variety of styles have been implemented including rock, swing and latin, and the books have a useful accompanying CD. These publications will ideally help pupils to incorporate regular practice in this area, improving rhythmic awareness and crucially, the ability to play fluently. I encourage my students to obtain many different sight-reading books within each exam grade (irrespective of which they plan to prepare for), therefore a series such as this will be most beneficial. Get your copies here.

Intermediate

Spinning Sky

Spinning-Sky-for-piano-by-Aleksandra-Vilcinska-768x1077

Spinning Sky for piano, written by Russian composer Aleksandra Vilcinska (featured on the cover) consists of a tuneful, wistful melody evoking hopes, dreams and happiness. Published just last month by EVC Music Publications Ltd. Spinning Sky is a beautifully balanced piece to add to a teenage student’s repertoire, particularly those who enjoy the ‘new age’ genre. Suitable for students at Intermediate level (or Grades 5-6 ABRSM standard). Listen to the piece and get your copy here.

8 Children’s Pieces for Piano

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Celebrated British composer Malcolm Arnold‘s highly evocative and colourful 8 Children’s Pieces for Piano have been republished in a new edition by Queen’s Temple Publications. They range in difficulty from about Grades 2 – 6, and represent a wonderful set of imaginative and fun pieces to learn, play and perform. Melodious, often dramatic, and with interesting and occasionally unexpected harmonies, they are audience and young pianist friendly. Titles include Dancing Tune, Two Sad Hands, Across the Plains and The Buccaneer. You can find out more and purchase your copy here.

Intermediate/Advanced

Piano Kaleidoscope

Baerenreiter Kaleidoscope V11 Front

This new volume, published by German publisher, Barenreiter, is a special edition; a mix of classics at an affordable price, featuring a cross-section of Bärenreiter’s extensive piano catalogue. The pieces and movements range from the 18th century through to the first decades of the 20th century.  Fifteen composers are represented in this edition, from J S Bach and Schubert through to Debussy, Satie and Smetana. The pieces also vary in national style and are fairly wide-ranging in terms of technical difficulty, although many are intermediate (grades 5 – 6) level. You can find out more and order your copy here.

Online

TomBooks

newsletter-enTomBooks is a new type of e-book combining text, images and audio content in an innovative manner. The goal of these books is to ‘immerse the reader in a world of culture, music and art through an interactive, multi-sensory approach’. TomBooks’ first editions are dedicated to music and painting: biographies of composers, interactive music scores, galleries and games linked to painting, and books dedicated to works of art.  The majority of the books involve a dedicated network allowing readers to communicate with each other by means of a platform created for each book. The piano music ranges from pop and musical theatre, to classical and film music, and various accompaniments are also available. You can explore the piano music here.

Courses

The Miami International Piano Festival Academy

Miami

This course offers an intensive summer programme designed to explore the Art of Piano Playing. Distinguished teacher Giselle Brodsky is artistic director of this three week session, which takes place from July 3rd – 24th 2016 in Miami. The Academy provides pianists with the opportunity to take part in intensive private and open lessons with international master artists and teachers. There will be opportunities to participate in technique clinics, enjoy discussions with the faculty, and explore the world of different composers and specific repertoire, as well as learn  to improvise, strengthening skills as performers. You can find out much more here.

Festivals

London Piano Festival

kings-place-logo

I enjoy spotlighting new piano festivals and this one looks most innovative. The London Piano Festival takes place at King’s Place in London in October 2016, and has been created by pianists Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen. Their shared love of the instrument has initiated this weekend especially for the city’s many piano lovers. The music will range from Bach, Busoni and Rachmaninoff through to Messiaen and Piazzolla. A particular highlight will be the world premiere of a new two-piano work by the American composer Nico Muhly. performers include Alfred Brendel, Kathryn Stott, Noriko Ogawa, Julian Joseph, Stephen Kovacevich as well as Katya and Charles. You can find out much more 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.


Recommended Piano Resources for February 2016

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It has certainly been a busy few days for me, and visiting the Music Education Expo event (held at Olympia in London) last week was fascinating. I discovered a whole raft of new piano resources and materials, and met various composers, music educators and publishers. I will endeavour to include as many discoveries as possible in my monthly list over the coming months! Here is my round-up of practice ideas, sheet music, online resources and piano courses. I hope you enjoy reading.


Beginner/Elementary

Practice Starter Cards

CardsPaul HarrisSimultaneous Learning concept has proved highly successful, and the Practice Starter Cards, published by Faber Music, provide a fun and imaginative extension to this approach. Launched at the Music Education Expo event in London last week, they are great way to begin piano lessons (or any instrumental or vocal lesson). Simply select a card, and follow the instructions on the back, to create a variety of lesson activities. The cards focus on different elements, such as scales, aural, improvisation, rhythm and sight-reading, and each suggestion encourages students to think for themselves, making connections between all aspects of musical learning, as well as proffering an entertaining and creative addition to lessons. All levels could benefit, but especially elementary and intermediate. Find out more and purchase here.

A Pirate’s Escape

Piano Safari offer a very popular piano method and a variety of materials to supplement this, with many useful primary pieces which are excellent for beginners and elementary players. A Pirates Escape, written by Christopher and Katherine Fisher, is essentially a duet for teacher and pupil, and will appeal to young students. Considered a late elementary piece in the key of D minor, it features a hand over hand arpeggio, and a rather dramatic coda with harmonic fifths. You can listen to it and purchase here.

The Graded Piano Player

Graded playerThis new series seeks to offer pianists a wide range of popular tunes, written as effective arrangements within a graded framework, which is similar to that of the major exam boards. Published by Faber Music, this series extends to three progressive volumes, from approximately Grades 1 – 5. A collection of well-known tunes and songs arranged by Alan Bullard, Ned Bennett and others, the selection includes favourites by Disney, as well as TV, film, pop, folk, jazz and musical theatre numbers. Great for use between exams, or independent learning, as well as sight-reading for more advanced players. Children, teenagers, and adults will all find something to enjoy here, and these books will give teachers the opportunity to offer their pupils an alternative to classical pieces. You can purchase here.

Intermediate

Frost

frostThis piece, written by Jenni Pinnock and published in January 2016, effectively depicts the cold, biting sentiment. Serene and striking, Frost was inspired by the beautiful carpet of ice crystals left across the landscape. The composer writes, ‘although it may be a danger, it makes the world sparkle in a magical way, leaving glinting frosty spiders webs and icy plants for us to admire’. I enjoyed playing this piece through; it calls for atmospheric, evocative colours and would be perfect for those wishing to develop a larger tonal palette. You can listen to the piece and purchase a copy here.

Advanced

Peacock Grande Valse for Piano

Peacock

This advanced piano piece, written by British composer and publisher Elena Cobb, was published just last week, and consists of a tuneful, catchy melody. Reminiscent of the Romantic period,  and akin to a Salon style work, it contains some technical challenges for the pianist. Two Peacocks simultaneously ‘chat’, hence the interweaving of melodic lines. With double notes, octaves and rapid passagework in the right hand, and lots of movement around the keyboard, this piece will be enjoyed by many. The technical twists and turns all lie fairly comfortably under the hand. Listen and get your copy here.

London-Paris

London-Paris-Sheet-Music-WEB

Russian pianist, teacher and composer, GéNIA, has written a collection of compositions which are a fusion of Classical crossover and Minimalism. The pieces have recently  been published as sheet music, and she performs them frequently around the country; they are also played regularly on Classic FM and in Cafe Nero. London-Paris is my favourite, and it was inspired by frequent trips taken on the Euro-Star to Paris, where the composer often works. You can listen to this piece and purchase GéNIA’s sheet music here.

Online

Online Piano Academy

Graham's pic 1 for blogPianist, teacher and writer, Graham Fitch is introducing a new Online Piano Academy. It is designed to be the complete resource for anyone learning to play the piano, irrespective of their level. Building on Graham’s e-book series and popular blog, Practising the Piano,  the Academy will be a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses and resources combined with insights from other leading experts. The Academy will be funded by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, and readers are invited to support and help shape the online resource. You can find out more here, and support the project here.

Musica Piano

HOME_main_logoThis is a new iPad app for classical music in scores, audio and video. Musica Piano offers free online access to copious classical music scores by Könemann Music Budapest and other publishers. This app comes with a whole collection of recordings by renowned artists in audio and in video. The recordings are synchronized with the scores, and are called Syntunes. The Könemann Music Budapest scores have been available in print since the 90s and have been academically edited mostly in Urtext quality.   The complete piano works of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, Haydn, Brahms, Skryabin, and many more, are at your disposal wherever you are, provided you are connected to the Internet!  You can register and find out more here.

Hoffmann Academy

HAOM-color-web-RGB-croppedThe Hoffman Academy is an online resource for parents and students, enabling them to access piano lessons from their homes. These lessons are 5 -10 minutes, created by Joseph Hoffman and are free of charge. There are extra activity pages, sheet music, and mp3 files, which can be purchased for download alongside the lessons. Hoffman’s lessons are inspired by Suzuki and Kodaly methods, as well as from his own child development research. In addition, piano teachers and educators also favour using the Hoffman Academy materials in their own private practices. You can find out much more here.

Courses

The Dublin International Piano Festival and Summer Academy

DublinThis festival is gaining popularity and is considered the leading programme of its kind in Ireland, attracting students and audiences from all over the world to Dublin for a nine days of lessons, masterclasses and performances. The programme offers an intensive educational experience for advanced piano students as well as an exciting concert series open to the public. The Summer Academy gives young pianists a unique opportunity to explore the possibilities of a career as a pianist, to work with the faculty, and to excel in piano performance and technique, while enjoying everything Dublin city has to offer. Eighteen participants will enjoy daily practice sessions, lessons and masterclasses, seminars on topics such as performance psychology from experts in the field. The dates are 23rd – 31st July, and you can find out much more 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.