Polishing Your Piano Technique: Jackdaws Course 2018

If you fancy a relaxing weekend in the most beautiful English country setting, with scrumptious home cooked food, and plenty of opportunity to hone your piano skills whilst meeting new like-minded friends, you will love the courses held at Jackdaws Music Educational Trust. Situated in Somerset (near Frome), this music course venue (pictured to the left)  is second to none and the courses are increasing in popularity every year.

This is the third year I have run a weekend course at Jackdaws, and I’m always delighted to be working amongst such an illustrious cohort of course tutors. This year, I’ll be focusing on piano technique. After running my course Piano Technique, Sight-reading and Memorisation for the past two years, I realised, from those who came (and some comments from those who didn’t), just how crucial my work teaching piano technique really is; throughout this weekend, I hope to illustrate the possibility of improving your skills irrespective of age or ability.

Students often complain of tension, pain, and discomfort when they play, which probably stems from moving around the instrument in a less than ideal manner, resulting in many technical issues.

During the course, I’ll consider the reasons for tension and examine useful ways of alleviating it, by focusing on establishing freedom and relaxation whilst playing.

Each course member will be given ample opportunity to hone and improve their technique; working at rotational wrist motion, strengthening fingers, and developing completely free arm movement; encouraging the use of arm weight, with the aim of producing a warm, pleasing tone. Scales, arpeggios, chords, octaves, double note passages and much more, will be evaluated and discussed. We will also work on aspects within each student’s chosen repertoire.

Participants are advised to bring two or three contrasting pieces to the workshops, although these do not have to be performance ready.

Course dates are 9th – 11th February 2018, and I really look forward to meeting you.

For more details and booking information, click here.


My publications:

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

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


 

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Guest Post: A Young Pianist’s Journey

Today’s blog is a guest post written by my student Amy Reynolds. Amy (pictured below) came to study with me a year ago, and together we’ve enjoyed quite a journey. Here, in her own words, she explains how we went about obtaining her dream, which was to study the piano at a British music conservatoire. After hours of dedication and hard work, Amy now looks forward to studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on the B.Mus course next September, where she has been awarded a scholarship.


 The one thing I struggled with when I first thought of applying to study at a music conservatoire was the lack of information about the required entrance audition standards; yes, they all say Grade 8 ABRSM distinction or equivalent, but many of us know that’s not strictly the case. There is not enough information available for prospective conservatoire students, aside from that on a music college’s website. I would prefer to see something written by students already studying at a music college, or those who haven’t been successful, but share their experiences anyway, because it’s useful information. As someone who didn’t go to a junior department of a music college, or a private music specialist school, it has been difficult to obtain an understanding of how music colleges work. Which is why I’m writing this article, not only to share my experiences, but in the hope that other young musicians might find this information helpful.

I’m often asked ‘why do you travel so far to have piano lessons?’ I live in Bristol (in the South-West of the UK) and travel to Maidenhead (25 miles west of London) for my lesson every week (a journey of an hour and a half each way). This is one question that I find very interesting. Many people (including friends) don’t understand how important it is to find the right teacher. Now I have evidence that going the extra mile, quite literally, means that you will get results.

I don’t come from a wealthy or musical background, and I certainly don’t come from the perfect family. Music is a universal language which speaks beyond background. I have always loved music.  I began learning the violin at age 6 and my mum and my grandparents have always fully supported me. However, it’s through my own determination that I’ve managed to get as far as I have. Parents can only do so much to help with your practise, the same goes for teachers, you can have the best teacher in the world, but only you can make improvements with the tools your teacher gives you. You need to be strong and resilient to fight for what you want, the competition is fierce.

I started learning the piano at the age of 12. A relatively late starter. I’ve always known that being a musician, especially a pianist, is no easy feat. Coming across obstacles and defeating them is part of the process of your development as a person and a musician. I welcome constructive criticism and healthy competition now, but when I was younger I really took it to heart.

Whenever I mentioned the word ‘conservatoire’ in secondary school, I was quickly put back inside my box. I was told such places were almost impossible to get in to, and I was no-where near the standard they expected; it was too far ‘out of my reach’ because of the age I started learning to play the piano. I’ve been told this so often, by older friends who went down a more academic university route, and by teachers at school. This made conservatoires all the more interesting. I knew of so few people who had been to one. It got to the point that I had built up this world inside my head of normal musicians verses musicians at conservatoires, which I know now isn’t healthy thinking, but it did give me that extra push I needed to work harder.

My first piano teacher took me through from the very beginning to Grade 8. Because of the violin I could already read the treble clef, so she started with the bass clef and we went from there.   Our lessons were filled with fun activities and I learned a lot from her, but the thing she didn’t teach me was technique. Of course we had the discussion about not squashing the hamster or Ping-Pong ball when I first started! But we didn’t touch on anything else.

It wasn’t until I started sixth form at Bristol Cathedral Choir School that I realised how much I needed to improve my playing if I were to become a professional pianist. When I started lessons with a teacher there she explained that tension was the cause of the pain in my forearms, wrists and shoulders. I made the common mistake of thinking that playing demanding repertoire was the answer, little did I know that playing less complex pieces properly was a far better option. I fell in love with Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor (Op. 3 No. 2), but unfortunately this only exasperated the tension situation. I found it almost impossible to play without some form of pain shooting up my arms.

Towards the end of the summer in 2015, I had an email from my piano teacher at Cathedral School, saying that there were limited places left on a three-day course that Melanie Spanswick was running at Jackdaws Music Education Trust in Frome. She thought the course would be good, and would help me to get a broader understanding of the cause of my tension, and learn more about technique. The course focused on ‘Piano Technique, Memorisation and Sight Reading’. I booked immediately. Looking back at the notes I made on that course after studying with Melanie, and attending the course this October, I see how blissfully unaware I was of the whole concept of piano technique. I had already decided by this point that I was going to take a gap year because I knew I wasn’t ready for the standards audition panels expect.

After this course I had never been more inspired, the way Melanie approached technique fascinated me. It was a completely different concept that I hadn’t come across before. So, when my teacher went on maternity leave, I emailed Melanie and asked her if she would teach me. She replied very quickly saying that she would.

A few days later (January 26th 2016) I was having my first lesson!  Melanie asked me what I had been learning, what repertoire I had played in the past (including chamber music) and how often I performed. I didn’t play much in this first lesson, looking back now I realise that she was assessing my technique and the way I learn. I must admit, I felt quite intimidated knowing this lady went to the Royal College of Music and had an amazing biography. It was like being in the same room as a celebrity. Saturday afternoons soon became my favourite part of the week.  

One of the first questions she asked me was what I wanted to achieve from my piano playing. I told her that I to be a professional pianist and study at a UK conservatoire. She was rather shocked and told me that I wasn’t close to the standards such institutes demand. Melanie has always been very honest with me, sometimes brutally, but I am so grateful that she has consistently told me nothing but the truth. This gave me even more motivation to work harder. It was clear that my Grade 8 distinction was not going to be anywhere near enough in terms of securing a place.

When I first realised how inadequate my technique was, I struggled to look at my hands, knowing that I had to undo every single bad habit honed over the past 5 or 6 years. It has taken many hours of practice to get to where I am now, and I still have lots to improve on, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without clear structure in my lessons alongside setting myself goals. I feel quite passionate about discussing the difficulties I have faced technically, because I’m sure there are others out there who have faced the same situation. I think knowing that Melanie learned to play the piano at a later age (like me), has helped me believe that there is potential in everybody, including myself.

The first piece we worked on in a truly technical manner was J.S Bach’s Two-part Invention in C major (No. 1). I became excited about this new world of technique. I swapped my social life for hours meticulously picking through Bach and Czerny exercises. We focused on dropping my wrists, learning flexibility and the feeling of relaxation needed to play with ease. Playing deep into each note and taking care to make sure everything was exactly even in tone and even rhythmically too. It actually took me a month to understand that the reason I wasn’t playing notes exactly evenly was because I wasn’t concentrating enough on what my body was doing, or listening to the sound I was creating. I was flabbergasted by the level of concentration needed to track every single movement from your back, shoulder, through your arms wrists and finally your fingertips. This was because I’d never practised or learned in this way before, being aware of every single movement. I still find it quite a taxing task, and often find myself daydreaming and losing concentration – that is when I know it’s time for a break!

Melanie really took me back to basics. She helped to undo all the habits that I had built up over the last few years. This meant retraining my ear In order to pick up on the smallest of tone and technical errors; my eyes watching every movement I made, and most importantly the feeling necessary to achieve this. Being able to feel free, and when I say free I mean tensionless, relaxed and flexible. This was the biggest obstacle I had faced so far as a pianist, the concept of freedom when one plays, was completely alien to me. Of course you need tension to play otherwise you would make no sound, but there’s a big difference between unnecessary and necessary tension. This was the first step into finding freedom at the keyboard.

First I was taught to drop my wrists as far as they would go whilst having my fingers holding notes down. Once I had ‘released’ the tension I would then move my arm around, and my wrists up and down to check that they were free, if they weren’t then I wouldn’t have full flexibility and movement. Melanie would hold my fingers on the keyboard allowing me to release all tension, this was extremely useful in helping me to understand the feeling of being relaxed. I do this on myself using my other hand when doing separate hand practise, which is especially useful for octaves and big chords; encouraging my hand to learn how to relax when it is in an out-stretched position.

When I was able to do this with ease, we moved onto wrist rotation, starting with a simple 5 note exercise beginning on C. To achieve this I would play the first note, drop my wrist in the way I explained earlier, and then swing my wrist around to play the next note. All the while paying attention to feeling free and playing on the tips of my fingers. I learned that the wrist is one of the most important components in piano playing, especially how it needs to be separate from the hand and arm. I like to describe it as something floating in the middle, like a cloud, to cushion the sound and the action of the fingers.

I had the common problem of ‘weak fingers’, not only would the joints of my fingers collapse, but the bridge of my hand would as well, meaning I had absolutely no control over what I was playing. So by going back to basics, I have been able to strengthen the ability to command or tell my fingers to do exactly what I want. We talk about strengthening fingers, but this isnt exactly correct because we have few muscles in our hands; they mostly consist of tendons. We strengthen the neurological connection to our fingers, hands and arms meaning that we can ship information to them quicker. A bit like a broadband connection that has just been upgraded to fibre optic!

It’s surprising how much technique overlaps, arm weight can help support weak fingers, but without using your wrist correctly you won’t achieve a deep sonorous sound. Melanie also advised me to completely ignore dynamic markings and all markings on the page to begin with (aside from the notes of course!) when first learning a piece. Instead, I always played deeply into the key bed, creating an even tone throughout. This is something that I continue to do, and she could tell you that it is a habit I’m still getting used to following! It’s definitely the best way to learn control and create evenness.

I love making lesson notes, which I do on the train after my lesson. I also set myself daily and weekly goals, as well as following what Melanie has set me. I find this really helps to organise my thoughts and be effective in the way I go about my practise.  

We had to work very quickly because my A Level recital was soon upon us, and I needed 15 to 20 minutes of contrasting repertoire. We then looked at the Trinity College diploma syllabus and chose a few pieces: The first movement of Sonata in C minor Op.10 No. 1 by Beethoven, a selection from the Night Pieces by Peter Sculthorpe, and the J.S. Bach Two-part Invention (No. 1 in C major). Due to certain family circumstances, I had no access to a piano to practise at this time, but I did manage 2 hours a day at school. Despite this, I managed to achieve an A star in my A level recital.

We then worked towards my ATCL diploma in piano performance, primarily as a kind of ‘warm up’ for the approaching entrance auditions. I took the diploma in late September at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. My programme consisted of the complete Piano Sonata in C minor Op.10 No. 1 by Beethoven, Night Pieces by Peter Sculthorpe and Intermezzo in A major Op.118 No. 2 by Brahms.

This programme was about 45 minutes long; the longest performance I had ever given. A few days prior to the diploma, I played a lunchtime recital at Bristol Cathedral, I was surprised by how silent the audience were. I’ve been a regular at the lunchtime recitals in the cathedral, and know that the audience are usually quite noisy and renowned for leaving early, so I was delighted by the fact that I had managed not only to fill the nave of the cathedral, but also to captivate this audience. I felt this was a great achievement. It was definitely one of the highlights of my year, as was receiving my ATCL certificate!

I applied for places at six conservatoires (Royal Northern College of Music, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Birmingham Conservatoire, Leeds College of Music and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance), and we eventually adjusted my programme to suit the musical and technical demands expected at entrance auditions. I played the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata in C minor (Op. 10 No. 1), Stars from Sculthorpe’s Night Pieces and Prelude in B minor Op. 11 No. 6 by Scriabin. The Scriabin Prelude is, for me, a tour de force in octave technique and we spent much time (sometimes a whole 2 hour lesson) learning  the necessary technique this work demands. During this time I was practising four to six hours a day.

For entrance auditions, I needed to play from memory (not something I was accustomed to doing). Possibly the best thing I have learned from Melanie, aside from physical and mental freedom when playing, is memorising music right from the beginning. If you start out with the intention and mind-set to memorise a piece then it will be easier. It is much harder if you learn the piece first and then want to go back and memorise it. This is because you have already built your mental practise around a sheet of music not something which can float around in your mind.  Memorisation is a very psychological thing, and one which I was absolutely terrified of. That was only because it was something I hadn’t done in the right way before, if you go in with an open mind you can achieve anything.

It helps if you memorise each hand separately, starting with the left hand first, because the left hand is the anchor to any piece of music, there is something psychological about it. If our right hand loses its way we seem to be able to stay on track, but if the left hand disappears, it’s a challenge to pick up the musical threads.

Recognising patterns in chords, sequences or structure also helps. I now understand why playing from memory has become such a commended thing, because it really makes you pay attention to every aspect of the music and your technique. Once something has been memorised you can practise it in so many different ways, altering the rhythm adding accents, and playing with different articulation.  

I had my first audition on 27th October, which was extremely early in comparison to other colleges. Since then, I had an audition almost every week for the next eight weeks, and it was certainly tiring. But travelling around the country was a great experience. My last audition was on the 12th December. By then I had already received five unconditional offers and one scholarship; a week later I got an offer from Trinity Laban Conservatoire, for a total of six offers!

I was completely blown away; in eight months of having lessons with Melanie, I had taken my diploma and received offers from six conservatories. I know that there was no way I could’ve done it without her, or without my own determination, and I’m also on the way to building a secure technique free of any pain, discomfort or tension. This proves that it is possible to get or do anything that you want.

Read Amy’s blog here.

You can find out more about the music conservatoires discussed in this article here:

Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Royal Northern College of Music

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Birmingham Conservatoire

Leeds College of Music

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance


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.


 

Hand Flexibility

Hands. They are fairly crucial for pianists. Many will immediately refer to the fingers as being the most significant ‘tools’ in a pianist’s tool box. And there’s no doubt, without fingers, playing is rather tricky. But, over the past few months, I’ve been working with a group of students and we have routinely discussed hands; hand positions are always important, but one aspect causing regular issues (and sometimes anxiety too) is the flexibility and ‘softness’ necessary in our hands at the same time as keeping finger strength and independence.

Whilst we work ceaselessly to remain ‘free’ and relaxed in our upper torso, even once this has been acquired, some find the muscles in their hands are still inflexible and tense. For me, movement around the keyboard (particularly at the moment of impact i.e. depressing the key) is vital. There’s little point in discussing the finer points of interpretation, musicianship or even dynamic range, if you can’t get around the piece and feel comfortable doing so!

Once you have assimilated the feeling of freedom in your wrists (the first point of relaxation), arms and upper body, it’s probably time to move onto your hands. When muscles in the hand itself are tense, octave stretches feel challenging, as do large chords and double note passages. Many complain that they find octave stretches and beyond almost impossible. However, I’ve yet to find a student who really can’t play an octave once taught how to relax their hand (small children are an obvious exception, but I don’t teach little ones).

If you recognise this scenario, then read on! To begin with, you need to know which part of the hand to relax. The photos below illustrates the approximate area to which I’m referring: thumbnail_20161203_180218_resized_1Photo 1 (above) shows the palm and surrounding areas (especially around the thumb joint); these are normally fleshy and soft (when not outstretched or used to play); they need to stay this way (as much as possible) as and when you play.

thumbnail_20161203_180036_resized_1Photo 2 (to the left) shows the muscles between the finger joints which also tend to tense.

Lay your hand flat on a surface (away for the piano), palm facing downwards. Determine how far your outstretched hand can open without feeling tense or uncomfortable. To begin with, it might not be that much. However, note the feeling of the hand when it is fairly relaxed and ‘loose’.

Now play the chords below (first with the right hand, and then the left), and during contact with the keys, with your other hand (i.e. the hand not playing), feel just how your muscles in those fleshy areas respond. You might be surprised by how ‘hard’ or rigid your hand feels.

hands-1The trick is to learn to relax the hand as you play. It’s paramount to know how your arms, wrists and hands feel when engaged. These feelings are easy to block out, as we are generally too busy focusing on the music. This is why exercises or scales can be of value, as they have generally less musical content, so you can concentrate on how your upper torso feels in action. When the feeling of flexibility has been digested thoroughly, you will start to feel comfortable and relaxed whilst playing.

Hand flexibility can be challenging to teach, as it requires students to really know themselves and their hands, and lots of patience! I constantly work with pupils on this aspect.

A good way to start is to play a repeated single note (in each hand, separately), As you strike each note, notice how the muscles within the hand respond; ask yourself whether they are tense, uncomfortable or rigid. You’ll need to be honest and truthful about the physical sensations felt as you play. Keep returning to the feeling you learnt when your hand was outstretched but was still pliable and felt completely relaxed. By returning to this feeling time and again during practice sessions, it will eventually become a habit.

Now play the following single note pattern (right hand, followed by the left); starting with six notes apart moving on to an octave (you could move to an interval of a seventh too, before the octave):

hands-2As you gently ‘reach’ or rock from one note to the next, encourage the usual wrist flexibility between notes (there are many way of doing this, but I ask students to ‘drop’ their wrist between notes, allowing a ‘heavy’ relaxed feeling (as the muscles loosen), moving the wrists in a free lateral motion). Then, check the muscles in the hand (with the hand that is free i.e. the one not playing), to make sure they feel comfortable and  not tight. If they don’t feel relaxed, ‘let go’ of the muscles as you engage the hand. ‘Letting go’ is just another terminology for relaxation. This is the most challenging part. When you learn how to ‘let go’ as you play, at the same time as keeping the fingers in place and firm, the hand starts to release its grip, and muscles feel moveable.

Eventually, octave intervals such as those in this exercise feel relaxed and notes can be played together i.e. to form an octave. If you can do this with ease already, as you play an octave, encourage wrists to drop (it’s awkward and uncomfortable to play such intervals with high wrists), and relax, whilst still holding the notes down. For secure octave finger ‘positions’, the fifth finger needs to be fully functional, and the thumb, light but aiming to keep the shape as you move.

If you play octaves slowly, you can watch and feel the hand and its muscles, ‘letting go’ or relaxing, as the fingers depress the keys. Allowing the hand to attain total flexibility takes time, but becoming aware of the required sensation (or feeling) in your hands is a good way to begin.


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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A weekend at Jackdaws Music Education Trust

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Tucked away down a country lane, just a few miles from Frome in Somerset (in the South West of the UK), is a music centre which has inspired generations of singers and instrumentalists. For many years, Jackdaws Music Education Trust has been providing weekend courses, educational events and performances for appreciative audiences and students. The courses attract excellent tutors in many disciplines and an increasingly expanding stable of students.

I was delighted to be invited to join the roster of piano tutors by tutoring my own course last weekend. On most courses there are a maximum of ten places, so when I arrived on Friday evening for supper before the first session, I was greeted by ten very keen pianists of all ages.

Over the course of the weekend, we explored several topics, namely piano technique, sight-reading and memorisation, which were interspersed with a more regular workshop concept where each student presents a couple of pieces. The timetable of eight sessions of different lengths (of between one and two hours) is definitely intense (I still managed to overrun several times!), but we were able to cover a myriad of issues and concerns in this time, and my students all commented on how much they really enjoyed the variety this provided. They also appreciated the beautiful Steinway at their disposal (pictured above).

All students were adults and mostly piano teachers  and amateur pianists of varying levels (from approximately Grade 5 to ATCL level), and on my course, there was also one pre-conservatoire student too.

They presented an interesting array of repertoire including works by J S Bach, Handel, Mozart (Sonata in C major K. 545), Beethoven (Pathetique Sonata in C minor No. 8 Op. 13), Burgmuller, Kuhlau, Sinding, Grieg (Nocturne Op. 54 No. 4), Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov (Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2), York Bowen, and Harold Arlen. I particularly savoured a work (performed by a diploma student) by Sydney Rosenbloom, a composer I knew very little about.

Rosenbloom was born in Edinburgh in 1886 and apparently studied at the Blackheath Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Music, making his debut as a pianist in 1920, before working extensively in South Africa. His Polonaise in A flat appears heavily influenced by Chopin, but is nevertheless an effective display piece and great fun to play and teach. You can hear a pianola version of it here. It was a treat to discover this dynamic little-known piece.

Every student was given the chance to ‘try out’ and hone different ideas I presented relating to sight-reading, piano technique and memorisation, all of which I am convinced can be studied and hugely improved with regular attention.

The sessions were punctuated with fabulous food prepared to perfection by Alex, who worked tirelessly to make sure our various dietary requirements were met. During the small amount of relaxation time, some students explored the countryside, and set about a river walk (Jackdaws is situated next to a river), whilst others made use of the facilities at the centre and did some practice (there are several practice rooms).

The course ended with a lengthy sight-reading session; students reading together around the piano, playing trios (by Christopher Norton, Mike Cornick and Sergei Rachmaninov), and many duets, which are great ways to improve reading. Pupils commented on just how beneficial it was to have worked so thoroughly, both on their chosen pieces and other pianistic issues.

Jackdaws is certainly a wonderful experience for anyone wanting to combine vocal or instrumental workshops, with a convivial weekend break (they also run one day courses and a Summer school too), where they can meet like-minded individuals and work with respected teachers. 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.


5 Top Tips to Improve Finger Staccato

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One aspect of playing I have written little about is touch and articulation, specifically staccato. This past semester, several of my students have taken advanced graded ABRSM exams, requiring many scales, the majority of which must be played legato (smoothly) and staccato (short or detached, indicated on the score by dotes above or below notes as in the example above).

Most pupils have few problems negotiating rapid legato scales, but short detached passage work at speed rarely feels comfortable, hence staccato scales are sometimes taken much slower than the intended tempo. Scales are only one facet of acquiring an effective staccato technique, but they do provide a convenient vehicle for those just getting to grips with short, crisp articulation, and with this in mind I aim to offer a few tips, which may (or may not!) be helpful.

As with so many areas of piano playing, tension can rear its ugly head and ruin even the best intentions. Economy of movement is essential as is ‘built in’ flexibility.  There are many different types of staccato; ‘close to the keys’ staccato, ‘finger’ staccato, wrist staccato, whole arm staccato, and a few others in between. Each variant will need a different technical approach. This applies to both the physical and mental set-up.  However, in this post, I will deal with finger staccato, and how to achieve crisp, clear and even note groups, helping those who are working at their scales, exercises, or simply wanting to produce neater articulation.

1. Finger staccato implies that only the fingers should move. This is true, however, if the arms and wrists remain completely static, tension will quickly arise, rendering fast movement virtually impossible. Start by ensuring complete freedom in the upper body. Drop your arms by your side freely, whilst sitting at the piano, and notice the relaxed, ‘heavy’ feeling. 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.

2. Practice rapid finger movement away from the piano. Fingers should work from the knuckles, without the aid of the hand or wrist, and every joint must be complicit; they need to move independently, using the first two joints of each finger particularly. Aim for a very swift finger motion; encourage fingers to assume a tapping movement. This can be built up, so work in short sharp bursts for a few minutes at a time, returning to dropping arms  by your side at the end of each brief session.

3. As with most techniques, starting slowly often produces the best results. It can be useful to use heavy finger strokes to begin with; playing much heavier, forcefully and with strong fingers in order to strengthen them and become accustomed to the quick, snappy movements.  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 at designated places.

4. Once heavy movements have been assimilated and they feel comfortable, lighten your touch, using the finger tip (or top 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, 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.

5. 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 different strong beats, 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 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 at a time. Divide passages into small sections to begin with, building up as and when strength is acquired.

The deeper and heavier fingers are worked whilst practising slowly, the less the eventual effort when playing fast, light and crucially, detached. This can work for many other types of technical issues too. Try incorporating some of the above, and hopefully your finger staccato will sound lively, energetic, and clear!


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.


Resolving Tension in Piano Playing: Article for EPTA’s Piano Professional

We all know too much tension can ruin piano playing, yet alleviating this issue generally takes time and lots of work. There are many ways of dealing with the uncomfortable, tight feeling which often accompanies a fixed, tense disposition at the piano. The following article was originally written for the Piano Professional Magazine, an EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) publication, and it first appeared in the Summer 2014 Issue (No. 35, pages 8-10). Thoughts presented in this essay are merely a few ideas or tips to consider whilst practising, or when teaching technical proficiency to pupils; to acquire assured technical skill, the best way forward is to seek a specialist teacher.


Resolving Tension in Piano Playing

There will always be an element of stress in piano playing. Public performance, on any musical instrument, requires nerves of steel as well as complete focus, discipline and concentration. However, this is substantially different from the tension that arises due to technical problems and deficiencies. Some tension is very necessary, because without it, playing would be impossible, so it’s important to be able to recognise the imperative tension from the unnecessary often detrimental type. Tension is a widespread problem in piano playing. Most professionals, amateurs and students suffer from this ailment at some time or other, and it can be very debilitating. Prolonged tension frequently causes pain which can eventually manifest as Tendonitis, Repetitive Strain Injury and at worse, can stop piano playing completely.

There are two differing types of disadvantageous tension. The first comes from negative thought processes or mental stress. Many pianists have suffered from this, and it takes lots of positive mental work to alleviate. It’s quite startling just how much our external thoughts can ruin a performance particularly amongst those who have yet to learn how to deal with anxiety. Negative thoughts can arise from peer criticism, harsh, unhelpful teaching or just self-doubt. The latter is a recurring problem and is all down to fear and the age-old question; ‘will I be good enough?’

The first line of defence when dealing with this conundrum is to tame the negative ‘inner-voice’. Recognise the mental ‘chatter’ that goes on before a performance (or perhaps on the days leading up to giving a performance). This chatter or ‘little voice’ never stops (‘what will happen if I make a mistake or my memory lets me down?’). We have all suffered. The most obvious way to remove this problem is to practice playing in front of others; whether it be one person, a small audience or large gathering, it doesn’t really matter. The most crucial factor is to get out there and play. It will be painful at first and mistakes will be made, but eventually with regular performance practice, pianists become familiar with the performing experience and as the fear subsides so too will the tension. In essence, this tension is associated with fear.

The second kind of tension is physical, and is generally caused by technical issues, which are that much harder to mitigate. Rather like mental tension, technical issues can stop successful piano playing and solving them requires professional help or regular coaching. Physical ‘tightness’ or ‘tensing up’ is even more commonplace than mental tension. It can occur for many different reasons; the most obvious is poor teaching or insufficient, sloppy practice, but physical restrictions and pain may happen due to the mental worries and negativity already mentioned above. Another possible reason is attempting to play pieces that are out of our comfort zone or technically too demanding. Challenging repertoire needs to be worked at carefully otherwise damage can easily be done to hands, arms, wrists, and fingers.

One interesting feature regarding tension is that it can occur at any stage of musical development; from beginners to advanced students. The latter are much more difficult to help because their unfortunate habits are ingrained and therefore everything needs to be re-learnt which is very challenging for the student as well as the teacher, but it can be done with hard work and perseverance.

Good piano playing all starts with proper posture and free, flexible movement. This seems very obvious but it’s frequently side-lined as playing becomes more advanced, and this is where problems often start. As we sit at the piano, our whole body must feel free. Pupils should be encouraged to sit up straight near the edge of the stool, with their body weight transferred to their feet (which are flat on the floor) aiding stability. Hips can then be used as a pivot allowing for free movement. As the hands are placed on the keyboard, the forearms should be parallel to the floor in order to promote relaxed, comfortable playing.

Raised shoulders are a real sign of stress and tension. One of the best ways to deal with this is for hands to be placed on a student’s shoulders as they play, making them aware of their movements. They will then eventually start noticing it themselves. Neck and shoulder ache are associated with this habit, so pupils will start to feel better once they begin to free themselves. We are frequently unaware of our posture because we are totally focused on the music, so with this in mind a good teacher can be extremely helpful.

The next issue is usually tight forearms; often a ‘knock-on’ effect from the raised shoulders. Pupils are, again, unaware that they are playing in a tense fashion, so one way of illustrating this is to help them relax their arms altogether. A good idea is to encourage ‘heavy arms’. Ask pupils to drop their arms down by their side (as they sit at the piano) in a ‘floppy’ state (almost like a ‘dead’ arm which should feel very ‘heavy’); they will then know how to start ‘freeing’ themselves. Unless students are made aware of the ‘correct’ feeling, they will be unable to achieve this alone. Make no mistake, this is difficult to accomplish, but can be done over time and with a good supportive teacher. Pupils may need regular prompting at every lesson for a while in order to get used to this completely ‘relaxed’ posture, because it will feel ‘strange’ and different at first; it is a habit that must encouraged regularly in order for it to become permanent.

As shoulders and arms become more supple attention can turn to the real issue which is usually weak fingers. Weak fingers provide so many physical problems and we find that tight forearms and shoulders try to compensate for this deficiency. In fact, many parts of the body will try to counteract weak fingers and it’s probably the most problematic element in piano playing.

Weak fingers (or fingers that don’t really work on their own, they are relying on other extraneous parts of the body to ‘prop’ them up) are also related to stiff wrists. Often pianists will use their whole arm in one rigid motion forgetting that a free, rotating wrist can not only really help with movement but is paramount for a good sound too. One way of dealing with these issues is to address the wrists and finger shortcomings concurrently. There are so many ways of doing this, but it can be particularly helpful to use simple Czerny exercises. The simpler the better; The 101 Exercises Op. 261 work well, for example. The first two exercises provide all the necessary notes in fact.

Figure 1

Czerny 3

The first exercise consists of groups of four semiquavers in the right hand (which run up and down the keyboard in C major) with accompanying chords in the left (see Figure 1 above). The aim here is not speed. On the contrary, the slower the better to start with until the fingers and wrists are responding correctly. Always use Czerny’s fingerings. Start with a good hand position; one useful analogy is to place your hands over your knees whilst sitting down, you will find you hand forms a ‘cupped’ shape. It’s really important to make sure that knuckles are in an elevated position, i.e. the hand isn’t collapsing (see photo below), otherwise strong fingers are impossible to achieve. Free or rotating wrists, which are not too high or low, are also crucial.

So you want to play the piano photo 5

Image: So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music.

Power and finger strength both come from a solid hand position which will then encourage each finger to play on its tip (or pad) and most importantly, on its own i.e. without relying on other muscles from other fingers or parts of the hand to help out. The joints in each finger must not collapse either, but rather, they must help the fingers attain complete independence which is the end goal.

Practice the right hand of the first Czerny study alone for a while; each note must be deliberately struck, slowly so that every finger plays on its tips and produces a good, full sound; i.e. reaching fully to the bottom of the key bed. This is not the time to play pianissimo. It’s beneficial to learn these exercises from memory, so that hand positions and movements can be properly observed during practice. Between each note, encourage pupils to ‘free’ their wrist of excess tension. An effective way of doing this is to make sure the wrist moves freely between each note so as to stop it ‘locking up’. Many cite this as rotational wrist movement.

Encourage students to move their wrists (between every semiquaver at first) in a circular motion, making sure the wrist feels relaxed or floppy (the correct sensation should be very similar to that when the arm flops down by our side; nothing must feel tight or tense). This is all especially important when dealing with the fourth and fifth fingers, which by nature are far weaker and therefore more troublesome. A sure sign of tension in the hand is when the fifth finger sticks up towards heaven. This is symptomatic of problems, but will eventually be alleviated during this ‘freeing’ process as every finger gains control and independence. As the fingers and wrists become accustomed to this motion between every note, so then this rotational movement can be eventually lengthened to every group of four semiquavers allowing for more speed.

It’s a good idea to reiterate the main issue concerning tension; whilst striking a note, tension is needed but as soon as the note has been played, that is the time to relax the hand fully. This coincides with freeing the wrist at the appropriate moment in the Czerny study as described above. By doing this, fingers will eventually become not only much stronger but also totally independent too, because their muscles are being perpetually strengthened with every practice session whilst the rest of the upper torso is learning to relax.

The second study (see Figure 2 below) focuses on the left hand and should be practised as much, if not more so, than that for the right. The left hand by nature is weaker (for most pianists) and usually needs more attention. Repeat the entire process with this second study. About twenty minutes practice per day on these exercises should be sufficient to change basic technique.

Figure 2

Czerny 5

Students must be encouraged to listen to the sound they produce and also to feel the connection between each and every struck note (and to be sure that the whole arm and shoulder is responding freely). Always observe rhythm, and metronome practice is a good idea once the fingers start to move properly. All semiquavers (or whatever passagework is being negotiated) should be played absolutely equally, which is a sign of secure strong finger motion. It will usually take a few months of slow practice before the student learns to feel relaxed playing in what is essentially a completely new and alien way. It’s at this point that speed can slowly resume.

Once fingers are independent, examine hand positions for chords, arpeggios and scales as these provide the bedrock of piano technique as well as most piano pieces. The perfect scale requires constant free rotational motion in the wrist which is all linked to the technique studied using these basic Czerny studies. The same applies to arpeggios, which demand much more movement; tense wrists stemming from weak fingers are the overriding reason why many struggle with rapid passagework such as arpeggios.

Once the fingers and wrists are working well, introduce arm weight. This should now be a fairly straightforward process because fingers and wrists are already flexible, strong and independent, so pupils will learn to harness their body weight to make not just a good, rich sound but also a full, large one too. Harsh sounds are often produced because of insufficient arm weight which can lead to ‘hitting’ the instrument resulting in limited tonal colour. Once a pupil grasps the feel for a large, warm sonority, then they will be able to hone their tonal palate accordingly.

Learning to resolve tension in piano playing is a challenge, but if taught correctly, it will lead to a confident, relaxed, comfortable technique and a much happier, contented pianist.

Read the original article here: Resolving Tension in Piano 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.


Faber Music launches the Lang Lang Piano Academy

Lang Lang Piano Academy - Mastering the Piano Level 1

Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang has already become a legend in the world of Classical music. He has many fans in the West, but he’s also developed a colossal  following in the Far East, which has directly increased the Chinese appetite for Western Classical music and more specifically, the demand for piano lessons. More than 40 million children are now learning to play the piano in China due to the ‘Lang Lang effect’ (as it’s affectionately known). He has attained rock star status and Time Magazine recently included Lang Lang  in the “Time 100”, the Magazine’s annual list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.  So when an illustrious concert pianist teams up with a highly esteemed publishing company, the results can be stratospheric.

I was invited to attend the launch of Lang Lang’s new Piano Academy; a series of piano books entitled Mastering the Piano intended for young learners, published by Faber Music. Held at the intimate 1901 Arts Club in Waterloo, London, the event was beautifully arranged with an impromptu performance and talk by Lang Lang himself. He chatted informally about the reasons for collaborating with Faber Music and described it as a lifelong ‘dream’ to produce a series of books such as these. His heart genuinely lies in music education, and for me, this really is a joy to behold; Lang Lang takes the time and opportunity to highlight and endorse the importance of playing the piano, and more importantly, playing it effectively.

Glossy, clear and concise, the books are well presented and volumes (or Levels) 1, 2 and 3 are first to be published, with 4 and 5 following later in the year. They focus on ‘how’ to play and are not a piano method per se, as the sub-heading clearly states ‘Technique, studies and repertoire for the developing pianist’. Starting at around Grade 1/2 standard up to around Grade 4, there are plenty of photos, demonstrations and advice from Lang Lang regarding how to tackle various techniques and styles of music. Copious piano pieces, exercises and studies infiltrate the pages, with lots of superlative practice and preparation ideas from correct posture and hand positions, to the importance of rhythm and hand coordination.

The launch began with a performance of the Burgmüller Arabesque, from Level 2, after which Lang Lang explained a few vital points concerning fruitful, positive practice. I was delighted he spoke so eloquently about Scales. A pet hate for many students, but as he demonstrated, they are the bedrock of excellent, even piano playing and must be worked at thoroughly, diligently and consistently (he practised them for an hour and a half a day apparently!).  Practice ‘features’ or techniques are arranged in chapters (or units); Level 3 contains ‘Exploring the keyboard’, ‘Developing dexterity’, ‘Introducing the pedal’, ‘Chords’, ‘Playing in new keys’, which appear with corresponding advice based around certain relevant pieces and exercises. This is all very useful for those just getting to grips with assorted techniques.

The repertoire in each Level is extremely varied, from Scarlatti, Beethoven, Gounod, Grieg, Schumann, and Kabalevsky, to Chinese works arranged for the instrument, as well as pieces and arrangements by favourite contemporary composers and music educators (Paul Harris, Pam Wedgwood and Alan Bullard). I like the inclusion of lesser known composers, such as Bertini, Dunhill, Czerny, Heller, and Gurlitt, who wrote excellent little piano studies for young pianists. In Mastering the Piano, these pieces are assiduously examined, and a wealth of tips and practice suggestions are added at the beginning. Each chapter is preceded by a ‘Message from Lang Lang’. Thoughts on memorization was another illuminated topic at the launch, and Lang Lang emphasised the study of J S Bach’s piano music to help establish this elusive skill, in order for it to become a ‘normal’ part of piano performance.

It’s not unusual or indeed unexpected for musicians to be influenced by other art forms, but Lang Lang specifically mentioned the significance of paintings and sculpture for capturing a musical mood. Appropriate paintings are reproduced as a reminder. He finished the presentation by playing a Chinese work entitled Jasmine Flower, a traditional Chinese Song (from Level 1), followed by the ever popular Rondo Alla Turka or Turkish March from Sonata in A major K. 331 by Mozart, for which he received a rapturous reception.

These books will no doubt prove popular with a plethora of pupils (of all ages) who want a learning ‘tool’ for help and guidance, as they work to develop a fluent technique and greater musical understanding. They are not designed to replace the piano teacher, or to be a specific ‘method’ studied alone, but rather to be incorporated with other materials to attain a whole and well-rounded piano education. To this end Lang Lang and Faber Music have done a sterling job.

After his presentation, the Chinese pianist posed for countless photos, chatting to everyone in the room; for a superstar with a tight schedule (he had two further engagements after this lunchtime event), his kindness, sincerity and modesty are indeed remarkable. Many congratulations to Faber Music for such an innovative project which will hopefully be the start of a great musical relationship.

Mastering the Piano Series: www.langlangpianoacademy.com

Image above: Faber Music

Lang Lang 3

Image: Lang Lang performing at the 1901 Arts Club in London. © Melanie Spanswick


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.


S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G! A few thoughts……

Many piano students have issues with stretching. Smaller hands are less suited to playing the piano than larger ones, and they often need a little more help when learning certain repertoire. Playing hefty chords and intervals of an octave (8 notes) or more, in either hand, can create physical problems, causing the hand to ‘lock-up’ and subsequently become tense, curtailing fast movement.

This can also happen even when chords are negotiated relatively easily; fast double octave passagework, octaves with the melody in the top line (or bottom line), quick chordal passages, and chords which leap around the keyboard, are all potentially troublesome for the smaller hand. It’s occasionally possible to re-write passagework in order to play successfully, but a better plan is to train the hand and fingers so that they become accustomed, and indeed prepared, to play large intervals without any strain.

Here are a few ideas and suggestions to help prepare the fingers and hand; it is possible to re-train yourself mentally and physically, allowing the hand and whole upper body to feel free and unrestricted whilst stretching octaves and beyond.

Place your hand (or hands) on a table top (or your knee) in a totally natural position, stretching out as far as is comfortable, with no tension (see photo below). Observe how each hand feels as you stretch out whilst relaxing your arm(s) and upper body; it’s important to sense what is completely relaxed.

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Next play an octave interval on the piano in each hand (one at a time), again feeling totally relaxed (this might only be an interval of a 6th or 7th if you have small hands or an octave feels tense). If you can’t yet reach an octave, a flat hand position (i.e. the whole hand out-stretched as on the table top in the photo above) might be necessary at first so that you can actually reach the interval.

Whilst playing the interval, observe the thumb and 5th finger; the two fingers you will normally be using to play any interval (although after a while you may be able to use the 3rd and 4th fingers alongside the thumb for octaves as well). How they negotiate any wide interval is vital.

Firstly, try to ensure that the 5th finger in each hand is active and working independently from the rest of the hand. Employ your finger-tip on the key using the fleshy area of the tip, and be fully functioning from the knuckle down to both finger joints; it is best if the 5th fingers are bent and in a ‘gripping’ position  (see photo of my left hand below – my right hand was busy taking the photo!). Also notice the bridge position of my knuckles i.e. the knuckles are all visible; if this bridge ‘collapses’, then playing at speed outstretched (which is necessary for octaves and chords) becomes problematic. The thumb should also assume a ‘gripping’ position, as this helps with note accuracy. It will probably take a while for these finger positions to feel natural (it takes pupils generally six to nine months of constant hand/finger mindfulness).

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Whilst playing the interval, allow your wrist and arm to go floppy and relaxed. I ask my students to move their wrists freely up and down, as they are keeping the position of the chord or octave (it’s best to start practising using an octave – inner notes can be added later). Playing the piano is all about tension (to play the notes) and release (letting go immediately afterwards) and so chords and octaves also require this approach.

The idea of encouraging the hand/wrist/arm to go floppy and limp whilst keeping the interval shape with the fingers needs to be practised frequently, so it becomes a habit, and eventually it will feel natural when playing larger intervals.

It’s a good idea to get into the habit of ‘letting go’ of the octave as soon as it has been played. However, this doesn’t mean you need to physically let go of the notes or piano keys.  It’s possible to hold notes, chords and intervals without assuming a tense position, hence moving the rest of your hand should feel easy and flexible as you hold onto the notes. This is really like an exercise in assuming the interval shape. Try moving your whole arm/hand in a circular/rotational motion whilst still holding down a chord. If this feels relaxed and ‘free’ then you know you are on the right track! Always release the hand position completely after you have played a one or two intervals or chords – otherwise you might feel strain or discomfort.

Sink into the key bed as you play the octave interval ensuring your wrists remain free and not in a high position (high wrists usually indicates tension), It’s quite good practice to allow the wrists to drop as low as possible as well as moving freely in a rotational motion as already suggested.  Avoid a ‘fixed’ wrist position, but rather encourage it to move as and when necessary helping you reach each and every chord or octave. The wrist should act as a hinge allowing arm-weight to produce the sound.

Once you feel comfortable playing an octave, practice this stretch every day for around 5 minutes. Muscles will get used to the feeling of the stretch so that it feels like a ‘normal’ hand position. Then eventually add inner notes to create chords. Your hand will adjust to this new position and you might notice a change in the structure of your hand too.

This exercise should never be uncomfortable or cause pain in any way. If you feel pain whilst playing the piano then something is wrong, so stop and get help! If you want to develop a good piano technique finding an appropriate teacher is paramount.

After working systematically on this technical issue, you might find playing intervals of a ninth and even a tenth possible, as your hand gets used to stretching further and further without feeling strained or tense. It’s all about relaxing the hand so it feels more accommodating and pliable, whilst keeping a firm finger grip on the octave/chordal shape. Happy practising!


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.


 

Absolute Articulation

I have spent much of the last month adjudicating at various amateur music festivals around the country. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable job; I get to visit all different parts of the UK, and also hear a wide variety of piano playing. Standards vary of course, from young, inexperienced beginners to incredibly accomplished performers. Whilst it’s my job to mark (or judge) the competitors, I’m also able to comment on their playing in a fairly detailed manner, via a written mark form and verbally at the adjudication.

Contrary to popular belief, most of these young players (and some not so young; there are always adult amateur classes at most festivals!), are very happy to receive feedback and constructive criticism. Care is needed when discussing any negative traits, particularly in a public forum, but nevertheless, it can be a great way for pianists to obtain an unbiased appraisal of their work. Where possible, I try to give helpful practice tips and advice. At a couple of the recent festivals, I also gave short workshops at the end of classes; these are hopefully useful, partly because the entire audience can benefit from what is essentially a public lesson.

One major issue, cropping up with absolute regularity, through a whole gamut of piano playing, irrespective of standard or ability, seems to be that of articulation. I never cease talking about this subject. Perhaps it’s just me, but I believe this aspect to be one of the most crucial elements in good performance practice. Without it, a successful performance is virtually impossible, especially when a pianist reaches diploma level and beyond. In fact, the more advanced the player, the more important the subject of articulation. It is one of the main reasons why the Baroque and Classical repertoire remains the most challenging.

In many ways, articulation is like speech and diction; some clearly pronounce or ‘articulate’ words, often with a staccato or ‘short’ effect, enunciating every syllable, whilst others tend to ‘slur’ their words together, in a rather lazy legato manner with little differentiation of colour, tone or intonation from one word to the next. This can result in a merging together of words and sometimes whole sentences, rendering them incomprehensible! This can happen in piano playing too.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Articulation refers to the musical performance technique that affects the transition or continuity on a single note, or between multiple notes or sounds.’ Good articulation generally stems from total rhythmical control, allowing each note to be played with equal value whilst employing a variety of different effects or touches, and this in turn comes from finger control. Crisp, clear finger work, particularly in rapid passages, all depends on how fingers are, in a sense, programmed.

Articulation also implies different touches; staccato, legato, marcato, and even martellato too, but in this instance, I’m referring to the lack of precision between each beat; it’s all very well playing rhythmically on the main beat, but then what happens within each beat? Frequently, groups of quavers or semiquavers (and demisemiquavers) are rushed or played unequally.

Arguably, one of main the differences between the amateur and professional pianist comes down to articulation; professionals generally articulate with a total accuracy and almost mechanical regularity, allowing for a convincing interpretation.

So, how do we learn to play notes crisply, evenly and with the utmost precision? Here are a few practice tips which may be helpful:

  1. Effective articulation must be instigated from the outset, so when looking at a new piece for the first time, be quite clear on your fingering for both hands, particularly if rapid passage work and ornaments are involved (secure articulation is vital when negotiating trills, turns and mordents etc.). It may be a good idea to write all the proposed fingering into your score before learning begins. If the fingering isn’t completely assimilated, then haphazard, unrhythmical playing could become a problem.
  2. The slower you practice, the easier it will be to play smoothly, rhythmically and also to listen to what is actually being played. This might sound obvious, but it’s all too easy to switch off and ‘imagine’ what we are playing; the reality can be somewhat different. Listen to the clarity of your finger work, and the ‘space’ between each note. Ask yourself, are all the notes in this phrase really equal or are some being rushed, or perhaps being played too slowly?
  3. For total precision, count each and every beat out loud (even if you are playing semiquavers), when you play to your own (equal) counting, it becomes quite obvious if the passage work is clear and in time.
  4. Flexible wrists can help with clear articulation, allowing for free hand and finger movement. Separate motions (or movements) can be really useful when staccato and non-legato touches are involved. Pay special attention when you need to turn the hand, or place the thumb under the hand in running passages. This is where problems can occur, and where ‘bumpy’ or jerky sounds will hamper a run or group of notes played at speed.
  5. It can be very beneficial to practice with a powerful heavy sound (this can help with clarity and also to develop stronger fingers), the weight of each finger being evenly placed and transferred from one note to the next. Use proper arm-weight and play on the fleshy part of the finger-tip. After a while, when you return to playing ‘lightly’ with less force, you should find it easy to articulate each note; each fast passage or run will feel more comfortable and manageable.
  6. If you have the time and inclination, practice each phrase with many different touches, from legatissimo to staccatissimo. When you return to playing the particular phrase ‘normally’, there should be a real improvement in clarity.

Ideal repertoire on which to practice perfecting articulation are works from the Baroque and Classical period (as well as using technical exercises), especially less demanding, smaller pieces, such as those from the Anna Magdalena Notebook,  the Eighteen Little Preludes and the slightly more intricate  Inventions and Sinfonias BWV 772 – 801 , all composed by J.S. Bach. Less complicated pieces by Handel, C.P.E Bach, Scarlatti can also be useful as can the Sonatinas of Clementi and Kuhlau.

For articulation inspiration, the performance linked below offers a stunning example of the wonderful combination of technical clarity and musical mastery. It’s played by celebrated Canadian pianist, Janina Fialkowska, who is, incidentally, the next interview guest in my Classical Conversations Series.


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.


 

Comfortable Piano Playing

So you want to play the piano photo 5

Piano technique is by no means an easy element to teach and it’s even more tricky to learn and assimilate properly. Few tutors teach it successfully, whether this is because they know little about it or possibly because they find it difficult to relay to pupils (it is!).  A good tutor must be able to break it all down thoroughly, building technique slowly over a period of time. They also need a compliant pupil who is prepared to practice and implement all the necessary ideas and physical movements.

One of the most interesting elements regarding piano playing is comfort; how many students really feel comfortable and relaxed both physically and mentally when they play? Mental happiness usually stems from physical comfort and the satisfaction that arises from truly ‘knowing’ your piece. Physical comfort is something entirely different. Many students have ‘comfort’ issues which are apparent as soon as they sit down at the instrument. I have discussed posture and hand positions here on the blog several times (have a look here and here), but feeling ‘comfortable’ is a step further than merely sitting correctly at the instrument (although this is crucial).

There are many who have an aversion to pianists moving around abundantly, perhaps rolling their head (and sometimes their eyes too!) whilst playing, but movement at the piano is vital. One of the most basic mistakes to make as a pianist is to stay in one position; how do you propose to get from one end of the keyboard to the other without moving swiftly and without any tension? The keys don’t come to you, but rather you must go and find them. This requires movement. Constant movement, from arms, wrists and hands generally indicates a relaxed torso and usually a relaxed mind too. Creating this scenario whilst playing can be very taxing indeed, especially if you have a fairly stiff torso and despise moving. When you are tense, you will automatically feel uncomfortable and this will usually reflect in your playing; it will certainly affect sound production too. I should add here that movement must always feel and look natural; I’m not suggesting extraneous movements or facial expressions at all, but merely ask pianists to play easily using tension only when necessary i.e. actually to play a note.

Here are a few tips for creating flexibility and movement when sitting at the instrument. Nothing can compare with or replace proper and regular teaching, but start by thinking for yourself about how best to ‘free’ your body and move in a natural painless manner. Get acquainted with your comfort level. One way of ‘checking’ your posture and movements is by using a mirror; apparently, the great pianist Claudio Arrau often did this to ascertain which muscles were being employed when he played. You might be shocked at how frequently parts of your upper body ‘tense up’ as you play; this can be a most useful exercise.

1. In order to move effectively always try to sit up straight before you start practising and keep that way during practice sessions! Slouching is not conducive to comfortable piano posture. The feet should be flat on the floor, firmly supporting the torso.

2. When sitting at the piano shoulders must be down and remain there. This is an issue many pianists have to deal with; one idea is to check your shoulders copiously as you practice, you might be surprised at just how regularly they rise. Correcting raised shoulders is the first step to moving freely.

3. Once the shoulders feel free, arms must also be totally relaxed, almost like a ‘dead weight’ by your side. Even when engaged to play, they must feel free and be able to move swiftly, supporting the wrists and hands. The merely act as a support and should act as a ‘lever’ allowing you eventually to use proper arm weight aiding a warm sound (more on arm weight in another post!).

4. The wrists are the most complicated part of the body to ‘free’, this is because many students are taught to keep them in a rigid position or sometimes even a ‘high’ position. If you can develop a rotational (or a circular) motion when employing the wrists, this will make it almost impossible for them to ‘seize up’ and be rigid. This is why movement is so important, if employed correctly it will aid stiffness completely allowing total comfort when playing. Generally you will need a good teacher to help you here.

5. As the wrists move in a rotational way (normally involving imperceptible circular motions), so the hands will also move laterally and this will stop them ‘freezing’ rigidly too, allowing taxing florid passagework to be easily negotiated which in turn will stop anxiety. When learning to master this, make large movements to start with as this will only aid freedom. I normally encourage students to play single notes with each hand (separately) allowing a rotational wrist and hand motion for each note; the idea of tension and release seems to be easier to grasp this way.

6. The fingers are the only part of the piano ‘mechanism’ that really must not be too flexible. Fingers must work independently as I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog. That means without the ‘help’ or reliance of other fingers. They work best whilst being supported by the knuckles and by the whole arm, hand wrist mechanism. Finger strength will normally be built up in conjunction with freeing the upper torso over a period of time. This in turn encourages ‘comfortable’ playing.

7. You can test how comfortable you feel by observing how your body reacts to difficult passagework or sections of a piece; if you find it stiffens and feels tight, then this can be a good indicator of what you need to work on. Observing our body’s reaction is a factor that is often ignored when we practice, usually because we are so caught up in the music and its complexities. Try to develop a ‘sixth sense’ and be aware of your comfort level here. This is especially important if pain or repetitive strain has been a problem in the past.

8. Be conscious of using tension correctly. To play well tension must be employed, but as soon as a note has been struck, the finger, hand, wrist and arm must be ‘released’. This involves freeing the muscles used to play the note in the first place. So there will be many sequences involving tension and then release. Where some players come unstuck, is they can’t ‘release’ at the given moment; they stay rigid hence feel uncomfortable. You may be able to find ways of doing this as you practice, however this particular element usually requires a knowledgeable teacher, as mentioned above, to help release (and make you aware of releasing) certain muscles.

9. Be patient. This is one area of piano playing which is hard to amend; once the body is used to playing in a particular fashion, it won’t change easily. It will require tenacity, commitment and perseverance, but it IS possible. Easy movement and flexibility are imperative and fundamental to comfortable playing.

I hope you are now acquainted with your comfort level, and will hopefully be able to start improving your body movement at the instrument – good luck.

Image: So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music.


My publications:

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

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