How loose are you? Piano teaching in Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Surabaya, Indonesia, with piano teachers at my workshop

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

Working with a student at a master class in Hong Kong

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

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

 

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


My Publications:

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

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


 

Jackdaws Piano Course 2019

The Jackdaws Music Educational Trust instrumental and vocal courses are open for booking today! The 2018/19 programme offers more variety than ever, so there is sure to be something for everyone.

The course venue, an attractive house in Somerset (pictured to the left), near Frome, contains excellent facilities, including a Steinway Model B piano, and several practice rooms. If you decide to take the plunge and book a course, you’ll enjoy the most beautiful countryside, scrumptious home cooked food, and plenty of opportunity to hone your piano skills whilst meeting new like-minded friends.

This is the fourth year that 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. 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; we will work 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.  Technique will also be evaluated and assessed in the context of each student’s chosen repertoire, therefore participants are advised to bring two to three contrasting pieces to the workshops, although these do not have to be performance ready.

Course Name: Polishing Your Piano Technique

Course Dates: 18th – 20th January 2019

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.


 

The Sustaining Pedal

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pedalling techniques can be roughly divided into the following:

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

Ex. 1

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

Ex. 2

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

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

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

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

Ex. 3

Finger Pedalling

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

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

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

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

The Sustaining Pedal


My Publications:

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

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


 

 

 

Are you all Fingers and Thumbs?

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s e-newsletter (you can read it here) focuses on the thumb. As always, my intention is to draw attention to an area of piano playing which may benefit from concentrated practice. I notice in my own teaching that students perpetually work to achieve and maintain finger strength, but then leave the poor old thumb to its own devices. Here are five practice suggestions.


Thumbs. They might just be appendages stuck on the side of our hands, but for any pianist, they are important additions to our armoury of articulation. If used optimally, the thumb can enable easy turning (both under and over the hand) for smooth passagework, and can take the lead during chords and octave passagework, creating assured playing. Here are a few practice ideas to strengthen our thumbs.

  1. Start with a thumb exercise away from the keyboard; I like to use a circular motion exercise. Observe the three thumb joints; the first at the bottom of the thumb, next to the wrist, the second, at the thumb base, and the third, in the middle of the thumb. By moving the whole thumb in an upward (almost above the hand) then downward motion, so that the movement finishes with the thumb under the hand, whilst keeping the arm relaxed but still, you can start to loosen the fleshy areas, so that they feel pliable and soft. Aim to keep the movement flexible and free of any tension.
  2. Observe your thumb position on the keys. The thumb is naturally lower than the other fingers, and it should ideally make contact with the keys on the tip of the thumb nail; at the left tip for the right hand, and right tip, for the left hand. The nail just touching the keys. Try to avoid the whole side of the thumb flopping down on the keys, as this position makes thumb control challenging.
  3. To practice thumb positions and get the thumb moving, play a one octave C major scale ascending with the following fingering: 12121212 (right hand), 21212121 (left hand), you can then switch fingers starting with 21 in the right hand, and 12 in the left. Practising with 13131313 (right hand) can be helpful too. Ensure a flexible thumb movement every time the thumb moves over or under the hand.
  4. Now try a one octave chromatic scale using the same fingering; when you move to the black notes, try to ‘place’ the thumb tip with care as these notes are narrower therefore demanding greater accuracy. Thumbs will also need to employ a larger movement in order to negotiate these notes.
  5. Finally, practise intervals i.e. a C and E in the right hand using the third finger on the C and thumb on the E, and in the left hand, the thumb playing the C and third finger, the E. This seemingly unnatural position (practising the turning motion) will require a tension free hand so ensure the ‘fleshy’ part of your hand is relaxed as opposed to taut and ‘locked up’. When playing these intervals, sound them together as chords, and keep both notes in place whilst relaxing your hand; this is a useful preparation exercise for arpeggios. When comfortable, move on to larger intervals such as a C (played with a third finger) and an F (thumb) in the right hand.

You can sign up for Pianist’s e-newsletter, 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.


 

Honest Insights and Some Forgotten Exercises

British concert pianist Nick van Bloss has written the third guest post in my new series. Technical exercises often receive a bad press by pianists, teachers and students alike, but, practised carefully and diligently, and with the help of a talented teacher, they can be extremely helpful for building various aspects of piano technique. In his post, Nick examines the forgotten exercises by German composer, Louis Plaidy. Over to Nick…


I was fascinated to see Melanie’s recent post (two videos) about the teaching of Rosina Lhévinne, particularly the accounts and anecdotes of her teaching by the late John Browning, who studied with her at the Juilliard School. In both of the videos it would be easy to miss a hidden nugget of information that was imparted about a wonderful book of technical exercises by Louis Plaidy which, in my opinion, puts the likes of Hanon to shame. It’s a book that should really be on the music desk of pianists of any standard.

But what about Hanon? Let’s face it, most pianists know several of his famous and catchy five-finger exercises – from amateurs to professionals, we hear people rattling them off, stuck in a monstrous, never-ending loop of C major, always messing things up halfway through, and playing them with little regard to shape, tone or evenness. Ultimately, Hanon does no good at all unless one diligently plays each exercise in every key – and no one does that. And I wouldn’t recommend anyone to, either, as those obsessive-compulsive little patterns would surely drive any sane person crazy! Like any catchy song, I’m convinced that Hanon is only still played and used today because people like the ‘tune’ of the first three exercises.

Years ago, when I was playing to John Browning in New York, he mentioned the Plaidy exercises to me – and I had no idea what he was talking about. At the time, we were discussing how best to warm up at the piano before actually grinding away at learning and polishing pieces. The answer: Plaidy. Well, actually, a specific exercise from Plaidy’s book, but more on that later. What Browning did say, however, was that the Plaidy exercises focus on a very natural way of playing, incorporating patterns that are found in works throughout the piano repertoire at every level. Unlike, say, Hanon, where the mind-numbing repetitive patterns are wholly unmusical.

So who was Louis Plaidy? I’d certainly never heard of him before Browning spoke of him, and I’ve never heard any pianist mention him since. Plaidy was a  nineteenth century German pedagogue who taught, amongst others, Edvard Grieg, Janáček, Hans von Bülow, Arthur Sullivan, and many other notable musicians. He was clearly a big-wig teacher of the time, was friends with Felix Mendelssohn, and attracted pupils from all over the world. And he became famous for writing his book, ‘Technical Studies for the Piano’, which, in itself, makes him sound like a dull old goat who needed a life, but, in reality, and according to his pupils, he was the kindest soul who cared deeply about all of his students. And, more importantly, he really got results in his teaching.

There is, indeed, a ‘naturalness’ to all of the exercises in Plaidy’s book. Granted, his little essay, along with drawings, at the beginning of the book might seem a little old-fashioned to us now, but it’s all very sound advice. The exercises themselves, though, can certainly benefit pretty much any level of pianist. I’d never urge any pianist to go through a book of exercises from start to finish, working on each one. I recommend Plaidy as a kind of ‘go to’ book if you need a solution for something, if you’re struggling with a certain aspect of playing – rapid finger work, chords, scales, double notes… – then Plaidy has an exercise for you. And the great thing is that none of the exercises will do any damage – quite the contrary – which leads me to a specific exercise in his book, the one mentioned by Mrs Lhévinne and John Browning in the videos.

There’s a lot of performance-related injury going around at the moment. At least, to me, it seems there is. And it’s worrying. Perhaps, in reality, we’re only all becoming so much more aware of these injuries because of people sharing their experiences on-line – and that’s great, as we all learn from listening to others. But not a day goes by where I don’t hear ‘tendonitis, carpal tunnel, focal dystonia’ mentioned somewhere. Is it because people are being taught badly, have been taught badly, or that they’re over-working, or they’re just not in touch with their own bodies and don’t know when to ‘stop’ certain, destructive movements? I don’t know the answer, although suspect it could be a combination of all of the above. Bad teaching, though, has to be high up on the list. A good teacher has to be able to spot signs of potentially calamitous technical issues. That has to be a given.

Hand and wrist freedom, bodily freedom, relaxation, necessary and unnecessary tension, breathing, awareness – all of these must be monitored by a diligent teacher. It’s a crying shame, though, that many teachers are shamefully negligent in this area. I’ve seen some ‘big-name’ teachers produce injured student after injured student – and let’s be real here: historically, some of the most famous teachers have been more into their own egos and fat fees than the well-being of students. A caring and aware teacher is a godsend, a teacher who watches the student as well as just listening and correcting wrong notes.

One thing John Browning inherited from Mrs Lhévinne was an interesting use of the Plaidy exercises to not only prevent injury but also to treat and even cure injuries. One particular exercise, that is – the scales in double sixths. Yes, scales in double sixths! I’ve mentioned this to various pianists over the years and all have baulked at the idea – but, reality check again, many pianists, even top ones, struggle to play a smooth and even scale of any description in isolation, let alone in double notes. But, when I worked with Browning, he was adamant that playing scales in double sixths every day would benefit pianists of all levels, if they only but bothered to learn how to play them with the Plaidy fingering! Browning inherited this from Mrs Lhévinne, who speaks about their value in the video.

The belief with scales in double-sixths, is that they create a concurrent and healthy push and pull on the forearm flexors and tendons, thus strengthening and nurturing them, whilst simultaneously opening the carpal tunnel slightly. Indeed, once the fingering has been learnt, playing them is perhaps one of the most soothing and beneficial things a pianist can do. I begin every day of work at the piano by playing the double-sixth scales in all keys. It was hard going at first, but the benefits were such that I knew Browning was onto something. In my case, he suggested them as a way to warm up – to really render the hand malleable. But he used to use them to treat pianists who had tendonitis and carpal tunnel problems and I believe that most were permanently injury-free after only a few months. And, along with Mrs Lhévinne, he believed that they should be mandatory for everyone learning the piano at whatever stage.

I know that scales in double-sixths might sound out of reach for anyone but the most proficient pianist, but they are not. Give them a go. Whether amateur, professional, for warm up, or to treat injury, I genuinely think they will super-charge your technique, heal issues, and help prevent future problems arising.

As Mrs Lhévinne said: play scales in double-sixths with the Plaidy fingering and you feel like you’ve been playing for hours. In other words, they are powerful things!

You can peruse Louis Plaidy’s Technical Studies for the Piano, 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.


 

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.


 

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.