Perfect Pedalling

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We all know there’s no such thing as ‘perfect’ piano playing, but hopefully these tips might be helpful.

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 (as demonstrated by my foot in the photo above). 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) being lifted as the pedal is depressed.

It 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 (and 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.

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 on 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. 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 your 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 up (to release the sound) and down (to engage the pedal) quietly. The foot should keep contact with the pedal as much as possible because pedal or foot tapping is not a desired effect. This last paragraph may all seem fairly obvious, but recent adjudicating has shown (to me at least) these points need reiterating.

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, and release the pedal with the fingers, producing a clean, clear and sonorous chordal effect, as shown in the example below. Pedal markings are indicated under the score (also as below). 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 example 2), but if the marking stops then pedal playing must cease too.

Ex. 1

Chapter 9 pedalling 2

Legato pedalling; which is akin 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 and F-C in the left hand as shown in the example below). Start by playing middle C, and immediately afterwards depress the pedal,  a millisecond after your third finger plays the D, release the pedal and depress again very quickly, to clear the sound of the C. This should be done very quickly and seamlessly, so as to limit smudging.

Ex. 2

Example for Pedalling article

Legato should ideally be all about using the fingers, it’s 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).

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. Practice by taking the pedal down (and up) varying amounts (but not depressing as far as the foot will go).

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.

Flutter, surface or vibrato pedalling; similar to half-damping, this consists of very quick, light movements, in order to reduce accumulating sound. This 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. Practice on scales, perhaps lightly raising or ‘hovering’ with your foot several times in a two octave scale.

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, 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 accumulation of sounds whilst depressed. Keep experimenting and you’ll discover a myriad of ways to enhance your playing.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty

The following article was originally published in Piano Professional magazine, which is an EPTA UK (European Piano Teachers Association) publication, and it appeared in the most recent edition; Issue 37.  You can read the original article by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page, and I have compiled a list of ten top tips based on the article, as a PDF download, so you can print out and use at the piano.


 Tone Production

The piano is capable of providing infinite tonal variety, despite being a percussion instrument. From the softest whispers to the grandest, most powerful fortissimo, pianists have an abundant smorgasbord of tone available with which to conjure poetry and pathos. Whilst there are certain limitations or restrictions due to the varied quality of instruments, pianists are generally responsible for the sound they summon during each and every performance.

Exquisite tone production is the secret of a successful pianist; it makes each player unique and in some cases, instantly recognizable. Many great artists and teachers have spoken about the necessity of focusing on tone quality. These include the great pianist and pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus (1888-1964) who devotes a chapter to tone production in his book The Art of Piano Playing:

‘Mastery of tone is the first and most important task of all the problems of piano technique that the pianist must tackle, for tone is the substance of music; in ennobling and perfecting it we raise music itself to a great height. In working with my pupils I can say without exaggeration that three-quarters of all work is done on tone’ (chapter 3; pg. 56).

Renowned pianist and pedagogue, Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), also commented on tone production:

No life without art, no art without life. One does not win people’s hearts only with runs of scales and fast thirds, but rather with a noble singing style, clear and powerful, gentle and soft.’

Extract from After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton (Chapter 5; pg. 139).

Other influential pedagogues such as Frédéric Chopin, Ferruccio Busoni, and Tobias Matthay, have all remarked about the importance of tonal quality. Many pianists and pedagogues cite this facet as the most crucial factor when delivering an expressive, musically committed account.

Yet, surprisingly, tone production is sometimes rather side-stepped during piano lessons and practice sessions. It’s seemingly consigned as an after-thought; something to focus on during the final stages of preparation. How piano sound is produced does fundamentally change the whole concept of interpretation and performance, and therefore should ideally be placed at the forefront in lessons. Pupils of all standards, from beginners through to advanced players, can benefit from knowledge regarding how sound is produced and the fundamental difference this can make to their performance. Placing a student’s attention on how and why they must make a full, sonorous tone, and how this issue is intrinsically linked to phrasing, articulation and dynamics, is surely of utmost importance. So with this in mind, how do we create a beautiful tone allowing our artistic imaginations to take flight?

Before learning how to produce a good sound at the instrument, we need to understand what is required from our bodies, because the way the energy from the body is transmitted through the keys is the crucial determining factor in changing the sound. Many feel playing the piano is all about speed, fast fingers and quick hand movements (and this does play an important role!), but to significantly change the sound produced, affording a full, warm, rich tone, the whole upper body must be involved. This is the reason why any kind of tension or rigidity whilst playing generally results in a harsh, thin sound or timbre.

It begins with our upper body i.e. the back, shoulders, whole arm, elbows, wrist, hand and finger muscles, which all move specific parts in the hand, enabling it to strike the correct key. Similarly, bone structure also helps to transmit energy cushioning the hand, particularly from the back and shoulders (through the arm, wrist and hand), projecting the sound into the keyboard. The combination of the pertinent back, shoulder, arm, hand, wrist and finger movements all working in tandem, results in a bountiful, expansive tone, it also feels comfortable, relaxed and much more flexible too. Good tone production encourages a more secure, reliable technique and a feeling of calm and serenity during performance. In short, a full sound requires a pianist to move freely, swiftly and abundantly, which consequently generates greater note accuracy and assured control at the keyboard.

It’s paramount for piano students to fully explore their potential regarding the sound they are able to produce, because without learning how to use and control the keyboard’s complete sonority, it becomes almost impossible to grade tone from ppp through to fff successfully. This will prove imperative when employing an effective dynamic range appropriate for each musical period, style and composer.

Here are a few ideas to enable a more beautiful sound:

Sit comfortably at the keyboard; posture is a deciding factor where tone production is concerned. Many feel sitting too low is not good, but if you are too high over the keyboard, gaining control can be problematic. Always sit with a straight back and start with fingers on the keys, so that you will have control over the hammers (which strike the strings and hence produce the sound), and this will help with note accuracy too. Control of the sound can only happen between the time immediately before you depress the key and the escapement of the hammer. After a note has been played, pupils can relax and ‘release’ the note and their hand position, thus eliminating any further tension.

Allow the shoulders (and the whole back area) to be in a natural position, i.e. not raised.  Raised shoulders (and a tense back) can cause many problems definitely promoting tension, by stopping free and flexible movement in the arm and hand. Correct this by constantly reminding pupils to think about how they feel whilst playing. One idea is to encourage students to drop their arms by their side freely, assuming ‘dead’ arms, ridding all tension. It’s this heavy ‘weight’ that must be grasped and assimilated when learning to improve tone production. We have a tendency to ignore how our bodies really feel during a performance, usually because we are so focussed on what we are playing, but tension anywhere in the body will usually result in a certain discomfort and can lead to repetitive strain injury too. Regular prompting will eventually establish a good habit, and pupils will learn how it feels to be totally comfortable.

The wrists are probably the most vital body part for promoting a good sound. Interestingly, they are the seat of much stiffness and constriction. Some schools of thought promote high wrists, others favour a low position, but the most conducive is a constantly moving wrist. If they are kept moving, there is little chance of the wrists becoming stiff or tense. Experiment by laying both hands on the keyboard, moving the wrists (rather than the hand or arm), first up and down then from side to side, and finally in a rotational movement or motion. Practice this every day before practice commences. It allows the wrists to become accustomed to moving around flexibly.

Another exercise which can be beneficial, is to play a five-finger pattern (place the fingers over middle C, followed by nearby D, E, F, G; using the fingering 1-5 (or 5-1 in the left hand), and whilst holding down the first note (middle C), encourage the wrist to make a complete circular motion keeping the thumb (of the right hand) firmly attached to the note (even though the sound has dispersed). This allows the wrist and arm action to feel malleable whilst playing a note. Now continue playing D-G (and back down again, from G to middle C) using the same motion (taking time between each note) focusing on sinking deep into each key, feeling the key bed every time. By doing this regularly, pupils will become aware of the relaxed hand and wrist positions required to produce a more attractive sound. It’s certainly a technique to be worked at consistently; instilling the feeling which will ultimately metamorphose into a good habit.

Once the wrists are more yielding, so the arms and elbows also move freely too. The circular wrist motion will allow the upper body to move more effectively and efficiently, making keyboard coverage that much better and quicker.

The hand should now already be in a relaxed position; many prescribe forming and honing an arch shape, with the knuckles in an elevated aspect (like that formed when grasping an apple!). This can be an effective approach and will help to eliminate a collapsing hand, buoying the fingers, so they can work independently of the hand, striking each key with plenty of power by employing each finger joint (joints must not collapse, instead they should be totally engaged, supporting each finger). A rotating wrist movement will help the fingers to work on their own after a while, because of the freedom attained from the rotation motion whilst playing one note at a time (as the above exercise suggests).

A soft, elastic, heavy whole arm movement provides plenty of gravity, support and substance behind the wrist, allowing it to harness this arm weight generated by the back, shoulders, and upper arms, using this to produce a full, fat sound. The fingers should ideally play on their ‘pads’, the padded, soft area of skin on the finger-tip, because this will further ‘cushion’ the sound. If the sound is sufficiently cushioned by the finger (and whole arm) as it attacks the key, it in effect plays the key at a very slightly slower speed, caressing the key rather than forcefully hitting it. That combined with the weight of the arm seems to change the sound, thus producing a richer, warmer colour. Thorough flexibility in the wrist and ‘looseness’ in the other parts of the upper body are vital, but the fingers must remain like steel; and this is developed over time by strengthening finger and hand muscles (usually via scales, exercises, studies etc.).

It takes a while to master the use and control of the body in the way necessary to change the sound, but it can and will become a habit with patient practice. Once the fingers employ the heavy weight supported by the arm and upper body, they’ll take on a new persona and will begin to adopt completely new sonorities, particularly with regard to singing tone or cantabile. Cantabile is only really possible with plenty of weight behind the key; fingers must sink into the key bed, right to the bottom of the key, focusing on the musical line, playing with either a crescendo or diminuendo from note to note.

The piano sound’s natural decay means listening to a musical line is crucial when judging each sound in order to proffer a musically satisfying phrase. So listening becomes a vital part of tone production and tonal variation, and similarly, learning to voice within counterpoint, chords, and copious different piano textures is also essential.

It can be a good idea to practice this component by working at sound variation in combination with the physiology of tone production as outlined above. Try using Figure A as a vehicle for creating different tonal possibilities; pupils can work at creating their own sound variations, from as quiet and soft as possible to all out fortissimos, whilst being sure to check their body is working efficiently.

Figure A

Experimental chords

Plenty of experimentation will foster an increasingly large and diverse tonal palette, allowing for expert gradation of tone. Another interesting challenge is to use the same example to practice voicing specific lines i.e. highlighting the top of each chord, then the bottom note in either hand, followed by some of the inner notes within each chord. This will help to gain finger control too.

When producing a powerful fortissimo, guard against the urge to play as loudly as possible, because beyond a certain level, the sound tends to become astringent and unpleasant. Also having some sound in reserve can be important; not playing at full capacity (whether fff or ppp) all the time, keeping some power or delicacy for certain performance situations can be a good idea (in order to cope with different instruments and acoustics).

Employing the pedal further changes timbre and luminosity, and ideally the pedals can be used to enhance or complement tonal variety. Whether using the Sustaining (Damper or Right) pedal, the Sostenuto pedal (Middle) or Una Corda (Left) pedal (on grand pianos; uprights pedals may vary), each one adds a different tonal quality and ought to be used as an extra sonority as opposed to merely making the instrument louder (Sustaining pedal), quieter (Una Corda) or as a bolster (or cover) for defective finger legato.

Hopefully, these ideas may inspire students to continuously strive and search for a pleasing, more generous, opulent resonance at the piano. Once the technique for expanding and consolidating tone production has been acquired, students will enjoy the increasing feeling of beauty and control within their grasp

10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty PDF Download: 10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty

View the original article here: Tone Production

© Melanie Spanswick


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


Words and Music with Lucy Parham and Friends

British concert pianist Lucy Parham came to prominence when she won the piano final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984, and  has since played with many of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors. More recently, she has become synonymous with performances of Words and Music. Lucy teams up with eminent actors, and themes her  concerts; each one delves into the lives (and often the loves too) of celebrated composers, such as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Debussy.

Piano music combined with narration is indeed a popular concept, and Lucy has just released a couple of videos showcasing her work. You can enjoy them both by clicking on the links below:

I interviewed Lucy as part of my Classical Conversations Series; she was one of my first guests:

www.lucyparham.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


Pascal Rogé in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-first Classical Conversation in my series features French concert pianist Pascal Rogé. We met earlier this month at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London to chat all about his life and work.

In 1962, at the age of 11, Pascal Rogé was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, having previously studied with his mother. By the age of 15, he had won first prize for both piano and chamber music. At 18, he performed solo recitals in both Paris and London, winning first prize at the Jacques Thibaud International Competition in 1971. Several European engagements followed, and in 1974 he made his first tour to the United States, returning nearly every season. He has also become a favourite in Australia and Japan, where he has made over 20 tours.

Rogé’s particular strengths lie in his sensitive and personal interpretations of 20th century French composers; he has made recordings of complete cycles of Ravel, Poulenc, and Satie, among others. His repertoire also includes d’Indy, Saint-Saëns, as well as the great German masters — Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven. His recordings have received numerous awards, including the Grand Prix du Disque and an Edison award for the Ravel concertos. His first volume of Poulenc won the 1988 Gramophone award for Best Instrumental Recording, and his collaboration with Chantal Juillet and Truls Mørk won the 1997 Gramophone award for Best Chamber Music recording. In the twenty-first century, he began a new recording project for Onyx that included a complete Debussy cycle. He also began performing and touring with his wife, Ami Rogé. The pair commissioned a two piano concerto from Matthew Hindson, which they premiered in 2011.

He has also taught at the Académie in Nice. His solo performances have been recognized for their decidedly French elegance, while his collaboration with orchestras has been noted for its faultless musicianship, and made him a favourite of conductors ranging from Charles Dutoit to Lorin Maazel to Kurt Masur.

Pascal in action:


And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

Melanie: French concert pianist Pascal Rogé came to prominence in 1971 when he jointly won the Long-Thibaud International Piano Competition and he’s been playing to great acclaim ever since. He’s particularly noted for his interpretation of the French repertoire and I’m so pleased he is joining me here today at Jaques Samuel Pianos for a Classical Conversation.

Pascal: Good morning.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you today.

Pascal: Yeah, I love the idea.

Melanie: And I’m wanting to start by asking all about your musical education, how old you were when you started, what the catalyst was, whether you come from a musical family.

Pascal: Yes, yes I was born with music, so it was really easy for me to, it was the most natural thing in the world to play music since my mother is a pianist, organist. My grandfather was a violinist. My grandmother was a pianist. So, it’s all about music in my family. So it was a lot of years for me to touch all the instruments that were around. My mother just put my fingers in the right place.

Melanie: You started very young?

Pascal: 3 years old. Because I wanted to bang the piano.

Melanie: Sure.

Pascal: My mother was a piano teacher, so instead of banging anywhere just put your fingers on the right keys and apparently, you know, I was kind of gifted. It was an immediate attraction. I couldn’t get away from the piano, it was my best toy. Ever since it’s been my best friend, a long long long love story.

Melanie: And so, which teachers then do you think were most crucial in your development as a pianist?

Pascal: Well, obviously, my mother, because she was my first and only teacher for 6 years and then, I must say, I was really lucky with my teachers. I don’t have any complaints. To the contrary, I admire them and l’m very thankful for all of them. So, from my mother I went to her teacher, which was Lucette Descaves at the Paris Conservatory. At that time she was teacher in Paris and obviously I went to her class because my mother has been one of her students many years before. So that was my second teacher then Lucette had an assistant, Louise Clavius-Marius, who’s not very well-known but she was a genius. She was really somebody who has helped me a lot, had fabulous knowledge about piano technique, how to practice, how to relax, all the things that are hidden behind the glamorous piano playing. And then, I was fortunate to meet Julius Katchen when I was 17. He was my, I don’t really consider him a teacher, but as a mentor, as somebody who really opened for me new things, so many doors, so many perspectives for the last 3 years of his life. He died in ’69. And I think that- yes, that was it. It was the end of my teachers, but they were all very crucial. I don’t mention Marguerite Longas a teacher, because I played only 3 or 4 times for her. I was very young and she was very old, but it’s still a basic memory today to think of her. A young boy playing in front of somebody that was so close to Debussy, Faure and Ravel, and I remember her telling me ‘ you know here Debussy told me….’ and that’s – you never forget.

Melanie: No, no.

Pascal: But, I was not really a student of her, but I met her and I think that was enough to really make her special. Same thing with Nadia Boulanger,I was not a regular student of her, but I was fortunate to know her, to have met her many times. She also was an advisor, someone that I could talk to, ask questions. That was a privilege.

Melanie: Yes, yes. So, how did you develop your technique or did you work at it?

Pascal: Well I don’t – That was never really my concern. That sounds very pretentious, but I think my teachers were very – my mother first was very clever to always make the technique part of the musical meaning. There was never something that you have to work- of course I did scales and things like that, but it was never boring. It was never an obligation. I knew somewhere that it was useful. I almost enjoyed it. It’s not a bad memory. Later on, in the Conservatory, my teachers told me to try to separate technique from interpretation. So they said, you have to build your technique and then you’ll be able to play anything. Don’t try to – for instance they always said, Chopin Studies are not for building technique they are for playing, so don’t use them as an Etude, but use more basic things like, Czerny, Hanon, Pischner, all those boring composers, not composers, but technicians, piano technicians. But, they’re believed in than that. We do a lot of – like dancers, we do a lot of exercises before dancing. I think it’s – I don’t believe that you should mix technique and interpretation. It’s two different things. So, I always follow that principle and I think it’s worked pretty well.

Melanie: So, you won the Long-Thibaud International Competition? What impact did this have on your career? Did it change it completely or….

Pascal: No.

Melanie: No, it didn’t take off immediately afterwards or?

Pascal: No, it’s sad to say, being French and winning the most important piano competition in France. First, it came after I had already my first recording with Decca, I had already my first recital in Paris and in London. So, I sort of – I didn’t need it. I was a little bit pushed by the – my teachers in the Conservatory they wanted to do – at least have a French winning the competition. So, I did it but really it didn’t give me much apart from a few concerts, I mean it’s nothing comparing to the first recording with Decca or first recital in London. I don’t believe in competition. I must say, I have pretty bad memories of that competition, of any competition. But, this one in particular because for the first time, I mean I was already – even if I didn’t play much – I had already a feeling of being on stage is to communicate, it’s to express yourself. And so, yes, I was on stage to win, and that’s not right. I thought I was in the wrong place. Why do I have to play better than this person – I could feel that it was not the meaning of music. So, yes, I did it. I won it – that’s it.

Melanie: You’re known for your interpretation of French music and you’ve recorded a complete solo works of Ravel, Poulenc, Satie. What is it about French repertoire that you love so much? I mean, obviously you’re French, but there must be something in the music that just draws you back all the time.

Pascal: Yes, I think so because it’s – I loved that repertoire early, of course, with my teachers, because they were close to that repertoire. But then, when I started my career I used to play what every young pianist should play; Liszt, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Chopin, whatever, I was really interested to play anything until I discovered that maybe I should find my own Language, my own – what do I do best? I remembered a recital by Arthur Rubinstein. He was playing an all Chopin programme and I was absolutely amazed because I think – I thought, it’s not Rubinstein. It’s not Chopin. It’s just such a natural way of playing. He’s born with this music, it’s his language. Nobody plays Chopin better than him. Because he doesn’t have to play, he just speaks the music. I thought there must be music that I could play that way. With the years, I discovered that was the French repertoire. It’s logic, because it’s my language. I was born with it and all what my teachers told me, Marguerite Long,so close to those composers. I think that was an influence on how I – not the fact that I was born in France, but the fact that I had around me people that were so close to that music and they made me discover things that perhaps I might have never discovered without them. And the more I play then the more I discover that yes, this is the way that I can really express myself. I think it’s really like foreign languages, you can learn as many languages as you want, but there is to be a mother tongue. My mother tongue is French music, so.

Melanie: So, if you had to choose one French composer, who would you choose? Is it possible to say?

Pascal: It’s almost impossible. I love all of them and for different reasons, it would be unfair to say one. Of course, the first one, if I have to, would be Debussy. Of course, is the greatest and he brought a new language and he had so many ideas about how this sounds. He’s an inventor, but funny that I remember when I was very young. I was in love with Ravel. I think Ravel was my first real French composer. I remember saying that to my harmony teacher. I said, oh Ravel! Said, “I know, but later on you will discover the Debussy  is more important.” It was true, at that time I disagreed, but I understand that, of course, Debussy is more important, but every time I play the Ravel concerto it’s still magic. Those sort of memories from childhood, I think they stay forever. Even after if you can analyze or think differently. The first love, the first music love is Ravel. I think it’s still maybe the closest.

Melanie: Yes. Which other composers do you love to play, going away from French style?

Pascal: To play? Not too many. To listen to, of course. But, to play. Mozart, because I think he’s above all of the composers. You don’t have to be French or German or anything. To play you just have to be genuinely inspired. It’s maybe the most difficult composer to play, but I can’t not enjoy playing Mozart. But apart from him, I must say that I don’t feel like – I can play mostly anything, but it’s not as close to my heart as those composers. And with my experience, with my age, my concert life, I can choose. You know, that’s the privilege of age. You can say no. I mean, it’s very rare nowadays that people are offering me to play a Tchaikovsky concerto, but I can say no. When you’re 20, 30, you have to do everything because you have to establish yourself. But now, I have that privilege to say no, I’m not interested. I think most of the time people know what I’m good at. I’m glad that I chose to be restricted in my repertoire. I remember when I started that French direction, many people were asking me ‘Is it your record company? Have you been forced to do this?’ and no, no, no. It’s my choice. And now, I think they understood that it was really my choice. But, I am very proud to have found in music I can really communicate, touch people in a very special way. I always quote that, what Glenn Gould said ‘If you’re not convinced that you play this piece better or different than anybody else, don’t play it.’ It’s a bit extreme, like everything he said. But, it’s true. You really have – in order to play something personally, you have to be convinced that, yes, I’m unique in playing that. It sounds pretentious, but that’s the only way to be unique; and if you’re on stage, you have to be unique. Otherwise, I mean there’s so many good pianists. And that’s the difference, if you don’t have that particular language or touch or something that makes you different.

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice regime?

Pascal: I have to cope with a traveling life.

Melanie: Yes, that’s why I asked.

Pascal: It’s not always easy. I sometimes envy violinists or cellists to be able to carry some instrument. No, I mean I’ve practiced as much as I can wherever there’s a piano, here in this studio or a friend’s house or concert hall or dressing rooms. Of course, at home I have my own piano, but I’m almost never at home. So, I really have to cope with whatever piano I can find.

Melanie: You play a lot of chamber music, particularly two piano works?

Pascal: Yes, with my wife.

Melanie: With your wife, Ami? How did this come about and what repertoire do you love to play?

Pascal: Well it came when we met, almost 10 years ago now. That’s a repertoire I almost never played before. I was suddenly attracted to sharing the instrument with, not somebody, but with someone that really has the same touch, the same feelings, the same view about music; and it was completely new for me. I’d already played a couple of times with other pianists, but it was like, you know, trying to mix things together where there was no intimate connection. And I think to play two piano and especially with four hands you really need to be very intimate. So, it’s a wonderful new experience. We love traveling together, playing together. Again, French repertoire and we recorded some transcriptions. We did our own transcription of La Mer by Debussy and yes. That’s such a repertoire that I’d never heard of before. We do recitals. As I said, two hands, four hands; which gives another approach to the piano. Because then people realize how different it is when the piano is played by one person with four hands, it sounds different too, but at the same time, it’s the same instrument. So – I always liked sharing music with other musicians, before I did a lot of chamber music with strings and winds, but now with Ami, it becomes even more closer, and more personal.

Melanie: What are your plans for the future?

Pascal: Keep going with the life that I have, I’m enjoying it so much. So, it means to keep playing, keep discovering new cities, new worlds, new culture. We are learning at the moment The Rite of Spring. So that’s a big project. We’re recording it. I have some – It’s more about – I’m going to stay in that repertoire. I’m not going to tell you ‘oh finally I’m going to do the complete Beethoven sonatas,’ no, I’m still going to explore the French repertoire and extend it to maybe Contemporary music. We had an experience two years ago where we commissioned a two piano concerto from an Australian composer. It was the first time ever that I premiered a piece that was never played.  That was so exciting to play a music that nobody had played before. So, I hope we can have more experiences like that.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

Pascal: Everything. I don’t know. I can’t do anything else.

[Laughter]

It would have been very difficult if the – I hadn’t been able to achieve a career. As I said, from the age of 3, I played the piano and never stopped and never thought I could do anything else. I never wanted to do anything else. And I think it’s the most beautiful profession, because it’s doing what you love, sharing with the world, and bringing emotions to people. I’m so privileged in sharing that with my wife. I mean, it’s an ideal life. So piano is, yes, piano is everything.

Melanie: Thanks so much for joining me today.

Pascal: Thank you. Pleasure.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.

 


 

And the WINNER is…

As many of you know, I held a little competition earlier this week in conjunction with the Pianist Magazine. You can read the article here. The prize was an opportunity to win the Magazine’s new Piano Techniques app. Those who took part were asked to leave an appropriate comment in the comment box at the end of the post, and many thanks to you all (there were twenty-seven comments!), but we could sadly only pick one winner.

The winner was chosen by Pianist magazine and is Diana, who made the excellent comment ‘Pianist magazine is my piano teacher right now! Couldn’t do without my bimonthly dose of beginner/intermediate sheet music, tips and lessons. I bet the app is very useful too.’ Many congratulations to Diana, and I would be grateful if she could send her e-mail address to me, here on my blog.

For those who didn’t win, you can buy the Piano Techniques app here and you can find lots more information about the Pianist Magazine here: www.pianistmagazine.com

iPad Screenshot 1

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

PIANIST Magazine’s NEW PIANO TECHNIQUES APP

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Pianist magazine, in association with Steinway Hall London, is proud to present its first-ever stand-alone app: Piano Techniques. When you’ve read the articles, watched the lessons, listened to the music, your playing will be better! It doesn’t matter what level you are – there’s something here for beginner through to advanced players.

The app contains some of the best articles from within the pages of Pianist written by its expert pianist teachers. Topics include sight-reading, chords, memorising, starting from scratch, returning to the piano after a long break, fingering, a star interview with Lang Lang and more. You can even watch and listen to Lang Lang perform at the end of the interview. He’s playing the gorgeous Liszt Romance (this piece was featured inside Pianist magazine’s Scores section in the current issue 76).

Aside from the articles, the app boasts over 50 pages of scores of varying styles and levels. That’s 18 full pieces to learn. You can listen to all the pieces first, played by Pianist’s house pianist Chenyin Li. Then there are some great videos lessons on some of the most important keyboard techniques – there’s nothing like watching the professionals demonstrate at the keyboard, as you well know. Talking of videos, you can watch also a beautifully crafted film on the making of Steinway’s limited edition Arabesque piano designed by Dakota Jackson. Just like Pianist, the Piano Techniques app is aimed at helping you improve.

Download it today at the App Store on your iPad and watch your playing evolve!

www.pianistmagazine.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.

 


Sonya’s Lullaby Op. 16 by Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen: Sonya's Lullaby

I was introduced to Oliver Knussen’s music as a young student. Playing unusual, less familiar repertoire was always an interesting discovery. I’ve written about Contemporary piano music before and you can read my post here.

Oliver Knussen was born in Glasgow in 1952. His father was the principal double bass player in the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom he made his debut in April 1968 conducting his First Symphony in London and then at  Carnegie Hall, New York. Early major works such as Coursing (1979) and the Third Symphony (1973-9) placed Knussen at the forefront of contemporary British music where he has firmly remained. A skilled conductor of new music as well as a composer, he is a highly influential figure who has been awarded many accolades including a CBE in 1994.

Knussen’s music has often has often been described as on a ‘small scale’ with a certain transparency of texture. This is definitely the case with the piano piece, Sonya’s Lullaby Op.16. Composed in 1977/78 for his daughter Sonya, who is now a mezzo soprano. Apparently as a four month old  baby she was an insomniac (aren’t they all?!) and he decided to record her sleeplessness by creating a lullaby which employs a vivid yet lucid sound world. Knussen’s programme notes enlighten this piece;

‘The word lullaby is used in the sense of an incantation to sleep. Formally the music is, I hope, self-explanatory, but perhaps it is worth mentioning that an initial stimulus toward the piano writing was the harmonic exploitation of overtones produced from the lowest register of the instrument by composers as diverse as Brahms, Scriabin, Copland, and Carter. Sonya’s Lullaby is the central panel of my chamber music Triptych (the other two being Autumnal for violin and piano, and Cantata for oboe and string trio) and was written for the composer-pianist Michael Finnissy, who gave the first performance of the final version in Amsterdam, January 1979’.

The reference to Scriabin is interesting, because this does feel the dominant influence. The work is full of unresolved dissonances and colourful chord progressions which somehow create complete calm amid chaos, perhaps due partly to the constant tri-tone reference, suggesting the child’s inner turmoil. Pedal is a really important sonority in this work too, acting as a vital part of the texture.

The following performance was recorded in 1998 at a house concert where I played a short recital on a 1924 Bechstein Boudoir grand. I have made several recordings of this work on various fairly new Steinway pianos, but somehow, even though I’m not keen on old instruments at all, this piano did allow for a different sound world.

Oliver Knussen

 


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

10 Top Tips for Successful Piano Practice in 2014

As the year draws to a close, we tend naturally to reflect on the past twelve months, typically pondering various events, occasions and experiences. Although humans want and need to move forward, sometimes it’s also necessary to examine the past, searching for methods to improve and succeed in many areas of our lives. Certainly, professionally this can help in multiple ways, enabling us to understand past mistakes and strive to be the best we can. This type of personal analysis can be effectively applied to piano practice too; considering whether practice sessions are really as productive as they might be.

Concert pianist Stephen Hough’s recent article in the Telegraph Blogs (which you can read here) raised some interesting questions. He has written abundantly about piano practice, looking at different aspects of practice as well as lifting the lid on the problems and perils of practising whilst on the road. Many congratulations to Stephen on being awarded a CBE for services to music in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List.

Stephen’s most recent post remarked on the pros and cons of  sitting at the piano in order to practice productively, as opposed to working mentally away from the keyboard. There have been copious articles and comments on this subject, on social media and elsewhere, deciphering the benefits of practising without a piano. It is possible to prepare scores mentally and make musical decisions regarding interpretation without physical practice, but surely piano playing is a muscular, athletic activity which relies, in part, on muscle memory; fingering, hand and wrist movement, and arm weight all require an accurate, calculated physical and mental approach.

Piano playing is very much a mental and physical pursuit, and these activities must go hand in hand. Many will disagree, and there are pianists who can apparently learn complete works from memory without ever touching the instrument, but these phenomenally talented individuals are exceptions. Glenn Gould claimed to never practice, for example, preferring to do all his work mentally. For the majority, however, the most effective plan is to practice at the piano for real improvement.

Piano practice is the most popular topic on my blog site because all pianists, irrespective of level or standard, want to know how to improve and get the most from their practice sessions. With this in mind, here are a few positive practice tips and ideas to inspire plenty of piano time during 2014.

1. The piano teacher. Good piano playing is extremely hard to achieve without the help of a great teacher. A teacher can help in so many ways; building technique, instigating musicianship and perhaps more crucially, providing encouragement and support. Use EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate a suitable professional tutor. My own publication, So You Want To Play The Piano? dedicates a whole chapter to this subject.

2. Schedule practice sessions into your week. Organisation is key here, otherwise there will be a tendency to go from one lesson to the next (if you are taking lessons) with scant improvement which will be frustrating for all. It’s better to practice little and often than cram a three-hour session the night before your lesson.

3. Set goals. Decide what you want to achieve and set a time frame. It may be to learn a particular piece, to complete a whole diploma programme from memory or sit Grade 2 piano. Goals are tangible, bestowing a necessary sense of achievement.

4. Structure your practice time. I have written about this on several occasions. Here’s my most recent post on structuring practice time. Structuring your practice allows you to gauge improvement, as well as giving practice sessions a sense of purpose and direction.

5. Technical work. To play well, some technical work must be done; whether this be  scales, arpeggios or Hanon exercises.  Honing your technique will really improve your playing, providing it is worked at correctly. Set aside some time for this important aspect at every practice session if possible.

6. Small steps first. Try to work in very small sections, breaking piano pieces up thoroughly.  Divide into sections, play hands separately, and perhaps use different rhythms, accents and articulation for practice purposes. Work diligently and slowly. Slow practice is essential for good playing. Playing at speed becomes relatively easy once a piano piece has been mastered and fully assimilated slowly. Work at difficult passages separately, always mark them up in the score, and isolate left hand passagework.

7. Fingering. Write fingering on the score before you start and learn it properly so that is becomes a habit. Good habits such as suitable fingering will aid smooth playing and this is especially important during tricky, complicated passages.

8. Get rhythmical. If you don’t enjoy using a metronome, ensure a suitable method for keeping time and divide beats into small denominations. This will aid rhythmical playing. Learning to ‘feel’ the pulse is also vital and takes time so patience is key. Playing piano duets is a useful way to learn to keep the pulse because hesitation isn’t an option when working with others. As with most elements, start slowly building up speed.

9. Learn succinctly. Resist the temptation to play through pieces without learning them properly first. Sight-reading is always a good component in a practice session, but it’s best not to read works you plan to perform. Practice tends to make permanent and this goes for incorrect fingerings, rhythms and notes too. Learn precisely from the beginning without ingraining mistakes or bad habits.

10. Use your ears and focus. This might seem strange, but it is easy to practice digitally without listening properly. Try to listen constructively to everything your play. Also focus and concentration are vital when practising, avoid going into the ‘play through’ mode!

Happy Practising! I wish everyone a very Happy, Healthy and Pianistically Fruitful 2014.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

Alicia’s Gift: the Concert of the Novel

Order from Amazon

It’s such a treat to explore new places and new venues. I don’t live far from Perivale in West London, but somehow St. Mary’s Church has remained an enigma, until last Sunday afternoon. This fine little church, just off the A40, dates back as far as 1135. Seating just 70, it serves as the ideal backdrop for classical recitals and features an immensely popular programme of concerts and events. It provides the necessary tranquillity and serenity required for this type of concentrated music making. The Church hosts regular Sunday afternoon recitals which are followed by a spectacular array of homemade cakes and tea; surprisingly there is no entry fee, just a retiring collection if you so wish to contribute. There can’t be many places in or around London offering such a sumptuous occasion entirely free of charge.

This concert featured a narrator and a pianist; words and music. What a wonderful combination, and one which will no doubt appeal to both music and literary lovers everywhere. Alicia’s Gift; the Concert of the Novel was performed by acclaimed author and music critic Jessica Duchen (who narrated) and prize-winning pianist Viv McLean.

Alicia’s Gift is a novel written by Jessica, dealing succinctly with the perils of becoming a concert artist. It’s a heart rendering and extremely poignant tale of a young girl who discovers a passion for music at just three years old. Her musical journey begins with an innocent love for playing the piano and ends with bounteous soul-searching questions; some which will no doubt strike a chord with aspiring musicians all around the world. Finding the right piano teacher, tantrums, tears, family disputes, illicit love and performing at the International Leeds Piano Competition, are just a few of the events witnessed on Alicia’s crusade to becoming a concert pianist. It’s a beautifully conceived story which dramatically and persuasively highlights the plight of the child prodigy.

The concert consisted of elected extracts from the novel which were powerfully delivered by Jessica and elegantly interspersed with performances of various piano works mentioned in book. Each piece had been carefully selected to coincide with Alicia’s musical journey, and they were all played with passion and conviction by Viv.  The prose extracts were fairly short but just enough to keep the story alive and most importantly, the listener’s attention.

Alicia’s love of Chopin was apparent from the outset, and the concert began with an arresting performance of Etude Op. 25 No. 1 in A flat major. This was followed by the polish composer’s Third Ballade Op. 47 in A flat major, which inspired the young prodigy to imagine horse riding on the moors. The Minute Waltz in D flat major Op. 64 No. 1 and Etude in C minor Op. 25 No. 12, were both expressively characterised. Each work marked a significant event in the heroine’s life; from De Falla’s raucous Ritual Fire Dance, to Debussy’s fragrant Jardins sous la pluie (from Estampes) and the utterly beautiful sound world of Messiaen’s Prelude, La colombe. Alicia’s spell in New York was punctuated with a bravura performance of Gershwin’s ever popular Rhapsody in Blue.

Granados’ Quajas, o la Maja y el ruisenor from Goyescas was particularly effective;  the exquisite melodic lines where effortlessly phrased and coloured against a backdrop of shimmering, cascading filigree. The concert ended with Jessica and Viv playing a duet favourite, Ravel’s Le jardin feerique from Ma mere L’oye. The novel finishes on a positive note; Alicia has finally learnt to be true to herself.

This is a highly engaging presentation and marvellous concept, offering an entirely different experience to the more traditional concert format.

For more information: www.jessicamusic.blogspot.co.uk


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


Music Talk with Erica Worth

It’s been a real pleasure chatting to many wonderful concert pianists and pedagogues on camera over the past year, but the interview today takes a slightly different form to that of my Classical Conversations Series. I’m introducing a little subsidiary series, Music Talk, which focuses on those who work in areas connected to the piano, music education and the music industry in general, correlating to the title of this blog. Erica Worth is the Editor of the Pianist Magazine and we spoke earlier this week at Steinway Hall in London.

Born in Nottingham, Erica started the piano at the age of five. She studied at the Manhattan School of Music, New York, on a Liberace scholarship, with teachers Constance Keene and Nina Svetlanova.

On returning to the UK, Erica embarked on her first job as Press Officer for EMI Records (Classics). She then worked for IMG Artists, as an artist manager for high-profile musicians. Erica has been Editor of Pianist since its launch in October 2001.

Today, Pianist is the best-selling piano magazine on the market in the UK. It is also available abroad, with a readership in English-speaking countries (such as the USA, Canada, Australia) as well as various European countries and the Far East.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.