To play Studies or not to play Studies

There has been much debate recently over the internet, as to whether technical exercises are important or not when learning to play the piano. These include comments here on my blog (and on many other blogs too) as well as via my inbox, regarding the merits of playing and practising studies irrespective of the standard or level of the pianist. Many believe them to be totally irrelevant; learning should be an organic process, assimilating difficulties within each work studied. Others, who enjoy exercises and feel there is much to be gained from the practice of such technical work, want to know which ones are ‘better’ or ‘more’ effective. Is there, in fact, a ‘holy grail’ manual which could possibly improve playing once and for all? Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Working at studies and exercises is of course, personal taste, depending largely on, the teacher, a student’s capabilities and whether the student will work in the necessary diligent way, week after week.

For any technical work to be really useful, a student has to believe in it and trust it (this is true of a teacher too). If pupils feel exercises to be a waste of time, dull, or perhaps ‘not real music’ then undoubtedly they will become bored quickly and will cease playing them. However, if the benefits are obvious as they hone and work at their increasing pianistic skills, then practising them will become a good and perfunctory habit, rather like taking a bath!

There are two crucial factors in successful study practice; firstly, the way exercises are tackled and assiduously worked at and secondly, how they are taught. There is little point in playing the same technical exercise over and over again achieving little and not really improving technique at all. In many cases, exercises seem quite straight forward; many Czerny, Hanon or Cramer studies are indeed easy to sight-read and play, but this isn’t the point when studying them. The idea behind technical improvement is to play in a ‘different’ manner, working at personal deficiencies (we all have them!) and it’s much easier to do this with relatively simple music. To make a steady and real improvement in piano playing, it takes self-discipline and self-knowledge in order to know exactly what is required to improve.

Here are a few tips and useful points when thinking about adding studies and exercises to your daily practice regime:

  1. All studies, whatever the composer, can be useful depending on what is to be achieved. It may be a good idea to mix it up and play several by different composers, as this will provide variety when tackling the same technical issue.
  2. When practising studies, try to observe physical sensations (do you feel really comfortable when playing, for example), after all, these works aren’t necessarily intended to be ‘great’ music, which is one of the reasons why it is possible to potentially learn on any study accomplishing similar results.
  3. The intension is not only to improve finger power but also physical strength and flexibility in the upper body, so pupils feel a sense of complete ‘freedom’ in movement, particularly in the arms and wrists, which contributes to successful playing. This can’t be achieved if pianists don’t know how they feel when they play.
  4. One of the main factors when playing great music is that mental focus will usually be on the music and on interpretation as opposed to perfecting technical issues. Studies break this cycle and allow pianists to use their minds in a different direction, concentrating purely on improving movement and efficiency when negotiating the whole keyboard. Once this has been assimilated, it’s then possible to focus entirely on interpreting the music.
  5. Studies are not just about fast finger work (although they are great for this, and are especially useful for hand co-ordination too), but are also about using arm weight properly, producing a good sound, installing accurate rhythmic playing, perfecting articulation, encouraging proper use of the body and creating a more ‘professional’ approach to the instrument regarding all aspects of technique.
  6. Concentration is paramount and this ties in with really listening to what is being attained. Perhaps use a recorder to ‘hear’ what is being played. It’s best to avoid employing any pedal when playing studies as this merely clouds finger work. Memorization can also be useful, as it will encourage complete mental focus on efficiency of body movement.
  7. Students are often shocked when physical ‘tightness’ is highlighted in lessons, particularly with regard to wrist movement and upper body freedom (apparently concert pianist Claudio Arrau practised while watching his movements in mirrors, so he could observe his body’s actions whilst playing). Pupils are nearly always unaware of ‘how’ they are playing. This is why it is vital to work with a good teacher in person. They are then able to correct every issue immediately and work with pupils until the proverbial penny drops (which can often take a long time depending on how ingrained habits have become).

Which particular exercises students choose to play is of little relevance, but some of the following may be useful: Czerny, Hanon, Cramer, Clementi, Moscheles, Moszkowski, Dohnányi, Tausig, Beringer, Joseffy, and some Brahms. Etudes by Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninov and the like, are all ‘Concert Studies’, showcasing technique once it has been acquired. Studies can really be a good addition to a practice regime and if addressed properly, will definitely improve piano 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 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.


 

In Praise of Slow Practice

There are so many different ways of practising the piano and whilst it’s relatively easy to identify those that are ineffective or plain incorrect, it’s much harder to establish fail-safe methods which will work every time on every piece. Many believe slow practice is of little use and can be distracting or even damaging, but if worked at regularly and accurately, it promotes a much more thorough approach. In fact, practising at very slow speeds employing total concentration can transform a pianist’s playing.

The first obstacle to successful slow practice is encouraging students and young pianists to view it as a valuable process. Many think it is a good idea in theory, but when it comes to practice time, it’s far easier (and more pleasant too) to play as usual; up to speed with the usual hesitations or errors. It takes vast amounts of discipline to play at a fraction of the speed, which is  no easy feat, but once a student is able to see the value, they will generally work at it. All pianists can gain by practising slowly whatever level or standard, including professionals.

Slow practice can help with so many different aspects; establishing correct fingering (particularly of rapid passagework), understanding chord structure, promoting suitable hand positions, wrist/arm movement, articulation, dynamic range, phrasing, and just good old note accuracy too! It can help a pianist to grasp the complete picture or structure of a work and gives the brain more time to assimilate every corner or angle of a piece. Whereas playing up to speed often exacerbates ‘hesitations’ or rhythmic/note errors, stumbles and rushing, slow playing gives the feeling of space, time, serenity, clarity and precision. I have written many times about the value of practising separate hands, especially the left alone, and this can be taken one step further by practising separately AND slowly. Slow practice and preparation also really helps a pianist when they want to memorise a piece.

One further aspect that may be alleviated with careful, slow work is tension. Many of us feel tense and stiff whilst playing fast most notably if we haven’t prepared passagework or tricky, demanding sections very well, but if we take time and learn slowly, our upper body will simultaneously relax allowing for free movement and better sound quality. Once accustomed to the motility of playing certain passagework slowly, playing up to speed won’t be an issue because your brain will have already assimilated all necessary movements so speed is literally just a matter of thinking slightly faster. This is crucial if you are working on a piece with leaps or large chordal passages where a loose, free wrist and arm is imperative to the success of the performance.

When learning a new piece, start by playing each hand separately and of course, slowly. Next play hands together (small sections at a time can work well), once you can play the whole piece up to speed (or almost) it’s time to work very slowly. Perhaps a quarter to half the speed of the suggested metronome mark. Make sure your mind is fully engaged when practising in this way. It is easy to rush, but instead, give each beat its full value; it can be useful to sub divide beats here, accounting for every single note for total accuracy and control (I prefer to count in semi-quavers if the main beat is in crotchets for example). Play through your work from beginning to end with the metronome (you may be surprised at just how much concentration this requires). The metronome can really help when practising slowly giving a base from which to work and increase speed; it also quells the urge to speed up which is a perpetual habit especially if you are used to playing and ‘hearing’ a piece at its normal pace.

If you are playing a slow piece, conversely, fast practice may be of some benefit. In slow pieces it’s all too easy to lose the pulse, allowing for rhythmic inaccuracies, so playing a piece slightly faster than the expected tempo can reveal a work’s true sense of direction or musical line. It will be easier to hear and feel the shape of phrases and rhythmic structure when you eventually play the piece at the real speed.

Once a piece has been learnt completely, slow practice comes into its own, providing a sense of security, confidence and calm which are almost certainly not found when playing works at their marked tempo. Routinely playing through pieces at very slow speeds can be an effective way of preparing for important performances or exams.  Try it – you may find it quietens your mind during practice sessions, helps you play with more confidence and you’ll definitely notice an overall improvement in 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.


 

Why write on the score?

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A piano score is a ‘sacred’ book. Many pianists are immensely attached to their scores and feel they couldn’t possibly work from another copy. Once bought and used, scores are associated with memories, emotions, special concerts, recitals and performance venues, and even correspond to particular periods of our lives. They have significance, and are generally covered with markings too. These pencil ‘markings’ often turn them into priceless commodities, and musicians can become disgruntled or morose when they misplace a much-loved music score.

I don’t enjoy working from a copy without all my own markings. These annotations will include fingerings (essential for certain passage work and especially for more demanding or lengthy pieces such as studies or concertos), dynamics, pedalling, phrasing, and inspirational or personal markings as well. They are not a necessity, but they do really aid quick, easy study. There are various schools of thoughts on this subject and some musicians write very few details into their scores, but this practice can be very helpful particularly when teaching.

Students frequently protest when piano teachers write on their music. I have found this to be the case many times over the years, irrespective of the age of the pupil, and usual comments include; ‘Oh but I want to keep my music clean’ or ‘I find it off-putting to see your scribblings all over my nice clean, crisp score’. So why is it a good idea to  annotate your piano piece?

Learning a piece of music is a demanding process and one which very much relies on mental work as well as the more obvious physical activity. With this in mind, anything that makes a complicated process easier should be embraced. Many teachers like to write their student’s weekly lesson notes in a notebook, but I prefer to write directions on their music. This way pupils never forget what work needs to be done for the next lesson.

To learn quickly, a piece should be analyzed thoroughly.  Some choose to work at their piece in a different musical order to that written (i.e. practising backwards), or focus on complex passages first, so breaking the piece into small sections is advisable. Most pieces follow a specific musical form, so start your study by identifying this form and marking it on the score (look for thematic material, repetitions or similar passages, key changes and the obvious climactic points) then mark them up. This will also help to structure your practice sessions.

Most pianists like to write fingerings into a piece. This is crucial because correct fingerings aid smooth playing. Fingerings (numberings which tell a player which finger is needed play each note) all written into a score will help swift learning; every time you return to play the piece you will be reminded of the right fingerings (because they are immediately in your eye line as you read the music) and in time, this will become a permanent habit.

Those who have difficulty keeping time might need extra help regarding counting or beating. It’s a good idea to write every beat in every bar, and this is especially important for inexperienced players or beginners. A break down or subdivision of beats in each bar is useful too, along with metronome markings (which are not automatically marked in many scores but need addressing and working out in a lesson). It’s easy to forget practice tempos so this is another good reason to write them down on the music.

We all tend to forget details as we practice. Whether dynamics, pedalling or phrasing (especially phrasing), so highlighting these details is a great idea. Again, this way, they become much more noticeable when reading the score. Whilst we must observe a composer’s original markings, sometimes ‘extra’ reminders are necessary. These can include accentuation (it’s easy to ignore a sforzando, but when it is circled in pencil it is that much harder to forget!), articulation, or any number of musical directions.

Small children especially benefit from extra score markings. They often like to draw little pictures at the side of their pieces and adults will occasionally write inspirational reminders helping conjure suitable images or atmospheres for particular works.

I write my own signs on scores. A pair of spectacles may signal a passage where I need to pay attention to another musician’s part when playing chamber music or accompanying. A little ‘cloud’ may signify an area where I need to think about a passage in a certain way, or maybe I just need allow some breathing space in the music. These are all commonplace amongst musicians.

Score markings are not a necessity but they do make learning and practising that much better and more convenient so surely that has to be a good thing? After all, providing you write in pencil, you can always rub out all the markings if you feel the need to own a puritanical immaculate copy.


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.



The Joys of the Parent Pupil.

The new term brings fresh challenges and new pupils for many music teachers. One interesting group of prospective students is parent pupils.  A parent will  occasionally announce that they wish to start playing the piano alongside their child. There are many reasons for this; it may be that they want to keep an eye on their son or daughter and their progress (or lack of it); perhaps they want to be able to help their child with weekly piano practice; or it may just be that they have always wanted to play and think it will be an excellent hobby that will fulfill a creative desire. Whatever the reason they can be very satisfying students to teach.

Parent pupils will be able to help their offspring in so many ways. They will have an informed interest in the joys and frustrations involved in learning and realistic expectations about rates of progress as well as the importance of regular practice. They can also give complete support and encouragement which is crucial if the child is to make swift progress with their playing.

One of the benefits of this relationship is shared practice. The parent can help the child foster good practising habits by regularly monitoring posture, hand positions, and rhythm. Technical exercises which may seem boring can be turned into fun if both parties explore different ways and speeds to practice observing who can play the most accurately. Another game could be ‘spot the deliberate mistake’ which will help devlop note reading and aural skills.

The parent – child duo are a ready made duet partnership. There are many duet (two pianists playing one piano together) pieces arranged for beginners and hopefully a helpful teacher will guide their students to the most appropriate ones. The parent will help their child focus on the details such as keeping time and correct notes and fingerings, they will also be able to share in the sense of achievement after performing a piece for the family.

Perhaps the most important role the parent pupil can take is to lead by example. They can illustrate the importance of regular practice by making time in their day and consequently when their child sees this they tend to follow and gradually view practice as a necessary route to improvement. When a parent’s good intentions occasionally fall by the wayside they might find themselves being gently reprimanded by their child! Another amusing situation occurs when the child becomes more fluent than their parent and parents will then find themselves ‘having a lesson’ from their son or daughter. Most parents are delighted with this development and it gives children a real sense of confidence and achievment too.

Children to do need real support when learning to master an instrument. It does help if a parent is around to help with practice sessions particularly if the child is young, so if a parent does decide to take lessons this can only be a positive influence on a child’s musical development. If you have been planning to take piano lessons with your child then what are you waiting for? Get playing and have fun.


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.


How should I practice my scales?

The music exam season is virtually upon us and so  the inevitable question of scale practice arises.  Whether you are taking Grade 1 or Grade 8, you will need to practice your scales regularly. There is always a strong temptation to just play them through quickly moving on to more interesting parts of your exam. Try not to do this. Scales can be both fun and  rewarding as well as a real challenge. Think of them as little adventures up and down your keyboard and relish the fact that your fingers and hands can play at speed with excellent co-ordination.

It can be a good idea to establish a practice schedule when tackling scales. It’s not so important when taking the lower grades but when you reach Grade 5 and above there are many scales/keys to learn so aim to work at them methodically.

1. One way to make sure each scale is worked at regularly is to have a little practice chart looking at 3 or 4 keys per day in rotation. Then you can practice all the different technical exercises in those keys; similar motion scales, thirds/sixths apart, contrary motions and all forms of arpeggios. This is very effective and ensures complete preparation.

2. Once you have established this chart, take your time with each key fully absorbing and memorizing each key signature. It can be too easy to blindly practise E major without really knowing it contains four sharps and is related to C sharp minor! All these things are important and can help build your confidence so when the examiner asks you to play a scale in the exam, you don’t get flustered.

3. Fingering is so important when playing scales and without real adherence to it you will be unable to play at speed. So really learn the suggested scale fingerings as you start playing each scale and then stick to them. Separate hand practice can help here.

4. Always start practising slowly so that both hands are well co-ordinated and try to produce a full tone or sound as this will help build up finger strength. Gradually increase the speed over a few weeks.

5. Scales should be played rhythmically and with purpose. Some students find it a good idea to practice them with a metronome. If you don’t fancy this, then you need to find a way of establishing a regular pulse.

Here are a few tips to make scale practice easy. Start enjoying your scales – they CAN be fun!!


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.


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