A few thoughts on Ornaments

The subject of Ornaments (embellishments or musical flourishes) has cropped up several times over the past few weeks, both in my student’s lessons and whilst writing the Piano Notes for the ABRSM 2015/6 piano syllabus published by Rhinegold. I’ve been contributing to the Piano Notes Series for many of the Grade 1 – 3 pieces, and several A list works contain ornaments of some kind. They decorate a melodic line, colouring it, usually by the addition of quick notes around a ‘central’ note, adding beauty and variation.

There are a myriad of ways to interpret these ornaments, (trills, mordents, turns and the like) depending on the period of the work, the composer and character of the piece. The actual interpretation doesn’t normally pose many issues, as pupils will generally be advised how to play them by a teacher, if not, the internet provides an excellent source of information and there are plenty of publications dealing with this subject too. It’s the physical aspect of incorporating them which seems to cause the grief, and for some students, Ornaments can become a real nemesis, instigating stumbles and hesitations. A good plan is to learn to assimilate and feel comfortable playing ornaments as soon as possible, because they appear from the very beginning of a pianist’s journey.

So how to practice embellishments with secure, reliable results? Here are a few ideas which have recently helped my students to overcome potential issues.

  1. Many don’t like excluding ornaments when first learning a piece, but this can be helpful in order to get a sense of the outline, structure and more importantly, grasp the pulse firmly. The last point is a crucial one because adding ‘extra’ notes really can destabilise the rhythm for many pupils, particularly inexperienced players.
  2. Once the pulse has been grasped, write the ornament clearly into the music. This shows exactly how it must be played, and will help to eradicate any uncertainties, illustrating just how the extra notes will easily ‘fit in’. Many aspects of piano playing are physiological, and it seems once the notes are in the score, they become part of it rather than a scary added ‘extra’.

A small section of a Baroque work with a trill such as this:

Baroque trill 1

Might be written out and interpreted like this, which is definitely easier and clearer to play and comprehend:

Baroque trill 2

3.  Some find it useful to sing the melody with the ornament/s – this facilitates good rhythm and an awareness of the musical line. Try doing this away from the piano too, but be sure to set a strict pulse and adhere to it. ‘Speaking’ the ornament out loud seems to clarify rhythmically ‘even’ playing.

4.  When it comes to practising, fingering will be paramount. Most teachers will have good suggestions, however, one facet which can become problematic is evenness, not just rhythmically, but tonal clarity too. To help with this, start by isolating the ornament. Mentally embed the fingering by using active, strong fingers, repeating the pattern a few times. I’ve written about employing physical flexibility, particularly in faster passage work, copiously on this blog! In ornaments, however, it is essential. Allowing the wrist to move rotationally between every note, each finger thus sinking into the key producing a heavy, rich (and necessarily loud tone), can be a fruitful way to work (practice the ornament this way both slowly and up to speed). Make sure your upper body feels relaxed between every note. No tension at all! Now lighten the trill (or whatever ornament is being worked on), using less movement and sound, to reveal a clear, even, rhythmical and hopefully, expressive ornament.

5.  Other viable practice methods include working in dotted rhythms and reverse dotted rhythms (just on the ornament). Using staccato or detached touches seems to work effectively too. This also builds on the idea of using a ‘heavy’ touch, but the fact that the notes are shorter, emphasises articulation and a crisp rhythm.

6.  Once the trill in question has been learnt thoroughly, try to visualize playing it in one motion or movement, this shouldn’t be too challenging once point number 4 has been fully digested.

7.  Now incorporate the ornament into the phrase; watch out for dynamic markings, the embellishment should add to the melody, so expressive colour and musical shape will be important.

8.  Finally, add the left or right hand (depending on which contains the trill), balancing the sound and listening carefully because the ornament must be part of the texture rather than a feature.

There are many other ways of practising these sumptuous  decorations, and with a little thought and work, they will become a beautiful part of the melodic line, and a positive addition to any performance.


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.


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.


 

Structuring Your Piano Practice

Practice Makes Perfect

This week’s piano post has been suggested by many of you; ‘structured practice for the more advanced pianist’ has been whirling around my inbox recently. I have written about it several times for beginners, but it does take on a different mantle for those of you who have clearly passed that stage. Piano practice has frequently been cited by pupils as the main reason for wanting to quit, after all it can be boring even when the piece being studied is a favourite. However, without sufficient practice, the piano is a challenging instrument to tackle indeed (it is that with practice too). So the conundrum is how to make practice more compelling and possibly less work, or rather involve a shorter practice time as well as making progress. Here are some tips and ideas for those from around Grade 6-8 level and above.

Always warm up. Many don’t believe in this, but it does help free your muscles and make you feel better too; it can provide mental stimulation for your practice session. Many eminent pianists have mentioned the importance of doing this (see my interview series where I chat to many pianists about their practice regimes and techniques). It doesn’t need to be longer than a few minutes, but it is best to start very slowly building up speed, working your fingers to the full, producing a large sound. Scales are good for this as are Czerny or Hanon studies. Both hands should work equally well during warm ups; avoid a ‘dragging’ left hand.

How many pianists actually do any technical work? If you can work on your technique in the right way (it’s best to be guided here by a good teacher who knows how to teach technique), you will find your pieces much easier to play. When you start doing technical work make sure your shoulders are down with no tension in your upper body, then work on simple studies for a further 5 or 10 minutes, this can really help with weak fingers especially the fourth and fifths. When doing this type of work, watch your hands and fingers and try to avoid the ‘collapsing hand’ syndrome. Knuckles should protrude rather than buckle! There are lots of elements to focus on here; developing strong fingers and crucially a free wrist, agility and speed,  and producing a good sound, so this should stop your mind wandering and not knowing what or how to practice next (this is a really common complaint amongst young or inexperienced pianists and is how boredom sometimes sets in).

After 10/15 minutes (or a lot longer if you have ample practice time) of warm-ups and technical work, you are now ready to work at your pieces. When asked, many pupils have no idea where to start beyond playing the pieces through and perhaps going over sections that have caused concern. How about starting with the left hand? In my opinion it’s possibly more important than the right, because it often contains fast-moving accompaniment and needs to cover a large amount of keyboard. It often provides the key to the harmonic structure and many stylistic features too.

After working out the fingering, rhythm and notes, try dividing your piece in sections (look for any obvious repeated passage-work or structural signposts as this speed up learning). Practice the left hand in each section until you can play fluently and from memory. Then work at the right in the same way because this will really help when you start playing hands together, and you will know the piece in a much more detailed, thorough way.

If the piece being studied is fairly complicated, then work at very small sections without pedal (as this will just mask errors at this stage), and with the metronome if possible. Even if the piece you are studying isn’t particularly difficult, you will find there are so many benefits from practising in this fashion. Once you can play fluently, using a metronome is always a good idea for a while at least. The more you focus on small passages, the better you will know the work. Work at several pieces concurrently, frequently swapping them around so your mind is constantly challenged and engaged.

Another consideration is the sound being produced; think about the type of sound you want for each piece because then it will be much easier to ‘produce’ it at the keyboard. This is a personal element, but it does go hand in hand with dynamics, expression and phrasing too. Musical concerns need working on at the same time as the technical issues; always be aware of the stylistic traits of composers, their genres or the historical periods from which your piece hails, as this will affect the way you play it.

Working in detail as suggested above could take hours, but it’s easy to put a time frame on it by deciding what you want to achieve when you sit down for each practice session. Be realistic and try to resist the temptation to set lots of goals for every session. One suggestion is to divide a work into four (or perhaps more) sections; work at the last two sections meticulously one day, and the first two the next (I prefer working backwards but you don’t have to!). If you can train yourself to really think about what you are doing during practice sessions you will achieve so much more in a shorter time frame (sounds ridiculous, but wasting practice time is sadly very easy to do).

This method eliminates the desire to just play pieces through. You could finish your practice session with some sight-reading; not everyone’s favourite thing, but necessary all the same. If you don’t have any suitable material just get hold of a hymn book (with four-part harmony) or some Bach Chorales; these are great for reading and are tuneful too. As with all sight-reading practice, start slowly and do not stop.

Finally, remember that concentration is the key factor so the minute your mind starts to wander stop practising and go and do something else! The more you focus, the quicker your practice session will fly by and the more you will achieve. Train your mind to think clearly at all times and enjoy.


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.